Cultural diversity of perceptions and practices
Cultures and Responsibility - Ethical Foundations and Social Practices
Intercultural Research Group Project: Objectives and Methodology
Intercultural Research Group: Objectives and Output
International Research Group on Culture and Responsibility
Points of attention of the Intercultural Research Group
The challenge of intercultural dialogue
Published on 12 September 2006
Creative space - Facilitating a process of meeting interculturally
Note on a methodological approach
In a world that euphemistically is called "the global village", promoting intercultural dialogue has become a fashionable way of demonstrating open-mindedness to people whose ways of thinking and acting are different from one’s own in spite of belonging to the same worldwide community.
However, the practice of this idea by way of conferences, symposia, seminars and workshops, where people from various cultural backgrounds are invited to discuss views on whatever theme the organisers think fit, has shown that in many cases the pretended cultural dialogue turns out to be a series of monologues which pass each other like ships in the night. Thus the discussion takes a multi-cultural shape rather than an inter-cultural one. This is not surprising when one takes a close look at the way such gatherings usually are conceived and organized.
The initiators tend to be mainly preoccupied with bringing to the fore an issue of worldwide scope requiring urgent attention, to a greater or lesser extent combined with a call for action (be it the HIV epidemic, environmental questions, water problems, education, poverty, ’good’ governance, women’s emancipation, immigration, security). _ The programme of the event, bent to the organizer’s will, is filled from minute to minute with knowledgeable speakers giving lectures illustrating the importance of the topic. These are then followed by (little time for) questions-answers. In case the gathering is meant to set out the path for action as well (preferably joint action), the focus is usually on technical/organizational approaches of which the logic should not incite dispute.
In such a cosmopolitan ambiance of good intentions, participants in the event, coming from all over the world, are not likely to feel compelled to point to the way their people back-home tend to perceive the issue concerned and deal with it. That sort of reminder would raise the spectre of cultural divergence and strike a discordant note. Consequently, many international gatherings mask not only the problematic side of cultural diversities, but also their richness; not only the challenges they pose, but also the opportunities they offer.
An additional but essential problem is that international communication is bound to take place in a ’common’ language which may be common in words but not necessarily in the underlying cultural interpretations these words contain.
These days, because of the growing interconnectedness of political, economic and social relations at world level, worldwide issues are, in due course, bound to reveal cultural dimensions. This is true for environmental problems, unequal access to resources for survival and a life of dignity, women’s issues, human rights, nuclear armament, and many others.
The need to understand the ’otherness’ of others (outer appearance, customs, ideas, worldviews) as a preliminary condition for acting when facing current problems and trying to solve conflicts has become an unavoidable imperative. Intercultural dialogues are of the essence.
A possible approach
A standard recipe for dealing with this imperative does not exist. All one can do is trying out various approaches adapted to specific circumstances and occasions.
In the framework of my interest in intercultural communication and socio-linguistics, I have organized a number of international gatherings on different themes with people from various cultural backgrounds. The Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer, which most generously supported most of them, asked me to write a methodological note on the approach I have tried to apply.
My experience in this field is limited to facilitating a process in which no more than 20 people participated. An so it has no pretension whatsoever to serve as a model. I will nevertheless try to set out some of the basic ideas that guided my approach as well as the way in which (with some variations) the process was structured in concrete terms.
The self as part of a whole
Unwrapping the cocoon
Specific within the universal
Exploring the way to joint action
To avoid this unnecessary loss of time, an ongoing exploration focussing on where cultural diversity may intervene with major efforts to solve world-wide problems, will clear the way for establishing the degree of uniformity and diversity in attempts to jointly tackle problems and achieve a common goal. Sometimes one has to accept that there are many ways leading to Rome!
Facilitating a process : Creating creative space
Following the basic ideas set out above, it may be clear that I have come to conceive the organisation of an international gathering for the purpose of facilitating attention for and possibly joint action on issues of worldwide interest, as a momentary meeting point where people, all involved in their individual journeys, convey to each other what their respective cultural heritages tell them to think and/or do about a certain problem. Such a meeting will not bear fruits unless it is embedded in a process of carefully preparing the ground for sowing seeds, for reaping the harvest together and disseminating what has been gained. A process that is encouraging participants to express their individuality and its roots in a particular culture, while at the same time strengthening a bond between them through mutual learning and common enterprise. During the whole process, one has to consciously try to create space for creative interaction.
In concrete terms, this implies facilitating :
Phases in the process
Phase 1: selection of a topic
Phase 2: selection of participants
Phase 3: first ’tour d’horizon’
Phase 4: second round
Phase 5: third round
The effect of the three rounds of questions/answers is that
Phase 6: the meeting
And finally: the place!
The place for the venue is chosen with great care , away from the turmoil of city life, a peaceful corner of the earth which induces people to quiet down, to put aside the pressures of daily life for a while, to enjoy the beauty and mystery of nature, in order to be, to be there and now, to be there to meet the others in their uniqueness and in the common enchantment of the gift of Life we share as human beings.
 "Worldview" refers to the major components of what is cognitively recognized as "world" (e.g. person, family, tribe/clan, society, planet, cosmos) and the LINKS between them. (Cp In indigenous communities there is a self-evident link between person/society and Nature = Mother earth, whilst in western societies "nature" is dissociated from the human being and until very recently was supposed to take care of itself). A view on the "world" may exclude or include other than visible "powers" (e.g. the divine).
 An example of this is the creation of an Intercultural Research Group consisting of 12 people from various linguistic/cultural backgrounds who each conduct a study on the notion of Responsibility in their own context with a view to publish a collectively created book on the subject. The idea to initiate this group ensued from an ongoing worldwide process aimed at promoting an international Charter of Human Responsibilities.
 From the start it is made clear that there will be no financial remuneration for participating and writing papers.
 In case the output is a book, the participants finalize their contributions to the book after the meeting enriched by the reactions and suggestions of their fellow participants and the larger discussions at the meeting.
 Examples of venues : - the island of Naxos and later the island of Syros in Greece where the group slowly moved into meeting each other during a four hour boat trip through the Cyclades in the Aegean sea.