Diversity matters: An analysis of the many meanings of multiculturalism

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Emily Robertson


Ethnography, Liberal, Democratic, Diversity, Meanings, Multiculturism

Subject Categories

Education | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education


This dissertation examines the discourses of diversity and multiculturalism in a critical ethnography, informed by philosophical thought. The title, "Diversity Matters," intentionally plays on the double meaning of "matters," examining the ways that diversity matters to the liberal democratic polity, and also the material effects of the discourses around "diversity." These are the "matters of diversity." This research project explores the interplay between and among these different meanings through critical ethnography.

I argue that there is a mainstream articulation of multiculturalism and diversity, which may be categorized as pluralism. My research combines an analysis of two major arguments of multiculturalism with a critical ethnography of one university's meanings of diversity to interrogate the dominance of this mainstream formulation of diversity and multiculturalism.

My philosophical analysis of multiculturalism includes an examination of the liberal democratic view and the critical differences view. These two views of multiculturalism address different questions and formulate different responses. Analysis of these arguments demonstrates that they define and address social justice very differently, leading to two distinct agendas of diversity.

The critical ethnography research site is a large private research university in the Northeast that overtly expresses that diversity matters. A multi-sited study of the institution included interviews with administrators, analysis of institutional documents and small grants program focused on diversity, and participant observation of a course on diversity. This dissertation describes the multiple meanings of diversity as well as the ways that informants talk about diversity. At the university studied, diversity has many meanings, including: diversity as a problem, celebration of difference, and asking critical questions about difference.

The research of this study indicates that diversity is engaged in multiple ways. However, there are certain discourses that dominate, thereby restricting the ability for alternate discourses to take hold. The work of these alternate projects remains unfinished. Social justice projects drawing on both of the views of multiculturalism analyzed are among these unfinished diversity matters. I argue that by publicly naming their commitments to moral and civic purpose of the university, universities can shape the discourse toward these alternate projects of social justice.


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