Multicultural Psychology

Multiculturalism has been called the “fourth force” of psychology by Paul B. Pedersen, Pius K. Essandoh, and others (following psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism as schools of thought). Multicultural psychology is a major influence in contemporary psychology and includes such broad topic areas as racial identity development, acculturation, prejudice and stereotyping, and multicultural competence. Research focused on multicultural psychology differs from other schools of thought in psychology because, in addition to a focus on individual and intrapsychic factors, the cultural context is considered an important aspect of the lives of individuals and groups. Some important questions in multicultural psychology are the following: How do factors in the cultural context impact individual differences, and how do psychological phenomena vary across cultures?

Although the terms multicultural and cross-cultural are often used interchangeably, they differ slightly in meaning. Multicultural psychology considers the influence of contextual variables (e.g., race or ethnicity) on human functioning in diverse societies. Cross-cultural psychology focuses on relationships between individuals and/or groups from different cultures. Cross-cultural psychology also focuses on comparisons between cultural groups (e.g., contrasting cultural values, practices, etc.).

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History of Multicultural Psychology

The history of multicultural psychology is best understood within the context of sociopolitical oppression in the United States. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists’ explicit involvement in controversies related to cultural issues began with Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. In this case, psychologists provided significant information regarding the detrimental effects of segregated education for children of color, empirically challenging the notion of “separate but equal.” This case also was the first time that psychological research was incorporated in a Supreme Court decision. Political movements and subsequent legislation and policies, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, exerted an influence on psychologists’ integration of multicultural issues in research and practice. In 1971, the National Institute of Mental Health Office of Minority Research was founded, making funding available specifically for research with racial and ethnic minorities.

Although psychologists have addressed racial and cultural issues in their professional work for more than a century, culture was not explicitly considered an important variable in professional practice until the Vail Conference of Graduate Educators in Psychology in 1973. Recommendations from the conference included the integration of cultural diversity training in psychology graduate programs. Since that time, there has been an explosion of research on multicultural training and competence.

In addition to racism and other forms of cultural oppression as a driving force of multicultural psychology, recent demographic changes have been at the center of discussions about the importance of multicultural competence in psychological research and practice. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the ratio of racial/ethnic minorities to White people is increasing dramatically. In some parts of the country, such as some areas of California and Texas, people of color (e.g., African Americans, Latinos/as, Asian Americans) are no longer a minority, and many population experts believe that current racial/ethnic minority groups will become the numerical majority in the United States by the middle of the 21st century. Multicultural psychologists such as Derald Wing Sue and Pedersen state that there is an ethical imperative to practice culturally competent psychology. Moreover, demographic trends in the country have led many psychologists to understand the value of incorporating cultural issues into research and practice, minimally because of the increasing likelihood that they will encounter racial/ethnic minority people in their work. Indeed, in 1997 Christine C. Iijima Hall stated that mainstream psychology was becoming obsolete in the face of these demographic changes.

Prejudice and Stereotypes

Research on prejudice and stereotyping in social psychology has contributed to understanding the links between individual cognition, prejudice (i.e., negative social attitudes), and discriminatory behaviors toward various groups, providing an essential cornerstone to multicultural psychology. John F. Dovidio, Ana Validzic, and Samuel L. Gaertner cite research on the “contact hypothesis” in understanding prejudice between groups. The contact hypothesis purports that prejudice arises from limited contact with groups other than one’s own, and increasing contact with another group is one way to reduce bias. However, it is not simply the contact but also the conditions under which the contact occurs that lead to decreased intergroup biases (e.g., cooperative interactions between the groups).

