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Giuliana Ferri

Intercultural competence and the promise of understanding

In this paper I adopt an interdisciplinary approach in the form of a philosophical
investigation into the epistemological assumptions of the concept of competence and
the ethical implications for intercultural dialogue. I intend to argue that the notion of
culture represents an essentialist trap (Cole and Meadows, 2013) that fails to
account for the complexity that characterises intercultural exchanges. Thus, in this
paper I shift the focus from culture to the inter of the intercultural, indicating the
process of interaction in communication.
From this perspective, I illustrate Derridas notion of tolerance (2006) and I introduce
the metaphor of the promise of understanding to critique the epistemological
underpinnings of the notion of intercultural competence as it is presented in two
frameworks that are paradigmatic of current thinking in intercultural research: the
pyramid model (Deardorff, 2006, 2009) and the ICOPROMO project (Glaser,
Guilherme et al, 2007). Through this critique, I introduce the idea a deferred promise
of understanding as a guiding principle for intercultural communication.
This notion of promise is complemented by Levinass (1998) formulation of
subjectivity which provides an account of the relationship between self and other that
informs a dialogic, ethical and open-ended understanding of communication in the
form of presence to one another as corporeal, embodied subjects who co-construct
meanings. Finally, I sketch an alternative understanding of competence that relies on
an idea of communication closely aligned to a Levinasian interpretation of the ethical
which is more closely connected to the experiential sphere and the bodily aspects of
lived of human subjectivity. I then conclude with a reflection on the (im)possibility of
assessment in intercultural communication, challenging current positivist approaches
to the field.
Authors note
Giuliana Ferri is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Education, University of
London. Her recent paper, Ethical Communication and Intercultural Responsibility: a
Philosophical Perspective, is published in the Journal of Language and Intercultural
Communication. Her current research focuses on the implications of Levinasian
ethics and Critical Realism in the conceptualisation of intercultural communication
theory. Other research interests are sociolinguistics, language in education and the
philosophy of education.
Cole, D., Meadows, B. (2013). Avoiding the essentialist trap in intercultural education. In
Dervin, F. & Liddicoat, A. J. (Eds.), Linguistics for intercultural education (pp.30-47).
Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company
Deardorff, D.K ( 2006). Identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a
student outcome of internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education.
10 (3), 241266
Deardorff, D.K (2009). The SAGE handbook of intercultural competence. London:SAGE
Derrida, J. (2006). 'Hostipitality'. In L. Thomassen (Ed.), The Derrida-Habermas Reader (pp.
208-230). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Glaser, E.,Guilherme, M., del Carmen Mndez Garca, M. & Mughan, T. (2007).
ICOPROMO, intercultural competence for professional mobility. Strasbourg and Graz:
Council of Europe Publishing
Levinas, E. (1998). Otherwise than being. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press