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Intercultural Communication: some viewing lenses
Beverly Trayner: PhD in progress
How shall I talk of the sea to the frog
If it has never left its pond?
How shall I talk of the frost to the bird of the summerland
If it has never left the land of its birth?
How shall I talk of life with the sage
If he is prisoner of his doctrine?
Chung Tsu, 4th century B.C.
These notes are a reflection of the way in which I’m framing intercultural communication. It reflects my own journey through some of the different discourses of culture and inter-cultural communication. It didn't start out as a literature review but has almost turned out to be one. I work through an overview of what I am defining as: culture-as-essence, culture-as-social-relations (including power), and culture-as-narrative. In doing this I'm looking for the discourse that will represent (and shape) my practice. The principle audience for my notes here is me! The bibliography and links could be useful for other people.

Key words: culture-as-essence and inter-cultural competences, culture-as-social-relations (including power) and inter-cultural practices, culture-as-narrative and inter-cultural dialogue.

Over the years I’ve struggled between satisfaction and frustration with the expression “inter-cultural communication” as it is often used in international management and second language studies. The implication is that people come from different national cultures and have different ways of behaving and of viewing the world. Language, in this case, is generally seen as a means for communicating with and learning about and other cultures.

To be able to work effectively in (teams of) more than one of these cultures, an individual needs to develop inter-cultural sensitivity or inter-cultural awareness. A thriving industry of training and inter-cultural resources has grown around this notion of being able to understand and work in different national cultures.

Two books that provided me with very good reviews of the literature in this area of inter- and cross-cultural management have been:
    (1) “International & cross.cultural management research” (1998) by Jean-Claude Usunier and
    (2) “Cross-cultural management: a knowledge management perspective” (2002) by Nigel Holden.

    (Full references are in the bibliography)

I particularly appreciated Usunier’s discussions of language as a key element of intercultural communication.

In Nigel Holden’s book he proposes to “take that way of thinking to task” with that way of thinking referring to the conceptual tools offered by writers (such as Hofstede and Trompenaars) who view “culture-as-essence” and “culture-as-difference”. His words, written in the business context resonate with some of my own doubts from a personal and educational context. He says:
‘The cross-cultural knowledge industry’ (Ö) prefers culture to be static, stable and replete with its periodic tables. Yet modern business life, with its emphasis on multicultural teamworking and resultant inter- and intra-organizational knowledge-sharing, is a permanent state of cultural recreation. This is the most demonstrably obvious point about culture in today’s business world. For cultural purists this may be bad news, but that is the reality. (Holden, 2002:55)
While it certainly has been useful to know that someone’s behaviour can be explained by the fact that they come, for example, from high/low context culture (Hall) or a high power distance culture (Hofstede) my experience shouts that it is an infinitely more dynamic and complex process. Especially when I'm looking for deeper dialogue and more collaborative practice. The dynamics and complexity amplify even more in online communication.

My discomfort is also related to issues of power, which are missing in this body of literature and practice. My own politicisation, a background in Development Studies and an interest in cultural criticism have made me frustrated that inter-cultural competence in the discourse of culture-as-essence doesn't even seem to get close to acknowledging issues of power in culture. Neither does it seem to take into account all the unheard voices (or interests) in the definition of, so-called, national culture.

In summary, not only do these models of intercultural communication miss the dynamic, collaborative and evolving nature of communication but they also miss the historic and political dynamics of culture. Useful, but ...

Culture-as-social-relations refers to the ongoing negotiation of relations between people in their day-to-day social interactions. Cultures are represented as synergetic contexts with competing values that are expressed through their discursive and symbolic practices. Through this lens everyday interactions represent both the social circumstances and activities of people participating in the interaction as well as the social and cultural values, beliefs and patterns of privilege that surround that interaction. Language, in the case of culture-as-social-relations is both a shaper and a medium of culture.

Whereas I associate the term “inter-cultural competences” or “inter-cultural skills” as discourse from culture-as-essence, I would use the term “inter-cultural practices” for culture-as-social-relations.

Why use the word practices as something different from competences or skills? Practices, unlike competences, are not just what we do. Practices includes how we interpret what we do and how that doing constructs us (our identity) as social beings. Our practices are culturally conditioned and vary between people and between contexts. Using the word practices (plural) is not just because it refers to the fact that we do different things but that we also make different choices in carrying out what we do. Practices also implies that there are multiple and competing ways of doing things (all within one person).

