In its general sense, pluralism refers to the existence and validity of a variety of beliefs, values, realities, and identities. Pluralism has been used to describe the variety of beliefs and values that exist within a society (e.g., political pluralism), a discipline (e.g., scientific pluralism), or culture (e.g., cultural pluralism). In the multicultural counseling literature, pluralism refers to the existence and inclusion of all aspects of diversity (e.g., individual diversity, group diversity) within a society or culture (cultural pluralism). Pluralism carries the inherent belief that the inclusion, validation, and affirmation of multiple aspects of diversity are intrinsically valuable to the overall well-being of a group or community.

Philosophical and Sociological Perspectives

The origins of pluralism as a philosophical thought can be traced to Western philosophy, with roots in early Greek philosophy. Developed in the 5th century B.C. by philosophers Empedocles and Anaxagoras, pluralistic philosophy sought to provide a different explanation for the natural world. Natural world phenomena were previously defined by the Ionian philosophers as based in a single element; pluralistic philosophy challenged this notion and posited that natural world phenomena were based in multiple elements. From this philosophical basis comes the contemporary view of pluralism that posits the existence of multiple realities. Neither of these views of pluralism accounts for a complete explanation of total reality.

From this background, sociological aspects of pluralism were developed. Within sociological theory, pluralism is the social condition that accepts, embraces, validates, and celebrates the multiple cultures and the many beliefs and values that exist in a society. The strength and health of such a society is predicated upon the belief that such a diverse collection of cultures and beliefs is a valuable and integral component to the welfare of that society.

Counseling and Pluralism

In 1990, Paul Pedersen dubbed multiculturalism as the “fourth force” in counseling, which would shift the existing paradigms of counseling and therapy to integrate the cultural experiences and identities of clients. Multiculturalism was seen as the next wave in counseling that would promote the value of a culture-centered approach in working with clients and promote the value of a pluralistic society. Since Pedersen’s naming of this fourth force in counseling, the multicultural movement within counseling has grown, and with it has grown the increasing recognition of the value of pluralism in society.

The foundation for multicultural counseling is the inherent assumption and valuing of pluralism. Pluralism, in this sense, was initially seen as the collection of various racial or ethnic cultures and worldviews. Pluralism and culture-centric counseling attempted to then define culture and its constructs (e.g., identity) from etic and emic perspectives. As pluralism and multiculturalism continued to grow and to be explored within the counseling literature, the definition of culture also grew to encompass other aspects of personal and social identity, including, for example, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, spirituality and religion, physical ability, and numerous other personal and social variables, both seen and unseen. From this, the term cultural pluralism was then used to reflect the multifaceted and multidimensional nature of culture and identity.

Pluralism and multiculturalism are intimately tied together within the counseling profession. Although both terms may be used interchangeably, pluralism connotes the broader philosophical principle whose roots are in ancient Greek philosophy whereas multi-culturalism is used to refer to the inclusion of various cultural and racial groups and identities. More recently, multiculturalism has been used to refer to the broad spectrum of individual and group diversity to include sexual orientation, physical ability status, spirituality and religion, and socioeconomic status, among the variety of individual and group differences.

The Growth of Pluralism in Counseling

For the greater part of the 20th century, the counseling profession has relied on theories and practices of counseling with clients that have been based on Western, Eurocentric teachings, perspectives, and values. For the most part, the majority of mainstream counseling theories have reflected this Western ethnocentric approach to working with clients, which has neglected the role of cultural and individual differences in identity and values formation. Only within the latter part of the 20th century did pluralism and cultural pluralism gain ground within the counseling profession.

The increasing presence of pluralism in counseling can be directly evidenced in the increase of publications, the development of educational curricula, and the establishment of organizational policies and statements that affirm pluralism. Since Pedersen’s claim that multiculturalism is the fourth force in counseling, there have been numerous publications that address issues of cultural pluralism within the counseling profession. Landmark publications in this area include Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice; Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Multicultural Perspective; and the Handbook of Multicultural Counseling.

A number of graduate programs in counseling have recognized the need to prepare graduates for counseling in a pluralistic society. Graduate programs in counseling have been developed to reflect training and education in the principles of multicultural counseling. Though graduate programs have gradually made the shift to an inclusion of multicultural issues within their curricula, full integration of multicultural-ism that reflects the basic tenets of inclusion in pluralistic philosophy is still needed.

Professional counseling and psychological associations have pioneered a variety of publications, guidelines, policies, and resolutions proclaiming the importance of multiculturalism and the value of a pluralistic society. Organizations such as the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association have developed guidelines and standards that endorse the importance of a pluralistic society and the development of multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills in the work of the counselor. While these and other organizations have professed the importance of multiculturalism and pluralism in counseling clients and in counselor development, continued work is necessary to promote and integrate these guidelines and pronouncements within the greater counseling profession.

Social Justice and Pluralism

The counseling profession has recently attended to the concept of social justice within its theory and practice. However, the idea of social justice has existed within other disciplines (e.g., theology) before it gained the attention of the counseling profession. Social justice has as its foundation the core values and philosophical tenets of pluralism; that is, social justice strives to advocate for, and to bring justice to, those individuals, peoples, groups, and cultures that suffer from oppression and social stigma. Social justice is, then, an action that promotes the values of pluralism within societies and organizations.

Within the counseling profession, pluralism and social justice embrace the notion of counselors as agents of prosocial change. Social justice and pluralism recognize the role of the counselor in advocating for the needs and rights of clients who experience social oppression. Beyond that, social justice and pluralism also recognize the role of the counselor as an active member within the community to work toward advancing the work of social justice and pluralism within the community in ways that promote social welfare and cultural pluralism.


  1. Ivey, A. E., D’Andrea, M., Ivey, M. B., & Simek-Morgan, L. (2007). Counseling and psychotherapy: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Ponterotto, J. G., Casas, J. M., Suzuki, L. A., & Alexander, C. M. (Eds.). (2001). Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed.). New York: Wiley.

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