“Otherness” VS. “Culture”
Milton J. Bennett, Ph.D.
For most of my career, I have been postulating, propounding, proselytizing, and pleading that the concept “culture” includes all kinds of diversity in addition to its national forms. I have pointed out that Molefi Asante, the noted Africanist, was on the faculty with me at the Stanford Institute of Intercultural Communication in the late seventies, where he was exploring Black/White intercultural communication, and that Edward T. Hall, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn all derived basic intercultural principles from work with Native American tribal groups. But to little avail. Many business people I work with still act surprised when I use the term “culture” to refer to differences in generation or gender. And DEI colleagues tend to assume that cultural interpretations of group behavior are stereotyping.
Probably the major reason that “culture” is biased toward national differences is that global business was paying well for the secrets supposedly hidden in the submerged portion of national culture icebergs. It may be that the current shift in many business contexts to domestic DEI issues will refocus attention on other forms of culture.
Yet, even if the money is going to domestic issues, I suspect there is an additional impediment to bringing “culture” into that context. It is that “culture” is too often defined in the abstract terms of institutionalized values (such as high/low power distance, or universal/particular, etc.) that, while okay for generalizing about national societies, are at too high a level of abstraction to be useful in generalizing about smaller ethnic or other groupings within societies. For example, while it is probably useful to characterize Nigerians as more particularistic compared to more universalistic US Americans, that conceptual contrast is not very useful in comparing Hausa and Yoruba peoples within Nigeria, or African American and European American peoples within the US. Additionally, using such general terms to refer to ethnic or racial groupings carries the political risk of appearing to positively or negatively compare the group to the national culture generalization.
I have begun using the general term “relating to otherness” rather than “intercultural communication” to introduce the kinds of issues that need to be addressed in domestic multicultural contexts. “Otherness” needs to be used in the neutral sense of making self/other or us/them distinctions, not in the evaluative sense of “othering.” Not only does the term “otherness” used in this sense avoid the problems with “cultural difference” that I just mentioned, but it is a better conceptual position from which to pursue integration of intercultural communication with DEI and social justice issues.