Intercultural Issues and Concepts

A Multi-Disciplinary Glossary

by Maddalena Colombo (Volume editor) Guia Gilardoni (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 310 Pages


Why an intercultural glossary today? How does interculturalism deal with the cultural shifts led by the resurgence of populism in Europe leading towards increasingly close-minded and selfish attitudes? Are the social sciences helpful in the implementation of an intercultural approach? How to teach students the fundamentals of interculturalism? Over the last years, the fierce populisms raising around Europe has been a strong enemy of interculturalism which grow weaker in front of the simplest solutions provided by intolerance and racism. Social sciences provide strong concepts to be grounded in social policy, urban administration, education, and interreligious dialogue. Drawing from sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, education, human geography, and international law, the book offers a list of 18 «middle-range concepts»– as social integration, migration governance, cultural identity, participation, citizenship, reflexivity, resilience - and «thematic issues», like overcoming racism, revitalising urban periphery, and human rights enforcement. Each entry includes elements of reflection for the development of practices and projects coping with major societal challenges in the extra-academic areas. The book, written by a multi-national pool of European academic lectures, is meant to facilitate all actors committed to the building of a more inclusive society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Maddalena Colombo and Guia Gilardoni)
  • 1. Citizenship (Léonce Bekemans)
  • 2. Civil Society (Carlo Ruzza)
  • 3. Cultural Identity (Maja Becker and Claudia Manzi)
  • 4. Human Rights Enforcement (Monica Spatti)
  • 5. Interethnic Relationships (Mariagrazia Santagati)
  • 6. Living Together (Albert Mora Castro)
  • 7. Migration Governance (Nicola Montagna)
  • 8. Multiculturalism (Alessandra Gerolin)
  • 9. Overcoming Racism (Maddalena Colombo)
  • 10. Participation (Luciano Morganti and Giordano Zambelli)
  • 11. Reflexivity (Monica Amadini)
  • 12. Religiosity – Conviviality (Gabriella Pusztai and Veronika Bocsi)
  • 13. Resilience (Ankica Kosic)
  • 14. Revitalising Urban Peripheries (Paolo Molinari)
  • 15. Secularization (Adrian Pabst)
  • 16. Self-Determination (Paola Zini)
  • 17. Transnationalism (Paolo Ruspini)
  • 18. Values Transmission (Nicoleta Laura Popa)
  • Authors

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The Need for a Reflexive Intercultural Vision in Times of Populism

Maddalena Colombo and Guia Gilardoni

1. Objectives and targets of the volume

This volume is devoted to exploring the intercultural approach according to a humanistic and social sciences perspective and addresses primarily university professors and secondary school teachers in multicultural learning environments. Interculturalism is a specific way of dealing with cultural diversity: It entails a wider awareness of the kind of knowledge and responsibility it is consistent with. Thus, the present volume addresses the challenges posed by interculturalism, by offering 18 fundamental concepts and issues for successful application of interculturalism principles, which can enable learners to overcome both a reductionist and a rhetorical point of view1.

The book stems from the belief that interculturalism offers strong societal roots for citizens of the 21st century. During the 20th century, several historical events have contributed to creating the world as we know it: two world wars, the boom of international politics, decolonization and post-colonialism, intensification of global market relations, the technological impetus, increasing global migration flows, and – last but not least – the mass geographical displacement for all sorts of reasons (work, business, education, and tourism). At the turn of the Millennium, the result is a totally new social landscape, more multiethnic and multicultural than ever, which calls for new paradigms: the plurality of cultural identity has started to challenge the idea of the nation state as a natural community of linguistic and culturally homogenous members ←11 | 12→and citizenship as a native-driven sentiment. Today, in the course of a lifetime, any one person can live as both a native and a migrant at the same time, wherever he/she decides to stay in his/her country of origin or relocate elsewhere, and can have multiple and non-natural, “constructed” citizenships.

