Universalism is defined as the principle that a given value, behavior, theory, or treatment will be the same across all groups independent of culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and other social identities. This principle has been a core philosophical assumption within the fields of counseling, psychology, medicine, and many other social sciences. This foundational tenet has maintained a stronghold on theories, research, and practice within the counseling profession. In addition to being a core belief within counseling, universalism has also become one of the central philosophical perspectives in defining multiculturalism.

Core Belief within the Counseling Field

Historically, the dominant view within counseling has been that theories and practices are to be viewed as universal hypotheses that require empirical examination to test their veracity, meaningfulness, and effectiveness. Developmental theories examining moral and cognitive development as well as counseling theories such as behaviorism and Gestalt are just a few examples of theories that purport to address the concerns and realities of all individuals. Even though attention to individual differences has always been a core belief within the counseling profession, the universal assumptions within many of these theories were not rigorously challenged until multicultural scholars identified them as being culturally insensitive and not inclusive of alternative worldviews. This etic point of view suggests that it is possible and productive to fully understand all aspects of psychology, and even a particular culture, from a universal standpoint. Examples of such universal assumptions include how we define what is “normal,” what is “effective” counseling, and who is a “good” client. Another universal assumption is the belief that all disorders occur in all cultures and present in similar ways.

Fields such as counseling, psychiatry, and assessment have all experienced the effects of universal assumptions and biases that have led to discussions, sometimes controversial, about their effects on theories, diagnosis, norm groups, and standardized testing. The ultimate effect of universalism on theories and practice can be ethnocentric, androcentric, and even counterproductive when human complexity and diversity are not actively incorporated.

Cultural relativism is an alternative approach to understanding the behaviors, beliefs, and perspectives of others. Rather than presume that the experiences, beliefs, and developmental processes are the same for all others, examining specific cultural and individual realities help to inform this alternative perspective. This belief does not presume that having a global understanding has no value but rather that universal and cultural realities can be mutually considered and applied to bridge cultural, political, and other group differences and further our understanding of human behavior.

Universalism and Cultural Differences within Multicultural Counseling

Within multicultural counseling, various philosophical assumptions about multicultural perspectives in counseling have been used to organize the assumptions and strategies used for multicultural counseling and training. Descriptions of those diverse perspectives vary depending on an author’s point of view. A universalistic or etic definition of multiculturalism encourages a transcendental perspective that is grounded in human commonalities. This universal approach tends to emphasize within-group differences as being greater than between-group differences. In other words, differences within groups (like unique aspects of American Indians) are more significant than differences between groups (like African Americans and Latino/a Americans). Some proponents of the universal perspective have expressed concern that focusing on cultural differences can lead to stereotyping, over-generalization of group perspectives, or a type of cultural determinism that takes away both individually unique and universal aspects of a person. Universalism within the multicultural movement has a different per-spective than the universal perspective present in the larger field of psychology. Individuals within the multicultural movement who embrace universalism do not deny culture but rather choose to focus on the human bond that connects all individuals. They believe many aspects of psychology, such as emotion, may be universally present in all cultures, but they manifest differently across cultures.

Most other perspectives could be classified within the cultural differences point of view, which is typically viewed as an alternative to universalism. The cultural difference approach, whether it focuses specifically on race or a broader understanding of difference (e.g., gender, sexual orientation), typically emphasizes incorporating the ideographic experiences of a particular cultural group as the basis for interpreting their behavior and offering psychological services. This emic point of view suggests that a culture’s perspective is best understood from within that culture. Individuals who embrace the cultural difference perspective suggest that the universal point of view ignores the crucial realities of racism and other forms of oppression and their impact on the sociopolitical histories, power dynamics, and identity of various cultural groups. Issues of cultural bias and avoidance of cultural realities may be more likely to occur in a perspective that does not specifically value and embrace cultural differences as core. The cultural difference point of view does not deny that there are universal realities that connect individuals but rather chooses to view such universal connection as less central to understanding individuals who have been historically underserved and misunderstood by the counseling profession.

Future Directions

The universal versus cultural difference discussion is inevitably dichotomous. Although these diverse perspectives acknowledge and embrace some aspects of the other beliefs, they approach the issue of human difference from unique standpoints. Within the multicultural field there has been some discussion of the need to reconceptualize such dualistic thinking away from either/or perspectives and embrace a more unifying dialectic point of view.

Many multicultural scholars articulate the need to combine the universal and cultural relativistic perspectives to counteract their weaknesses and accentuate their strengths. The possibility of integrating a universal and inclusive perspective that honors the various social identities experienced by all (e.g., gender, social class, sexual orientation, religion) with a race-based approach that honors the unique history of race and racism in the United States would be an alternative approach that moves beyond the either/or dichotomy of universal versus culture specific. Discussions about universal and cultural relativism represent an important and ongoing conversation that is occurring within the multicultural counseling field.

Universalism will continue to be a core belief within psychology as a whole and within the specific field of multicultural counseling as counselors struggle to fully understand and explain human beings and their behaviors. However, the continued existence of cultural differences as well as cultural biases will create the need for a cultural differences perspective. Undoubtedly, such definitions will evolve as counselors attempt to appreciate and integrate the complexity of individual, cultural, and universal perspectives, and it is likely that universalism and the similarities that link human beings will remain a significant point of view.


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