Communicatie, Informatie, Educatie


Prof. Dr. Jan  Blommaert

Different approaches to intercultural communication: A critical survey

Plenary lecture, Lernen und Arbeiten in einer international vernetzten und   multikulturellen Gesellschaft, Expertentagung Universität Bremen, Institut für Projektmanagement und Witschaftsinformatik (IPMI), 27-28 February 1998

    Few fields are as fuzzy as that of the study of intercultural communication. A name provides an identity, we all know, and as such the use of the term 'intercultural communication' as a name for a particular set of scientific objects and approaches to these objects confers an identity to them. The usual effect of such a name-and-identity-giving process is that people tend to think they know what exactly what they talk about. The truth of the matter is, however, that very often the name and the identity suggested by that name obscure a precise understanding of the target-object. My own experience is this: whenever I accepted to speak in front of an audience of experts on intercultural communication, I found myself in front of a very heterogeneous group of people, very few of which were actually concerned with the study of communication, very few with the study of culture, and very many were involved in the study of fields of application: education, training, management, even christianization on one or two occasions. 

    It is therefore no luxury (and no rhetorical ploy either) to start an exposé such as this one with a -- rough -- delineation of the kinds of topics I shall talk about. I have agreed to talk about different approaches to the study of intercultural communication. To me, an anthropological linguist and sociolinguist, communication means 'real' communication, that is, what people actually do when they engage in an exchange of meaningful semiotic symbols. I have been reared in a tradition that states its preference for looking at facts first, take stock of what is observable and attestable in these facts, and only afterwards extrapolate in the direction of categories, types and structures of communication. Stating this is not stating the obvious. As I said before, the study of empirical cases is not at the core of what many people understand by studies on intercultural communication. Quite a few well-known and widely read books on intercultural communication do not provide a single real case analysis, not even a single example of real-life data of people talking to one another (or writing to one another, for that matter). But to be very clear right from the start: my own angle is one which restricts intercultural communication to real communication between people. It is from that point of view that I will engage on a brief set of comments on the 'mainstream' tradition on intercultural communication (a fairly well-established tradition by now). After that, I will add a number of recently voiced observations on intercultural communication from within the tradition in which I like to situate myself. I particular, I will use and comment on views recently articulated by ethnographers such as John Gumperz, Dell Hymes and Ben Rampton. 


    1. The hypostasis of culture and difference

     Let me start by quoting the introduction of a book on intercultural communication written in Dutch, and very influential in the Dutch-speaking world (Pinto 1990). After having introduced the notion of cultural difference (labeled 'cultural relativity' by Pinto) and having illustrated it by reference to phenomena such as negotiation strategies, respect, ways of questioning and so on, Pinto summarizes: 

    "In short, everything which has to do with communication and management in whatever domain is largely culturally determined: doing business, negotiating, recruiting and selecting human resources, information, training (and pedagogy), cooperating and dealing with conflict." 

    Well, in contacts between people with different cultural norms and values, the intercultural contacts, there is a heightened chance of misunderstanding, miscommunication and mismanagement, of which damage to business and personal interests can be the result, if one is not well acquainted with each other's norms, values, rules of life and codes of behavior. The greater (and deeper) the differences, the greater the risk of the abovementioned errors." (1990: 11-12; my translation, emphasis in original) 

    This quote more or less summarizes the theoretical and definitional premises of a large body of work on intercultural communication. It starts from a rather traditional idealist notion of culture, consisting of (a) 'core' values and norms related to (b) a complex of behavioral patterns derived from customs and expectations in turn anchored into these core values and norms. I have discussed this notion of culture on various other occasions (Blommaert 1991, 1995, see also Sarangi 1995 for a broader discussion), and I can only repeat what I said before. This notion of culture imposes a linear and static grid on empiry. It suggests a direct connection between a set of stable, immutable essences -- the core values and norms -- on the one hand and all kinds of observable behavior on the other. If a Japanese does not directly say 'no' when a business proposal is unacceptable to him, then that must be a consequence of his cultural principles of indirectness and politeness (and not, for instance, of the fact that he is not entitled to say either 'no' and 'yes' then and there, or that he needs to consult other people before deciding, and so forth). 

