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European Journal of Special Needs

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Special education, inclusion and democracy
Claes Nilholm
Örebro University and Jönköping University. Sweden

To cite this Article: Claes Nilholm , 'Special education, inclusion and democracy',
European Journal of Special Needs Education, 21:4, 431 - 445
xxxx:journal To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/08856250600957905

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© Taylor and Francis 2007

European Journal of Special Needs Education
Vol. 21, No. 4, November 2006, pp. 431–445
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Special education, inclusion and

Claes Nilholm*
Örebro University and Jönköping University, Sweden
& Article
Special Needs

Initially, it is pointed out that adherents of a psycho-medical perspective often suggest exclusive
solutions to special educational dilemmas and that such theorizing has been heavily attacked in past
decades. However, it is argued that opposition of the psycho-medical understanding of special
education runs the risk of blurring differences between researchers and practitioners who are more
positive about inclusion. One aim of this paper is to disentangle different perspectives on special
education and different notions of inclusion among those positive to the idea of inclusion. A second
aim is to argue for the necessity of situating the discussion about inclusion and special education
within a discussion about democracy and the role of social science within it. Such a discussion seems
even more important, given the range of positions discerned in the first part of the paper. In the
concluding section of the paper, a proposal is presented for how special education, democracy and
inclusion could be related to one another and for the role of research within these relationships. An
important argument advanced is that the issue of who is to decide is analytically prior to what is to
be decided with regard to inclusive practices.

Keywords: Special education; Democracy; Inclusion; Theory; Stakeholders; Research

Several authors distinguish between, on the one hand, a traditional and, on the other
hand, an alternative perspective on special education (Skrtic, 1991, 1995; Ainscow,
1998; Clark et al., 1998). The traditional perspective is often described as being
individually orientated with roots in psychology and medicine, positivistic and aimed
towards developing better educational methods for diagnostic groups. Special
education is thus seen as a rational response to what is understood as children’s
more or less objective deficits. Moreover, the traditional perspective is often charac-
terized by its adherence to segregated educational provision, even if this tendency
seems to have become less pronounced today (cf. Ainscow, 1998). It is well known

*Trähusgränd 11, 589 23 Linköping, Sweden. Email:

ISSN 0885–6257 (print)/ISSN 1469–591X (online)/06/040431–15

© 2006 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/08856250600957905
432 C. Nilholm

that this traditional perspective on special education has come under heavy attack.
Thus, Skrtic (1991, 1995) develops a major critique of traditional special education,
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based on a criticism of professional knowledge. The critique of special education

questions several elements, including the reliability of diagnostic categories and the
notion that diagnoses have important implications for educational processes. In
addition, the stigmatizing effects of diagnoses and segregated educational arrange-
ments are underlined.
However, there might be a risk that such common critique tends to blur distinc-
tions between researchers who are critical of the ‘traditional’ (cf. Clark et al., 1998).
It is important to analyse such distinctions since one could actually mean very differ-
ent things even if one is in agreement on the critique of traditional practices. Thus,
one aim of this paper is to delineate different positions among alternative ways of
conceptualizing special education, especially with regard to the notion of ‘inclusive
education’. In this way, the idea that there are substantial problems involved in the
traditional perspective is an assumption of the present paper. Instead, alternative
ways of understanding special education and inclusion, as well as the relationships
between these concepts, will be identified and discussed. Such positions will not be
argued vis-à-vis the positions of particular researchers, although this will occasionally
be the case, but rather as principal positions. In addition to being an aim in its own
right, the discussion about special education and inclusion also lays the groundwork
for the second aim of the paper, which is to situate the discussion about inclusion and
special education within a discussion about democracy and the role of social science
within it.
Thus, initially in the paper different perspectives on special education will be
distinguished, and then the notion of ‘inclusion’ is problematized. This part of the
paper concerns its first aim—i.e. to disentangle different perspectives on special
education and different notions of inclusion. In this way, the central question of the
second part of the paper: ‘What type of society is going to change schools by what
means into which notion of inclusion?’, is approached. I will argue that the multiplicity
of positions discerned in the first part of the paper have implications for how we
should think and act towards ‘inclusion’. If there were one position regarding the
meaning of inclusion and how it should be accomplished, things might have been
easier. However, given the multitude of reasonable interpretations of inclusion and
the role of special/inclusive education within schools, the issue of how and who is to
decide upon these matters comes to the fore.
Consequently, inclusion has to be related to the notion of ‘democracy’ (‘by what
means’) and to different views on the roles of professionals, including researchers,
parents and politicians in the quest for inclusive education. Therefore, different
notions of democracy are defined and analysed in the second part of the paper, espe-
cially in regard to their implications for special education and inclusion and the roles
and relations for different social groups within democracy. I will elaborate on how
different conceptualizations of democracy lead to completely different understand-
ings of inclusion and, consequently, to different answers to the question posed.
Finally, a particular democratic model will be tentatively proposed and the role of
Special education, inclusion and democracy 433

