Intercultural dialogue: Ethnography of dynamic, hegemony, and differentiation

Intercultural dialogue: Ethnography of dynamic, hegemony, and differentiation

This article is part of my ethnographic research proposal exercise on intercultural dialogue. There is plenty of space for improvement but I will leave it as it is for now and come back later for more development.

Research Objectives

In contemporary societies, especially in the post-colonial context, performing as well as proving inclusiveness in regard to gender, race, ethnicity, and religion has become a potent means of sustaining public support and offering rationale. These subjects are now considered with significance in cultural studies. Subsequently, the term “cultural diversity” has gained great significance, yet without the clarification of the meaning and its latent representations. Despite the fact that the term is widely used in social and political spheres, the lack of clarification of the term creates ambivalent space for diverse interpretations and absorption of vague actions as a consent. The coherent understanding of what diversity means and what it constitutes is crucial in bringing about the transformation of the majority-minority, us-them relationships in that it can shift the direction of approach towards inclusiveness.

In this regard, the first objective of this research is to explore how participants of dialogues, college students, perceive the meaning of cultural diversity and how they use the term. The clear definition in the way people understand can play a significant role in making clear and effective policies in educational institutions as well as government. In addition, the dynamics of “cultural groups” will be examined to see the relations between groups such as which group is being categorised as minority, which group is excluded in the discussion (e.g. white group), and who is talking for whom. The cultural groups are not only determined by the conventional signifiers such as ethnicity or gender but also how people identify themselves. Meanwhile, how students differentiate these groups will be observed to look at the dynamic relations between them. The articulation of difference includes categorisation, attribution, interpretation based on representation, or unproblematic reading of other cultural system. However, the observation will also take account the sense of otherness or othering that are expressed by students.

The last part, a space for another research, aims to find and address the relations between intercultural dialogue and hegemony. The ambivalent meaning of culture and diversity coupled with the articulation of difference leaves much space for sociopolitical meaning making without changing the hegemonic ideas and knowledge. The study will look into how dialogues contribute to sustaining the current hegemony within the space of dialogue in Gramsci’s term “manufacture of consent” by looking at whether ideas and knowledge are challenged through dialogue. In summary, the research aims to answer the following questions;

1. How do college students define cultural diversity?
2. What role does articulation of difference play in shaping dynamics among students?
3. Are current hegemonic ideas and knowledge addressed and challenged in substantial degrees?

Upon completing this research, subsequent question can arise regarding the relations between the articulation of difference and exercising hegemony. The questions will be framed within the concept of ideas, posed by Gupta and Ferguson (1992), where “imagined communities” of Anderson (1983) becomes most visible.

In a world of diaspora, transnational culture flows, and mass movements of populations, old-fashioned attempts to map the globe as a set of culture regions or homelands are bewildered by a dazzling array of postcolonial simulacra. . . . The irony of these times, however, is that as actual places and localities become ever more blurred and indeterminate, ideas of culturally and ethnically distinct places become perhaps even more salient (Gupta and Ferguson 1992, 10).

The differentiation of cultures are seen to be performed as if giving physical forms to abstract ideas. In the process, unnecessary distinctions are made and the lines are hardened. The ideas will be used in a nuance that cultural differences are created by demarcation in order to employ cultural diversity. This idea will also be applied to explaining hegemonic ideas and knowledge through the formation of dynamics between cultural groups.

Literature Review

The term “cultural diversity” has been frequently used in equal terms as multiculturalism to indicate various forms of existence of culture. But what does cultural diversity mean? The ambiguity of cultural diversity may originate from the very notion of culture. The culture itself has varying meanings depending on the application, manipulation, reenactment, or extension, ranging from the opera house culture to the classic anthropological culture (Wagner 1975, 25). In the perspective of Radcliffe-Brown (1952), the term culture is used as a vague abstraction without addressing much concrete reality. What we see, indeed, are the acts of individual behaviour, but not such thing as what we would like to call “culture”. Binding certain activities as culture will not be possible since culture is epiphenomenal and “complex network of social relations” which is not a separate object that can be observed individually, according to his view. Gupta and Ferguson (1992) further address the problematic nature of “mapping of cultures” using definite terms which specifically address the spatial distribution of people, tribes, and cultures, for instance, assuming that each country has its own exclusive culture. It is problematic in that mapping cultures requires defining and binding specificities of cultures, although the definitions can be used under different circumstances as in the case where the term “black” was adopted by African-Caribbean and South Asian descent in post-war Britain to reject chromatism among “coloured people” (Brah 1992). Distinguishing the cultural specificities when culture itself carries ambivalent identities means binding or in another term, differentiating those within and outside the defined boundaries. Brah (1992) argues that the categorisation of groups which hold diverse backgrounds and social experiences is the imposition of the “common cultural need” based on stereotypic notions;

