Frameworks for Intercultural Learning


Some thoughts about Culture

Edited extract from Martin & Griffiths (in preparation) ‘Relating to the ‘Other’: transformative, intercultural learning in post-colonial contexts’. For a fuller discussion of the ideas contained in this extract, please refer to: James, M. (2008) Interculturalism: Theory and Policy. Report for the Baring Foundation available as a download


It is a paradox that because ones own culture is tacitly learned, ‘citizens of monocultural environments are hard put to describe their culture to others’ (Conle, 2000:370) and so perceive culture and difference to be the property of the Other. However, thinking we can be objective about cultures is like denying history; how we relate to and understand others’ cultures is ‘conditioned by the particular vantage points made possible and opened up to us through prior personal and cultural histories’ (Conle et. al. 2000:371).


Dantas explains that ‘the notion of culture initially developed [in anthropological studies] as a conceptual system to depict isolated traditional communities’ (2009:77) which goes some way to explaining how it has become viewed as an object with a fixed boundary. Although the term is now applied far more widely to include ‘a rich spectrum of belief systems and social practices’ (Van Hook, 2012:4), it continues to be understood as an object in everyday life. Some theorists question the view that culture is boundaried, fixed and stable, on the grounds that this brings with it the dangers of the Single Story discussed by Chimamanda Adichie (2009). Andreotti (2011) argues that fixed ideas of culture are connected to the binary ways of thinking that set things up as ‘either-or’ – like/unlike, us/them, same/different – in a way that it is not possible to be ‘both-and’, thus creating a distance between cultures.


This is a problem because it creates binarized identities of similarity and difference (Brah, 2007), placing European cultures in a superior position vis-à-vis those of societies in the South. It also ignores the internal diversity that exists within groups (Sen, 2006); difference is seen to be the property of the ‘Other’ and to fall short of the dominant (Western) group’s standard.


A relational logic, as discussed in the section on Relationships in this website, is proposed as an alternative way of understanding culture and identity that leads to a more open-minded, non-judgemental stance towards difference. From this perspective culture and identity are understood through relating to difference, and as dynamic, fluid, and plural (Brah, 2007): plural because, in the same way that an individual cannot be identified by a single aspect of their identity, neither can communities or societies; and fluid because individuals’ multiple identities are constantly changing, being made and remade, with each encounter with difference.


A relational logic therefore enables a focus on ‘inter’ – the space between those in conversation (described by Homi Bhabha as a Third Space, 1994) – where one can enter into dialogue and come to a better understanding of both ‘self’ and ‘other’ through relating to others and their differences.



  • Make a note of what thoughts this raises for you


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Adichie, C. N. (2009) ‘The dangers of a single story’, paper given at TED Global July 2009,
accessed November 2012.

Andreotti (2011) Actionable postcolonial theory in education, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bhabha, H. (1994) The location of culture, London: Routledge

Brah, A. (2007) Non-binarized identities of similarity and difference, in, M. Wetherell, M. Laflèche and R. Berkeley (Eds.) Identity, ethnic diversity and community cohesion, London: Sage, 136-145.

Conle, C., Blanchard, D., Burton, K., Higgins, A., Kelly, M., Sullivan, L. & Tan, J. (2000) The asset of cultural pluralism: an account of cross-cultural learning in pre-service teacher education, Teaching and Teacher Education, 16: 365-387.

Dantas, M. L. (2009) Building teacher competency to work with diverse learners in the context of international education, Teacher Education Quarterly, 36(1): 75-94.

Sen (2006) Identity and violence: The illusion of destiny, New York: WW Norton and Company.

Van Hook, S. R. (2012) Hopes and hazards of transculturalism, Prospects

Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, UNESCO.



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