researchers, professionals and other social groups within it will be further elaborated
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Perspectives on special education

The notion of ‘perspective’ does seem central to the social sciences. Sometimes
concepts that are similar to ‘perspective’ in carrying the implication that there are
multitude ways to understand social life, such as ‘paradigms’ or ‘discourses’, are
preferred. Ainscow (1998) suggests that the notion of perspective with regard to
special education should be understood as: ‘alternative ways of looking at the
phenomena of educational difficulty based on different sets of assumptions that lead
to different explanations, different frames of reference and different kinds of ques-
tions to be addressed’ (p. 8). Thus, one cannot overestimate the importance of the
perspective regarding special educational issues, since it underpins what we will see,
how we will interpret it and how we will act. Most researchers seem to agree that there
are at least two basic ways to understand special educational issues. Ainscow (1998)
discerns, on the one hand, a deficit perspective that locates the problem within the
child. He also points to an alternative view where problems are seen to stem from
curriculum-based difficulties—i.e. as symptoms of deficiencies in a curriculum that is
not adapted to the diversity of children. Ainscow (1998) also identifies a third ‘inter-
active’ perspective, which is a compromise between the other two. In this ‘interactive’
perspective, the problems of special education are attributed to factors within the
child, but also to other levels—e.g. the school situation. This latter perspective seems
to dominate research about special education (cf. Nilholm, submitted, and in press).
However, there are of course huge differences within this perspective regarding how
much of the educational ‘problem’ is localized in the individual and how much is seen
as a part of the environment.
Clark et al. (1998) write about a traditional and a ‘post-positivistic’ paradigm,
which are similar to Ainscow’s (1998) first and second perspectives. Clark et al. also
outline a third perspective that seems to differ slightly from the third perspective
suggested by Ainscow. While Ainscow’s third perspective is a compromise between
the first and third perspectives, Clark et al. (1998) suggest a qualitatively different
conception of special education, which is further elaborated in Dyson and Millward
(2000). This conception acknowledges a fundamental contradiction in schooling,
which stems from the fact that children are different, and that actors in schooling

are expected to find ways of, on the one hand, delivering a common education to all and
on the other responding to the different characteristics and needs of each individual. To a
certain extent the dilemmas which arise are technical in nature—how to find ways of teach-
ing particular skills or areas of knowledge to students with different attainments and apti-
tudes; how to organise the grouping of students so that they all learn to their maximum
potential; how to deploy resources in ways what are equitable, that promote learning, but
that are responsive to individual differences and needs.
However, since the business of education is necessarily shot through with social, political
and ethical questions, the technical dilemmas inevitably interact with other kinds of
434 C. Nilholm

dilemma: some ways of teaching, grouping or resourcing may be technically effective but
carry with them overtones of discrimination, stigmatisation or marginalisation; particular
forms of practice may disadvantage some students vis-à-vis others; culturally-valued forms
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of knowledge may conflict with students’ own cultural values; and so on. These dilemmas
take many forms, but they all arise from the fundamental contradiction of an education
system which is at one and the same time based on what students have—or are expected
to have—in common and on the differences between each individual. (p. 161 ff.)

