Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and Inclusion

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_382



The main goal of this entry is to introduce inclusion as a sociological concept consistent with which exclusion is an internal part of inclusion. When exclusion is the basis of inclusion, the establishment of communities will always involve both inclusion and exclusion processes. Similarly, the development of inclusive schools and inclusive learning environments will involve both inclusion and exclusion processes.

With this starting point, international educational research knowledge about inclusive schools and inclusive learning environments in general will be related to the fundamental dilemma that inclusion on the one hand may be seen to be about human rights, solidarity, and democracy, and on the other hand, it is about ensuring the cohesion of neoliberal society by means of every person’s obligation to realize one’s potential through learning, development, and education regardless of one’s needs and skills.

Research in Inclusive Schools and Inclusive Environments

The social imaginary of developing inclusive schools has called for new pedagogical and educational strategies that support inclusion of all students, irrespective of their needs. As a consequence, much educational research knowledge has been produced concerning the characteristics of inclusive learning environments and about how to develop inclusive schools (e.g., Booth et al. 2000). Educational inclusion research has mainly been based on ideology and human rights with reference to the Salamanca Statement. The Salamanca Statement was signed by 92 countries in 1994. It asserts that schools with inclusive practices are most effective in relation to guarding against discrimination and ensuring the rights of individuals with disabilities to achieve equal opportunities for participation in society. Moreover, the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 24, has the purpose to ensure the right of everyone to education, development, and learning no matter what the particular situation and needs of the individual. Article 24 considers how schools and educational institutions ought to offer inclusive learning environments. According to the article, it should not be possible to be rejected or excluded from an ordinary school because of one’s disability. Ideally, there should be no risk factors that might prevent participation. Exclusion, therefore, is primarily about how risk factors are handled and how they are given meaning and significance of society.

The predominant understanding of inclusion in both the Salamanca Statement and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities takes as its starting point the idea of society “failing” individuals, excluding them from participation in society. The conception of society failing individuals means that reasons for exclusion are related to the constitution of society and its institutions, which, on this understanding of inclusion, ought to ensure that all individuals may participate, acknowledging the differences of those individuals.

The predominant, normative conception of inclusion contains the premise that communities are heterogeneous and able to handle a high degree of diversity. From this point of view, inclusion is about solidarity, democracy, and civil rights. Everyone should have the possibility to be included, regardless of their contribution to society or their competencies or special needs. To ensure the individual’s right to participate, society must make itself accessible to the individuals, regardless of conditions and needs. Inclusion is, in this perspective, a practical expression of the ideal of creating a pluralistic community culture, which recognizes heterogeneity and insists on everyone learning to live with diversity. This is viewed as strengthening society. At the same time, this conception of inclusion involves an understanding of exclusion as an expression of a dysfunctional society and as discrimination.

Much educational inclusion research has also been based on ideologies of human rights, solidarity, and democracy in order to investigate how to support inclusive educational processes and how to achieve inclusive learning environments through identifying dilemmas, barriers, and opportunities in relation to inclusion. Research has developed knowledge of how different disciplines, professions, practices, and forms of knowledge can be developed, integrated, and linked in various ways in order to develop new capacities and new intervention forms within ordinary learning environments.

Even though a lot of educational research knowledge has been produced in recent decades about the characteristics of inclusive learning environments and about how to develop inclusive schools, it has also been found that it remains a great challenge to achieve inclusion in practice (e.g., Hansen 2012; Thomas and Loxley 2007; Thomas et al. 2005).

Exclusion as an Integral Part of Inclusion

The gap between educational theory and practice has of course many reasons. Here, the consequence of the dominant understanding of inclusion in educational inclusion research, namely, not taking into account the sociological fact that all communities constitute themselves through both inclusion and exclusion processes, will be emphasized (Laclau 1996; Jenkins 2000). A unilateral focus on inclusion ignores the sociological fact that all communities need to place limits on what can be included and what must be excluded in order to secure their own existence (Hansen 2012). The point is that inclusion cannot be achieved by eliminating exclusion processes if exclusion is an integral part of inclusion. The relationship between individual and society is both about society failing individuals and about individuals failing society (Bjerre 2015). From a sociological perspective, the constitution of communities always presupposes the establishment of common rules, moral, values, and norms – a collective social identity. This explains why individuals need to adapt to society by learning and following rules and morals and by internalizing common understandings, in order to be included. In the construction of a social identity, internal differences within society are ignored, and thereby the differential character of identity is undermined. Consequently, commonality is not an expression of uniform character but an expression of establishing differences between “us” and “them.” Society will consequently reflect the differences among individuals to a certain degree, and at the same time, the individual will reflect a collective social identity. In inclusive communities, the balance between the unique individual identity and the collective social identity will differ from the balance in integrative communities, because inclusive communities will reflect the differences of the individuals to a higher degree compared with an integrative community. But, in inclusive societies, there will also be limits on how much diversity a society can accommodate before it breaks apart, thus destroying its social structure (Hansen 2012).