In addition, social psychologists have explored the consequences of belonging to a stigmatized group. For example, Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson defined the term stereotype threat to reflect the impact that negative stereotypes about stigmatized groups (e.g., women and African Americans) can cause individuals from these groups to experience anxiety that may lead to a negative impact on performance. This anxiety arises from fear of being reduced to generalizations made about members of a socially stigmatized group. Their research has been extended to other stigmatized groups, such as people of low socioeconomic status, although more recent research indicates the stereotype threat can occur to most individuals regarding any social group membership, such as being male or being White. However, given the continued underrepresentation of certain groups in several settings (e.g., people of color and women in math and sciences), it is these individuals who are at higher risk of suffering negative social consequences associated with stereotype threat.

Other researchers have proposed complex hypotheses about intergroup relations to help explain prejudice and stereotypes. One example is Marilynn B. Brewer’s optimal distinctiveness theory. According to Brewer, individuals do not simply value their own group (ingroup) and devalue other groups (outgroups). Instead, they strive for a balance between fitting in or belonging to a group, in conjunction with standing out or being distinctive from that group. The optimal distinctiveness theory suggests that although understanding ingroup experiences is important, ingroup attraction does not by itself imply outgroup repulsion. Instead, Brewer suggests, there are specific phenomena (e.g., attitudes of moral superiority, perceived threat) that may link ingroup loyalty with prejudice against outgroups.

Racial/Ethnic Identity Development Models

In Counseling the Culturally Diverse, D. W. Sue and David Sue review both racial-cultural minority and White racial identity development as these apply to the work of psychologists and counselors. Such models address individual differences within racial/ethnic groups, going beyond demographic or phenotypic definitions of race and ethnicity to address the psychological meaning of racial/ethnic group membership. Various identity models pertaining to racial/ethnic minorities have been proposed by others, including William E. Cross’s Nigrescence model; Janet E. Helms’s model of Black racial identity development; and Donald R. Atkinson, George Morten, and D. W. Sue’s minority identity development model. These models share in common the articulation of develop-mental processes whereby people of color (a) initially value the dominant group and devalue their own group, (b) then value their own group and devalue the dominant group, and (c) finally move beyond these conflicts to value both groups. Although most scholars no longer ascribe to invariant stage models, these racial/ethnic identity models provide a framework for understanding the psychological impact that racial/ ethnic group membership has on identity development and social constructions of the self.

Helms also developed a model of White racial identity development. Central to this model is the influence of racism on White identity. In the White racial identity development model, the first three levels, or statuses, incorporate racism as a core feature of development, ranging from a lack of awareness about race and racism to beliefs in White superiority. The last three statuses involve the development of a non-racist White identity and include the painful realization that racism does exist that may lead to overidentification with people of color in a way that actually perpetuates racism; focusing on the meaning of Whiteness and White privilege; and the development of awareness regarding White privilege, along with decreased feelings of guilt and a commitment to antiracism.

Understanding the racial/ethnic identity statuses of clients can help mental health professionals to focus on systemic issues that play a role in presenting problems. Studies have found relationships between various psychological variables and racial/ethnic identity statuses. For people of color, less “mature” or sophisticated identity statuses (i.e., pre-encounter, encounter) have been linked to high anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and psychological distress. However, other studies have yielded different results, such as positive relationships between less-mature or sophisticated statuses and low anxiety. This may be attributed to variations in the expression of racial/ ethnic identity status. For example, William Cross and Beverly Vandiver suggest that it is possible for some individuals to have racial/ethnic identity statuses marked by less-mature strategies yet have healthy personality profiles because race may be of low salience to their identities. Janet Helms and Donelda A. Cook describe in depth some of this research as well as important applications of racial identity to various psychological services, including individual therapy, group counseling, and supervision.

Psychologists focusing on multiracial and biracial people have suggested that traditional racial/ethnic identity development models may not be adequate or appropriate for understanding mixed-race people. Though monoracial identity development models have been used with multiracial populations, other theorists have proposed separate models of identity development for biracial/multiracial people. W. S. Carlos Poston proposed the first of these models in 1990. Incorporating the concept of “reference group orientation” (as opposed to personal identity) cited in previous racial identity development models, Poston described five stages of biracial identity development: personal identity, choice of group categorization (pressure to choose one group), enmeshment/denial (conflicted feelings regarding choice of group), appreciation (of multiple identities), and integration (experience of wholeness, valuing all ethnic and racial identities).

