Editor’s note: This is the 9th article in our series “Language education and global citizenship“. Ms Celine Victoria Seeger participated in my “Global English(es) and Global Citizenship Education” class last year (winter term 2019/20). Amongst the topics on the syllabus in that term, the concept of Transculturality interested her in particular, as she is a trained tutor for literature and teaches this concept to first-semester students together with her co-tutor Mr Timur Kadic. Mr Kadic and also Mr Nico Eckardt attended the “Global English(es) and Global Citizenship Education” class in previous semesters and then also wrote papers about the relation of “Transculturality and education” and “Intercultural and Global Education in the EFL Context” (which will be published in this series as parts II and III following this post I).
As a consequence of her newly developed interest in Global Citizenship Education, she applied for the “Bi-directional learning and teaching (English) in Laos” project – originally called “Teaching English in Laos” – and then taught English classes as a volunteer at the Vocational Education Development Institute (VEDI) in Vientiane soon after, as a member of Team X.
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the team (and doctoral student Rebecca Dengler) had to leave Laos several weeks earlier than planned, but Ms Seeger had the idea of bridging the gap between Team X’s departure and the arrival of Team XI by offering online English classes, which she conducted together with Ms Phi Ha Nguyen (Team IX) and Ms Lena Koch (Team X) during summer semester 2020.
Thus, Ms Seeger continued to teach her “Pre-Intermediate Teacher Class” of the VEDI online, which was now a smaller group – not every teacher owns a notebook in Laos, and not every office has WiFi – and also included our two Erasmus+ students Mr Chanthalakone Souydilay and Mr Phongsavang Xaikhongkham from Savannakhet University.
Via ZOOM, they “met” for one hour each week and used TopNotch 1 as their coursebook, next to some other sources and media. Even though teaching online was not the same as in a live classroom, the Lao teachers and students were still very motivated and eager to learn.
Nonetheless, international cooperation projects need personal contact to sustain long-term motivation; so while we wait for this to become possible again, we will continue online classes with our Lao partners throughout the Covid-19 crisis and keep on publishing new posts to bridge the impasse.
This article presents a popular culture concept within the German academic discourse known as transculturality. The reader will also be introduced to a chronological account regarding its origins, earlier concepts, and the latest trends in the field.
Since the 1990s, German professor Wolfgang Welsch has published several articles about a concept which is referred to as Transkulturalität in German. In 1999, he published an article about the concept in an English magazine, translated and labelled as “Transculturality – The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today“. Ever since, this article has been cited in many academic works about English didactics and methodology in Germany; nowadays it is considered to be part of the academic canon that teachers of English should be familiar with.
Herder’s traditional concept of single cultures
Wolfgang Welsch was not the first academic to write about culture and try to define its nature by developing a concept. Indeed, there have been many before him – the most popular one being Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder, a German intellectual of the 18th century, counts as one of the most important writers of the Weimarer Klassik, a literary period in Germany which also enompasses other famous writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In „Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind”, Herder described what is known today as the “traditional concept of single cultures”. The latter is based on three central characteristics: Ethnic consolidation, intercultural delimitation, and social homogenization (cf. Welsch 1999, 194).
In a nutshell: Herder saw cultures as homogenous and clearly separated from each other, as cultural islands, shaping the lives of its members like a factory its products. According to Herder, every human act portrays the performer’s culture. However, this traditional concept of single cultures is unfit to describe modern societies (cf. Welsch 1999, 194). Taking a closer look at Germany as an example clearly shows that there is not simply one homogenous national culture, but several cultures or, rather, a significant internal variance. (The same also applies to other countries, for example Laos, which is made up of 49 different ethnic groups.) Regarding Germany, this might be the case because the nation as we know it today is only about 150 years old.
Before, it had been a multitude of territories of all sizes ruled by different aristocrats with their own cultures and traditions, which – to a large extent – have survived until today. Again, this is also the case in many other countries. Even without such a specific historical background (compared to the earlier nation-building of other modern European nations), inner variance within one country is still the norm because of spatial distance, regional features, mindsets, preferences, trends, and many other factors.
Nonetheless, the traditional concept of single cultures became a popular concept in the late 18th century and – although mostly considered to be outdated today – it still partly serves as a basis for two newer concepts which once more highlight its dangerous quintessence. With his theory of separate nations and races Herder also provided a basis for cultural nationalism, which he related to the notion of a Volksgeist (“national spirit”). Cultural Nationalism believes in a special native identity that cannot be changed, even if one was to migrate to another country; for example if somebody was born in Laos, he or she could not move to France and become French. This would be considered impossible: To belong to one culture, one has to be born into it.