Both inclusion and exclusion processes are thus part of the constitution of all kinds of communities, and a boundary is always set between inclusion and exclusion. This boundary is dependent on context and possibility but never necessity. Neither determining structures nor free and volitional individuals decide the placement of this boundary.

The phenomenon of educational inclusion research that investigates how to develop inclusive learning environments without taking into account that exclusion is an integral part of inclusion may be explained in several ways, for example, by defining inclusion as a vision or as a process that can never be fully realized or never ends or by accepting that inclusion has a limit in practice and that it is therefore not beneficial to all children’s learning and developing to participate in the same classroom which enables a distinction to be made between “responsible inclusion” and “full inclusion” (Evans and Lunt 2005). In general, there seems to be acceptance of a pragmatic solution to the relationship between a conceptual understanding of inclusion as limitless in principle and an a priori assumption that inclusion in practice always has a limit – regardless of the different explanations. However, these different perspectives or explanations primarily compensate for the lack of a theoretical determination of the limit to inclusion in the conceptual determination of inclusion. The limit to inclusion is then explained by theories and concepts outside the concept or theory of inclusion itself.

Conceptualizing Inclusion and Exclusion

In order to develop a theoretical determination of the concept of inclusion and exclusion, discourse theory can be helpful (Laclau 1996, Hansen 2012).

According to Laclau (1996), all concepts are constructed by virtue of the otherness of the concept and that every concept presupposes its otherness. This otherness of the concept makes the concept possible as a concept, but at the same time, it makes it impossible as a concept in itself. If inclusion is to be considered as a concept in itself, it has to exclude that which constitutes its otherness: exclusion. From this point of view, inclusive communities should be developed by excluding exclusion. By excluding exclusion, inclusion is grounded in various normative principles that state a priori what should be included and what should not be included; in inclusive communities, exclusion should not be included, and thereby a distinction is made between the morally acceptable and the morally unacceptable. Exclusion is not morally acceptable in inclusive communities. But communities are not inclusive if they only include what is morally approved to include. Compared to the construction of concepts, grounding inclusion in a norm different from itself dissolves inclusion as a meaningful category (Laclau 1996). Therefore inclusion means to include what is morally approved (Hansen 2012).

On the other hand, it is not possible to consider inclusion as limitless because an unlimited inclusive community cannot exclude exclusion processes by which the inclusive community unintentionally may lead to an exclusive community. In understanding inclusion as a concept, inclusion presupposes exclusion and exclusion presupposes inclusion. The point is that inclusion and exclusion are two connected and interdependent processes. Exclusion makes inclusion possible, and simultaneously it makes limitless inclusion impossible. And the other way around, inclusion makes exclusion possible, and simultaneously it makes limitless exclusion impossible. In other words, inclusive communities need to include a certain degree of exclusion to ensure their own existence as inclusive (Hansen 2012).

So, on the one hand, all communities are characterized by some degree of differentiation. On the other hand, there need to be limits to how much differentiation a community can sustain if it is not to pose a threat to the cohesion of the community. Inclusion and exclusion are therefore both necessary processes in the constitution of all communities, and exclusive processes will always be a fundamental part of the existence of an inclusive community.

How Inclusive Schools Exclude

Looking at educational inclusion research from this point of view, the question in relation to inclusion is how to handle both inclusion and exclusion processes in the task of ensuring the learning and development of all pupils in ordinary schools. Even though teachers may really want to develop inclusive learning environments, they cannot avoid excluding some ways of acting or specific kinds of behavior from the established classroom because of the limit to inclusion. The main challenge to inclusive schools is thus how to handle the dilemma both to construct an inclusive environment, containing a higher degree of diversity in order to ensure all students’ participation, and at the same time manage the necessity of exclusiveness and exclusive values even though exclusion processes are not politically acceptable and therefore could not be legitimized as “exclusion.”

To analyze both inclusion and exclusion processes thus takes as its starting point the investigation of how a specific school or learning community constructs its own limit to diversity and to what degree the community handles diversity without perceiving diversity as a threat to the cohesion of that community. This means uncovering the processes that make specific, meaningful constructions and subject positioning possible and at the same time exclude other constructions and subject positioning as impossible within a specific school or learning community. In this way, a space is created to identify patterns which exclude the differences that would make it possible to create a more inclusive learning environment.