Similar to earlier monoracial identity development models, Poston’s model is a stage model ranging from immature to mature identity resolutions. Others who focus on multiracial identity, such as Maria P. P. Root, have questioned the idea that there is a single process of identity development that applies to multiracial people, or to people in general. She instead proposes an ecological approach to understanding multiracial identity, emphasizing various contextual factors that influence the way in which multiracial people see themselves. Unlike Poston, she does not believe that integration of ethnic identities is a necessary identity resolution. Multiracial people can identify with one group or the other, change their identity based on context, identify with multiple groups, or develop a new and independent identity as multiracial.

In a review of the literature on both racial/ethnic identity development and psychological functioning of biracial people in 2005, Marie L. Miville pointed to the need for research that captures the fluidity of biracial and multiracial identity. Qualitative studies conducted by psychologists such as Root and Miville and colleagues have begun to capture themes not addressed by traditional identity development models thus far (e.g., simultaneous identification as both a monoracial and a multiracial person).

Other multicultural psychologists have focused on ethnic identity. For example, Jean S. Phinney uses the term ethnicity to encompass both race and culture, noting disagreement within psychology over what “race” really means. Similar to psychologists who focus on racial identity rather than race as a descriptive or demographic variable, Phinney suggests that it is important to understand the meaning of ethnicity, including the subjective meaning and experience of people from different ethnic groups and the various labels that people use to describe their own ethnicity. In her 1996 article on American ethnic groups, Phinney states that “ethnic identity is a complex cluster of factors that define the extent and type of involvement with one’s ethnic group” (p. 923). Her multigroup ethnic identity model has several components that address the complexity of ethnic identification, including self-identification (chosen ethnic group label), ethnic behaviors and practices, affirmation and belonging, positive evaluation, preference for the group, and ethnic interest and knowledge. Phinney developed an oft-used scale based on the multigroup ethnic identity model that contains 14 Likert-type items on the components of ethnic identity (listed in the previous sentence) and six items on “other” group identity. The subscales have been adequately reliable, with higher reliability among college students than high school students, suggesting that ethnic identity might become more stable with development. Studies have found that self-esteem is positively correlated with ethnic identity and that ethnic identity is usually more strongly endorsed among people of color than among White people.

Acculturation and Biculturalism

Considering the increasing diversity of the United States and most other modern societies, acculturation is an important topic in multicultural psychology. Acculturation is a process of individual and group change that occurs when cultural groups come into contact. Understanding the process of acculturation is important when working with immigrant clients because they are adjusting to the dominant culture. Moreover, other racial/ethnic groups undergo an acculturation process because the dominant culture does not include the multiple racial and ethnic groups that are a part of the United States. For example, many African Americans experience an acculturation process when growing up in Black communities and then attending schools or working in predominantly White settings. John W. Berry describes various acculturation strategies, including assimilation and marginalization. Acculturation can lead to acculturative stress as individuals navigate multiple cultural norms and try to meet group expectations that often conflict. However, as with racial and ethnic identity development, acculturation is not a linear process that occurs in the same ways or directions for all people and groups. Research on acculturation has shown that in some contexts, acculturation to the dominant culture can have positive psychological effects, but in many others, acculturation to the dominant culture is detrimental to development as individuals and groups lose support from their culture and communities of origin.