The emergence of interculturalism is rooted in the breakdown of the traditional notion of boarders, both materially and symbolically: Ideas like supranational sovereignty, uncontrolled frontiers, transnational ties, diaspora, temporary residence permits, special citizenship status, etc., which have become familiar terms for many people and may have deeply impacted their lives, have contributed to the development of a global mentality (especially among younger citizens) in line with increasing geographic mobility. It is not incidental that in the first decade of the new Millennium a large number of institutional documents and a vast literature within the social sciences and humanities has promoted the development of an intercultural competence (Bennett, 2004; Spitzberg, Changnon, 2009), intercultural and global education (CED, 2006; Portera, 2008; Faas et al., 2014; Sikorskaya, 2017), and intercultural dialogue policy (CoE, 2008).

But moving people from their home, either voluntarily or by forced or external motives (such as hunger, poverty, or persecution), is not enough to “make them intercultural.” The encounter between individuals with different histories, cultures, languages, and religions makes them too often feel uncomfortable and worried, creating reactions of intolerance and hostility toward the Otherness, which may be reinforced by a predominant mass communication of “fear mongering” (Wodak, 2015). Moreover, the social mix deriving from mobility and migration is a powerful driver of inequality and injustice: When people mix, the disparity of conditions becomes more evident, and the perception of the dynamics of domination and exploitation, of impoverishment and exclusion increase even more. In this context, interculturalism risks being seen as rhetorical, idealistic, or even as a form of wishful thinking: a theoretical concept detached from reality and the socioeconomic contradictions that brought about the cultural clash. Education is crucial in order to cultivate an intercultural and dialogical attitude, offering diverse people the necessary tools to ensure peaceful interactions and a progressive integration in both private and/or public, formal and/or informal situations. This means the sociopolitical setting has to be democratic. We believe the foundations of coexistence within a multicultural society should lie in a ←12 | 13→set of common and universalistic values and norms, established by public powers, representative organizations, and civil society. This ensures every citizen agrees to abide by democratic values over and beyond their particular group affiliations, and – if they are or they feel diverse – they can benefit from a set of liberties regarding the ways these values are translated into behavior and mindsets, which are equally ensured by a democracy.

The Glossary does not recall each and every democratic value which interculturalism pertains to, taking many of them for granted. Its purpose is rather to open the “black box” of the fundamentals of interculturalism in addressing those who are directly invested with the responsibility of transmitting and putting it into practice at different levels. Potential interested readers of the volume, therefore, are: social workers, teachers and educators, policymakers, civil servants, and civil society representatives, who would like to improve their skills and/or the necessary knowledge to guide young people in the development of an intercultural competence. Such actors often discover impediments and restrictions due to the intertwining dimensions of interculturalism: Many are cultural (notoriously) impediments, but economic, political, social, linguistic, and even epistemological factors often block the way. Educators and mediators are all committed to building a more inclusive society. Hence, they need to thoroughly understand the principles and conditions of application of interculturalism before planning activities in their local context.

The volume sprung to life during the realization of the Jean Monnet Module IDEAL – Intercultural Dialogue in Europe and Active poLicies2 at the Faculty of Education of the Università Cattolica of Milan, thanks to the commitment of a group of European academic lecturers. The contents of the module included both the fundamental concepts of interculturalism and a selection of thematic issues related to it, namely: international mediation and education, intercultural dialogue applied to inter-religiosity, intercultural dialogue, and the role of the family. Planned as a three-year module (2017–2019), IDEAL provided university students with an international perspective on society, education, and social work. Interculturalism was explored drawing from different disciplines, ←13 | 14→which are all represented in the volume: sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, education, human geography, and international law. The selected concepts and issues included in the book are drawn mainly from the fruitful experience of the IDEAL project. Following an inductive approach for the selection, the list of entries resulted to be not exhaustive and eventually amendable; it gives scholars and practitioners the knowledge basis to understand, analyze, and operate with intercultural matter in the field.

2. The intercultural framework as distinct from multiculturalism

From the mid-20th century, in many multiethnic, multiracial, and (sometimes) multilingual countries, such as the USA, Canada, or Australia, the issue of how to manage cultural diversity within the nation has been highly debated. Most adopted the multiculturalist approach, whereby the cultures of nondominant minority groups were accorded the same recognition and accommodation within society as the culture of the dominant majority group.

