Interculturality: A Future Social Challenge. Identity Management and Community Cohesion

Mª Elena Morató

Journalist and art critic, Spain

Given that in recent decades the study of emigration has become a priority in our globalised communities, the study of the effect of the different contemporary migration waves on creation and the consequences for art poses, above all, a future challenge. Deciding how we manage the visibility of emigration and how culture channels this visibility are issues that are, or should be, on the agendas of those who manage citizen life. Because if culture is a key element for achieving social cohesion, policies that provide for cultural development should be a priority. This, in the current situation and crisis and growing lack of resources, puts those responsible in the councils (the most directly related to the groups of migrants) in a dilemma which is difficult but must necessarily be resolved.

There are two actors in migration: the locals and the new arrivals. However, the stages, although with endless different decors (spaces, human components and backgrounds) are made of the same materials (feelings, economic realities and political realities). In any reflection on this there are words that come into play and exemplify the scope of the issue: confrontation, respect, rejection, dialogue… and concepts such as aculturisation, assimilation and integration, which have been extensively studied over the years. We will examine the recurrent issues and questions of the phenomenon of migration and the role of culture and cultural management in the successes and failures of the meeting of different societies in the same geographical space. What are our experiences? How are we facing our present and how are we approaching the future of our environment so that the spaces of creation and exchange have the opportunity to exist and, above all, to positively influence the surrounding society?

Emigration and New Environments

The long path towards interculturality involves a process comprising diverse stages, so that before reaching the final phase (that of pure creation) we must obligatorily pass through the stages of meeting, awareness, adaptation, acceptance and dialogue. Along this path, societies will confront a series of recurrent difficulties and conflicts related to personal affirmation and the capacity or the possibilities for integration into a determined environment.

The Psychological Component

Based on the fact that our mentality has ancestrally engraved the primary association “different=dangerous”, the actions aimed at the sociability of populations in constant change must be coordinated and directed at rationalising this fear as well as providing each of the parties with the necessary ways and means to attenuate the aggressiveness derived from self-defence faced with the unknown. In the environment of those who receive the migrant, the natural tendency (beyond the greater or lesser initial curiosity) is to keep distances to avoid the daily microcosm and the values that shape us and make us part of our own society being altered, which causes unease. Migrants, for their part, when noticing this latent, if not evident, belligerence tend to close within their own world, thereby creating a protective shell. This enclosure accentuates or exaggerates some features of their signs of cultural identity to counteract the hostility they perceive around them or simply presuppose. For this reason, depending on the external situations, our shell is variably tough and permeable. In environments that we instinctively consider hostile or not very friendly, the logical reaction is to utilise all the resources that our culture offers us to defend what we are. Thus, in emigrated individuals or groups, determined cultural traits (clothes, attitudes, gastronomy, etc.) are often naturally emphasised, sometimes disproportionately and not deliberately or rationally.

The less hostile we perceive our surrounding environment, the more permeable we are to what it offers us, as we stop seeing it as an assault on our identity. In short, what we finally seek in all intercultural relations is a satisfactory balance between what is strange and what is familiar, what is foreign and what is ours. Rico Lie[1] speaks about four stages in intercultural communication:

  • co-existence, when there is no type of negotiation;
  • intercultural negotiation, in which some type of dialogue and exchange (of ideas, concepts, aesthetics, etc.) is established;
  • intercultural transformation, in which some of the attitudes reveal changes that have occurred through the contact between different cultures (transmutation of symbols, stories, chromatic sequences and shapes, etc.);
  • hybridized transculturality, which the author considers “the stage of ideal negotiation which results in a new re-territorialised cultural space;” that is, brand new and original solutions that integrate components from both cultures but which are now inseparable and belong to a new conception of reality. Examples of this stage can be clearly found in the field of gastronomy and music, the closest to sensations and feelings.

What is clear is that, behind a happy outcome, a successful symbiosis, there are years of doubt, suffering and efforts to find a place and visibility without giving up one’s own personality and without betraying one’s origins.

