Cultural Encapsulation: Definition & Example

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Even counselors and therapists who are seen as some of the most understanding people are sometimes biased to their own culture's norms, beliefs, and attitudes. In this lesson, you will learn the definition of cultural encapsulation, its focus in the counseling world, and an example to illustrate this concept.

Definition of Cultural Encapsulation

In 2014, Catholic Pope Francis visited and prayed in a Muslim mosque in Turkey. He wanted to emphasize his commitment to peaceful Christian-Muslim relations. This act of openness to another culture and religion warmed the hearts of many. A culture encompasses traditions, attitudes, beliefs, rituals and customs, values and experiences of a group of people.

In a world of melding cultures, there is more and more emphasis on the need for cultural responsiveness. Cultural responsiveness is a willingness and desire to learn from people of other cultures through questions, conversation and experience, and to find ways to genuinely relate to these people. Many of us tend to live in a cultural bubble where we interact with people of the same race, culture and socioeconomic status because it is with what we are used to and comfortable. Unfortunately, this can lead to cultural encapsulation.

Cultural encapsulation is ignorance or lack of knowledge of another's cultural background, and failure to recognize the significance that a person's culture plays on their current life situation and view of the world.

Cultural Encapsulation in Counseling

There is an emphasis on the harm of cultural encapsulation in the counseling field. If counselors only treated their clients based on their own cultural world view, they would fail to see how their client's beliefs and life experience has an effect on their problems. This can lead a counselor to establish false assumptions about their clients. For example, a Christian counselor who meets with a Muslim woman may see her hijab or headscarf as a sign of oppression, but to the client, it is a symbol of empowerment and respect within her culture.

Cultural encapsulation can occur especially if the counselor comes from a privileged background and the client comes from a lower socioeconomic background (i.e. white privilege). This can be harmful to the client because it can be alienating and frustrating to have their worldview and life experience not taken into consideration.

Dr. Paul Pederson, a psychologist who specializes in cultural competence in counseling, gives ten examples of cultural encapsulation in the counseling field. Although we won't review all 10 of the examples in this lesson, the following bullets give a synopsis of his list.

  • Despite cultural differences, all clients are generally measured by the same guidelines and are expected to fit into the normal standard of behavior.
  • In Western culture, individualism is seen as healthy, and interdependence is seen as unnatural. Dependency is seen as neurotic and codependent. The problem with this is that many other cultures, namely the Hispanic culture, view interdependence on family and friends as normal and healthy.
  • Many counselors see themselves as free of cultural and racial bias despite the fact that they indeed are. It is for this reason that these counselors often don't take the time or effort to ensure cultural competence.

Taking the time to learn and understand how a clients culture influences their life is key to avoiding cultural encapsulation.
Image of a counselor with her client

It is for these reasons that licensed counselors in the mental health, marriage and family, and social work fields are required to take classes and attend workshops centered on multicultural competence. In order to maintain licensure every year, these therapists must continue their education by attending courses to update their knowledge of cultural competence.

Example of Cultural Encapsulation

In the following example, we will look at a counselor whose cultural encapsulation hinders her from establishing a therapeutic rapport with her Hispanic client.


Mary Gates is a white American born and raised Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and family therapist. She meets with Claudia Vento, a Colombian-Hispanic mother who has lived in the United States for ten years with her two children. While doing the initial therapy interview, Mrs. Vento claims that she calls her son, a freshman in college, daily. Ms. Gates is appalled and suggests that Mrs. Vento decrease her communication with her son to give him more space. Mrs. Vento is offended and hurt by Ms. Gate's suggestion and wonders if Ms. Gates will understand her at all.

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