3 Defining Culture and Interculturality

What is Culture?

Moving into intercultural teaching involves considering how culture shapes ourselves, our students, and our pedagogies. This leads to questions about how we define culture, and how we consider the relationships between individuals and groups that we would consider to be culturally different from each other. One challenge is that culture can be difficult to define, and that attempts to define culture often result in more harm than good. Hall (1990), whose writing about culture significantly influenced intercultural training in the twentieth century, considered culture to be a system of physical objects, behaviours, and language systems that exist both within, and beneath, conscious awareness. Hall visualized culture as an iceberg, with some physical cultural characteristics (e.g. dress, foods, festivals) existing “above the waterline”, and other aspects of culture (such as orientations to time, expectations of communication style, and values in relationships) functioning “below the waterline”, likely invisible and unknown to others without deeper exploration.

Understanding Cultural Similarities and Differences

Building on Hall’s work, frameworks that attempt to explain underlying cultural values and preferences as dimensions were developed. Both Hofstede’s (2001) and Trompenaars’ (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2011) frameworks gained prominence as tools for exploring hidden differences that may result in intercultural misunderstandings or conflicts. Hofstede’s dimensions include constrasts between individualism and collectivism, high power distance and low power distance, and high levels of uncertainty avoidance and low levels of uncertainty avoidance. Trompenaars’ dimensions include universalism and particularism, and sequential versus synchronous time. Additionally, Hall coined high-context communication and low-context communication as an additional cultural dimension.


Value Dimensions
Individualism/Collectivism Individualism: The individual is encouraged to pursue their own interests and there is a social orientation towards individuals pursuing their own development and success. Collectivism: The needs and flourishing of the larger community group generally take precedence over the needs of the individual. Individuals take identity from the group and work towards group goals.
High/Low Power Distance High Power Distance: Society is organized around social status or position, which may be given based on age or other aspects of social status. There is a social distance between those with more authority and less authority Low Power Distance: Egalitarian values predominate, and value is placed on all persons having equality, regardless of differences in rank or status.
High/Low Uncertainty Avoidance High Uncertainty Avoidance: Planning is highly valued, and plans are put into place to avoid ambiguity or uncertainty about what will happen in a situation. Low Uncertainty Avoidance: Solidifying plans or schedules ahead of an event is less valued, and events may unfold in an emerging fashion.
Universalism/ Particularism Universalism: There is a high value on setting rules and procedures that apply to all individuals in all contexts. Particularism: Value is placed on adapting rules and procedures according to situational needs and relationships.
Sequential/Synchronic Time Sequential Time: Events are scheduled, and time boundaries around events are valued. Synchronic Time: Individuals are oriented to the broader event, not specific time boundaries. Time may be viewed as circular rather than linear.
High Context/ Low Context Communication High Context Communication: Communication is contextual and often is implicit. Listeners are expected to consider cues such as body language and context to understand the full meaning of the message, and the listener takes responsibility for understanding what is communicated. Low Context Communication: Communication is expected to be direct and specific. The main message is often stated clearly at the beginning and/or end, and the full meaning is likely contained in the words themselves. The speaker/writer is responsible for the reader’s clear interpretation of the message.


The idea of cultural dimensions, despite its surface utility, is also problematic. Both Hoefstede and Trompenaars assign characteristics, based on these dimensions, to national cultures. For example, the Canadian culture may be viewed as individualistic, with a lower power distance and low context communication. This labelling results in two problematic assumptions: (1) The idea that all individuals from a geographic region are a homogenous cultural unit, without variation, and (2) The idea that individuals have the right to label or ascribe characteristics to groups other than their own.

Cultural Essentialism

The idea that national cultures exist, with fixed or predictable cultural characteristics, is known as cultural essentialism. Cultural essentialism is the belief that individuals’ characteristics and ways of being are determined by their culture of origin. Gorski (2009) describes two types of cultural essentialism. The first type, Othering, labels individuals and groups as being outside of expected “norms”. The second type, homogenization, positions all members of a particular cultural group as being the same, without acknowledgement of individual differences and the wealth of factors that comprise a person’s lived experience. Critics of cultural essentialism caution that models such as cultural dimensions present diversity in contrast to an imagined [Eurocentric] norm (Holliday, 2010). This, in turn, leads to stereotyping, particularly when characteristics attached to national cultures are used as a generalized explanatory tool for all observed differences in behaviour (Holliday, 1999).


For reflection: When have you encountered cultural descriptions that essentialize others according to national or ethnic origins? What was the impact of these descriptions on your understanding and practice? What has shifted in your understanding as you consider the impact of cultural essentialism?


Alternatives to Cultural Essentialism

Cultural essentialism can be countered with a view of culture that captures its complexity and fluidity, and that honours the unique experience of the individual. Challenging cultural essentialism requires an understanding that culture is not fixed and bounded, but rather fluid and shifting, particularly as individuals and groups come into contact with one another.  The following concepts can be useful in understanding culture in non-essentialist ways.

Small Cultures: (Holliday, 1999). The concept of small cultures proposes that large cultures (e.g. national cultures) are not the most useful unit for understanding the influence of culture. Small cultures are found in any social grouping that has a cohesive pattern of behaviour.  Individuals belong to multiple small cultures, which may be overlapping, and small cultures can form and re-form over time. Cultures of academic disciplines, and cultures of specific classrooms can be viewed as small cultures.

When the small cultures paradigm is used to understand intercultural encounters in a particular context, research into the specific group and context becomes the tool for understanding. Rather than labelling behaviours through the lens of a larger, national culture, the focus for learning becomes understanding relationships, patterns of communication, and values in a particular context.