Thus, educational systems are influenced by social forces and political and ethical
issues of diverse kinds. Because of this, and the very substantial problem of educa-
tional differences (cf. Dyson & Millward, 2000, p. 159), dilemmas appear at different
levels in the school system. In my interpretation, the approach outlined by Dyson and
Millward differs from the ‘interactive’ perspective identified by Ainscow (1998) in its
orientation to social constructionism, albeit in a moderate form, and in its emphasis
on dilemmas. As will be elaborated later on, to situate educational problems in a
social arena, where the nature of these very problems is negotiated, is qualitatively
different from trying to formulate their definite character.
The suggestion that concepts such as ‘dilemmas’ and ‘contradictions’ are central in
understanding special education and its role in society is not entirely new (see e.g.
Berlak & Berlak, 1981; Norwich, 1993). The notion of ‘dilemma’ has also been theo-
rized by Billig et al. (1988), who suggest that the concept of ‘ideological dilemmas’
accounts for how human interaction in general is shot through by dilemmas of
different kinds. Billig et al. argue that especially liberal ideology expresses several
dilemmatic aspects that are central in modern democratic societies. Consequently,
issues topicalized by liberal ideology involve opposite tendencies that give rise to
dilemmas. Examples of such central dilemmas are individuality versus collectivity,
and expertise versus equality. Moreover, these ideological dilemmas permeate
everyday life:
Within the ideology of liberalism is a dialectic, which contains negative counter-themes
and which give rise to debates. These debates are not confined to the level of intellectual
analysis; both themes and counter-themes have arisen from, and passed into, everyday
consciousness. (Billig et al., p. 27)

Thus, special education can be seen as a context where dilemmas are central. Consid-
ering the fundamental contradiction between the provision of something similar to all
children at the same time as individual differences are taken into account, several
dilemmas will result:
This contradiction in the way we have just seen generates in turn dilemmas for decision-
makers at every level in the education system—national policy-makers, local administra-
tors, senior managers in schools, teachers in classrooms. Sometimes these dilemmas are
explicit, but more often they remain implicit, hidden even from the decision-makers
themselves. Essentially, however, they have to find ways of responding simultaneously
both to the commonalities which students share and to the differences between them.
(Clark et al., 1998, p. 166)

One example of such dilemmas pertaining to special education is the dilemma of

categorization versus individuality—i.e. whether groups are to be defined in order to
Special education, inclusion and democracy 435

meet their needs or if every child should be treated as an individual. If one identifies
groups of children, one risks stigmatizing them. However, if one does not identify
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groups of children, one risks neglecting children who need more support. Another
dilemma concerns whether behaviours should be valued differently or if difference
should be celebrated. Every social system, including schools, is normative in the sense
that certain behaviours are favoured. At the same time, schools should be egalitarian.
Thus, valuing differences between children is a dilemma in the sense that it can hardly
be avoided even if we wanted to. Consequently, one could suggest that one important
task for research about special education should be to study how such dilemmas are
played out in practice as a part of situated social processes (cf. Dyson & Millward,
To summarize, I have briefly discussed perspectives on special education. While
most researchers identify a traditional and an alternative perspective, or compro-
mises between them, I have made proposals for an additional perspective. I have
argued that a dilemma perspective seems to be an interesting option for such a
perspective. The important point to be made thus far is that the perspective we
choose will influence how we view all aspects of special education. Such differences
will become even more clear if we also consider differences in how the society of
which special education is a part can be understood, a point which will be elaborated
upon in the next paragraph.
It seems reasonable to demand of a perspective on special education that it incor-
porates a view of the nature of the society (cf. Skrtic, 1991, 1995). Clark et al. (1998)
suggest that the alternative perspective varies according to what option is identified
as lying behind (cf. Skrtic, 1991) special education—e.g. discourses, social structures,
professional interests and/or school failure. In this way, the form of the critique of the
traditional perspective is tied to how the social element is theorized. Of course, there
are additional alternatives to how society could be theorized. One could be critical of
special educational practices without viewing society as basically driven by conflict or
oppression. In a similar vein, a view of special education as a response to fundamental
dilemmas (see above) could be ‘combined’ with different views of society (cf. Dyson
& Millward, 2000)—i.e. both functionalist or conflictual theoretical points of
departure. Also, it is important to point out that a view of special education does not
necessarily involve an explicit theory of society. It does seem, though, that in addition
to our perspective on special education, our view of the social element should be
consequential towards our view of inclusion and how it should be achieved. Before
returning to these issues, I will complicate matters further by defining different ways
to interpret the ‘inclusion’ concept.