Psychologists such as Theresa LaFromboise and her colleagues have challenged the assumption that individuals from nondominant cultural groups are necessarily “marginal people.” LaFromboise and colleagues critiqued several models of second-culture acquisition as inadequate because they traditionally relegated racial/ethnic minority cultures to an inferior status. These researchers then presented a theory of bicultural competence that states that, although racial and ethnic minorities will experience discrimination and hardships in an oppressive culture, the experience of living in two cultures does not necessarily predict dysfunction. In fact, the experience of being bicultural may be positive because individuals living in more than one culture have access to multiple resources and ways of being that can result in both cognitive and emotional flexibility. The strength of both individual (ego) identity and cultural identity is an important factor in coping with biculturalism. LaFromboise and colleagues proposed six dimensions of bicultural competence: knowledge of cultural beliefs and values, positive attitudes toward majority and minority groups, bicultural efficacy, communication ability, role repertoire, and a sense of being grounded. They further suggest that individuals living in more than one culture can experience multiple adaptive processes, not simply assimilation to the dominant culture or its antithesis, withdrawal from the dominant culture. Indeed, individuals may make conscious choices regarding their level of biculturalism in certain settings (e.g., high school).

Multicultural Competence

In August 2002, the APA adopted the Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists. These guidelines were an important step in a long history of work on multicultural counseling competencies. This work began in 1982 when D. W. Sue and others in the Society of Counseling Psychology (APA Division 17) proposed the Cross-Cultural Counseling Competencies. The purpose of the APA guidelines is to provide a rationale for the need to address multiculturalism and diversity, specifically those involving racial/ethnic interactions, in addition to reviewing relevant research and providing standards for integrating cultural concerns into the varied work of psychologists.

The APA multicultural guidelines are divided into six categories: commitment to cultural awareness and knowledge of self, commitment to cultural awareness and knowledge of others, education, research, practice, and organizational change and policy development. The influence of years of research on multicultural competence in counseling is evident in the document. The competencies focus first and foremost on psychologists’ awareness of their own culture, attitudes, and so on. Psychologists’ awareness, knowledge, and skills in working with people from various cultures are central to multicultural counseling competence. The literature also focuses on psychologists’ understanding of their clients’ cultural values and worldview from a nonjudgmental standpoint.

In addition to the three dimensions of multicultural competence (attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills), multicultural psychologists have proposed three characteristics of multiculturally competent practitioners. The characteristics are a commitment to actively engaging in a process of understanding one’s own attitudes, including values and biases; a commitment to understanding the worldview of clients who are culturally different; and a commitment to developing intervention strategies that are appropriate and relevant for each client based on his or her cultural experiences. There are specific competencies related to each dimension for each of the characteristics.

Although measurement of multicultural competence is complicated because of self-report bias and the various instruments available, multicultural competence and training have been linked to positive outcomes for both counselors and clients. For example, multicultural competence and exposure to multicultural training have been linked with counselor empathy, White racial consciousness, White racial identity attitudes, and interracial comfort. In addition, multicultural case conceptualization ability has been linked to multicultural competence.

Some studies also have focused on the multicultural competence of supervisors. In a recent study by Arpana G. Inman, supervisor multicultural competence was related to the working alliance between supervisor and supervisee and to supervisee satisfaction with supervision. In addition, the working alliance served as a mediator between supervisor multicultural competence and satisfaction with supervision.

Multicultural Training

To facilitate the development of multicultural competence in counseling and other forms of applied psychology, multicultural psychologists such as D. Sue have focused on effective multicultural training. D. Sue reviewed various models of multicultural training, including a generic approach that assumes traditional techniques are applicable to all cultures; the etic approach, which seeks to understand the universal aspects of human experiences that go beyond cultural differences; and the emic, or culture-specific, approach. Although each approach has its shortcomings, some multicultural psychologists, such as D. W. Sue, have argued that it is crucial to simultaneously attend to individual, group, and human (universal) characteristics in counseling. It is important to note that traditionally, professional psychologists have focused much more on individual and etic (“universal”) approaches than on those that take group differences into account.