    Remarkably, though, whereas the intercultural object -- the 'Other' -- is usually pictured as caught in a web of age-old essential and inflexible values and customs, those who have identified the other claim to be free of such determinism. Their values are immutable, static, always valid and in action. We, on the contrary, have been able to develop 'intercultural awareness' (Pinto 1990: 12). Our intercultural training programs attempt "to develop the qualities of effectiveness identified by scholars interested in adjustment to other cultures" (Brislin 1989: 441). This basic distinction between 'cultures' that can be characterized by simple propositions summarizing linear relations between values and behavior, and cultures that seem to be capable of absorbing the culturally different ways of thinking and acting of others, has characterized the tradition of intercultural communication studies ever since its beginnings in the 1970s. The first Handbook of intercultural communication (Asante, Newmark & Blake [eds.] 1979) set the tone. In papers such as that of Melvin Schnapper, the well-trained intercultural executive must "utilize different behavior -- through the process of intercultural adaptation, the manager learns to internalize and/or accept new values, assumptions, perceptions, and to risk different and more appropriate behaviors." (Schnapper 1979: 456) 

    And coincidentally, we were the well-trained and interculturally aware ones, who learned how to use the behavior of them, subjects from of the nonwestern world. Such views were echoed in ambitious works such as that of Edmund Glenn (1981), who using his long experience as an advisor on foreign policy to American presidents was able to draw a ranking of cultures on the basis of their degree of appropriateness qua negotiating style. The 'best' style was a rational and matter-of-fact like style. Our style. Lower on the scale came cultures who mixed issues with feelings, rigid ideological dogmata, or who couldn't stick to an issue anyway (the Arabs, according to Glenn). The solution to world problems would thus be for other cultures to adopt our rational style. We should exert patience and self-control in the meantime. The West against the Rest: we are no longer static and traditional, we can adapt and adjust ourselves to cultural values other than our own. They remain the same, we adjust. They are rigid, we are flexible. They are the known object, we are the knowing subject. 

    But this hardly hidden old style ethnocentrism is not the only problem related to this tradition. The biggest problem is the linear connection between 'culture' and 'communication', which suggest that 'culture' can be scraped off the surface of modes of communicative behavior. Everything in communication is culture (cf. Knapp & Knapp Potthoff 1987: 3). And culture, as seen earlier, is a static and essentialist notion which apparently provides all the necessary clues for detecting and interpreting what happens in communication. The issue becomes even more problematic when we take a look at who is culture. Cultures are usually associated with groups of people that bear a name: nationalities of known ethnic groups. Thus, who is the Japanese culture? the Japanese, all Japanese, every Japanese. This identification of group labels with identities, for that is what is happening, accounts for the structure of quite a bit of empirical research in this tradition. One takes a test group of Korean students, one of Italian students, and one of American students, all studying at the same US college, and performs tests on them (questionnaires, interviews, observations). The result will be a set of differences in response behavior between the various groups. Since these groups are marked by different nationalities, the differences can be interpreted as differences between cultures. 

    Apart from the fact that nationality in itself is a bad index of cultural identity (as a Belgian, I am rather well placed to make that observation), there is no way in which nationality or ethnic membership would guarantee the salience, the relevance or indeed the presence of 'culture' or 'ethnicity' in communication. I shall come back to this later, when I discuss the work of Gumperz, Hymes and Rampton. Regardless of any definition of 'culture' and its derivatives such as 'ethnicity', a heuristic should not be transformed into an analytical statement. The nationality or ethnic membership of people may suggest the possibility of ethnic or cultural marking in communicative behavior. If you want to elicit Italian speech styles, the chances of finding them are usually higher when you select Italian subjects rather than Danish or Icelandic ones. But it in no way imposes ethnic or cultural characteristics onto the communicative behavior a priori. Finding an Italian speaker does not solve your problem of finding Italian cultural or ethnic speech styles. The only thing it does is to allow you to start your research. Many people seem to stop their research as soon as they have found the Italian speaker. 