Interpretations of ‘inclusion’
There are at least three ways to analyse the emergence of a new concept on the public
arena. First, one might ponder what those who introduced the concept tried to
communicate. Secondly, one might look at the linguistic roots of the concept—i.e. try
to discern its meaning by an investigation of the words from which it emanates.
436 C. Nilholm

Thirdly, one can look at how the new concept is used in communication. In this
context, the first and third approaches seem appropriate.1
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Most commentators suggest that the emergence of the ‘inclusion’ concept can be
seen as a reaction to the fate of its forerunners, ‘integration’ and ‘mainstreaming’.
These concepts came to be used in multiple ways and created confusion, rather than
alleviating it. Inclusion made its appearance as a concept with radical implications.
The new concept connoted changes with regard to the system rather than to its parts.
Schools should be organized with a basis in the fact that children are different. In
other words, differences between children should be seen as natural and something
the school system should both value and adapt to. Vislie (2003) argues that the new
philosophical-democratic idea of inclusion became a worldwide issue with the
appearance of the Salamanca Statement (Unesco, 1994).
However, a new concept travels across borders, enters into new contexts and
becomes assimilated into new ‘provinces of meaning’ (Schutz, 1967). Consequently,
we would presume that the notion of ‘inclusion’ will take on new meanings and be
used to new ends. Linell (1998, s. 144) describes how discourse will travel between
different situations:
Communication situations do not occur in splendid isolation. On the contrary, they are
connected in countless and subtle ways, across space and time, through artefacts (such as
written texts or computer files) and human beings who wander between situations. This
means that also discourse and discursive content will travel across situations. Let us call
this ubiquitous phenomenon ‘recontextualization’.
As a concept, inclusion will become recontextualized and this will imply that a multi-
tude of new meanings are generated. Complicating matters further, ‘inclusion’ is a
concept with a positive value. In this way, it will become incorporated into/added to
different discourses, even to traditional views on special education. In spite of this,
there is, hopefully, still the potential that inclusion will connote a different meaning
than ‘integration’ and ‘mainstreaming’. If ‘inclusion’ is used in similar ways to those
in which ‘integration’ is being used—i.e. to connote the idea that children should be
adapted to stable and more or less unchangeable school structures—the need for a
new word that connotes the more radical idea will emerge.
But even if we adhere to a more radical potential of the inclusion concept, it can
still be interpreted in different ways. The dimensions listed in Table 1 can be utilized
to distinguish between different understandings of ‘inclusion’ (cf. Dyson & Millward,
2000). One can argue that a certain understanding of inclusion’ can be analysed with
regard to such dimensions. The list of dimensions is not meant to be exhaustive, but
to pinpoint some of the most important ones. A conception of inclusion, or an
‘inclusive’ practice, can be more or less inclusive in relation to these dimensions.
Inclusion is usually understood as implying that differences between children
should be valued and that difference is a natural condition for schooling. A common
use of ‘inclusion’ is that it is primarily a concept that applies to the classroom level.
Thus, inclusion in this case means that children of all kinds attend the same classes,
that diversity is celebrated within the classroom and that children have a right to
participate, to learn and to build social relationships. It does seem reasonable,
Special education, inclusion and democracy 437

Table 1. Dimensions of inclusion

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Research into education

International and national educational systems
Teacher education
School districts (types of organizational arrangement)
Schools (types of organizational arrangements, professional identification)
Classrooms (organizational arrangements, interactional processes and learning)
Other situations in the school (breaks, afternoon activities, etc.)
Individual experiences (feelings of belonging)

