We hear the word interculturalism more and more frequently in everyday and socio-political discourse, but there is little agreement about the exact nature of this term. Intercultural dialogue and interculturality are similar, related terms, also used with little consistency. The variation in definitions of interculturalism relates to different understandings of culture, diversity and socio-political issues.
It is important to draw a distinction between interculturalism and multiculturalism, with which it is often equated. Both concepts involve the recognition of diversity. While this is only one aspect of interculturalism, multiculturalism focuses on celebrating and encouraging manifestations of diversity. An example of multiculturalism might be a festival in which people from different cultures present musical performances and showcase diverse ethnic practices. An intercultural event might take a different form, with members of different cultural groups interacting and co-creating.
Jude McVitty, Project Coordinator of Creative Fusions, an intercultural arts project, proposes that multiculturalism can be a stepping stone to interculturalism:
“We are very lucky in Northern Ireland to have a strong history of multicultural events that celebrate the traditions and foods of different countries, and these events have been very effective in raising awareness of the variety of backgrounds we hold within this province. With interculturalism, we have the opportunity to use that opening of awareness to engage in discussion not just about the traditions of a country as it was, but also how it is changing. In collaboration, we can make those changes together.”
One of the main differences between multiculturalism and interculturalism is the view of culture which informs them. In the former case, cultures are regarded as separate and distinct. The segregated Loyalist and Nationalist communities of Northern Ireland are an extreme manifestation of this perception of culture, which offers little possibility of interchange and collaboration. On the other hand, culture in the intercultural sense is flexible, shifting, and can be transformed through collaboration between members of diverse groups.
Girishkumar (2015, p.730) identifies a further contrast between interculturalism and multiculturalism, suggesting that the latter has been “wedded to a view of race and class within each individual country. Interculturalism is about looking at this from a much more international perspective and seeing difference in a much wider connotation. It has a much wider conception of difference and recognizes that what we regard as difference is constantly changing.”
Definitions of interculturalism may be arranged along a notional spectrum, beginning with the most basic: interculturalism as any exchange or interaction between members of different cultures. Embedded in other definitions of interculturalism is the idea that it has a purpose. According to Schuitema (2012), it enables interactions between multiple cultural elements and individuals. Bennett’s model of Intercultural Sensitivities (1993) focuses on the development of positive attitudes towards other cultures. Other definitions of interculturalism incorporate the goal of creating social cohesion and integration (Bouchard, 2011).
The Council of Europe /European Commission Intercultural Cities project presents a complex view of interculturalism, stating that it is “about explicitly recognising the value of diversity while doing everything possible to increase interaction, mixing and hybridisation between cultural communities. Interculturalism is also about addressing issues of cultural conflict or tension (religious customs and requirements, communitarianism, women’s rights etc.) openly though public debate, with the involvement of all stakeholders”.
This comment identifies one method for fostering interculturalism: that of public debate. The arts can also be an effective tool for facilitating intercultural interchanges (Tracey and Shields, 2015). The Intercultural Arts Strategy of the Arts Council NI acknowledges the capacity of the arts to celebrate diversity and to challenge prejudice and racism.
The Creative Fusions project, referred to earlier in this article, is an intercultural arts project which aims “to provide community groups of young people with the tools to engage with identity exploration and communication competence building. In so doing, we are equipping them to engage in the kind of dialogue that allows people to explore their cultures. The project involves learning different art skills (music, dance, performance and storytelling and the visual arts). Participants then use their increased communication tools to negotiate intercultural collaborations. The project provides an experience that will require all the sensitivity, respect and confidence needed for cross-cultural exchange”. (Jude McVitty, Project Coordinator).
Creative Fusions is a partnership between LiftArts, a collective of intercultural artists, and the arts organisation Wheelworks. The LiftArts artists came together through their intercultural arts facilitation training, provided by PICAS (the Programme for Intercultural Arts Support). Jude explains:
“Creative Fusions is taking the lessons of intercultural collaboration, practised by LiftArts, and transferring them to the community. With five nationalities, four arts forms and an age variation of a couple of decades, Lift Arts is truly diverse mixture of creative individuals who believe strongly that they would not have been able to collaborate so energetically without their recent experience of the intercultural training offered by the PICAS programme, hosted by the Community Arts Partnership.
“Through our understanding that our primary challenge was not necessarily our different cultures but in fact our different creativities, we discovered more and more how relevant an intercultural approach was when negotiating collaborative arts practice. It was this discovery that led us to design Creative Fusions as a project that requires that young people work across art forms, as well as across cultures.
Each young person and community worker engaged with the project should leave with increased self-confidence and competency in an art form. They should also feel comfortable starting conversations across cultures”.
This article began with the acknowledgement that interculturalism is difficult to define. It explored the relationship between multiculturalism and interculturalism, and the contributions which interculturalism can make to social cohesion. The final words, voiced by Jude McVitty, remind us of the significance of interculturalism.
“Interculturalism is important because so many of us are still so ill-equipped to start a conversation with someone who is very different from us and this is leading to embarrassment, a lack of cross-cultural engagement and sometimes contributes to aggressive behaviour. If we can take away that fear of offending someone or looking stupid that plagues the host communities of Northern Ireland, we could create opportunities for conversations that really matter and have a chance of building a more positive society that celebrates individuality and collaboration.”
Arts Council NI, Intercultural Arts Strategy http://www.artscouncil-ni.org/images/uploads/intercultural_art_strategy.pdf. Accessed 26/9/16
Bennett, M. J. (1993). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (revised). In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press
Bouchard, G. (2011) What is Interculturalism? McGill Law Journal, 56:2.
Correspondence with Jude McVitty, Project Coordinator, Creative Fusions
The Council of Europe /European Commission Intercultural Cities project Intercultural city: governance and policies for diverse communities https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/culture/Cities/Interculturality_en.pdf Accessed 26/9/16
Girishkumar, D. (2015) Multiculturalism or Interculturalism? A Conversation with Ted Cantle, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 36:6, 729-735.
Schuitema, K. (2012) Children’s theatre in the UK: representing cultural diversity on stage through the practices of interculturalism, multiculturalism and internationalism. Doctoral thesis, University of Westminster.
Tracey, S. and Shields, C. (2015) Between Ourselves: exploring interculturalism through intercommunity creative practice (CAP, 2015).