Culture in Special Education: Building Reciprocal Family–Professional Relationships. M. Kalyanpur and B. Harry. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1999.
The first question that an outsider to education might ask in looking at this book is, What does culture have to do with special education? Indeed, looking at the spectrum of the literature in the field, the topic has received relatively little attention. This is perhaps especially true as the current focus in education revolves around high-stakes testing, accountability, ending “social promotion,” and direct and explicit instructional approaches. Within these circles, culture is rarely if ever a focus.
As the book suggests, however, there are at least two reasons that make this an important topic at this point in time. First, on the theoretical front, the field of special education (like its foundational discipline of psychology) is struggling to integrate the construct of culture and to examine how it mediates the universal-oriented approaches of earlier theoretical frameworks. In many ways, the field is increasingly in the process of trying to figure out the role of cultural practices and beliefs within a theoretical system that has historically been focused on the individual and on universals of human development. Second, on the practical front, the clientele of the field is rapidly changing. The focus on providing appropriate services, bolstered by legal challenges and legislative mandate, is a necessary concern of all service providers in the broadest sense.
The book provides an interesting account of the authors' own journey of discovery regarding the presumed universality of beliefs and practices embedded in special education. This process and the conflicts associated with it was perhaps accelerated or given impetus by the fact that the authors are immigrants to the United States and were forced early on to consider differences in interpretations, beliefs, and practices regarding special education. As they note, “We had assumed that disabilities would, somehow, reflect a universality of meaning, of affect, or, at the very least, of value” (p. 3). The authors draw readily on these conflicts, both in their own lives and in the lives of research participants of their own and those of other investigators. The personalization of the examples is an effective device for holding readers' attention and, further, helps make the constructs under discussion more concrete.
The book is organized into five chapters, each beginning with alternating personal anecdotes that set the tone for the chapter to follow. The first four chapters go into detail about the specific assumptions, beliefs, and understandings embedded in special education as a whole, in the legal and epistemological areas, in the professional roles and language of practitioners, and in professional views of parenting styles. The chapters make interesting reading because the underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs are so embedded and seem so “natural” that rarely do we take the time or see the need to examine them explicitly. The authors do a nice job of unpacking these, and provide many examples of how these underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs are not universal. In the final chapter they provide a discussion of cultural reciprocity, a process that involves a series of steps of reflective examination of one's own and others' cultural values and practices as a means of promoting mutual accommodation of cultural understandings.
A specific contribution of this volume is the move away from a “surface differences” (p. xi) approach to cultural phenomena or consideration of culture as a social address that are often the default ways of considering culture in special education and other fields. Rather, the authors allow for culture as learned and dynamic as opposed to fixed and inherited, suggesting that differences can be mutually negotiated and accommodated. In this respect, there is a nice foreword by Gallimore, especially his brief but informative discussion of culture and the variability inherent in the implementation of “cultural models.”
Other strengths of the book include the fact that it is brief, readable, and peppered with the authors' personal experiences, struggles, and insights. The concrete examples from the authors' own lives and work and that of other researchers not only make interesting reading, but they also help to illustrate the concepts and points being made. Readers quickly realize that the failure to comprehend and account for different cultural understandings and practices is more than an issue of good manners or skillful communication—there are real, long-lasting, and sometimes serious consequences on the lives of families and clients.
Another specific contribution of the volume is the perspective that culture is not something that is characteristic for only those from “minority” groups, as is often implied. Rather, culture is a pervasive human characteristic that permeates virtually every facet of everyday life. Moreover, the authors make the case that it is so embedded that its existence is often overlooked or taken for granted, with often-unfortunate consequences.
Although it is not a weakness per se, the book is intended for a practitioner audience. Those who are primarily interested in an academic and theoretical treatment of culture will probably walk away unsatisfied. However, although not targeted strictly toward a research audience, the book does have many intriguing implications for theoreticians who are interested in considering more robust and complete models of learning and development.
One potential criticism of the book is that those readers who adopt a critical theoretical perspective might argue that the authors should give more attention to factors other than cultural differences at the root of professionals' and families' failures to communicate. These theorists, for example, would point out that there are deep-rooted structural inequalities that are more important to focus on than simple culturally based communicative misunderstanding. In defense of the authors, however, the intent was not to explain all of the factors related to shortcomings in special education practice but, rather, to focus on culturally based factors, which I believe they have done well.
Also, it would have been helpful for the authors to point out that although special education has not made culture a focal pursuit, other disciplines have. There is much to learn from other disciplines, such as anthropology, whose researchers have struggled with the theoretical and methodological challenges inherent in considering culture in human behavior. The authors hint as much, as in their observation that “the field has sought to apply the goals and methods of the physical sciences to a set of phenomena that are, very often, unmeasurable, such as intelligence, social adaptation, or interpersonal attachment” (p. 49). However, this book might have been an appropriate place to make a stronger case for bridging some of the historically based walls among related disciplines. Because the authors' own past work draws heavily from traditions based in fields such as anthropology, it might have been useful to make the call for these connections more explicit.
There is certainly a lot here to think about for practitioners and the more theoretically inclined, although, as noted earlier, the theoretical aspects are hinted at rather than explicitly developed. In any case, the book is a valuable addition to the library of anyone who provides services of any kind, from classroom teaching to more clinically based and social services, and the volume may help provide the impetus to question the focus on universals that has characterized the field in the past.