though, to supplement the analysis by involving more dimensions—i.e. to ponder

how the distinction between normality and deviance is retained at other levels of anal-
ysis. Teacher education can serve as an example. Teacher education can be organized
according to the principle that the future teachers should be able to teach a diversity
of children, or to the principle that future teachers should teach primarily ‘normal’
children and that special teachers will take care of the others. An additional example
concerns how municipalities organize schooling; is there one organization for all
children or is there a separate one for ‘special’ children? It does seem that how the
inclusion/segregation dualism is handled at these other levels will be important for
what ‘inclusion’ will mean in particular contexts. If professional identities, for
example, are built on the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘special’ children (even if
the words expressing the distinction are changed), it does seem reasonable to assume
that this will have definite consequences on how ‘inclusive’ practices are managed and
Four additional factors that are relevant to all dimensions also have to be consid-
ered. First, the discourse within the levels discerned could be more or less inclusive—
i.e. more or less prone to make distinctions between different groups of children by
celebrating differences, etc. Secondly, there is a time dimension involved—i.e.
whether one regards ‘inclusion’ as something urgent or whether it is considered to be
a distant goal. Thirdly, one might argue in different ways vis-à-vis the dimensions for
different groups of children. Finally, the notion of inclusion could encompass
additional differences above those signalled by the label of special needs, e.g. gender,
age and ethnicity.
Thus, one could mean many and quite different things by inclusion. A radical posi-
tion would involve many dimensions, be critical to language use which is built on
distinctions and evaluations of categories of children, have a short time perspective
and involve all children. A less radical one would address the dimensions listed in the
lower part of Table 1, make evaluative distinctions between different groups of
children, have a longer time perspective and make exceptions for certain groups of
children. The latter view of inclusion, of course, approaches traditional special
education and misses several points made by proponents of the radical perspective.
438 C. Nilholm

To summarize, I have delineated different theoretical positions with regard to

special education, pointed out the relations of these positions to different views of
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society and also discerned different ways to understand ‘inclusion’. Quite a problem-
atic picture emerges from these discussions. Maybe the notion of ‘pluralism’ sums up
the core message (cf. Burrell & Morgan, 1979). In a sense, I have tried to advance a
post-modern argument by arguing for ‘the complexity of the social world. Instead of
taking the modernist approach, which analyses complex phenomena in terms of
simple or essential principles, post-modern approaches acknowledge that it is not
possible to tell a single and exclusive story about something that is that complex’
(Corker & Shakespeare, 2002, p. 4).
Thus, there are several reasonable ways to view society and inclusive education
among those favourable of inclusive practices. Moreover, the idea of pluralism, and
the lack of meta-narratives (Lyotard, 1984), implies that the issue of who should define
the relevant perspective becomes central. Thus, one might argue that a discussion of
democracy is analytically prior to the notion of ‘inclusion’. In this way, the first part
of this paper has provided an entrance into a discussion of who should decide about
inclusion/special education.

Approaching inclusion: what type of society is going to change schools, and

by what means, into which notion of inclusion?
It might be appropriate to reiterate the purpose of the present paper. One overriding
aim is to discern and discuss positions among researchers (and practitioners) who are
favourable to at least some notion of inclusion. In this way, more traditional positions
vis-à-vis special education have not been discussed.2 Given these considerations, I
have discerned different positions regarding how one views special education and its
role in society, and how one can understand the inclusion concept. In the remainder
of the paper, I will be concerned with a second overriding aim of the article, namely
to situate the discussion about inclusion and special education within a discussion
about democracy and the role of social science within it.
First, I briefly discuss two common ways to approach the question posed in the
above heading. I will delineate a more radical position and a more moderate one. I
will also discuss some important problems with these positions, particularly their
often implicit understandings of democracy. A main point I will make is that democ-
racy has to be explicitly theorized in relation to special education and inclusion. In
addition to discerning different positions, I will, in the concluding sections, argue for
a particular way to understand democracy, inclusion and special education and the
connections between these entities.
An approach to inclusion could be characterized by how it answers the questions
in the heading to this section. A radical view implies that inclusion is considered to be
a non-negotiable value, and it does seem reasonable to subordinate the means to the
goal. There are other values in society that are most often understood in such a way—
i.e. the notion of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of speech’. We do not demand empirical
investigations in order to judge whether democracy is a good thing or not. Neither is
Special education, inclusion and democracy 439