In a never published paper, Volker Hinnenkamp once formulated the problematic very sharply. To him, 

    "even if we found a good concept of culture (...), we would still not know how it translates into human
    communicative interchanges, and even less how it affects interchanges between members of thus 
    culturally defined entities" (Hinnenkamp 1987: 1) 

    The fact is that people's stated identities -- the things they tell about themselves -- are only circumstantial elements in describing and interpreting their behavior in communicating with members possessing other stated identities. Suggesting that intercultural communication is above and beyond all else a matter of colliding cultures, of culture clashes and culture gaps, of uncertainty, stress and loss of confidence, often contributes to the construction of problems. It often generates stress, anxiety and so on, by presenting it as something strange, weird, unusual, in short by abnormalizing it. The abnormalization of intercultural communication is based on a gross hypostasis of 'culture' as the all-eclipsing contextual factor, and a massive overestimation of the degree and the nature of differences in speech styles. The way in which empirical answers can be found for patterns and problems in intercultural communication is a detailed and nuanced analysis of concrete communicative events. To that kind of study I shall now turn. 


    2. Ethnographic approaches: from difference to inequality

    We seem to live in a world in which difference has replaced inequality as the main focus of social science. Preference now seems to go to horizontal differentiation within and across societies -- differences in terms of nationality, ethnicity, culture, gender, age, and so on -- rather than to vertical differentiation -- differences of power and status, hierarchies, degrees of inequality within and between societies. Part of the reason for this is the upsurge of nationalism and identity politics, in Europe and elsewhere, in the last decade, combined with the collapse of rigid ideological oppositions encapsulated in sociopolitical and economic state-systems caused by the dissappearance of the Iron Curtain. Market capitalism and liberal democracies won the day. And together with them, their scientific dogmata won too. The focus on horizontal social stratification is part of this victorious scientific apparatus, and it replaced (or at least, defeated) so-called 'outmoded' models of society based on vertical stratification. The best selling book for the last months in Belgium is Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, and a couple of years back Fukuyama's End of History broke all sales records. That tells the whole story. The paradigm through which we now look at the world in all its complexity is made up of grossly misrepresented cultural relativism, revived Herderianism and blatant essentialism (or primordialism, the often used alternative term). 

    What it defeated is not just a dogma. It is above anything else a complex of valuable analytical tools and insights, sometimes of greater realism and interpretive punch than the paradigm that replaced it. The point is that models adopting a vertically layered model of society kept track of the following elements: 

    1. Matters of production and reproduction of culture and cultural phenomena. It never comes in an abstract mode, but it is always encapsulated in a concrete context of production, tied to conditions of production, and influenced by who produces it for whom, when, why and most of all, how.

    2. Realism with regard to cultural diversity and cultural relativity. In real societies, cultural differences are rarely treated as equivalents. One may feel that all cultures, languages, indeed all people should be equal, and one can fight for those principles. In reality, however, they are not, and it makes no sense to talk about them as if they are.. 

    Although connections such as these have rarely been noted, both points are shared by materialist approaches to culture, society and speech (e.g. Bernstein and Bourdieu) as well as by ethnographic approaches to communication (see Hymes 1996). I will elaborate these two points in greater detail now, referring to the work of Gumperz and Hymes respectively. After that, I will turn to a work that, in my view, combines the virtues of linguistic ethnography and sociolinguistics with those of solid and mature social theory: Ben Rampton's Crossing (1995). 