Eventually, this served all too well as a basis for racism and the gruesome, horrible atrocities of the Nazi Regime (cf. Berggren & Johansson 2019, 13-17). Today, other and more inclusive forms of nationalism are more popular, such as liberal nationalism, even though currently there are still right-wing movements gaining favour across Europe. Such more inclusive forms of nationalism do not believe in some native identity, but allow for people who migrate from one country to another to adopt a new identity; referring to the example above, a Lao person could become French or consider him- or herself as both Lao and French.
According to liberal nationalism, a migrant leaving his or her homecountry would usually have to learn his or her new home country’s language and adhere to its laws to count as a citizen of this country. However, liberal nationalism still is not the norm. The moment in which a migrant is finally seen as integrated or as from when a person is considered to have no (more) migrational background as well as the terms themselves are still heavily disputed (cf. Treibel 2017, 14-19).
While these questions are still under debate, the rise of right-wing movements all across Europe and elsewhere have present a comeback of xenophobic (“fearing strangers”) trends. Such xenophobic trends are extremly dangerous, because they misconceive the very essence of migration. Migration is regular human behaviour that has always existed and will – without doubts – continue to exist as long as there are places in the world which are not safe to live in. What drives people’s xenophobia is the inability to apply social schemata to foreigners or members of other cultures: They do not know how to interact with them or how to think of them or how to categorise them. The solution, however, is not fear, but openness, and the courage to approach the unknown. In this respect, it is crucial to keep in mind that no matter the colour of our skin or specific cultural background, what unifies all of humanity essentially are the same emotions and desires (apart from the same body structure): Love, hunger, the desire for security, and above all the very human longing for relationships and communication. Conclusively, we need abandon the idea of separate ethnical groups, and also identities defined by nationalities are only imaginative.
The first of the two concepts based on the “traditional concept of single cultures” is Interculturality. Based on the main assumptions of the traditional concept of single cultures, it puts emphasis on intercultural relations and can be regarded as a kind of conclusion of the former. The main thought is the following: If cultures are the way Herder describes them – as exhibiting a certain competitiveness and hostility towards everything foreign – cultures eventually must end up fighting and destroy each other (cf. Welsch 1999, 195).
Indeed, the “traditional concept of single cultures” proved to be a very dangerous breeding-place of xenophobia and, thus, the wars of the 20th century in particular (s.a.), which again proved how fatal beliefs such as Social Darwinism can be.
Social Darwinism is based on Charles Darwin‘s famous evolutionary theory. However, it is important to note that Darwin did not invent Social Darwinism himself. Instead, other scientists such as Spencer, Bagehot, and Sumner are its inventors. Darwin’s theory presented a number of laws of natural selection regarding plants and animals, whereas these three scientists believed that they also applied for humans. Accordingly, human societies once more were seen as competing groups, amongst which only the fittest would eventually survive. If this theory was popular still, one might fearfully wonder what the world would look like today.
The goal of Interculturality is therefore to find ways for peaceful coexistence of cultures, bridge cultural gaps, and prevent or settle any conflicts.
Even though the traditional concept of single cultures is outdated, as has been outlined before, the concept of Interculturality, which derives from it, is still referred to as a standard in the academic English didactics and methodology discourse in Germany. For evidence, one must only consult the education plan of Baden-Württemberg (one of the sixteen federal states of Germany), for instance, which teachers have to follow here. According to this plan, the overall goal of English classes is Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) (BW Education plan English as first foreign languague 2016, 4). To elaborate this a little further: This competence features certain abilities, attitudes, and knowledge, such as knowledge about other cultures, the ability to relate, positive attitudes towards other cultures, critical cultural awareness, and more, as defined by Michael Byram, who developed a model for ICC.
Ultimately, however, Interculturality does not fully meet its goal; it is too exclusive. Without a doubt, it involves many good approaches, and its goal is important for the future of humanity. If a third world war is to be prevented, which with modern weaponry might erase all humanity, humans need to learn how to peacefully cooperate; tolerance and acceptance alone do not suffice at this point.
This learning progress takes place at a micro-level (e.g. how to peacefully coexist with one’s neighbours and community) and at a macro-level (e.g. international relationships). Furthermore, good international relationships are not only important in order to prevent war and the extinction of humanity, but also to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, which can ensure a good and livable life for everyone (cf. Hoffmann & Gorana (ed.) (2017), 3).
No country can achieve this on their own, nor should any country only fear for itself. Again: Good international networking is more important than ever before. Yet Interculturality it is still based on the idea of cultures as islands, lacks certain dimensions and highlights differences rather than commonalities and thus taints the perception of “self” vs. the foreign or “other”, perpetuating binary thinking and categories.