the value of freedom of speech an empirical issue. In a similar way, one might argue
that ‘inclusion’ is a good thing in itself regardless of empirical findings. A historical
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parallel might be illuminating. Some decades ago there were debates on whether it
was better for children with learning disabilities to grow up with their families, and
today this is taken for granted by most people. In this way, yesterday’s debates might
seem utterly conservative, or even dehumanizing.
However, there are some major problems with this radical position. First, profes-
sionals, including researchers, will not agree on a similar definition of inclusion. For
professional groups, an adherence to a radical notion of ‘inclusion’ might also serve
several purposes apart from the supposed well-being of the beneficiaries of special
education—e.g. as a symbol of professional ethos and the making of professional
identities. For similar reasons, the notion of inclusion might be appealing to
politicians and to educational administrators. Secondly, many people outside the
professional community might be opposed to a radical notion of ‘inclusion’, even
among the parents of children with disabilities, for example, or the children them-
selves. The main problem with this position thus concerns the lack of theorizing about
how the decision about inclusive practices should be made and who should be included
in such decision-making.
The second position involves a less radical interpretation of ‘inclusion’ and a less
radical critique of traditional special education. It is possible to propose a more
moderate solution to special educational dilemmas that do not seem so politically
challenging. By focusing on the classroom level, keeping the basic distinctions
between special and normal children and special and normal educational profession-
als, and even strengthening the special educational sector, an answer is formulated to
the question: ‘What type of society is going to change schools, and by what means,
into what notion of inclusion?’ Inclusion becomes, to a large extent, an administrative
and professional task. Whether one conceives of society as basically consensual or
conflictual might not be decisive for this position.3 What are the problems with this
position? First, it is a watered-down notion of inclusion that is proposed, since it runs
the risk of strengthening some of the distinctions and professional interests that are at
the base of special education. Secondly, it might also be a proposal that is politically
and professionally driven, especially by professionals with a vested interest in special
education. In this way, it is open to the same criticism as discussed above in relation
to the first perspective.
Both proposals discussed above for more inclusive practices have been based on the
inclusion concept. As has been argued, maybe the question of democracy, and the
role of researchers and other groups within democracy, in some important ways
should be analytically prior to, or at least heavily intertwined with, the issue of how
more inclusive practices are to be accomplished. Also, both proposals discussed are
built upon a specific notion of democracy that is not always spelled out, let alone
problematized. In my line of reasoning, the interpretation of ‘by what means’ will be
the most important part of the above heading, since the issue of ‘inclusion’ cannot be
fully grasped if it is not related to decision processes—i.e. negotiations between social
groups concerning what type of society to strive for. In the remaining part of the
440 C. Nilholm

paper, I will first discuss different models of democracy and their implications for the
discussion about inclusion. Thereafter, I will propose what I consider to be a reason-
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able way to understand how democracy, inclusion and research should be related.

Notions of democracy
Often the notion of democracy is not problematized in research on special education.
A fundamental question concerns whether there are consequences for how
differences among pupils are handled depending on what model of democracy we
advocate. I would answer this question with a definite ‘yes’ and will illustrate how this
conclusion is arrived at by defining four different views on democracy and their
implications vis-à-vis how decisions about education/special education are managed
(cf. Carlsson & Nilholm, 2004). The point of the argument is that theories/positions
on inclusive education become more reflexive, and thus more transparent, if they are
explicitly related to particular views of democracy.
One basic model of democracy, which is part of the notion of democracy in the
other three models as well, is of course representative democracy. Representative
democracy is built upon competition between elites (parties) in order to receive a
majority of votes in open elections. The elite are considered more knowledgeable than
citizens, whose power is expressed in elections. Representative democracy is
distinguished by a quite independent public administration and presupposes knowl-
edgeable experts at different levels of the system (Held, 1997). People are viewed as
free and equal (in a political and legal meaning), but have a technical relation to
political affairs. One can discern two different developments from this basic model—
one neo-liberal and one leftist. Held (1997), who has created an overview of the
development of democracy from ancient times until today, suggests that the two most
influential directions today are the new right (law-governed democracy) and the new
left (participatory/deliberative democracy). The former stems from the liberal tradi-
tion and the latter from a Marxian, pluralistic tradition (Held, 1997). Law-governed
democracy puts the individual at the centre, minimizing the impact of the state on
public life. A free market is an ideal in the rhetoric of this form of democracy. In its
extreme form, law-governed democracy implicates a private educational system.
Two slightly different forms of democracy are advocated by the new left and both
can be seen as reactions to the passive role of the citizen in representative democracy.
On the one hand, the model of participatory democracy strives to involve citizens in
decision-making, both through referendums and in participation at the local level.
Regarding education, such involvement might consist of boards with representation
of a majority of parents. In this way, the citizens’ power is expressed in actual deci-
sion-making at the expense of influence from experts. The participatory model is
influenced by communitarian ideas and the importance of morals and virtue are
underscored. The model of deliberative democracy, finally, is similar to this model
but differs in that especially communicative processes are considered to be of utmost
importance in order to legitimate democracy. The procedure of handling issues where
there are different opinions is fore-grounded. Such a public, communicative
Special education, inclusion and democracy 441