Inclusion and Neoliberalism

To uncover the processes that exclude specific meaning constructions and subject positioning and thereby to identify patterns which exclude specific differences has become increasingly important since it has become a dominant political goal to ensure the participation in society of all persons and to develop inclusive schools. As early as 1992, the then EU president, Jacques Delors, formulated the idea that the biggest threat to European welfare States was no longer poverty and inequality but social exclusion, and, by extension, nonparticipation in society. From this point of view, fairness is no longer concerned with creating economic and social equality but with providing every person an equal possibility to participate actively in societal life in order to ensure the cohesion of society. From this perspective, inclusion and participation are not only about solidarity, democracy, and human rights. They are also about how to ensure the cohesion of society through the duty to participate of all individuals.

Inclusion and the right and duty of every person to participate might therefore also be linked to dominant neoliberal conceptions of humanity: the idea that everyone has the resources and potential to make themselves relevant to society through self-development and developing their potential. By ensuring their own inclusion, individuals ensure the cohesion of society. From a neoliberal perspective, every person is presumed to have the potential as well as the possibility of participating in society. Accordingly, the category of “unable” no longer exists in neoliberal political rhetoric, as every person is expected to be able to become an active participant in societal life (Pedersen 2011). On the other hand, society must ensure that the individual actually has the possibility of taking responsibility for his or her own inclusion, and some might need help toward inclusion, realizing their potential through motivation and support. Viewed from a neoliberal perspective, problems related to inclusion processes are thus not structurally conditioned, while personal, social, or familial barriers to participation and inclusion are no longer approved. Problems are rather determined by destiny, and the individual is master over his or her own destiny (Andersen 2005).

Understanding inclusion as a means to advance the neoliberal project has a major impact on individuals. From a neoliberal perspective, the relationship between individual and society is only a matter of will, commitment, and responsibility; the individual’s will to participate, commitment to society, and responsibility for him or herself to become included in society. Politics is therefore about contributing to the individual’s creation of a self which can shape itself and its own destiny, thereby ensuring the realization of every person’s right and duty to participation. Should they not – against expectations – succeed, individuals themselves must take responsibility for their own destiny as being excluded (Andersen 2005).

Political discourses, as well as those based on rights and control strategies, thus contribute collectively in creating a powerful hegemonic force directed toward ensuring the rights, duties, and possibility of every person to be able to participate in society and in communities. This hegemony encourages individuals to live the heralded life, expecting everyone to have the desire to both comply with the political objectives and to find meaning and purpose in them. To optimize one’s learning and thereby prepare oneself for further education and active participation in society is the only life strategy which can be ascribed meaning within the prevailing political discourse. The dominating inclusion discourse thereby unintentionally contributes to exclusion processes by excluding the variations of conception that would make it possible for specific individuals or groups to live a life in society which is different from the heralded life which is to realize one’s potential for learning, development, and education.

Similarly, inclusive schools have not only the task of making themselves accessible to the individual through the handling of increased diversity. Inclusive schools are also responsible for supporting the individual student’s possibility of realizing his or her potential for learning and education. Further, to be included in the inclusive learning, environment demands a specific social identity as a student who can and will realize his or her potential for learning and development, irrespective of any personal, societal, or familial situation. In this way, the inclusive school places demands on all students to position themselves as subjects who can and will – or become able – to live a normalized life through learning and further education. So, even though inclusive schools are characterized by a higher degree of diversity, there will still be limits to diversity through an obligatory collectivity; to find one’s potential for learning and development.

In this perspective, the main goal of the inclusive school is to ensure that everyone optimizes their educational opportunities and readies themselves for further education. On the one hand, this task can be seen as a way to realize solidarity, human rights, and democracy, because a lack of education in the future will be one of the most crucial socioeconomic risk factors in relation to marginalization and exclusion (Pedersen 2011). On the other hand, pure recognition fails to appreciate the question of social injustice, dysfunctional family relations, and individuals who do not thrive either psychologically, physically, or socially. In this context, an absence of recognition and legitimation of personal, social, and familial barriers to learning and further education could inadvertently lead to the exclusion of certain individuals’ chances of participation and inclusion. This is simply because some individuals cannot – and may never be able – to meet the demands of finding and realizing their potential.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Educational Sociology, Danish School of EducationAarhus UniversityCopenhagenDenmark