In Europe, multiethnicity was less frequent than overseas3, but profound linguistic and cultural differences existed between countries, and there was a need to create a spirit of union among nations in order to foster European integration. As a result of the Schengen agreement (1985), the process of inner mobility within the European Union (EU) further increased the probability of exchanges among European citizens. And when, in the 1990s, the inflow of migrants coming from extra-European developing countries started to rise, it was clear that every citizen needed to be supported in developing a positive attitude toward cultural diversity.

In those countries where the policies of multiculturalism, initially adopted in the 1970s, were applied, they seemed, over time, to exacerbate the problems related to the governance of cultural diversity by ←14 | 15→encouraging separatism and the subordination of individual issues to collective rights. In Europe there has been a large preference for interculturalism as opposed to multiculturalism. The former was perceived to be a more dynamic term, because it not only describes a situation of cultural pluralism (to be accepted, tolerated, and composed), but also indicates the interaction of, and the evolving relationship between, members of different cultural groups in a culturally diverse setting. Thus, interculturalism is less conservative and passive, and presupposes multiculturalism.

This definition was accepted and spread by UNESCO, which considers it the result of exchanges between people; respect for diversity; and dialogue at the local, regional, national, or international level (UNESCO, 2006, pp. 17–18). The White Paper issued by the Council of Europe in 2008 (named the European Year of Intercultural dialogue) pointed out that interculturalism is the result of a bilateral and communicative practice, defined as the intercultural dialogue: “a process that comprises an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups with different ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds and heritage, on the basis of mutual understanding and respect. It requires the freedom and ability to express oneself, as well as the willingness and capacity to listen to the views of others” (CoE, 2008, p. 9). Unlike UNESCO’s, the Council of Europe’s White Paper places a greater emphasis on unequal power relations existing between those belonging to majority/minority groups and less on world peace and progress: Clearly, the notion of mutual understanding conceals the need to make people aware of inequality issues before (or while) engaging in an exchange or dialogue with each other.

To sum up, interculturalism not only values cultural diversity and pluralism, but also proposes that structural sources of political, economic, and social disadvantage, inequalities, discrimination, poverty, and marginalization should be eliminated, as a result of shared universal values, through the medium of intercultural dialogue, interaction, and exchange (at all levels of society) and appropriate structures and policies, including a culturally inclusive legal and institutional framework.

This is a crucial point for implementation. Does interculturalism presuppose or promote the dismantling of hierarchical and unequal power relations among diverse citizens in a liberal democratic milieu? No clear answers are given so far. According to Mansouri and Arber (2017), the literature abounds with concepts such as “awareness,” “ability,” “orientation,” “repertoire,” “knowledge,” “attitude,” and “skills,” associated with ←15 | 16→interculturalism, but every recommendation or operationalization is necessarily imprecise (or unadaptable to the single case), and influenced by the ways in which basic notions such as culture, identity, freedom, and public sphere are understood in a given time and place, given that they mean different things to different actors in different places. For this reason, interculturalism has been largely criticized by many authors (Barrett, 2013; Wieviorka, 2012): Individuals have no set of culture-free concepts to refer to as means for intercultural dialogue in everyday life, and this is increasingly true of public contexts (Modood, 2017).

Multiculturalism and interculturalism are also compared in terms of their capacity to promote social justice and cohesion, as they are both non-assimilating strategies of diversity management (Kymlicka, 2012; Meer, Modood, 2012). T. Cantle argues that, while multiculturalism assumes the idea of culture as temporally and spatially fixed, interculturalism is able to attend to complex and multiple patterns of cultural formation that cannot be captured through predetermined categories such as race, ethnicity, religion, or culture. Thus, only through the intercultural approach can a “group-based” social representation truly be overcome. T. Modood responds suggesting that without a robust multiculturalist foundation, the risk is that diverse societies still stay without a nuanced appreciation of strong cultural identities and go silently toward new forms of postmodern assimilationism where specific instances of oppression and marginalization remain unaddressed. They converge, however, emphasizing the positive qualities of both approaches in terms of encouraging communication, recognizing dynamic identities, promoting unity, and challenging illiberality (Meer, Modood, Zapata-Barrero, 2016).