Research and writing that has influenced me in this area have been those that probe issues of power and hegemony, claiming that our every day interactions reflect broader political struggles. Marx, Gramsci, Giroux and Bourdieu were writers who influenced my earlier reading of culture, politics and power. The growing research area of New Literacy Studies has carried forward many of these ideas for me in the writing of people like James Gee, Bill Cope, Mary Kalantzis, Romy Clark and Roz Ivanic.

There are two concepts I have appreciated from this area of thought. One is that of of “cultural capital” (and related “habitus”) from Bourdieu, the French sociologist of education. The other is the ideological notion of genres as sites of (cultural) struggle from writers such as Gunther Kress and Norman Fairclough. In fact the role of genre, especially in reproducing and challenging the (cultural) status quo is something that fascinates me. One day (post-doctorate) perhaps I shall be delving deeper here.

So, in summary, I’m using the title of culture-as-social-relations and the concept of intercultural practices to acknowledge competing values that have evolved from historic and social production of cultural practices.

I’m now constructing for myself a third area of discourse that views culture-as-narrative. It is connected to culture-as-social-relations but the focus on power is different. Or rather, it reflects more Foucault’s reconceptualisation of the structure of discourse and the practices of power. Culture-as-narrative would come about through intercultural dialogue and the joint construction(s) of self(-ves) and identity(-ies). As in culture-as-social-relations, words (language) express cultural “truths” as well as feeding back in ways that fundamentally change it.

Intercultural dialogue in this context would be a sense-making process that evolves through shared meaning-making, narrative language practices, and co-construction of identities in their historic, social and political contexts.

In my exploration of culture-as-narrative I have been influenced by Patricia Arnold and John Smith who I’ve been co-writing a chapter with (“Using narrative: designing for context in online settings”). Both the chapter and our journey have been a shared narrative and inter-cultural experience.

In our chapter we draw on the work of Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, who was interested in the nature of narrative both as a mode of thought and as text. He describes narrative (1986) as being expressed in “the subjunctive mode” – it fuels our imagination about what is possible in the world and not just what is. This subjunctive mode helps show the sense-making of the characters in the story about their way of going about things, their goals and their point of view.

I like the way that this subjunctive making-sense-of-the-world through another’s eyes and the joint creation of Weltanschauungen (worldviews) through narrative moves away from seeing intercultural communication as a synchronic account of the cultural programming of a given historical “moment”. It starts to look more like a diachronic and contingent intercultural dialogue. And it's a dialogue that hosts concepts like subjunctive and narrative opening the door to imagination, creativity and fantasy...

Culture as narrative is also related to the notion of culture as something that is in the process of being Designed and Redesigned in the study of Multiliteracies. In the pedagogy of multiliteracies culture is seen as an ongoing process of meaning-making, not as a stable system of elements and rules where individuals are passive recipients or agents in the reproduction of “culture’s” conventions. Here the design of meaning is an active and dynamic process where meaning is constructed through accessing the resources of Available Designs, Designing your own meaning based on your interaction with these resources and then producing the Redesigned (The New London Group in Cope & Kalantzis, 2000:20-23).

Cope and Kalantzis put it like this:
The Design notion (Ö) starts with a very different set of assumptions about meaning and ends with a very different notion of culture. Instead of a focus on stability and regularity, the focus is on change and transformation. Individuals have at their disposal a complex range of representational resources, never simply of one culture, but of the many cultures in their lived experience; the many layers of their identity and the many dimensions of their being. The breadth, complexity and richness of the available meaning-making resources is such that representation is never simply a matter of reproduction. Rather, it is a matter of transformation; of reconstruing meaning in a way which always adds something to the range of available representational resources. (2000:204)
According to Cope and Kalantzis not only is culture something which is hybrid, dynamic, open and constantly undergoing transformation, it also something which suggests responsibility and ethics:
This is also an understanding of culture capable of accounting for change, both retrospectively in the sense of how our history and our lives have changed, and prospectively in the sense of how we are designers of social futures and makers of our own futures. And finally, it is an account of culture which has implications for individual responsibility and the ethics of participation. As transformers of meaning and makers of culture, we are all deeply responsible for the immediate consequences of our Designing and, in a larger sense, our individual and collective futures. (ibid.:205)

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Beverly Trayner, PhD reflections. Last updated: 28th December, 2004
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