    The first point to be elaborated is that of the contextualized production and reproduction of cultural phenomena and products, including forms of communication. Perhaps the greatest contribution of John Gumperz's work on intercultural communication (e.g. Gumperz 1982, Gumperz & Roberts 1991) is the attention he has drawn to the contingent, situational and emergent nature of cultural phenomena in speech. A first point he underscores is the fact that 'culture' in the sense of a transcendent identity composed of values and norms and linearly related to forms of behavior is not necessarily there. What can be observed and analyzed in intercultural communication are different conventions of communication, different speech styles, narrative patterns, in short, the deployment of different communicative repertoires. For as far as 'identity' is concerned (cultural, ethnic identity), identity can be an inference of these speech styles: people can identify selves or others on the basis of such speech styles. But in actual fact, not 'culture' is deployed, but communicative repertoires. In Gumperz's work, such repertoires can be traced into traditions: ethnic traditions, traditions that have to do with the use of other languages (creating forms of 'percolation' of e.g. Hindi speech styles into English), class traditions, and so on. But we are far removed here from the 'norms and values' of which Pinto said that they actively influenced communicative behavior. For this is a second point: when, why and how do such influences occur? 

    Gumperz calls attention to the highly critical role of context in intercultural communication. It makes a world of difference whether someone talks to the police or to a co-worker, in a formal and administrative setting or in a loose, informal chat. It also makes a world of difference whether the 'ethnically marked' interlocutor (e.g. a Pakistani man in London) is the dominant party in an interaction, or the dominated party. For instance, whether the Pakistani man is the one who needs something from someone else, or vice versa. And also, what makes a world of difference is the larger context of interethnic relations in an area, a city, a community, at a particular historical point in time. It is this larger context that accounts for aspects in intercultural communication such as racism, stereotypes, cultural schemata and so on. It is immensely relevant to realize that most of what we call intercultural communication occurs in an urban context, between people who are multilingual, and with socio-historical dimensions of immigration, labor relations involving immigrant workers in particular roles, ethnic antagonism and stereotyping and so on. If 'cultures meet', they usually do so under rather grim socioeconomic circumstances, with a clear societally sanctioned power difference between the various parties involved. It is, from that perspective, also useful to point at the abnormality of many studies of intercultural communication that focus on elite forms of interaction such as business negotiations, technological cooperation, international management or diplomacy. Some people seem to restrict the scope of intercultural communication to domains in which at least one party can afford to have its culture made into something that needs to be taken into account. Some groups can be made objects of processes of 'ethnification' -- identification by others in terms of ethnic identity, of the type 'oh, but you are Jewish!' -- others are invulnerable to such (often unwanted) processes (see Hinnenkamp 1991, Day 1994; attribution theory can be a useful instrument here, see Lalljee 1987). Differences such as these account for basic facts such as the multitude of books and training programs on contact with South East Asian people (notably the Japanese) and the absence of such books and programs for interactions with the Sudanese, the Angolans or the Samoans. 

    In sum, 'culture' in all its meanings and with all its affiliated concepts, is situational. It depends on the context in which concrete interactions occur. Studying speech conventions of certain groups of people, and then contrasting them with those of other groups of people, is of little use to the study of intercultural communication. Nothing can a priori be inferred about what will happen when members of both groups meet. And if and when they meet, all kinds of things happen in the interaction itself: adaptation is often mutual, people shift into a medium which is no one's property, cultural conventions get sacrificed in a split second while others are given overwhelming prominence, and so on. The emergence of 'ethnically' or 'culturally marked' aspects of communicative behavior is most often dominated by other than cultural factors. Frustration and anger, powerlessness or a feeling of threat may trigger ethnic style (cf. Giles & Johnston

    In our own research on immigrant women in refuges for battered women in Belgium, most of the younger Turkish women spoke near-native Dutch (Bulcaen & Blommaert 1997). But in some cases, they lapsed into "Migrantennederlands" (Immigrants' Dutch): a recognizable variety of Dutch used by mostly immigrant second language speakers and marked by inflectional errors, errors in grammatical gender marking and article attribution, ill-chosen or contaminated idiomatic expressions and so on. The points in the interaction where such lapses occurred were those fragments where the girls told the most sensitive and painful aspects of their story: narratives about being beaten, breaking down, violent incidents between herself and members of her family and so on. The shift into an ethnic style goes hand in hand with the shift into a particularly emotional and highly sensitive domain of experience -- things one hesitates to tell, but that need to be told in order to be accepted in the refuge and to be entitled to help from the social workers, the lawyers and the police people. In other words: ethnic styles indicate salient places in the interaction, places that require extra attention and careful inspection. And for as far as Pinto's rule goes, that culture influences everything all the time: it is dead wrong. 