  1. Sue also described the various ways in which multicultural training may be implemented into the counseling curriculum. He identified four approaches: the single course approach, multicultural counseling as an area of concentration, the interdisciplinary model, and the integration model. In the integration model, material regarding cultural differences is a part of each and every course in a training program. Although this may be the ideal approach, many programs continue to use the single course approach. In addition, most multicultural training programs today are more successful in addressing attitudes-beliefs and knowledge than in addressing skills.

Recently, Timothy B. Smith, Madonna G. Con-stantine, and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis on multicultural education in mental health graduate programs. This study, focused on outcomes of multicultural training programs, showed that multicultural education had an overall positive effect on factors such as multicultural competence, racial prejudice, and the client-counselor relationship. This study provides further support for D. Sue’s and others’ call for psychology training programs to integrate multicultural issues throughout their curricula.

Focus of Multicultural Psychology

Although great strides have been made regarding the acceptance of multicultural issues in psychology, there is still debate regarding the definition and focus of the term multicultural. According to D. Sue, some scholars define multicultural psychology broadly, stating that every interpersonal encounter is multicultural because all individuals are cultural beings. This approach considers multiple dimensions of diversity to be a part of the purview of multicultural psychology (e.g., religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, and social class). This definition also considers the cultural experiences of the majority group to be a part of multicultural psychology. At a minimum, some scholars argue that racial/cultural contexts of these other dimensions should be a focus of both research and practice in multicultural psychology.

Other multicultural psychologists take a more specific approach to the definition and focus of multicultural psychology, arguing that integrating aspects other than race and ethnicity into multicultural psychology overly broadens the field, thereby minimizing the true effects of these two variables. In addition, some scholars who support this perspective argue that although social identities other than race and ethnicity may be important, multicultural competence and multicultural research as they stand today do not necessarily apply to gender and other cultural experiences.

Although the majority of research in multicultural psychology has focused on race and ethnicity, recent work by feminist multicultural psychologists such as Louise B. Silverstein has begun to incorporate gender and other identity experiences. In addition, several APA divisions, such as those that founded the National Multicultural Conference and Summit (Society for the Psychology of Women; Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues; Society of Counseling Psychology; and Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues), have called for their members to develop practice guidelines and to conduct research regarding multiple demographic identities. A common theme of multicultural psychology today is understanding multiple processes of oppression, as highlighted by the title of the 2007 National Multicultural Summit: “The Psychology of Multiple Identities: Finding Empowerment in the Face of Oppression.”


  1. American Psychological Association. (2003). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. American Psychologist, 58, 377-102.
  2. Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429-144.
  3. Cross, W. E., Jr., & Vandiver, B. J. (2001). Nigrescence theory and measurement: Introducing the Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS). In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. M. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 371-393). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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  7. LaFromboise, Teresa, Coleman, H. L. K., & Gerton, J. (1993). Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 395-H2.
  8. Miville, M. L. (2005). Psychological functioning and identity development of biracial people: A review of current theory and research. In R. T. Carter (Ed.), Handbook of racial-cultural psychology and counseling (Vol. 1, pp. 295-319). New York: Wiley.
  9. Pedersen, P. B., Draguns, J. G., Lonner, W. J., & Trimble, J. E. (2002). Counseling across cultures (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  10. Phinney, J. S. (1996). When we talk about American ethnic groups, what do we mean? American Psychologist, 51, 918-927.
  11. Root, M. P. P. (1999). The biracial baby boom: Understanding ecological constructions of racial identity in the 21st century. In R. Hernandez-Sheets & E. R. Hollins (Eds.), Racial and ethnic identity in school practices: Aspects of human development (pp. 67-90). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  12. Silverstein, L. B. (2006). Integrating feminism and multiculturalism: Scientific fact or science fiction? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 21-288.
  13. Smith, T. B., Constantine, M. G., Dunn, T. W., Dinehart, J. M., & Montoya, J. A. (2006). Multicultural education in the mental health professions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 132-145.
  14. Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.
  15. Sue, D. (1997). Multicultural training. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 21, 175-193.
  16. Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.

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