The second concept is Multiculturality, which is based on the same conception of cultures as Interculturality, with the same outcome. However, the main difference between Multiculturality and Interculturality is a shift of perspective. While Interculturality focuses on the relations of different cultures (one might say it adopts a macro-perspective), Multiculturality takes a closer look at different cultures living together in one society. Therefore, one could argue that Multiculturality employs a more realistic point of view by studying (one could say heterogeneous) society as shaped by migration, a dimension that is left out within Interculturality.
Still, Multiculturality shares the same goal as Interculturality: Peaceful coexistence. However, it is once more based on a very narrow, crude conception of cultures and still regards them as being clearly separable, which is rather unfruitful (cf. Welsch 1999, 196).
Now that earlier concepts of cultures have been explained in detail, Transculturality shall be presented. Again, Transculturality is in some way based on the concepts explained above and provides a solution for their deficiencies, albeit not without giving rise to new issues of its own.
Nonetheless, it might prove to be an important milestone for future concepts of culture. First of all, Transculturality breaks with the most dangerous quintessence of the traditional concept of single cultures by stating that cultures are not clearly separable. Instead, Wolfgang Welsch, who also relied on earlier visionaries like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, states that on a macro-level, cultures are marked by internal variance (inner diversity) and interpenetrate and emerge from each other (cf. Welsch 1999, 196). According to him, there are no gaps to bridge.
Cultures are complex, inclusive, interconnected and interwoven networks characterised and shaped by globalisation, human migration and exchange. Furthermore, cultures are also connected simply because they face the same public debates (e.g. climate change, feminism, or decolonization) and challenges, such as hunger and poverty (cf. Welsch 1999, 197).
These debates and challenges have led to the foundation of international movements and organisations such as the early international socialist organisation, the World Health Organisation and many more, which have an enormous impact on international relationships.
A side effect of these trends can also be seen in the rise of the English language as a global language. German and Lao popular culture are good examples for this point: The last decades have seen trends towards Anglicization and Americanization, such as the use of English expressions and words in everyday speech (words like job, internet, club, influencer, chillen etc.), more and more English music being played on the radio and rising popularity of English/American blockbusters and series.
Welsch concludes that “there is no longer anything absolutely foreign” (Welsch 1999, 197). On a micro- level, he views humans as cultural hybrids with several identities shaped by encounters with different cultures. To prove this point, one might refer also to the various kinds of migration such as seasonal migration and mobilities of students via programs like Erasmus+ or the “Bi-directional learning and teaching (English) in Laos” project. All these forms of migration, mobility, or exchange can lead to the creation of new identities or change and blending of identity.
This visualisation of Transculturality, like the previous two, I made by myself. Of course, visualizing Transculturality is far more difficult than visualizing Inter- or Multiculturality. Nonetheless, I tried to point out the most important features by for example making the edges penetrable and choosing circles which include a variety of colours (the colours are supposed to show the blending of different cultures, sub-cultures or simply cultural influences and trends). The overlapping circles reflect Welsch’s statement that cultures overlap or emerge from one another. Lastly, the arrows, the letter, the airplaine, and the telephone are symbols of exchange, migration, and mobility.
It can be said without a doubt that Welsch’s concept of Transculturality presents an important contribution to Cultural Studies and is much more suitable to describe modern societies than the traditional concept of single cultures, Interculturality, or Multiculturality.
By arguing for cultures being interconnected and inclusive, it also provides better grounds for international relations and friendship. However, it also faces criticism, such as being an elitist concept. Statements such as “the global networking of communications technology makes all kinds of information identically available from every point in space” (Welsch 1999, 197) are simply untrue. They ignore the existence of countries with comparatively little or no access to technology and do not even apply to many Western countries, where lower social classes are also often denied the opportunities that the more wealthy enjoy.
Additionally, saying that there is nothing foreign any longer is wrong. Surely, the world is more closely connected than ever before, but unfortunately, there are still big gaps. Another problem (but not a flaw) is the complexity of Transculturality, which complicates the description and study of cultures. If nothing is clearly separable anymore and everyone is part of several (sub-)cultures, how can one analyze and describe any culture at all? Following this difficulty, there has been a shift of focus away from culture and towards individual identities. The term “culture” is therefore interpreted as something individual and subjective instead of something shared by a collective body (cf. Griese 2006, 21).
In conclusion, it can be said that Transculturality is probably not the ultimate concept. Indeed, there are already new cultural concepts such as Hyperculturality. Moreover, it can be said that there can never be one fully satisfactory concept to explain “culture” as the world is changing ever more rapidly all the time and thus theories need to be changing, too.
However, the concept of Transculturality is certainly an important milestone and should not be disregarded because it breaks with older concepts. It claims that cultures are interwoven, interconnected networks, which is the most important point of departure for all future concepts and something we all should keep in mind if we want to live on this planet in harmony.
Text by C.V. Seeger
Illustrations by C.V. Seeger & https://webstockreview.net/pict/getfirst
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