    Let us now turn to the work of Dell Hymes. In his latest book (Hymes 1996), this master of linguistic ethnography again turns to issues of diversity and inequality. His case is quite clear. Every language name ('French', 'German', 'English') hides and obscures a multitude of varieties within these languages. We no longer live in a neatly Herderian world in which every person has only one language and belongs to one culture. In fact we never did. We never use 'a language', we always use a variety of a language: a genre, a speech style, a type of interaction (that is why he makes an appeal to "getting beyond language names to varieties": 1996: 67). And the fact is that every society makes distinctions between such varieties: some are 'better' than others, genre X is better suited for this purpose than genre Y, when you are with the mayor you better use so-and-so a variety, when you are with your girlfriend you better use another one. Inequality of language varieties is a fact of life -- it is a central aspect of sociolinguistic dynamics, and need to be given full attention over and beyond principled calls for an acceptance of the intrinsic or potential equivalence of all forms of language. A language or a language variety is always someone's language or language variety, always a variety controlled by a social group, an institution or an individual (cf. Jacob Mey's well-known Whose language?, Mey 1985). Rights to speak, and to speak in particular ways, are not evenly allocated in a real society. Hymes notes, for instance that "one form of inequality of opportunity in our society has to do with rights to use narrative" (109) and that "only the anecdotes of some would count" (114). Ethnically marked narratives, or narratives expressing a lower degree of education or literacy and thus indexical of a lower social status, are valued less highly than well-cut highly literate narratives in contexts where 'serious' talk is expected (academia, the media). Such 'low' voices are denied access to the category of 'expert voices', and are relegated to that of 'laypersons'. 

    Hymes calls our attention to issues such as property rights, social status, prestige and consequentiality in relation to modes of communication. Communicating in a particular way can be disastrous or of great benefit. The choice of a particular way of interacting can impose a power frame on the whole interaction -- it can almost a priori minorize one party and privilege another. (As a side-remark in this respect, it has always amazed me how some intercultural training programs inform American business people about the fact that Japanese business people bow and nod instead of shaking hands, that they eat raw fish with chopsticks, that they are very sensitive to group pressure and so on. But at the same time, the type of negotiations for which they are being trained is supposed to be in English. Quite a few training programs inform people about norms, values, ways of doing things, but do not contain language classes.) It draws our attention to the fact that all of us associate particular attributes with particular language varieties. None of them is neutral, unmarked, consequential, all of them are embedded in a repertoire which allocates particular social functions to particular ways of speaking and all of them are in one way or another controlled or dominated by particular parties in an interaction. 

    Let us bring this around to the issues of globalization and intercultural communication. From an ethnographic perspective, globalization has not entailed the massive spread of cultural norms and modes of communication. Neither has it entailed the massive increase of intercultural communication. It has spread highly particular modes of interaction, containing extremely specific rules of communicative behavior, across a thin layer of communicators worldwide. Most of these communicators are (and were prior to its introduction) highly literate people, most often multilingual, highly educated. The effect of this elite globalization and the increase of worldwide electronic interactions -- mostly conducted in English -- has generated a very peculiar and highly exclusive form of intercultural interaction, one in which 'culture' is a topic rather than a factor in communication, and in which the difficulties called 'intercultural' can be reduced, upon close inspection, to matters related to the channel and the medium of communication. Electronic interaction is written interaction in English performed on an electronic communication device. On a worldwide scale, this type of medium and channel is the object of extreme inequality. To illustrate this: despite the fact that many African states are officially Anglophone, few states are known where active competence in English can be said to be shared by more than 15% of the population. Of this 15%, the overwhelming majority is concentrated in large urban areas, has white-collar jobs and an income higher than the average. If any culture is globalized, it is theirs, but not that of the remaining 85% of the population. 

