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  • Claudio Baraldi

    Intercultural Communication Systems andDiscourses of Cultural Identity

    Abstract: The analysis of intercultural communication, which is adopted inmainstream applied linguistics and communication studies, aims to explainthe meaning of cultural differences and identities in the present global world.The present analysis of intercultural communication is based on theories ofcultural variability, which highlight the basic distinctions between values deter-mining cultural differences and identities. Some studies in applied linguisticsobserve cultural variability as a discursive construction based on a form ofepistemological essentialism, produced in the Western part of the world togive meaning to its hegemony. However, these studies share some epistemolo-gical foundations with theories of cultural variability. This paper proposes atheorization of intercultural communication, which explains cultural differencesand identities as constructed in communication systems and based on theirparticular structural presuppositions. In this perspective, the hegemonic struc-ture of intercultural communication is ethnocentrism, including the presupposi-tions of Us/Them basic distinction, positioning of individuals as members ofcultural groups and normative expectations about displays of We-identities. Thistheorisation also provides an explanation of the discursive construction of newhybrid forms of identity, which are observed as a result of globalisation, and ofthe interdependence between local and global communication systems. Finally,this theorization leads to explain the meaning of intercultural dialogue, which ispresented as an alternative to ethnocentrism. The open question regards theexplanation of dialogue as either a new discursive construction of hegemonicWestern culture or a new structure, introducing equality in participation, sensi-tivity for participants personal expressions and expectations of participantsempowerment in local and global communication systems.

    Keywords: communication systems, essentialism, ethnocentrism, dialogue,intercultural communication

    DOI 10.1515/applirev-2015-0003

    Claudio Baraldi, University of Modena and Reggio, E-mail:

    Applied Linguistics Review 2015; 6(1): 4971

    Authenticated | author's copyDownload Date | 2/28/15 12:15 PM

  • 1 Introduction

    The analysis of intercultural communication, which is adopted in mainstreamapplied linguistics and communication studies, originates from theories of cul-tural variability. These theories see intercultural communication as based on avariety of cultural forms, and identify this variety of forms as the salient aspectof globalisation and multicultural societies. In their view, individuals makecommunication intercultural, in that they construct their cultural identitiesand display these identities in communication. The present paper suggeststhat this analysis of intercultural communication is too simplistic and proposesa new theoretical perspective on intercultural communication as an empiricalsocial process.

    The paper starts with the analysis of the problematic foundations of theoriesof cultural variability. In the following section, the paper analyses some studiesin applied linguistics that observe cultural variability as a discursive construc-tion, but that do not challenge the assumption of individuals as authors andactors of their cultural identities. Starting from these studies, the paper suggestsa theory of intercultural communication systems, which can explain the discur-sive construction of cultural variability as a consequence of the structure ofethnocentrism. Then, the paper discusses the most important challenges toethnocentrism (and discourses of cultural variability) in todays process ofglobalisation of intercultural communication systems. Finally, it analyses themeaning of dialogue as a possible alternative to ethnocentrism.

    2 Theories of cultural variability

    To quote a recent handbook, Conventionally intercultural communication stu-dies refer to studies of both interaction between people of different cultures andcomparative studies of communication patterns across cultures (Zhu 2014: 1).These studies are mainly based on theories of cultural variability, which explainintercultural communication highlighting the basic distinctions that determinefundamental cultural differences in the global world (Piller 2007, 2011): In the1970s, Hosftede (1980) introduced the basic distinctions between values, whichmark differences among national cultures; over time, other authors haveproposed distinctions to account for cultural differences (e.g. Hall 1976;Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 1997). Among these, the distinction thathas probably been most widely used is the one between collectivism andindividualism (Hosftede 1980; see also Ting-Toomey 1999; Triandis 1995).

    50 Claudio Baraldi

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  • These theories of cultural variability are based on cross-cultural research, whichcompares different cultural conditions in nations or groups. Findings from cross-cultural research make it possible to interpret intercultural communication, as parti-cipants in communication are expected to follow the cultural values and orientationsthat they have acquired in their respective groups. In this view, individual partici-pants make communication intercultural, in that they act as members of specificgroups. Individuals construct their cultural identities, or We-identities, within thegroups to which they belong (Ting-Toomey 1999), and display these identities incommunication; therefore, the cultural orientations of participants identities explainintercultural communication. On the one hand, individuals determine communica-tion and its cultural orientation. On the other hand, culture determines individualidentity, transforming it into We-identity and, ultimately, communication.Communication is thus determined directly by individuals and indirectly by culture,as a systemof valuesandpractices of a groupor community of people (Zhu 2014: 1).

    Some studies in applied linguistics adopt the theory of cultural variabilityand observe the ways in which intercultural communication produces andshows this cultural variability (e.g. Kiesling and Paulson 2005; Kotthoff andSpencer-Oatey 2009; Spencer-Oatey and Franklin 2009). In the perspective ofthese studies, cultural variability concerns the use of language in the interac-tion. These studies, while keeping their focus on individual participants, look atthem within the framework of the intertwined actions they perform. That is whythe use of language in communication is central to these studies; as suggestedby a well-known theory in applied linguistics, the focus is on the linguistic cuesshowing the cultural presuppositions that guide participants actions(Gumperz 1982, 1992). Gumperz notes that in conversations involving speakersfrom different cultures, some contextual assumptions can be observed, that givemeaning to what is said and to the interactional construction of culture. Culturalpresuppositions are highlighted or made salient through contextualizationcues, which are defined as verbal and non-verbal signals constructing thecontextual presuppositions that underlie situated interpretations and therebyaffect how constituent messages are understood (Gumperz and Cook-Gumperz2009: 24); contextualisation cues are revealed through language use. Thisapproach identifies the cues for cultural presuppositions in specific features ofparticipants actions, such as prosody, paralinguistic signs, choice of linguisticcode, lexical forms and formulaic expressions (Gumperz 1992).

    This analysis of intercultural communication is based on the observation ofthe ways in which individuals use language, thus displaying their culturalidentities, awareness and competences. This type of analysis requires the obser-vation of both cultural groups and individual cultural presuppositions, follow-ing the general paradigm of cultural variability.

    Intercultural Communication Systems and Discourses 51

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  • To sum up, the theory of cultural variability assumes that individualsintroduce their cultural perspectives and identities in communication processesthrough their actions; therefore, the relationship between individual actions canproduce intercultural communication.

    Moreover, cultural variability is not only a scientific theory; it is alsoenhanced by the frequent claim for cultural identities supported by groups,minorities and majorities in the communicative arena of the global worldand multicultural societies. This communicative arena includes neo-colonialhegemonic claims for universalism, intra-national claims against racial orcultural discrimination of individuals and groups, and specific, internationaland intra-national claims for ethnic identities. These claims for cultural differ-ences and identities are empirically evident in the present global world. Againstthis backdrop, theories of cultural variability seem to be able to explain thecommunicative production of claims regarding cultural differences andidentities.

    3 The critical discourse analysis of culturalvariability as essentialism

    Recent studies on intercultural communication have observed cultural variabil-ity as a discursive construction based on a form of epistemological essentialism(Dervin 2011a; Fougre and Moulettes 2007; Piller 2007, 2011; Verschueren 2008;Zhu 2014). In particular, theories of cultural variability have been observed aspart of the neo-essentialist ideology of Othering, i.e. the process whereby theWestern part of the world attempts to legitimise its hegemony at the expenses ofOthers (Holliday 2


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