Conceptualizing intercultural competences through sites of memory

Study the past if you would define the future.

The study of intercultural competence has to take into consideration the (inter)cultural context in which the memory takes place. Memory can be defined as a major subject in contemporary life, a key to personal, social, and cultural identity and mentality (Kenny, 1999). Philosophers have long viewed continuousness of memory as an indispensable and vital quality of personhood. However, personal and collective identity are intimately connected.

Trigg (2012) emphases on the strange and incongruous ways in which body and cognition react to the environment to create and remember place, defined as “lived spatiality” and as an expression of “being-in-the-world”.

To comprehend the processes, practices, and outcomes of social sharing of memory, or collective remembering, one must take into consideration the characteristics of the community to which an important event occurred and in which memory for the event was subsequently formed, shared, spread, and transformed. In other words, one must examine and even explore the socialcultural- historical context where the remembering takes place (Bakhurst, 2005).

This socialcultural-historical context where memory takes place is strongly related to realms of memory (lieux de Mémoire) tangible or intangible.  

Defining Realms of Memory: a literature review

A lieu de mémoire (site of memory) is a concept popularized by the French historian Pierre Nora in his three-volume collection “Les Lieux de Mémoire” (published in part in English translation as Realms of Memory).

According to Nora, “a lieu de mémoire  is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community (in this case, the French community)”(1989: 7).

 It may characterize any place, object or concept vested with historical meaning in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag or the French figure Marianne, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). According to La Commission franco-québécoise sur les lieux de mémoire communs (French-Québécois Commission for Common Sites of Memory), a lieu de mémoire indicates the cultural landmarks, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past, whether material (monuments) or intangible (language and traditions).

Moreover, ancient monuments can be defined as sites of memory (Schnapp 1996: 13; Demoule 1998). Nowadays, as timemarks they transport the past into our everyday lives and become foci for our cultural memory and various phenomena of history culture.

Nevertheless, Nora argues that sites of memory are not common in all cultures and can be exclusively characterized as a modern phenomenon. Sites of memory substitute a “real” and “true” living memory, which was with us for millennia but now, has ceased to exist (cf. Maier, 1993). In Nora's interpretation, a constructed history replaces real memory. Sites of memory stay artificial, and deliberately fabricated. They aid us recall and reembrace the past – which is possibly essential in order to make living in the modern world significant (Marquard, 1986).

The aim of sites of memory is “to stop time, to block the oblivion”, and they all share "a determination, a will to remember" (Nora, 1989: 19). Nora claims that his definition of sites of memory excludes prehistoric and archaeological sites, since what makes them “important as sites is often precisely what ought to exclude them from being lieux de mémoire: the absolute absence of a will to remember and, by way of compensation, the crushing weight imposed on them by time, science, and the dreams of men” (1989: 20f.).

But this view is misled. Prehistoric monuments were been created as expressions of prospective memory, which is exactly “a will to remember”. Similarly, old monuments in the ancient world were already preserved as timemarks and became significant in different cultural memories, therefore constituting true sites of memory (Assmann, 2011: 60). There is ample evidence for memory crystallizing at ancient monuments not only in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, but also in later prehistoric Europe.

Sites of memory should, therefore, not be interpreted as current successors to living memory, but as significant components of most, if not all, societies in both past and present.

How culture can be defined through memory?

Culture can be defined as both a system (values, models, metaphors, scripts and artefacts) and a process (rituals and daily practices) of symbolic mediation. It functions on social institutions (e.g., the family, the nation) as well as on the actions, thoughts, emotions, and moral values of individuals, therefore guiding and forming both intrapersonal and interpersonal psychological functions (Wang & Brockmeier, 2002). The following characteristics of culture may be mainly significant for the study of collective memory.

First, culture is multidimensional rather than unidimensional. It includes and takes effect through different dimensions, levels, systems, and processes (Valsiner, 2000). Multiple cultural forces such as shared mnemonic traditions as well as practices of rituals, media coverage, and individual storytelling can thus support the development and preservation of a collective memory.