Culture and Power

The role of the state and local institutions is fundamental in the process of constructing the different urban collective identities that enter into dialogue as, through laws and regulatory provisions, they create the framework of reference of diversity. This framework of reference has become one of the pivots of urban dynamics as, in contrast to what happened in industrial society, “which gave rise to stable collective identities in virtue of belonging to a social class, current urban spaces are fields of confluence of unstable, fluid and generational identities.”[2] That is, today the participation of an individual in different cultural networks interweaved in the same space, whether physical or virtual and probably in both at the same time, is possible.

Current society, with the ongoing movements of population and demands of migrants (with or without papers) have led us to the emergence of alternative models and expressions (legal, illegal and unregulated) of citizenship

Regulation through the laws of the traditional model of citizenship (an identity element that involves belonging to a community or access to a set of privileges) can enable individuals to feel embraced by society when exercising their cultural expressions in the most diverse fields: from religious beliefs and traditional rites to visual or literary expressions; what we are entitled to and what we are not entitled to; who marks the limits and how; where the frontier lies between what is public and what is private… In short, based on the concept of citizenship, otherness is constructed and the mechanisms and spaces of dialogue are shaped. Current society, with the ongoing movements of population and demands of migrants (with or without papers) have led us to the emergence of alternative models and expressions (legal, illegal and unregulated) of citizenship,[3] with the consequent rearrangement of the public social spaces and the form of interaction in them. The state and the institutions, argues Mary Nash, “may favour the legal development of cultural minorities, allowing certain specificity in some of their socio-cultural spheres,” for instance, in terms of freedom of worship, regularising legal status, granting of rights, and so on. We should not forget that the aim will be defined in this case by the practical achievement of social harmony, as the municipalities can, through their actions and activities, soften the negative impact of certain stereotypes, attitudes and situations.

These forms of action are far removed from what has ironically been called cosmopolitanism or snob multiculturalism (chic racism, some will say), a cosmetic interculturality highly present above all in the world of fashion and, although to a different level but no less disturbing, in that of associations and NGOs which, rather than fostering dialogue, perpetuate comfortable clichés. These impede the fruitful advance of cultural exchange and also, in some cases, the development and feasibility of much more serious projects from the social point of view, both in their own societies and others, which are the object of their attention. Why? Simply because they do not have any effect on the structures of thought or modify perceptions; that is, they would be framed within the so-called coexistence stage.  

I would like to emphasise that coexistence, although in itself something positive, is not useful as a model of social interculturality as it does not create links between communities. Unfortunately, we are tired of seeing (and suffering) how coexistence leads to open conflicts precisely because of the lack of profound communication between such communities.

Spaces of Intercultural Communication  

To have a good perspective on what is happening in our city and to adopt the measures that are necessary in one sense or another (promotion of groups, prevention or resolution of conflicts, marking of risk zones, etc.), it is essential to identify the spaces, evidently in the public sphere, in which (consciously or unconsciously) these meetings or dialogues (negotiation, as we have pointed out) can be undertaken between disparate manifestations and identities, one’s own and others, the local and the global. We must not disdain this stage of knowledge, as the wide-ranging of interests in these diverse cultures can lead both to innovation and dynamism in the coexistence of citizens and to conflict and disorder. We can divide these spaces into three major groups: public areas (streets, public transport, stations, etc.), places of leisure and consumption (theatres, galleries and museums, associations, academies, restaurants, shops, etc.) and workplaces. In them we can analyse trends, percentages of different groups, their own attitudes and attitudes towards them, to later identify needs and anticipate specific actions. Next, we will see some examples of how cultural negotiation acts in society and in its creative manifestations.

The Complex Example of a Country: Notes on the Algerian Experience

In the Mediterranean area, one of the most interesting and widely illustrative cases of the migration phenomenon is that of the colonial and postcolonial Algeria throughout the 20th century. We can draw lessons on behaviours, social dynamics, actions and outcomes, which can provide us with a more than interesting perspective, however much it may seem that the geographical distance and social realities have been or are highly distant. We can extrapolate several examples from this Algerian experience, which enlightens us about the different stages involved in the relations between centre and periphery, colony and metropolis and other aspects we may consider. I include and deliberately stress the colonial factor so as not to forget that the attitudes of the political and economic powers, although they have changed their presentation, continue to be fundamentally the same[4] and, therefore, although time and context are different, the lines of tension are often similar: imposition-rejection-repression-revolution. Everything at highly variable levels, of course.

