Multicultural events – reinforcing differences or building bridges?

By on 13.09.2018 in Research findings

Many schools and municipalities organize multicultural events to celebrate cultural diversity with food, dance and national costumes. Whereas participants are very enthusiastic, the research community is usually critical, arguing that the events may further division between people from different cultures. JustEd researcher Joke Dewilde wanted to investigate the matter from a new angle.

Multicultural events are often criticized as promoting static understandings of culture rather than dynamic processes. However, these events are arranged by most schools and are usually positively portrayed and appreciated by the participants. JustEd researcher and Associate Professor Joke Dewilde, University of Oslo, wanted to know why the opinions differ so extensively and nuance the research literature by studying the events from the perspective of the participants.

“Most of the literature isn’t based on actual observations but on a theoretical perspective. I agree that culture may be portrayed very statically in these events, but when we talk to people and we sense the atmosphere we get a different view of it all”, Dewilde explains.

Dewilde wants the project to contribute with new knowledge about both opportunities and challenges connected to these events, and ultimately, to the goal of inclusion in education. She is collaborating with an interdisciplinary team representing different research areas – language, culture, religion and transnationalism.

“We want to achieve something together that we could not have done by ourselves. To study the events, we use different methods all entrenched in ethnography.”

The research team at one of the festivals. Photo: Thor-André Skrefsrud/ INN University.

The research team at one of the festivals. Photo: Thor-André Skrefsrud/ INN University.


Improved communication

The research team has already conducted fieldwork and interviews with management, teachers, parents and pupils at an international week. Their findings so far show that teachers use the international weeks as opportunities for learning and further developing their professional practices.

“For the school we studied, the international week was an important opportunity to focus on students from a minority background. The school management used the event to acknowledge these students and make them proud of their heritage.”

The events also further the understanding between teachers and parents, who are new to the Norwegian culture.

“Typically, these events are very well scheduled and programmed by the Norwegian schools. During the first festival, Eritrean parents arrived and just started singing and dancing, though this was not scheduled until the afternoon. The school leaders then learned that strict meetings and timetables are not the best approach with these parents – instead they should provide more informal opportunities to come closer, work together and build trust. We saw that the events have consequences on how they work also afterwards.”

The school management is aware of the fact that cultural artefacts like food, dance and national costumes may contribute to promoting static understandings of culture. However, these artefacts allow parents, not mastering the Norwegian language yet, to contribute and communicate with the rest of the school community.

“Usually it’s hard to involve these parents. Often they have large parent meetings where you need to know Norwegian. These events give the opportunity to involve parents residing only a short time in Norway, which is a positive thing. The parents are asked to bring food and they put in a lot of effort, some parents use up to six hours to prepare a lot of food. At the stalls, the roles are opposite and the minority parents become the host and the Norwegian parents become the guests, they communicate and talk. Food is a social thing and it makes communicating between the parents easier”, Dewilde says.

Young people as co-researchers

Further in the project, the researchers will collaborate with young people and involve them as co-researchers at an international festival.

“No one has ever asked young people what they think about these events and how they experience them. Involving them as co-researchers, we hope to show the potential of multicultural events to promote critical reflection about cultural identities”.

At the international festival, a team member will follow one young person through the event passing through the different stalls, maybe playing drums, tasting Sami bread or getting their hair braided by African women.

“We will record their thoughts about what they see. We will also ask young people to go around and take pictures of what they think is interesting or important, to share their perspective on how they experience the event. Then there will be a focus group interview in the end.”

In addition, a multilingual app has been developed with the help of engineers at the university. Through the app, young people will get to share memories from their own life, in their own language, while participating at the event.


Colourful research stand at one of the international festivals. Photo: Thor-André Skrefsrud/ INN University.

Colourful research stand at one of the international festivals. Photo: Thor-André Skrefsrud/ INN University.


Grasping diversity

Understanding linguistic, cultural and religious diversity is not about looking up information in an encyclopedia. It is about taking people’s histories, biographies and trajectories seriously.

“This complexity should be reflected in future education policies. As a researcher concerned with social justice in education, I believe it is important to understand dominant discourses and reflect upon the consequences these may have for different minority groups. In my own work, I like to listen to the margins, to voices that we don’t hear often, and study and learn about how the world looks from their perspective.”

The events also provide a learning point for school managers and teachers when it comes to organizing multicultural education in general and thinking about this complexity.

“For instance, the concept of mother tongue is very complex. It is not just the language the parents speak at home. A newly arrived Iraqi student might have gotten their first schooling in Turkey or Yemen in the local language, but their mother tongue might be a different language. This kind of complexity should be taken into consideration. It is not only about the events but multicultural competence in schools in general.”

Teachers need more multicultural competence, according to Dewilde:

“They need to go to the students, look at their background, life history, talk to them, try to see the complexity and not just put them in different categories – like ‘here are the Arabic speakers, or the Somali speakers’. Listen to the young students and parents and build the education around that”, Dewilde concludes.

More information about the project (University of Oslo, Norway)

NAME: Joke Dewilde

TITLE: Associate Professor of Multilingualism in Education

PLACE OF BIRTH: 19 April 1978, Kortrijk, Belgium

LIVING IN: Hamar, Norway (since 1996)

– Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo, 2015–2017
– Associate professor at Hedmark University College, 2013–2015
– PhD candidate at Hedmark University College/University of Oslo, 2008–2013

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Multilingualism in educational settings, voices from the margins, linguistic ethnography

HOBBIES: Travelling, hiking in the mountains, cooking vegetarian slow food

FAVORITE FOOD: Currently, one of my main sources of inspiration regarding food is the blog “Et kjøkken i Instanbul” [A kitchen in Instanbul].

FAVORITE BEVERAGE: As a Belgian I have to say Duvel, a strong golden ale, as my favorite drink.

Dewilde, J., Kjørven, O. K., Skaret, A., & Skrefsrud, T.-A. (2017). International week in a Norwegian school. A qualitative study of the participant perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 62(3), 474–486. doi:10.1080/00313831.2017.1306800

Dewilde, J. (2017). Translation and translingual remixing: A young person developing as a writer. International Journal of Bilingualism. doi:10.1177/1367006917740975

Dewilde, J., & Creese, A. (2016). Shadowing in linguistic ethnography: Situated practices and circulating discourses in multilingual schools. Education & Anthropology Quarterly, 47(3), 329–339. doi:



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About the Author

About the Author: Charlotta Järf is in charge of the communications and marketing activities for JustEd, The Nordic Centre of Excellence, an international research network with 14 partner universities in 8 countries. With ten years of professional experience in Communications and Marketing, and five years as a TV, radio and newspaper journalist, Charlotta has a practical set of skills in strategical communications, PR, social media, graphic design, video and content production. .


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