Something I've noticed lately is that many of the questions I receive about intercultural learning reflect what I consider to be an outdated—yet not unfounded—understanding of this work.
You see, the approach I take to intercultural learning—and teach to other educators—is fundamentally constructivist and developmental. However, many of the ways intercultural learning is thought about and approached still today are based on more positivist or relativist ideas. This is the reason for many of the critiques and misconceptions around intercultural learning in higher education today.
In this blog post, I explore what it means to take a constructivist (vs. positivist or relativist) approach to intercultural learning. Next month, I’ll explore the developmental aspect in greater depth.
From Positivism to Relativism to Constructivism
Milton Bennett (2013) has outlined three different paradigms—positivism, relativism, and constructivism—that have influenced the evolution of thinking around culture and intercultural learning. While these are presented as a chronological evolution, the truth is that elements of all three of these paradigms are still present today, and impact thinking and approaches to intercultural learning inside and outside higher education.
Early understandings of culture and intercultural communication were decidedly positivist. As Bennett (2013) explains, “Positivism carries the assumption that…there is an objective world that exists independently from our observation of it” and that “social phenomena can be discovered and classified in definite and enduring ways” (pp. 26-27).
In other words, positivist approaches view culture as static, monolithic, and shared by all members of a nationality or group. Cultures are seen as things that can be observed, measured, classified, and studied.
Positivist approaches to intercultural teaching and training present this information about cultures as knowledge to be consumed (e.g. “Chinese people are indirect communicators”). Learning such information, however, is a far cry from developing intercultural competence. This type of knowledge rarely translates into competent action. Worse, it can potentially reify culture and create or reinforce stereotypes.
Unlike positivism, relativism (also known as cultural relativism) recognizes that cultures can only be understood in their own terms. Vande Berg, Paige & Lou (2012) explain cultural relativism as follows:
All cultures are equal: No single culture or perspective is inherently superior to any other. Each culture is also unique: Its members have over time responded differently to a common set of human needs and desires. However, the essential things that all humans share—our common humanity—is more important than any differences that we encounter in another culture, differences that might at first glance seem to keep us apart. (p. 17)
The implication from a relativist perspective is that no judgment can be made from outside the cultural context. As a result, this type of approach can lead to critiques that intercultural learning is just about playing nice, not judging, or getting along with others—a surface-level, band-aid approach.
Bennett (2013) explains the limitations of this approach:
The practical implication for intercultural trainers and educators of this limitation of the relativist paradigm is this: teaching an alternative cultural perspective does not necessarily generate the ability for people to take that perspective in their communication with people of that culture. Teaching people cultural differences does not necessarily make them more competent communicators in the alternative culture. (pp. 39-40)
That is, a relativist approach to intercultural teaching and training is unlikely to help learners develop their ability bridge cultural differences. Instead, they may be left thinking: I understand their reasons for acting this way are due to cultural differences, and I shouldn’t judge them. So what do I do?
The constructivist paradigm, on the other hand, recognizes that “culture is continuously in flux, never static and always contested, even within groups” (Geller, 2017, p. 15). Bennett (2012) explains how the constructivist paradigm views culture compared to the relativist paradigm:
Our perspective constructs the reality that we describe. This is a quite different notion than that of relativistic perspective, which simply describes different views of reality. In this constructivist paradigm, the observer interacts with reality via his or her perspective in such a way that reality is organized according to that perspective. (p. 99)
In other words, the constructivist paradigm recognizes that “a learner individually creates and together with other members of his or her several cultural groups cocreates the world even as he or she perceives and experiences it” (Vande Berg et al., 2012, p. 18). Meaning isn’t in the environment or events around us; instead, we as human beings are constantly making meaning of these things. We do not necessarily make meaning the same way others do—even if we are witness to the same event. The ways we make meaning are, at least in part, socially- and culturally-constructed (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).
What this means is that the process of intercultural learning must begin by deepening awareness and understanding of how we each make meaning of and experience the world, and helping us see and appreciate that others are having equally complex, valid, yet very different experiences.
A Constructivist Approach to Intercultural Learning
Facilitating intercultural learning in a constructivist way is not about knowledge transfer, but about guiding students as they engage in their own unique intercultural learning journey. It’s about helping learners experience themselves experiencing and interacting with the world.
Positivist and relativist approaches are still common in intercultural teaching and training today. For example, various researchers and theorists over the years (Florence Kluckhohn & Fred Strodtbeck, Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars & Charles Hamden-Turner, Craig Storti, Andy Molinsky, Erin Meyer) have identified key ways in which cultures differ, often referred to as cultural dimensions. These include differences such as how people relate to time and to nature, communication styles, etc. This information is sometimes taught or shared in ways that are positivist—framed as the “truth” about a culture—or relativist—a demonstration that cultures aren’t better or worse than one another, just different.
An educator taking a constructivist approach might still share some of these frameworks with learners, but would do just that—share them as culture-general frameworks that can potentially help learners make sense of their personal experiences. They might use these frameworks to help students explore their own values and cultural lenses, and facilitate a discussion around the extent to which learners’ values align with norms or expectations in the community where they live, and how this relates to privilege.
Implications for Higher Education
If higher education is to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse, complex society, we must help all students develop their intercultural competence. This requires fundamentally rethinking not just WHAT we teach, but HOW we foster learning. I suggest taking a constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning.
However, we cannot expect faculty and staff to inherently know how to facilitate such learning. Instead, higher education institutions need to help educators develop their own intercultural competence and their capacity to integrate a constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning into courses, co-curricular programs, advising, and other aspects of their work. (If you’re interested in getting started on this journey, click here to learn more about how True North Intercultural can help you do so.)
In next month’s post, we’ll explore the developmental aspect of taking a constructivist-developmental approach to intercultural learning.
Bennett, M. J. (2012). Paradigmatic assumptions and a developmental approach to intercultural learning. In M. Vande Berg, R. M. Paige, & K. H. Lou (Eds.), Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they’re not, and what we can do about it (pp. 90–114). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Bennett, M. J. (2013). Basic concepts of Intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, & practices (2nd ed.). Nicholas Brealey.
Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor.
Geller, J. R. (2017). Terminology and intersections. In B. Kappler Mikk & I. E. Steglitz (Eds.), Learning Across Cultures: Locally and Globally (3rd edition, pp. 13–38). Stylus Publishing.
Vande Berg, M., Paige, R. M., & Lou, K. H. (Eds.). (2012). Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It. Stylus Publishing.
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