Towards an intercultural orientation

If, as Charles Taylor has said, “the great challenge of this century, both for politics and for social science, is that of understanding the other” (2002), we must ask, with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “how do we understand the Other without sacrificing him to our logic and without sacrificing the logic of the self?”

A task such as this can seem practically impossible. Nevertheless, these difficulties can be treated as so many challenges of our time: the radicalization of religious identities expressed through the violence of fundamentalist conformity, the implementation of devices for managing diversity within the integrationist framework of the nation-state, a  distancing from the notion of culture following the postmodernist critiques in the social sciences (White 2006), the intensification of economic differences between North and South as well as rich and poor, the increasing intolerance of the political right, especially since 9/11. While it is true that researchers in the human and social sciences (in Canada and elsewhere in the world) have amply documented the (nature and) disastrous consequences of systemic discrimination, we are still faced with the urgent task of rethinking the social and cultural dynamics of a world that is rapidly changing.

The notion of interculturalism (see Panikkar) makes it possible to see the Other as part of the self, and thus destabilizes a number of assumptions about modernity. Destabilizing because every self and every Other carries a culture and a tradition, and any meeting of two individuals is constituted by a meeting of cultures and traditions. In other words, I am an Other for the person facing me and the person facing me is equally a self, but not a self that is empty needed to be filled (see Vachon). The space between (Zwischen; Gadamer 1999) that is established in this coming together redefines the play of distance and proximity, the familiar and strange, and between the different cultures and traditions that are carried by all of us. We want to see, in this between, a back and forth that puts forth intercultural practice as a way of striking a balance between self and Other, between cultures and traditions.

There are at least three ways of using the the term “intercultural” in Quebec today. First, (the) intercultural refers to a complex established fact, a description of practices, values and beliefs that emerge in those situations when people coming from different cultural horizons meet (Gratton 2009). This usage is largely neutral and aims to describe more a social fact than a particular orientation or ideology. Second, the term intercultural appears as part of a certain political discourse. Here the term is put to the service of a national policy primarily centered on the management of diversity and the integration of new immigrants. This is essentially a state-based model that for some is opposed to already existing approaches, such as Canadian multiculturalism, the American “melting pot” or French “republicanism.” Third, and finally, the term indicates an epistemological orientation that is characterized by a care for others through a relational ethic, a humility in face of the complexity of the Other and the recognition of the nature of knowledge as co-produced (White, in preparation).

These three uses of the term intercultural – as social reality, state policy and epistemological orientation – are clearly not the only uses available. In its written form, as an adjective or as a noun, the use of intercultural in such expressions as “intercultural relations” is self-explanatory and requires no further clarification. In itself the word suggests an unyielding space where cultures and traditions interpenetrate, are continually called upon and answered. In this sense, the word (adjective and noun) is larger than any question that can be asked of it. To put it differently, any understanding of the word as being situated in a given culture finds itself overtaken by the possibility of a new understanding in another culture. In short, the word would be an “emerging myth” (as Panikkar has argued; see also Williams 1977) that captures us at the same time as we attempt to capture it.

The idea of rethinking the intercultural presupposes a certain number of assumptions. Thus, interculturalism does not deny the existence of culture as a fundamental dimension of human relations within and outside group membership. Here we define culture as an ensemble of different ways of thinking, speaking and doing that are constructed and passed on from generation to generation. To reaffirm culture, especially following the numerous critiques that have warned us against the problem of essentialism, is to recognize at the same time the intrinsic complexity of culture itself. While many disciplines across the human and social sciences have sought to capture this complexity, the fragmented nature of scientific knowledge has limited efforts of a comprehensive analysis (Rist 2007).