procedure is in place when rational arguments for and against an issue are presented
by equal participants, without compulsion or undue influence, and ends in a consen-
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sual decision which has a common good as its ultimate rational (cf. Arendt, 1994). In
this way, deliberate democracy tries to bridge the conflict between majority politics
and the interests of individuals and minorities (Habermas, 1996). Regarding educa-
tional processes, the deliberative model underscores the importance of communica-
tion between different interest groups. The outcome of such communication cannot
be stipulated in advance. Instead, the form of the deliberation is what warrants the
As should be clear from this short overview of different perceptions of democracy,
the models implicate different forms of societal, and hence also educational, decision-
making. The model one adheres to has definite consequences for how one views
issues of power in relation to inclusive education. Thus, it does seem that different
stakeholders receive different degrees of influence depending on the model. In this
way, parental groups might have more direct influence in participatory and law-
governed models, while the deliberative model might be more attractive to academ-
ics, since this latter group has a lot of experience with deliberative communication.
Further, professional groups might have a lot of influence in more traditional

Pluralism and its consequences

Following this line of reasoning, one perceives that the question of who is going to
decide? has priority over the question of what is the right thing to decide?, with regard to
issues such as ‘inclusion’. Moreover, as was hinted at above, there are several options
for the answer to the first question. While there might be some consensus about the
stakeholders involved, we can have very different opinions about the reasonable
influence a group should have and the way such influence should be expressed.
The three models of democracy that were identified in addition to the representative
model are all based on representative democracy. Consequently, it seems reasonable—
maybe with the exception of the rule-governed democracy model—that politicians
should have a profound influence on how schooling is organized. All three models are
based on what are perceived as shortcomings in the representative model. Thus, to
take account of the resources of individuals and groups, the model has to be comple-
mented in order to open up for other groups and/or individuals to have influence on
how schooling is organized. The complementing factors can be certain social groups
(the deliberative model), individuals (the law-governed model) or the users (the
participatory model).
What are the problems involved if we consider the question of who is going to decide?
as being of analytical priority? At least two things become problematic: (1) how is a
certain democratic model to be decided upon?; and (2) how are segregated solutions
to special educational dilemmas to be avoided? Since different democratic models
provide different types of influence for different citizens, they are not neutral to the
interest of social groups and thus constitute a clear problem for the ‘democracy-first’
442 C. Nilholm

perspective (i.e. what type of democracy comes first). Moreover, different democratic
models might create segregated solutions. A market-oriented school system might,
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for example, reinvent special school systems and thus be detrimental to the goals of
inclusion. In the following and concluding paragraph, I will propose a model that
seems both to adhere to the ideas about democracy put forward here as well as
provide good conditions for the construction of more inclusive practices (cf. Carlsson
& Nilholm, 2004). Also, I will discuss the role of researchers in relation to the
proposed model.

A proposal
To reiterate, it is my conviction that in answering the question: ‘What type of society
is going to change schools by what means into which notion of inclusion?’, we have
to proceed from the part about the means which, of course, is democracy. However,
as discussed above, we have different opinions about what should constitute an
adequate form of democracy. Representative democracy, despite all criticism levelled
against it, is the basis for the other models. It is also the only form of democracy where
a process is possible in which the decision about democratic models can itself be
based on a democratic process in the sense that democracy is based upon individuals’
choices. In this way, it seems reasonable that the ultimate decisions about inclusive
schooling should be political decisions made by elected politicians. Such decisions
could involve decisions for frameworks of how other groups (e.g. professionals) are
supposed to act. But would this not provide politicians with too much power? What
influence should stakeholders have? I would suggest that, in accordance with much
of the argumentation in this area, representative democracy has to be complemented
with other forms of decision-making. It does seem reasonable that teachers, school
administrators, parents and pupils are provided with influence regarding education
and issues such as inclusion. Both participatory and deliberative democracy become
important here.
Still, traditional politics is responsible for the outcome of such discussions being
judged in relation to the common good of society. Most important is, and this is my
firm belief, that inclusion has to be arrived at in decision-making processes that are inclusive
in nature. Consequently, inclusion can never be accomplished by traditional political
processes with its reliance on bureaucratic processes and professional division of
labour (cf. Skrtic, 1995). Any reasonable notion of ‘inclusion’ involves major changes
in the educational system and it is hard to see how such changes can be accomplished
without the ethos of the people involved. In this way, inclusion can hardly be a
concern for the special educational community alone. On the contrary, all stakehold-
ers have to be involved in decisions and deliberations about inclusion even if this
allows the possibility of different interpretation of what inclusion amounts to.
But what about the role of researchers in this process? If we do not believe that
social and educational research have definite answers to social and educational prob-
lems, our role should be to study and critically analyse the outcome of the processes
discussed here. Our commitment has ultimately to be with perspectivism rather than
Special education, inclusion and democracy 443