The complexity of contemporary identities, including the increasing number of persons who are of mixed-race, hyphenated, hybrid, and transitory identities, along with the increase of “superdiversity” (Vertovec, 2007) challenge the desirability of any response to diversity management. The increasing use of terms like intercultural, multicultural, and transcultural have no doubt reduced their meaning and significance, making them more context-specific despite being treated as ubiquitous and universal. M. Guillerme and G. Dietz (2015: 5) remark that all “theorizations of multiculturalism, interculturality and the transcultural often tend to conceptualize them from an insider ‘either-or’ perspective based upon generalizations and essentialisms as well as upon unilateral understanding of other views.” Hence, there is no need for semantic ←16 | 17→distinctions, but rather to maintain a reflexive and ever-critical vision of interculturalism, able to question taken-for-granted ruling principles of intercultural communication and interaction in hegemonic societies, to unveil one’s own hidden signs of cultural essentialism, dualistic thought, and defense of long-standing social structures and privileges.

3. Implementation and critical aspects of the EU intercultural discourse

The intercultural discourse underlays the foundations of the EU in its constant and still existing tension toward the capacity for living together in peaceful coexistence and the emerging of social conflicts fueled by xenophobia and racism. With the Maastricht Treaty (1992) and the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the ideas of plural citizenship and transnational democracy began to challenge the notion of national identity, and lead to the definition of a European citizenship (as a complement to national citizenship). In this new frame, interculturalism became the crucial turn toward the building of the European people as a demos. Later on, at the beginning of the new Millennium, there was a clear need to deal with emergent racism and xenophobia (Back, Solomos, 2000), and to support positive interethnic relationships; at that time, the intercultural dialogue started to be considered a privileged way to prevent and overcome racism, intolerance, and to foster the enforcement of human rights. Since 2015, in the context of the so-called migration and refugee crisis, EU institutions specifically focused on the development of an intercultural approach in interventions in favor of local populations receiving migrants from abroad, its power being in the capacity to expand participation, self-determination, and urban periphery revitalization (EU, 2017).

With the White Paper Intercultural Dialogue, Living Together as Equals in Dignity (2008), the intercultural approach has been mentioned as the prime principle which ought to inspire any policy for governing diversity and maintaining social cohesion in multicultural settings. As a social policy, it explicitly operationalizes the exchanges between individuals and groups in business, education, urban coexistence, and social services, eschewing a rigid and static view of culture and power asymmetries (McIvory, King, 2019). Inter-group contact and interethnic friendships are at the center of intercultural philosophy and practice, thanks to ←17 | 18→the social proximity between natives and immigrants (Zapata-Barrero, 2015). But, although the EU acknowledges that culture is an essential part of European integration, intercultural dialogue is not included in any treaty or action on migration. So far, intercultural dialogue has no place in migration governance and receives support only through soft instruments, such as experimental or periodical programs and funding schemes rather than regulations and directives.

At the national level there are Member States that had adopted interculturalism for specific policies. For instance, in Italy, with the Circular Letter n. 73 of 1994, the Ministry of Education adopted intercultural education as a national framework to promote the inclusion of students with a migrant background. Nonetheless, in Italy, migration policies are restrictive and refouling in the case of undocumented asylum seekers. In Catalonia, Spain, the intercultural framework is developed at the regional level. In Greece, intercultural pedagogy and reception classes are provided for non-Greek-speaking pupils, but “difference is mainly seen as a ‘problem’ of foreign children while the ideal outcome remains their assimilation into the rest of the school population” (Triandafyllidou, 2012: 107).

The intercultural discourse is instead very much embedded in Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs) way of operating, in several Member States or in cross-national campaigns, addressing broader cultural and religious differences in migration and migrants’ integration, from those who deliver services (with provisions of intercultural mediation, languages skills, and other cross-cultural encounters) to those who offer advocacy services, supporting human rights and counteracting discriminations.

