Magazine article European English Messenger

Piller, Ingrid. Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction

Magazine article European English Messenger

Piller, Ingrid. Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction

Article excerpt

Piller, Ingrid. Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011, 197 pages, ISBN: 978 0 7486 3283 1 (HB), 978 0 7486 3284 8 (paperback).

Ingrid Piller's insightful foray into the field of intercultural communication studies is structured around one fundamental, though previously underexplored, research question: "who makes culture relevant to whom in which context and for which purposes" (5). Within the frame of critical sociolinguistic ethnography, the author proceeds to interrogate traditional approaches to the study of intercultural communication, and to deconstruct essentialist notions of culture, cultural difference, and identity. The book convincingly argues for the analysis of intercultural communication "as a social practice in motion" (174), predicated on the view that culture is a discursive construct: it is produced in the course of being differently drawn upon and performed, in particular contexts, by social actors who are differently situated in terms of class, race, ethnicity, access to education and other resources. By proposing this approach, Ingrid Piller aims to reinstate intercultural communication as "a meaningful [research] concept" (72) against the contemporary background of global flows and transnational practices, and to raise awareness of the need for "writing social justice into intercultural communication" (175).

The theoretical premises that ground the author's principal claims are laid out in the first part of the book (Chapters 2-5). Chapter 2 sheds light on the diverse uses of the terms "cross-cultural communication", "intercultural communication" and "inter-discourse communication", and their implications for intercultural communication studies. It introduces the distinction between "culture as an entity" and "culture as a process", and sets the frame of discussion for the following chapters by taking a critical distance from the former. Accordingly, Chapter 3 dwells upon the historical, economic and socio-political contexts that gave rise to particular conceptualizations of culture and cultural difference. In the UK and the US, the concept of culture emerged during nineteenth-century colonialism, followed by early-twentieth century globalization. Through an evolutionary lens, anthropological research provided at the time a "moral justification" for the colonial drive to impose, by assimilation, the "superior" European and North American cultures to the rest of the world, a view that still informs constructions of cultural difference in racist discourses (21-22). A non-evolutionary understanding of culture, celebratory of cultural diversity, took shape in American anthropology in the 1940s, and found expression in the concept of multiculturalism. It gained currency in the next decades, under the impact of decolonisation, the civil rights movement, and the rise of identity politics. Intercultural communication shares with multiculturalism a similar perspective on cultural diversity and, to an extent, the historical and political context of emergence, but expanded at an international level. The reconfiguration of international and commercial relations among nation-states in the wake of World War II, and especially during the Cold War, aroused a pragmatic interest in intercultural communication research, seen as a means to understand other cultures in order to derive a military or business advantage ("competition") or to bridge potential conflicts ("cooperation"). The chapter aptly examines the contexts in which "culture and cultural differences were talked into existence" (33) and mobilized as strategic resources, therefore also pointing to the power relations in which they are enmeshed.

Shifting from culture to language, Chapter 4 establishes the importance of the principle of linguistic relativity, rooted in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in acknowledging unfamiliar worldviews, "encoded" in languages other than one's own. …

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