The concept of culture is central in the word interculturality. However, culture has hundreds of different definitions and it is not always clear what it refers to. So what should we do with it? Culture has always been at the centre of discussions in education. Yet, since the 1980s, a critical turn in many fields such as anthropology which used to depend heavily on the concept, has led to either revising its meaning and use or discarding it (Starn, 2015). In this section, we call for an approach to culture that looks beyond ‘solid’ and illusory conceptions of national culture as something that is engraved, somewhat, in individuals’ DNA.

Let us start with a provocative and yet important argument: Cultures do not exist as such. They have no agency; they are not palpable. One cannot meet a culture but people who (are made to) represent it – or rather represent imaginaries and representations of it. Wikan (2002: 83) expressed her surprise at “people’s proclivity to talk as if culture were endowed with mind, feeling, and intention. (…) as if culture had taken on a life of its own.” Philipps (2007: 45) also reminds us that culture is neither bounded nor closed; it is not homogeneous; it is “produced by people, rather than being things that explain why they behave the way they do.” This is why any cultural habit, any so-called cultural heritage, is the result of encounters and mixing with representatives of other ‘cultures’. Trying to define a culture or its borders often leads to closing and segregating it from a world that has interacted with and influenced it. Who decides what it is? Think of your own ‘culture’: Do you see it the same way as people from a different social background? generation? gender? religious groups? etc.

Let me take one example about China. The Joseph E. Hotung Gallery at the British Museum in London explores China, South Asia and Southeast Asia from the Palaeolithic to the present. In the section devoted to Chinese civilization, one finds a group of 12 colourful and impressive ceramic figures from the tomb of Liu Tingxun, an important military and political character of Tang China from around 700 CE – the “golden age of achievement, both at home and abroad” (MacGregor, 2010: 55). These were the heydays of the Silk Road. Walking in procession, these creatures, humans and animals about one metre high, are meant to guard the dead and to impress the judges of the underworld “who would recognize his rank and his abilities, and award him the prestigious place among the dead that was his due” (ibid.). To untrained and ignorant eyes, these sculptures look very “Chinese”, even “typically Chinese.” Yet, when one looks closer at the faces of the pair of lokapāla figures (Sanskrit for “guardian of the world”) one cannot but see Indian faces. At the back of the procession, the horses were, at the time, a new breed in China, brought from the West, while the Bactrian camels originated from Afghanistan and Turkestan. The Indian, Afghan, and Turkestan references highlight China’s close links with Central Asia and other parts of the world. Like other countries, China has always been in contact with the world and its culture bears witness to the many and varied mixings, mélanges, but also inventions and constructions of different eras. A cultural artefact such as the Liu Tingxun tomb also denotes both the symbolic power of the “other” and the power relations between “cultures.” As such, the horses and camels, “borrowed” and monetized from other parts of the world, contributed to the General’s prestigious status when facing the judges of the underworld.

When you think of your ‘culture’, you can also probably deconstruct certain aspects of it and realize how they are the result of mixing with other ‘cultures’. The newcomers we work with also have a culture that has been influenced (and is being influenced) by others.

Some scholars have criticized the use of the concept of culture as it tends to give the impression that culture is endorsed coherently by those who are supposed to be represented by it (Bayart, 2005: 74). In such cases people remain imprisoned in the ‘straightjackets’ of culture or as Prashad puts it (2001: ix) culture “wraps [them] up in its suffocating embrace.” Adib-Moghaddam (2011: 19) reminds us that coherent cultures do not exist and that, thus, talking about a clash of cultures (or civilisations) is very much questionable (see also Bayart, 2005: 103). People can clash not cultures. It is thus important for us to think about newcomers from a more open perspective. ‘Their’ culture does not always explain all and there is danger in trying to lock them up in a culture, especially when we decide what that culture consists of. When I work with newcomers, I work with people, not ‘cultures’.

In intercultural encounters the ‘power’ of culture has also been used to explain why people do not understand or misunderstand each other. The assumption is that people have different cultures so when they meet they encounter problems. Yet Sarangi (1994: 418) wonders why this is always branded as ‘intercultural misunderstanding’ while “when it involves participants from the same ‘culture’, [it] become[s] labelled as a challenge.” In many instances of misunderstanding between people from different countries, interculturality has nothing to do with culture.

This example shows how culture is often used systematically to explain what ‘we’ do and what the ‘other’ does. The example is drawn from a booklet that was largely distributed to international students at a Finnish university some years ago. The booklet aimed at teaching these students how to ‘behave’ in the institution (see Dervin & Layne, 2013). In the following excerpt the authors explain to the students what is expected of them in terms of autonomy: “Whereas in many cultures people are supposed to follow instructions of teachers and supervisors, Finns are encouraged to solve problems independently and take initiative when needed. Thus while young people in many cultures live in a very protected and supervised life, students in Finland are very independent and take responsibility for their studies. This is another area where foreign students also get easily confused.” It is interesting to note how the use of the concept of culture allows the authors to 1. Position Finns and Finnish culture as being excellent and 2. Relegate other cultures to inferior positions. It is also noteworthy that the people who are included in the discourses of culture shift from “in many cultures people”, “young people in many cultures” to “foreign students”, thus generalizing about the latters’ capacities – or incapacities in this case. Needless to say, such discourse on ‘our’ culture and ‘their’ culture is very biased and ideological and they cannot lead to interculturality: the potential creativity of the inter- is swallowed up by what I consider to be a contemptible approach to culture in education.

Hoskins and Sallah (2011: 114) have demonstrated how certain uses of the word culture can often contribute to xenophobia (fear of foreigners and the unfamiliar), racism, sexism, the reduction of identity and even certain forms of physical and symbolic violence (see Sen, 2005). So whenever we interact with newcomers (and/or their families), it is important to listen to discourses of culture and to identify potential issues with what hides behind them.

So what shall we do with the concept of culture then? Can we deal with interculturality without culture in education? Many scholars have argued that we need to keep the idea of culture (Ogay & Edelmann, 2011) and avoid ‘throwing the baby with the bathwater’. In my work, I have decided to throw the baby because it leads to so much confusion and misunderstanding between students, researchers, practitioners and decision-makers. My understanding of culture is not always the same as that of my interlocutors. I refuse to support a word that can rid the ‘other’ of his/her plurality and thus refrain from using this empty and problematic concept.

So what can we do without this central concept? Eriksen’s piece of advice is very useful: “Instead of invoking culture, if one talks about local arts, one could simply say “local arts”; if one means language, ideology, patriarchy, children’s rights, food habits, ritual practices or local political structures, one could use those or equivalent terms.” (Eriksen, 2001: 141) In a similar vein, Wikan (2002: 86) suggests using the words knowledge, experience or life world. The more precise and explicit we are when using certain words like culture, the better and fairer it is for those whose voice(s) we (re)present when dealing with interculturality in education.

After reading the critiques of the word culture, what would you do with it? Do you recognize some of the problems that were discussed above when you use the word or when your interlocutors use it?