Perhaps the most significant implementation of intercultural principles in Europe comes from Intercultural Cities, an integration program promoted by the Council of Europe, which is based on the notion of diversity advantage. Considering migrants as a resource for local economic, social, and cultural development, rather than only as vulnerable groups in need of welfare support and services, or even a threat to the host community, this program implies a strategic reorientation of urban governance and policies to encourage adequate representation, positive intercultural mixing, and empowering institutions to deal with the cultural conflict more effectively (Guidikova, 2014).

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Wherever it has been implemented, interculturalism met several impediments. The population age, for instance, can heavily hamper it. Evidence shows that new generations tend to be more sophisticated in terms of intercultural sensitivity than older ones: They have basic cross-cultural knowledge, experience, and applications of technology, in ways never experienced before, that minimize the counter-effects of ignorance, digital illiteracy, and nationalism (Cushner, 2012). On the other hand, there is also evidence that shows that the crudest forms of racism are widespread even among young people.

Apart from the pitfalls of implementation, some critics highlight the weaknesses of the European approach to interculturalism in epistemic terms. Firstly, the idea of intercultural dialogue has been indicated as part of the EU rhetoric, and the European approach deemed ideological, unrealistic, and illusionary. Being produced from a hegemonic point of view, the intercultural dialogue implicitly assumes the power positions of a dialoguer and a dialogue (Lahdesmaki, Wagener, 2015). Integration policies, including the recognition of the legal status allowing access to rights, are politically defined within the receiving society by the majority, perpetrating an inherent bias of representing the expectations and demands of this society, or dominant parts of it, rather than the possibility that these policies are defined on the basis of participation, negotiation, and agreement with immigrant groups (Penninx, 2004) as intercultural principles foreseen. Secondly, the EU intercultural discourse does not specifically recognize the societal, cultural, historical, religious, or linguistic differences between European societies. Rather, it tends to offer unified and Western European views for the governance of diversity with the risk of implicitly simplifying the idea of diversity. In addition to this, a third critique comes from postcolonial studies, which claims the need for historical awareness and consciousness as a starting point for any genuine intercultural exercise. If the EU intercultural discourse wants to create a common ground for understanding the contradictions and values of diversity in multicultural societies, the relevance of historical representations and collective memories of the colonial past in contemporary cross-cultural relations should be more seriously addressed (Aman, 2014). A true intercultural exercise should be undertaken, considering modernity also in terms of the “dark side of coloniality,” which includes ways of thinking, feeling, and being associated with and in terms of European global domination (Adams et al., 2018).

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4. Interculturalism in a time of populistic resurgence

Recently, many countries in the Western world have been affected by the resurgence of nationalism in its worst expression of populism. Whereas nationalism can be defined as the ideology of the nation, the concept of populism is more polysemic and controversial. Often populism grounds itself in the concept of “nation,” which is semantically stronger than “people.” Populism refers to a wide range of empirical phenomena and can be defined both as a rhetorical style of political communication, a form of political behavior, and a strategy of consensus organization. The populist politician attempts to connect empathically with the masses by affirming the “absolute right of the majority against the minority; a denial of pluralism and intermediation” (Martinelli, 2018: 17). Being essentialist and reductionist by nature, populism is the main form that renewed xenophobic and racist ideologies take. As well as blaming the political elites, it also creates scapegoats personified by the Other, who could be a migrant person, a Roma, or an LGBT craving an anachronistic and homogeneous community without diversity.

How does interculturalism deal with such cultural shifts toward increasingly close-minded and selfish attitudes? Interculturalism and populism stand on opposite sides, both having strengths and weaknesses.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 310 pp., 5 tables.

Biographical notes

Maddalena Colombo (Volume editor) Guia Gilardoni (Volume editor)

Maddalena Colombo is Full Professor in Sociology of Cultural and Communicative processes at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. She is the Director of the CIRMiB (Centre of Initiatives and research on Migration –Brescia) and has coordinated the Jean Monnet Module IDEAL -Intercultural Dialogue in Europe and Active poLicies. Guia Gilardoni has a research scholarship at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan and is an international research project manager at ISMU Foundation.


Title: Intercultural Issues and Concepts
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