a particular ontology. Despite the criticism of positivism during the past 50 years,
there is still a profound influence from natural science on the way in which social
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science is understood. As a basic metaphor, natural science still pervades some of the
ways social researchers understand their own work and their role in society. Thus,
there are still ideas that there is a ‘correct’ interpretation of the world. However, an
approach in which education in general, and inclusive/special education in particular,
is seen as an outcome of negotiations between social groups involving real dilemmas
implies that research has to study these very processes, with close attention to issues
of power.
Of course, given the historical exclusion and marginalization of children with
special needs, it is of uttermost importance to make studies of how their experiences
are represented in actual decisions about educational practices. Thus, I am hardly
advocating a role for academics as ‘a locus of quiet conservatism’ (Barnes et al., 2002,
p. 250) and the experiences of disabled people, as expressed, for example, in the
disability movement, are of course of utmost importance in this context. Fraser
(1992) introduces the concept of ‘subaltern counterpolitics’ to denote how subordi-
nated groups by formulating counter discourses and new identities in a sense extend
the public sphere outside of formal political contexts. Further, such ‘subaltern coun-
terpolitics’ become more important since formal politics is dominated by privileged
groups even if formal access might be the same. Even though Fraser’s argument is
embedded within a feminist discourse, her line of argumentation is highly relevant in
regard to the issues discussed in this paper.
Taken seriously, pluralism implies that the research community has to find new
ways to legitimate itself as well as its understandings in intersubjective processes
rather than in absolute truth. Consequently, a research community has to define
itself. In defining itself, the research community has to rely on some kind of deliber-
ative model. At the same time, research is characterized by entrepreneurship and
competition, even to the extent that it can be hard to speak of a research community.
This is a dilemma, and how it is met will have profound implications for research in
the social sciences.
So how can one summarize the implications of this line of reasoning with regard to
research, democracy and inclusion? I believe that research about inclusion should be
understood with regard to its role in a democratic society. On the one hand, the
research community has to define itself and the state of its available knowledge(s)
and, on the other hand, the role of the research community within democracy has to
be decided upon in democratic processes. The forms of collective reasoning, both
within the research community as well as between the research community and soci-
ety, are important. Given the multitude of available perspectives on special education
and inclusion and the complexity of these issues, researchers should have a role in
public discussions about inclusion rather than propose solutions to these problems.
However, the voices and experiences of the pupils concerned must always be attended
to. Underneath this line of reasoning is the conviction that inclusion is only possible
given inclusive decision-making processes. Notably, at the heart of the concept of
‘inclusion’ is the idea that ‘normal’ arrangements should change. Reconsidering
444 C. Nilholm

Table 1, all these dimensions have to be involved in the quest for inclusion. As
researchers, we have to question this division between ‘normal’ and ‘special’ in several
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contexts. We also have a responsibility to see to it that such discussions appear in

civilian society. Last but not least, we have a collective responsibility to attend to
forms of discussions.
Figure 1.

I acknowledge the Swedish Research Council, Educational Sciences, for financial
support in this project.

1. The assumption here is that language gets its meaning when used—i.e. the roots of a word do
not necessarily correspond to what people mean when they use the word.
2. Nor discussed are positions that are radically critical in the sense that all change is viewed as
new forms of oppression, where the analyst reveals the realities behind the (evil) social events
that are understood in other ways (or not understood at all) by the actors themselves. In this
and other ways, the paper expresses a firm belief in the possibilities, and necessity, of argumen-
tation in relation to social change (cf. Hacking 1999).
3. The latest reform of Swedish teacher education is built upon this idea: SOU 1999:63.
4. This has been the case in the Swedish school system, in which politicians and professionals
historically have had a large influence.

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