We witness a devaluation (we can speak directly of scorn) of local cultural expressions, rejected by the dominant elite and relegated to the level of local customs and manners

Thus, we observe two types of phenomena in the colonial period. On the one hand, we witness a devaluation (we can speak directly of scorn) of local cultural expressions, rejected by the dominant elite and relegated to the level of local customs and manners. The result is a more or less forced process of imitating the culture of the metropolis, which is linked to the “cultivated” and prestigious cultural space and whose forms and contents (language, musical styles, pictorial styles) are copied. The paradox is in the fact that the popular, mainly in the field of music, still prevails in the domestic and public spaces, mainly due to their close relation with rituals and religious festivities. In this way, dissociation between the cultures of the power and the cultures of the people emerges stressing the division of the two worlds and their cultural universes. The logical nationalist demand which emerged as a reaction is channelled through songs (always under scrutiny as subversive elements), with the rise of styles derived from the traditional music. In this period, the first emigrants experience their own culture with a certain feeling of inferiority and nostalgia, focusing on the memory of exile.

Since independence, the situation has been the reverse. As pointed out by Daoudi and Miliani,[5] it was “a matter of state to create and make visible a ‘national’, unique, independent, Arabic, Muslim, modern and egalitarian culture,” and the first to be protected was al-Andalusi music. This, preserved for years thanks to the musical associations of Jews and Muslims, was gradually gaining public acceptance. Meanwhile, there was an attempt to counteract the spectacular influence that the artistic currents from the western world have on youths, such as the powerful Egyptian industry, through the modernisation and enhanced value of urban music (mainly chaabi), much closer to the general public. In the wake of these demands, other local musical styles emerged, in this case as catalysers of the affirmation of other cultural identities relegated to the background (first, in the case of Kabilian and recently in that of Tuareg) or of a generational identity (in the case of rai first and rap later), which reacted against what was established and against the heartbreaking events of social division.

It is very interesting to consider the spectacular development of one of the symbols of Algerian culture in the last quarter of the 20th century. And not only because of its meteoric rise in a given moment but because of its modest origins and the environment in which it emerged. Rai, which appeared between the two world wars, has its origin in repetitive chants accompanied by the gasba or flute, part of Bedaoui or Riffi rural tradition. Its decline in neighbourhoods and establishments of ill repute gave place to rai, a transgressive expression and a daily and intimate chronicle of uprooting, desperation and marginalisation of the people arriving in the urban areas from the countryside. [6] The second generation of exiles gave a new thrust to this style in France, rescuing it from secrecy, mixing it with other styles and, of course, softening it. Rai is the clear example of a path that begins in the outskirts and culminates in the massive success of globalisation.

In this period, second generation emigrants experienced the combative demand of their own origins and cultural traits, and rebelled against the posture of the previous generation. At that moment, a creative current began to emerge with a characteristic vision and personality in the territory of the old metropolis. The culture of exile with protest components created its own world and affirmed itself in its reality through music, literature and cinema.[7] Until the birth of the concept of beur in the mid-1980s, the culture of origin as a positive component of plural identity was not openly and socially recognised. This example clearly illustrates the time gap between the social reality and the cultural reality, and the long path from the culture of exile to cultural syncretism.

The Management Point of View and the Creative Point of View

Faced with this, what has happened in the last 100 years can provide us with clues to the best (or the least erroneous) ways of acting when organising the spaces of creation and designing cultural policies. Given that emigration is and will be a constant, we must not approach it as an exception but rather as something habitual. Therefore, we must integrate it as an additional parameter when planning our policies for the society we are seeking to construct. Thanks to this conciliating and preventive interest, in the last 20 years there has been an attempt to lend words such as interculturality and fusion a sense of positivism that counteracts the residual negative sense that words such as emigration or migrant still have.

The culture of exile with protest components created its own world and affirmed itself in its reality through music, literature and cinema

From the point of view of social management, the main concern regarding these spaces of exchange is not the creative aspect itself but rather its capacity to renew, channel, fuse and synthesise the convergent societies (receivers and providers of migrants) into a specific geographical space so that the concurrent social phenomenon leads to hosting and fusion, thereby avoiding as much as possible the phenomena of acculturation and/or rejection. To this end, we must act from two perspectives: that of the host society (usually the majority) and that of the hosted society (in this case, individuals), which will often be a minority. And we must pay as much attention to the local culture as to the newly arrived culture so that neither is neglected.