Cultural needs are defined largely as independent of other social experiences centred around class, gender, racism or sexuality. This means that a group identified as culturally different is assumed to be internally homogeneous, when this is patently not the case. The ‘housing needs’ of a working-class Asian living in overcrowded conditions on a housing estate, for instance, cannot be the same as those of a middle-class Asian living in a semi-detached house in suburbia (129).

Malinowski (1960), on the other hand, acknowledges that “a clear, common measure of comparison” is necessary in understanding the divergencies, even though similarities in general should be more focused than difference when it comes to studying culture (40). In the context of dialogue which aims to address structural problems and social experiences, the use of the term culture typically centres around a few limited notions such as ethnicity, religion, race, or gender. In educational and political practice, for instance, culture has been often combined with a particular understanding of ethnicity (Donald and Rattansi 1992).

Fusing complex social relations with the broad and ambivalent view of culture has contributed to superficial manifestations of culture while the structural hegemony has been failed to be addressed (Donald and Rattansi 1992). In similar account, creating the superficial manifestation through ambivalent definition of cultural diversity is the act of what Gramsci (1971) calls “manufacture of consent”. He uses the term “civil society”, ruled by consent constituting the integral part of the state, along with “political society” where the state exercises its domination through forces or legal system. The civil society imposes ideological control through cultural characteristics of hegemony in mass media, religious institutions, trade unions, political parties, clubs, and educational institutions, in which people shape their ideas and beliefs, whereas bourgeois maintains and reproduces its hegemony and legitimacy through the cultural practices (Heywood 1994).

Differentiating cultures, or ethnicities in particular, and exercising hegemonic power through institutions has the tragic precedent in colonial times. For one, education in Rwandan school distinctively separated two ethnic groups, which may have contributed to the outbreak of the “ethnic” conflict (King 2011). Ironically, differentiating ethnicities or cultures may involve homogenising cultural characteristics within a group of people, just as binding culture ignores the specificities and heterogeneity of culture. Said (1978) describes the construction of imaginary “Other” by Western scholars, which has come to be the pretext for colonising of the East. The homogeneous binaries of rational, irrational or modern and traditional, and European and non-European have sustained the Western hegemony through scholarship.

Differentiating creates certain dynamics in various forms including superior-inferior, majority-minority, privileged-unprivileged, or participant-subject. Freire (2005) argues that the certain dialectic space creates the climate that threatens to deprive the oppressed of their characteristically dynamic aspect, through myths about subjects and reality in talking about the “universe of themes”. Thus, it can be argued, the articulation of difference creates the dynamic that directs the subjects to a certain way to where people think about different others in their imaginations.



Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1990. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1995. “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences.” In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, and H. Tiffin, 206-209. London: Routledge.
Brah, Avtar. 1992. “Difference, diversity and differentiation.” In ‘Race’, Culture and Difference, edited by J. Donald and A. Rattansi, 126-145. London: Sage Publications.
Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. California: Stanford University Press.
Donald, James, and Rattansi, Ali. 1992. “Introduction.” In ‘Race’, Culture and Difference, edited by J. Donald and A. Rattansi, 1-8. London: Sage.
Freire, Paulo. 2005. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers.
Gupta, Akhil, and Ferguson, James. 1992. “Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6-23.
Heywood, Andrew. 1994. Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction. London: Macmillan.
King, Elizabeth. 2011. “The Multiple Relationships between Education and Conflict: Reflections of Rwandan Teachers and Students.” In Educating Children in Conflict. Zones: A Tribute to Jackie Kirk, edited by K. Mundy and S. Dryden-Peterson, 137-151. New York: Teachers College Press
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1960. A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.
May, Stephen. 1999. Critical Multiculturalism and Cultural Difference: Avoiding Essentialism. In Critical Multiculturalism: Rethinking Multicultural and Antiracist Education, edited by S. May, 11-41. London: Falmer Press.
Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred R. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West.
Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Wagner, Roy. 1975. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Originally submitted for Ethnographic Fieldwork: exemplary research, KU Leuven.

Photo by Joey Pilgrim on Unsplash

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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