Sociocultural Diversity – An Introduction to Key Terminology

Sociocultural diversity encompasses a wide array of human differences. However, as it would be difficult to address all relevant terminology, I have chosen to highlight seven aspects of sociocultural diversity which are relevant to PK-12 education: culture, ethnicity, gender, language, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

Culture. Santrock (2018) defines culture as “behavior patterns, beliefs and all other products of a particular group of people that are passed down from generation to generation” (p. 143). Cross-cultural researchers have conducted countless studies with the goal of understanding how cultures are alike and how they differ. For example, several studies have shown that families from western cultures (e.g., U.S., Canada) tend to be more individualistic, with a focus on promoting personal growth and independence. By contrast, families from Eastern cultures (e.g., China) were usually found to be more collectivistic, with a preference for putting the good of the group over the needs and interests of individuals. Nonetheless, because many families integrate aspects of individualism and collectivism—regardless of their cultural background or national origin—and some families and individuals hold views contrary to their upbringing, we must be very careful NOT to stereotype people based on such trends. Apart from individualism and collectivism, other aspects of culture which may affect engagement in PK-12 classrooms include (but are not limited to) storytelling frameworks, participation structures, views on self-expression, and rules for communication.

Ethnicity. Santrock (2018) defines ethnicity as “a shared pattern of characteristics” (p. 149). Members of the same ethnic group typically have two or more of the following characteristics in common: culture, race, nationality, religion, and/or language. Since ethnicity and race are two different constructs, it is important to avoid making assumptions about a person’s ethnicity based solely on their race (and vice versa). For example, a person might identify as White, Black, or multiracial (race) while also identifying as Hispanic/Latinx (ethnicity).  

Gender. Gollnick and Chinn (2013) define gender as “the respective characteristics associated with femininity and masculinity as determined by culture” (p. 382). Many people believe males and females are innately different and, therefore, hardwired to do certain things and behave certain ways. However, as research has found little evidence to support this, differences between men and women appear to result primarily from gender-role socialization. Although gender roles have become more flexible and acceptance for non-cis-gender identities (e.g., transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid) has increased in recent years, gender-based microaggressions (i.e., everyday sexism), discrimination and hate crimes are still a grave problem in the US.

Language. Language refers to “a system of vocal sounds and/or or nonverbal systems by which group members communicate” (Gollnick & Chinn, 2013, p. 208). In any given language, there are dialects and/or variations which are rooted in geographical location, SES, and other factors. In most U.S. schools, Standard American English is widely accepted as the best or most “correct” way to communicate, which often makes speakers of other dialects (e.g., African-American Vernacular English) or languages (e.g., Spanish, Cantonese) feel marginalized. Accents may also be treated as evidence of one’s worth or intelligence, even though there is no basis for that belief. Therefore, it is vitally important that teachers treat all students as competent, accepted, and valued no matter how they speak.  

Race. Although it has been discredited by the scientific community, many people continue to view race as a biological system for dividing humans into groups and drawing conclusions about their abilities, traits, and inherent worth. However, current understandings posit race as a social construct which was propagated during the colonial era to justify the mistreatment, enslavement, and genocide of people of color both domestically (in one’s home country) and internationally (in remote colonies and territories). Racism still features prominently in our daily interactions and shared cultural references, and it is built into the laws and policies that govern our most prized institutions. Evidence of racism in PK-12 schools includes, but is not limited to, the unequal distribution of school funding, continued use of Whitestream curricula, over-representation of students of color in special education, misuse of disciplinary measures, and lack of rigor.

Sexual orientation.  This denotes the physical attraction and/or romantic interest an individual may have for persons of the same sex, the opposite sex, both sexes, two or more sexes/genders, or none of the above. As this is complex and highly personal matter, it is necessary to avoid making statements about or treating stereotypes as evidence of a person’s sexual orientation. In schools, students and their parents and caregivers may self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, or asexual (LGBTQIA) and teachers must ensure that they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in the school and classroom setting. Additionally, despite increased exposure and the relatively recent passage of marriage equality, members of the LGBTQIA community continue to experience misrepresentation, erasure, marginalization, discrimination, bullying, and hate crimes.

Socioeconomic status (SES). SES denotes groups of people “with similar occupational, educational, and economic characteristics” (Santrock, 2018, p. 145). As this definition demonstrates, SES encompasses not only a person’s income and financial assets, but also their level of education (e.g., high school diploma, master’s degree) and the kind of work they do (e.g., managerial, service). Thus, as a family’s SES increases, their access to goods and services such as education, health care, transportation, and food also increases. Families living in poverty are typically the most vulnerable, as they experience greater hardships than middle- and upper-class families. However, families should NOT be viewed in rigid, all-or-nothing terms (i.e., stable vs at-risk) for several reasons: (1) all families face difficulties at one time or another, (2) many difficulties, such as divorce, illness, and substance abuse, occur regardless of SES, and (3) families with limited material and financial resources may still have other invaluable resources such as strong family ties and a strong support network. The bottom line: don’t assume that lower-SES families are always in crisis, or that higher-SES families are always thriving.

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