The issue of making periodical assessments of the percentage of immigration is important because it obliges us to constantly rethink the policies and action programmes. The models must be flexible enough to be constantly adapted and, at the same time, firm and coherent enough to avoid being absorbed, manipulated and diverted. Likewise, at all costs we must avoid sponsorship and the holding of events aimed exclusively at the self-satisfaction of organisers, something which does not require major explanations.

Based on these premises, the road to intercultural creation involves three phases, during which the meeting of societies is approached following the aforementioned negotiation stages. This road would consist of three categories:

  • showing awareness of other realities through the organisation of festivals and exhibitions;
  • encouraging occasional meetings and dialogues (talks, seminars, conferences, etc.) during which direct exchanges take place at different levels and in both directions. It is here where private or public bilateral projects can emerge, which may be developed over time and will lay the foundations of a more open and participatory society;
  • creating permanent meeting points, training schools, libraries, creation centres, and so on, which will become spaces for the creation of identities through knowledge, emotional and intellectual dialogue and joint work.

From the creative point of view, the spaces of intercultural creation must be, above all, spaces of exposition and dialogue (dialoguing does not mean trying to convince, although sometimes it seems that this is forgotten), which most of the time will result in “conglomerates” (where the parts are simply put next each other, sometimes without much meaning) and from time to time, exceptionally and magically, can lead to fusions (where the parts are diluted into a brand new creation with its own and differentiated personality). However, in both cases it is essential to strengthen them as spaces of freedom and experimentation.

Independence is fundamental and we must foster it but dirigisme is as bad as uncontrolled growth

Quite, due to certain idleness, the creation of centres and activities aimed at the exchange of cultural and creative experiences is left in the hands of private initiative. Independence is fundamental and we must foster it (while avoiding excessive institutionalisation because of the natural tendency to parasitical exploitation of already established associations), but dirigisme is as bad as uncontrolled growth. And in this case we understand control as the capacity to offer a protective framework to grassroots interactions that optimises resources and avoid useless duplications. To conclude, we can state that given that there is no ideal or universal model of multiculturalism and that this cannot be designed “à la carte”, as Jordi Moreras would say,[8] the actions must respond to specific demands and adapt to the unpredictable progress of the populations around us.


[1] Rico Lie, “Spaces of Intercultural Communication”, New York, Hampton Press, 2003.

[2] Mary Nash, “Identitats, espais socials i multiculturalisme: visions del passat i del present”, in Carme Fauria and Yolanda Aixelà (coord.), Barcelona, mosaic de cultures, Museu Etnològic / Ed. Bellaterra, Barcelona, 2002.

[3] Iker Barbero González, “Hacia modelos alternativos de ciudadanía: análisis socio-jurídico del movimiento Sin papeles”, doctoral thesis, Universidad del País Vasco, 2010.

[4] Territories continue to be a chessboard on which to subtly or openly redraw the spaces of control and the areas of influence. What happens, to use a burning example, with the Azawad area? See Hélène Claudot-Hawad, “Business, profits souterrains et stratégie de la terreur. La recolonisation du Sahara”, published on //, 7th April 2012, and Yidir Plantade, “Les crises identitaires ne sont solubles ni dans la démocratie, ni dans le développement”, published on, 10th April 2012.

[5] Bouziane Daoudi and Hadj Miliani, Beurs’ Melodies. Cent ans de chansons immigrées du blues berbère au rap beur, Ed. Séguier, 2002.

[6] Bouziane Daoudi and Hadj Miliani, L’aventure du raï. Musique et société, Inédit Point Virgule. 1996.

[7] See “Mahdi Charef. Cineasta y escritor de la emigración”. Interview published in issue 4 of Zaqafa-Cultura, 1998. (Mahdi Charef was one of the first creators who emerged from what was called the damned triptych of immigration in France: beur-banlieue-baston.)

[8] Jordi Moreras, “¿Una alteridad no deseada? Las comunidades musulmanas en Barcelona”, in Barcelona, mosaic de cultures, Museu Etnològic / Ed. Bellaterra, 2002.