Inclusion - one word, two discourses

Inclusion - one word, two discourses

It is well known that the word” inclusion” acquires different meanings in different contexts. However, here I would like to simplify things and make a distinction between what I consider to be two fundamentally different ways to use the word, two discourses. The distinction is based on a review of research about inclusive education that I made together with Kerstin Göransson (see reference below).

We analysed altogether 60 articles about inclusive education with high impact in the field, i.e articles that are often cited by other researchers. You would expect that there will be some consensus in a research field when it comes to how basic concepts are defined. However, we could identify two fundamentally different understandings of inclusion in the articles.


The dominating discourse

In about two thirds of the articles, inclusion denoted the place of education. In this way, inclusion was not defined by any specific qualities. Consequently, inclusion could principally have good or bad consequences. A prime example of this approach is the much cited article by Lindsay (see reference below) which is a systematic review about the effects of inclusion. Inclusion is thus defined by the fact that pupils with disabilities receive their education in mainstream classrooms.

Following this line of thinking it also becomes an important research task to ask teachers, about their views of inclusion. Not surprisingly there were several articles that reported such investigations and one much cited review of this research appeared as early as 1996 (se reference below). Also the fact that inclusion is an idea emanating to a large extent from the special educational field makes this line of inquiry logical. If inclusion (understood as placement) is to be successful, teachers have a key role. In this way, special educational researchers have made a lot of studies about the views of teachers and pondered upon what factors that will make teachers more positive to the idea of inclusion (i.e. having pupils with disabilities in their classroom).

To my experience this is also often how the word is used in political discussions and among people working in schools. But it was obvious in our material that there was a challenge to this way of using the word inclusion.


The alternative discourse

In some articles inclusion was, apart from the avoidance of segregated educational solutions, associated with certain qualities. These researchers defined inclusion as a) involving the creation of learning communities where every pupil has a natural place or at least b) the requirement that pupils have to have a satisfactory educational and social situation in order to be included. There were thus different opinions about exactly what constitutes inclusive environments. The point to be made here is that in this discourse inclusion was defined by certain qualities. Put differently and simplified, if it is not good it is not inclusion (but mere placement).

Let us take a simple example. If Steven attends a resource school but is moved into a regular classroom, then he is included according to the dominating discourse. However, if we consider that Steven´s educational situation has to involve certain qualities (e.g. that he learns and thrives/becomes part of a learning community) in order to be included, then we have moved into the alternative discourse.


Does it matter?

Some would maybe state that the discussion above is “only” about semantics. However, I would not agree. I think the lack of clarity concerning what is meant with the word inclusion partly had disguised the fact that there are quite different positions in research about inclusive education. While “inclusion” for some is merely an “add-on” to traditional special educational reasoning, for others it means changing the educational system. Thus, Kerstin Göransson and I considered to entitle our article “A field divided”.

On a somewhat more speculative note, it does not seem improbable that the vagueness regarding what is meant by inclusion might have had some harmful consequences in school practice. Inclusion has been what linguistics call a “plus-word”, i.e. it has been considered as something good. It is thus often considered progressive to include. However, and this a think is a real danger, if we are not very clear that inclusion involves a lot more than placement, we run the risk of legitimizing putting pupils with disabilities in mainstream classrooms that are not properly organized to take care of and to teach them.


Lindsay, Geoff. 2007. “Educational Psychology and the Effectiveness of Inclusive Education/ Mainstreaming.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 77: 1–24.

Nilholm, C. & Göransson, K. (2017) What is meant by inclusion? An analysis of European and North American journal articles with high impact, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 32:3, 437-451.

Scruggs, T., and M. Mastropieri. 1996. “Teacher Perceptions of Mainstreaming Inclusion, 1958–1995: A Research Synthesis.” Exceptional Children 63: 59–74.


This is my last blog before the summer. The next blog will be published on august 20 and its topic is the question if  differences can be celebrated.

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