    The great relevance of Hymes' work on inequality lies in the fact that it removes some of the naivité that surrounds ideas of culture in relation to communication. He points the finger at burning issues such as whose culture is being used in intercultural communication? How, and why? Why do we hold conferences on specific forms of communication (business communication, diplomacy, technology) and not on others? And why do we say that in these specific forms of interaction intercultural differences are great, dangerous and problematic? We can say this because quite a few other domains offer themselves in which, if similar standards were to be applied, critical intercultural differences could be found and discussed. The interethnic make-up of contemporary western urban areas, and the everyday interactions between members of ethnically different groups in these areas, is of course a case in point. Me buying a loaf of bread in my Moroccan neighborhood bakery is as much an instance of intercultural communication as an American electronics executive negotiating a difficult business deal with his Japanese counterparts. Similarly, me doing research on African forms of communication is as much an instance of intercultural communication as anything else. Research on other societies involves exactly the same factors of difference and similarity as direct contact with members of those societies. In that sense, our standard linguistic and anthropological theories contain huge deposits of past intercultural interactions, some successful and many hopelessly gone wrong (Fabian 1983 and 1986 offers incisive analyses of anthropology and linguistics from this point of view; see also Fabian 1991). 


    3. Crossing ethno-linguistic boundaries

    We are now in a position to take a look at what is probably the most important recent study in the field of intercultural interaction: Ben Rampton's Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents (1996). Let me briefly recall some of the points made in my discussion of the work of Gumperz and Hymes. Together, they provided us with an analytical framework for studying culture in communication which placed great emphasis on (a) context as one of the major factors in treating the phenomenon in itself; (b) the importance of social differences, hierarchies and evaluative differences in assessing the role and function of culturally marked varieties of communication. Gumperz and Hymes offer interesting antidotes against simplistic views of cultural differences. Indeed, the world is full of differences. But that is not all there is: the differences are not always there, they do not always appear in the same form, and when they appear the are caught in patterns of social evaluations. Difference, in sum, does not replace inequality: understanding difference is conditioned by understanding inequality. Culture never works without society. 

    Rampton investigated small groups of adolescents in urban areas in Britain. The groups were ethnically mixed, they contained Anglo's as well as youngsters from Caribbean, Indian or Pakistani descent, boys as well as girls. Rampton followed them and observed them in a variety of situations: he had group interviews with them, individual interviews, he recorded their talk during sports events, group chats, music performances, in private as well as in public contexts. The multidimensional nature of this fieldwork revealed quite substantial insights with regard to the relation between ethnicity (i.e. ethnic identity and symbolic attributes of this identity: accents in speech, dress, behavior) and language. First, the members of the groups performed 'crossing'. That is, members sometimes switched into the ethnically marked varieties of English of other members of different ethnic descent. Anglo's sometimes switched into Jamaican Creole or used a Punjabi word, thus moving out of their 'Anglo-ness' and into their friends' ethnic identity. In most instances, no damage was done, on the contrary. The boundaries of ethnicity proved to be flexible and permeable, allowing the inclusion of others in a play of moving in and moving out. The symbolic repertoire usually associated with ethnic identities proved to be open for negotiation and manipulation by members of multiethnic peer groups. 