Cultural Hybridity: (Bhabha, 2011). Cultural hybridity acknowledges that cultural identity is fluid, and not fixed. Cultural hybridity provides a framework for understanding the complex and shifting cultural identities that emerge as individuals move between cultural contexts, and make choices about how they shape their cultural selves.

Liquid Interculturality (Dervin, 2016). Essentialist approaches to culture can be viewed as “solid”, placing cultures in fixed boundaries. Liquid approaches to interculturality challenge cultural essentialism with the idea of “diverse diversities”.  Dervin labels an approach to interculturality that is both non-essentialist and non-culturalist as the liquid (idealistic) approach to interculturality. While Dervin applauds the ideal, he also acknowledges that, as we attempt to understand and engage with diversity, we reach the problem simplifying highly complex phenomena in order to understand. This requires the application of “simplexity” to intercultural understanding. “Simplexity” creates a continual movement between the high complexity of interculturality with simplification and explanation. With the application of “simplexity”, the liquid (realistic) model for understanding culture emerges. Liquid (realistic) interculturality strives for the ideal of non-essentialism, while acknowledging that the language used to describe culture may simplify the complex.

Using Cultural Value Frameworks Without Essentialism

From the discussion above, we have seen that the idea of cultural dimensions, when presented as characteristics of fixed, national cultures, can lead to stereotyping and Othering, and so should be used cautiously. Leaving behind cultural essentialism requires rejecting frameworks that easily label and describe individuals and groups based on national or ethnic origins. With this understanding, do frameworks such as Hofstede’s and Trompenaars’ still offer any value?

One potential way to understand cultural dimensions is to reposition them as value frameworks, detaching them from national culture. Understanding the range of values and differences that are possible within our “diverse diversities” can be a tool that facilitates perspective shifting, viewing situations and behaviours through lenses outside of our personal beliefs and values. For example, a person who deeply holds to egalitarianism, having lived in contexts where egalitarian values and low-power distance dominate, may be able to see a situation through the perspective of a person that values high-power distance and more fixed roles without judging either value set as inherently superior. Awareness of value systems, when held with an open and non-judgemental lens, can facilitate perspective shifting that leads to more authentic understanding of others.

With the understanding that the idea of cultural dimensions is flawed, we can cautiously accept the insights gained through awareness of diverse values and ways of being that are different from our own. Applying these insights, while striving to avoid essentialism, is a concrete example of how we acknowledge “simplexity” while striving for understanding.

What is Interculturality?

In the Canadian context, we frequently encounter the idea that we are a multicultural society. The idea of multiculturalism, however, can mask the critical issues of relating well within intercultural contexts in ways that promote equity, rather than reinforcing patterns of discrimination.  Often, the focus of multiculturalism is to acknowledge the presence of multiple groups living side by side, with a focus on co-existence and tolerance (Aman, 2015). The concept of interculturality moves deeper, focusing on the relationships. Interculturality includes dynamic and evolving relationships between groups that include exchange and dialogue (UNESCO, 2006).

Both multiculturalism and interculturality have been critiqued for their potential to emphasize co-existence, while failing to address the issues of inequity and power differentials between cultural groups. Critical interculturality frames interculturality within the context of colonial power structures and relationships, acknowledging the impact that colonialism continues to have.  The critical interculturality perspectives asserts that relational interculturality is insufficient, and that the purpose of interculturality is transformed relationships that work towards a “just, equal, and plural society” (Ortiz and Gutiérrez, 2020, p. 74).

Critical interculturality supports an understanding of intercultural teaching as a transformative and equity-seeking process. The understanding of intercultural development and intercultural teaching in this book considers interculturality as a relational process that engages in dialogue, with the aim of actively dismantling inequity and seeking transformation.  This, in turn, informs the ways in which the process of growing in interculturality is framed.  Professional intercultural development, with critical interculturality as its base, moves away from efforts to master knowledge or competencies, and towards a relational, critical, and reflective journey that then informs practice.


Recommended Reading: 

Holliday, A. (2010). Cultural descriptions as political cultural acts: An exploration. Language and Intercultural Communication, 10(3), 259–272. https://doi.org/10.1080/14708470903348572



Aman, R. (2015). In the name of interculturality: On colonial legacies in intercultural education. British Educational Research Journal, 41(3), 520–534. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3153

Bhabha, H. K. (2011). Culture’s in-between. In Questions of Cultural Identity (pp. 53–60). SAGE Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446221907.n4

Dervin, F. (2016). Interculturality in education: a theoretical and methodological toolbox. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gorski, P. C. (2009). What we’re teaching teachers: An analysis of multicultural teacher education coursework syllabi. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(2), 309–318. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2008.07.008

Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. Intercultural Press.

Hofstede, G. H. (2001). Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed). Sage Publications.

Holliday, A. (1999). Small cultures. Applied Linguistics, 20(2), 237–264. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/20.2.237

Holliday, A. (2010). Cultural descriptions as political cultural acts: An exploration. Language and Intercultural Communication, 10(3), 259–272. https://doi.org/10.1080/14708470903348572

Ortiz, J. M., & Gutiérrez, C. P. (2020). Critical intercultural dialogue: Opening new paths to internationalisation in HE. In P. Castro, U. Lundgren, & J. Woodin (Eds.), Educational approaches to internationalization through intercultural dialogue: reflections on theory and practice. Routledge.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2011). Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in business (2. ed., reprint. with corr). Brealey.

UNESCO. (2006). UNESCO guidelines on intercultural education. UNESCO. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000147878


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