The phenomenon of cultural complexity is also revealed in the dynamics that exist between different cultures, which inevitably include relations of power. The idea of a dominant Western culture vis-à-vis other cultures is telling in this regard. In effect, “what we mean today by ‘the world’ is fundamentally the result of a Western vision that would seem to be universal” (Pannikar 1999). In this sense, the self-proclaimed universality of Western culture is more a geopolitical ideology than it is an empirical or scientific reality. Bordering on the misuse of speech, such universality reveals the difficulty of the dominant culture to reflect upon the cultural grounding of its own knowledge, expertise and skills.

Interculturalism presupposes the existence of prejudice or bias toward the Other, be it positive, negative or both. Hans-Georg Gadamer has showed that far from being an obstacle to understanding, prejudice or bias is instead a condition; it is what Paul Ricœur (1985) calls “the presumed truth” that is a necessary condition in the self’s own search for the truth. In an intercultural approach, the Other should not be seen merely as a threat who must be “normalized” following the expectations of the self. The deliberate or explicit use of this ‘pre-knowledge’ can lead to a mutual enrichment through a process of ongoing dialogue – that which modernity sought to relinquish for the ideal of an objective human and social science.

In establishing the Laboratory for Research on Intercultural Relations (LABRRI), we intend to take on the promises and challenges that the word intercultural sets in motion. This is why we note, with Raymond Panikkar, the necessity of disarming the dominant models of Enlightenment thought, “that believes we can explain the totality of human experience with the ideas of one culture”. We also observe, with Gadamer, that the Other is neither inaccessible because different, nor completely transparent to our understanding; at the same time as the self, the Other is joined in an “endless hermeneutic task,” that of “elucidating this miracle of understanding, which is not a mysterious communion of souls, but participation in a common meaning.” Moreover, we argue that diversity cannot be reduced to the status of a problem that needs to be resolved, even in the name of the integration of citizens.  Rather it is that which brings gifts that deserve to be rediscovered within the context of contemporary society.

As a result, the dialogue of cultures cannot be limited to the mere integration of immigrants within the host society, for example, or to a policy that aims to increase the visibility of immigrants or minorities in the institutions of the dominant society in the name of the fight against discrimination. Without restricting either the promotion of diversity or the struggle against discrimination, the dialogue of cultures requires us to think about interculturality as a global social phenomenon, while at the same time encouraging the development of intercultural capacities, without which the very idea of intercultural dialogue would not make any sense.

We are aware that all of this may seem simple. In the context of research and teaching, the intercultural approach we want to promote is not stated without a certain epistemological discomfort. In so far as the Other is not a passive object of study, but a subject that questions me at the very moment of my questioning (Emongo, in press), this forces us to question the notion of objective knowledge about culture or cultural contact. Hence we can neither ignore it as if it does not exist, nor renounce it purely and simply, nor arrange a marriage of convenience; we intend to take this epistemological discomfort as an advantage and even a blessing (ibid). If moving towards the Other is not an option but a necessity, if this Other is neither totally opaque nor entirely transparent (to me), it is necessary to remain vigilant and do everything possible to promote harmony and equity in social relationships (Gratton 2009). Our approach to intercultural relations cannot be determined by a particular ideology, conservative or liberal, theoretical or practical, modernist or postmodernist: in this sense enjoying the comfort of a particular disciplinary home is not an option. The “nature” of intercultural relations means that we function in a context that cuts across not only cultures but also institutional and disciplinary boundaries, as Alex Battaglini so eloquently demonstrates in his research on social services and health in a pluralist context (2010).

This is why, taking into account the impossibility of domesticating the word “intercultural” (as adjective and noun), LABRRI will build on recent advances in qualitative research (especially participatory and ethnographic methods) to increase understanding of the everyday nature of intercultural relations, especially in the context of the increasing cultural pluralism in today’s cities.  Our program of work, which is located at the intersection of basic and applied research, pays particular attention to the involvement of different social actors whose objective is to develop intercultural programs, policies, and competencies. Through research, teaching and expertise, LABRRI hopes to contribute to what may be referred to as an intercultural orientation emerging in the human sciences.

With these principles as a point of departure, now it is possible to examine the horizons, objectives and activities of LABRRI…