    But there is more. Depending on who is addressed, when and in what particular type of activity (e.g. playing, discussing, listening to music), the role and function of ethnically marked communication styles differ. In some circumstances, the use of 'Indian English' is a strategy of contest, the subversion of existing dominant ethnic stereotypes and so part of the disarming of the adversary. In others it can be an expression of group solidarity, feelings of respect and even an expression of the recognition of prestige contained by, for instance, Pakistani or Carribean music. So there is no single one strategy associated to the use of ethnic styles: they are a repertoire which can be activated in different circumstances, for different purposes and with different effects. Rampton summarizes his findings emphasizing "how crossing varied in character according to the kind of event (...) in which it was embedded" (1995: 265) and how it "involved the active ongoing construction of a new inheritance from within multiracial interaction itself" (297). 

    Important to note, Rampton's analysis demonstrates that culture need not be 'traditional'. It need not be seen as something which is deposited in every member of a particular society. It can be made, changed, manipulated and dropped on the spot. The culture brought in by the adolescents serves as a joint and sharable set of resources, part of which is operated 'automatically' and part of which operates strategically in plays of contest and solidarity. The backdrop for this process is the modern multi-ethnic make-up of large post-industrial urban areas in Europe, with an undercurrent of immigration policies, racism and social problems connected to the socioeconomic and political status of ethnic minority groups. We have here a completely anti-essentialist notion of culture, empirically demonstrated in great detail. As a consequence of this, Rampton offers a powerful challenge against established views of singular ethno-linguistic belonging. The one person/one culture/one language doctrine is challenged with a battery of data which demonstrate how identities can be picked, dropped, altered, combined and so on, in ways that defeat any form of simplism or singularity. 

    Above all, Rampton's analysis demonstrates how studies of intercultural communication require access to information on the social dynamics in which these types of communication develop. The urban youngsters investigated by Rampton are subcultures in a larger society, which utilizes ideologies, norms and structures of regimentation and social streamlining. For the youngsters, school and playground are major social arenas, complemented by neighborhood centers, disco's and other social meeting places. Among the youngsters, intricate networks are formed and sustained through rituals, routines and diverse forms of interaction. All this is of crucial importance for understanding the patterns of intercultural communication and the play of ethnicity in language among these people. Undoubtedly, what Rampton finds in relation to these adolescent groups is not representative of Britain at large. Neither would it be representative, I suspect, of Pakistani or Jamaican society at large. But that is precisely the point: culture is rarely unified, and new contexts generate new cultures and new forms of intercultural communication. Rampton demonstrates how one society can hide many societies, how one culture can hide many cultures, how one language can hide many others. The theoretical point is not new. It suffices to read classic historiographic works such as Carlo Ginzburg's The cheese and the worms (1992) or the works of E.P. Thompson (e.g. 1993) to see that the uniformizing connotations of singular terms such as 'culture' or 'society' (and one could easily add 'language') have long ago been recognized in the social sciences. But the remarkable thing is that the study of intercultural communication still seems to suffer from these homogenizing tendencies. 


    4. Concluding remarks 

    Works such as Rampton's do not particularly make life easier for the student of intercultural communication. The further we develop our analytical tools, the more complex and unclear the object of study becomes. But a number of questions can no longer be avoided in the field of intercultural communication. These questions have to do with the nature, structure and workings of our central concepts: culture and communication. I have come full circle here: are we sure we know what exactly we are talking about? When we formulate general formulas and recipes about intercultural communication, are we sure that we have looked at all aspects of the phenomenon? 

    Speaking from the vantage point I have outlined at the outset, i.e. the perspective of an empirical analyst working on instances of real language use, I can only say that we have merely begun to scratch the surface. We now realize that the study of intercultural communication should be more firmly integrated in ethnographic studies of multiethnic and multicultural societies. The opposite is also true, of course. Scholars of intercultural communication would benefit from some exposure to ethnographic studies of the abovementioned kind. The exercise I have attempted in this exposé was inspired by precisely that motive: to look for ways in which different traditions, basically involved in studies of the same topic, could be merged and so mutually enriched. Paraphrasing Hymes, respect for cultural diversity is not served by shoddy work. We shall only be able to gain a precise understanding of the value of cultural diversity if we apply the best methods and the best theories in studying it. 


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