Whenever we research or involve others in researching the intercultural it is an immense resource if we can connect with everyday experience. The intercultural is not a distant place to do with foreign lands and international travel. It is all around us all the time.
Also, researching the intercultural begins immediately whenever we talk about it in classrooms, seminars or wherever else we engage with students, colleagues or whoever. I think here not just about my teaching, supervision, and writing alone or with others – but also of the huge privilege of spending time with my grandchildren in cafés, where we look around to make sense of what is going on. There is great richness here in going with others, in the references we can make as we talk, into the domains that they inhabit.
An example of this is when we discover that our students work in restaurants or some other location. Immediately there is direct experience and observation to explore, and places to go in which they are already expert. It is also the case that we all also explore such places in such as television dramas and the stories that others tell us.
In a recent encounter with a student, I was concerned about how they were writing about individualism and collectivism as national cultural traits. It was already clear to me that my own academic prejudice was at work as I forbade them to use such reference because I think they are essentialist if not racist. This anxiety made me think again and, as a result, look around for material with which to further test my assumptions. This is the nature of ongoing investigation that we must never relax from.
As a student who had read about the concepts in passing but had no reason to know about the literature and the paradigmic past of intercultural studies, as this was not her main subject of study, I could not simply state a theoretical position.
Sitting as we were in the library, I had already, in a previous meeting, referred to a conversation I’d overheard among a group of people sitting nearby – of course, I hope, displaying proper caution regarding anonymity, respect and privacy. The student remembered this and reminded me of it. I then thought about my recent other blog about a shop in the high street – its culture of branding and staff behaviour.
It then occurred to me, perhaps for the first time ever, that this was where there could indeed be a meaningful application for the concepts of collectivism or individualism – as a feature of a particular corporate culture, as established by employers, or even organically emerging from the people who worked there and the customers who passed through. The important point being that all the people involved pass through the culture as part of their lives, either in professional engagement or as momentary customers, and then move on to the other cultural realities that they engage with, none of which define or confine them. They may refer to these ‘cultures’ as representing their identities for numerous reasons; but in reality the process is transient.
So I suggest a particular shop that the student might know, and another to compare with it; and these provide moments of perhaps shared experience upon which to base our now sharing of analysis. I also remember that they work in a restaurant and ask them how their experience there fits in with our now developing analysis.
I also make reference to a film I recently saw on Netflix, Boiling point, which the student can also go to, which is itself a remarkable and detailed analysis of the shifting and complex nature of the culture of a particular evening in a restaurant, which illustrates how multiple identities and positionings intertwine to make up the ‘on the go’ cultural nature of the place.
I now find it all the more meaningful to refer to my concept of small culture formation ‘on the go’.
We thus help each other in the transporting of our attention to particular locations, the nature of which is at the core of good ethnography. And so the research continues. This is an everyday research into who we are and where we go which is surely the purpose of education.