Additionally, culture may be expressed in varied ways across diverse fields of human experiences (for example, national tragedies, political scandals, family relations; e.g. Wang & Li, 2003). Consequently, the procedure and outcome of a collective memory may differ as a function of its cultural relevance in a particular life domain, being constrained by the cultural regularities of that domain.

Moreover, culture can be situated in the public (shared) time and space of the community, as well as internalized into the private time and space of the individual (D’Andrade, 1992).

Conversely, it may also produce tensions between cultural constructions and individual agency, where individuals actively negotiate, resist, or even escape the limits of a state (or community) imposed perception of the past (Kansteiner, 2002). Equally important, cultural heterogeneity occurs within any community, among the individual as well as subgroup members (e.g., gender groups; Cross & Madson, 1997).

To conclude, culture cannot be defined as a static but transitory process (Donald, 1991). It is located at a particular historical moment in time, reproducing and reaffirming the social transformation (including any kind of discoveries) experienced by a community and its members. Collective memory may consequently be influenced by the characteristics of the historical era, which can further result in generational and cohort differences.

Assmann, J. (2011). Communicative and cultural memory. In Cultural Memories (pp. 15-27). Springer Netherlands.
Bakhurst, D. (1996). Social memory in Soviet thought. An introduction to Vygotsky, 196-218.
Cross, S. E., & Madson, L. (1997). Models of the self: self-construals and gender. Psychological bulletin122(1), 5.
D’Andrade, R. G. (1992). Schemas and motivation. Human motives and cultural models23, 44.
Kansteiner, W. (2002). Finding meaning in memory: A methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and theory41(2), 179-197.
Kenny, M. G. (1999). A place for memory: The interface between individual and collective history. Comparative studies in society and history41(03), 420-437.
Maier, C. S. (1993). A surfeit of memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial. History and Memory5(2), 136-152.
Marquard, O. (1986). Über die Unvermeidlichkeit der Geisteswissenschaften. Apologie des Zufälligen, Stuttgart105.
Nora, P. (1989). Between memory and history: Les lieux de mémoire. Representations26, 7-24.
Osborne, B. S. (2001). Landscapes, memory, monuments, and commemoration: Putting identity in its place. Canadian Ethnic Studies33(3), 39.
Schnapp, A. (1996). The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology, Lond-on. British Museum.
Trigg, D. (2012). The memory of place: A phenomenology of the uncanny. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Valsiner, J. (2000). Culture and human development. Sage.
Wang, Q., & Brockmeier, J. (2002). Autobiographical remembering as cultural practice: Understanding the interplay between memory, self and culture. Culture & Psychology8(1), 45-64.
Wang, Q., & Li, J. (2003). Chinese children's self‐concepts in the domains of learning and social relations. Psychology in the Schools40(1), 85-101.

Lieux de mémoire (May, 2017). Retrieved from:

Thoughts of Italian project partner “Istituto dei Sordi di Torino”: Carolina Carotta, Enrico Dolza, Sofia Mastrokoukou.

Writer of the blog text: Sofia Mastrokoukou, PhD Candidate at the University of Montpellier and Career Counselor at the University of Piraeus.

Motto of the writer: Primum non nocere (First, do not harm)

An international classroom experience for adult learners?

When thinking of spaces for intercultural learning, one space has attracted much attention in higher education in the last decade: the international classroom. This is a format adopted, especially in the Northern countries of Europe, to allow international students from all over Europe (and further afield) to study at a foreign university as an exchange student for one or two semesters.

By and large, it is regarded as a powerful space for intercultural learning, even though this is not its primary objective. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, some of the characteristics are: a group of students from diverse backgrounds (in culture, education, experience etc.) who study a (credits) course together, developing (learning) activities and projects together in purposeful interaction at a foreign location, as part of a bachelor or master programme at their home university. Their educational experiences are enhanced in the multicultural and multilingual learning environment by an informal curriculum, supported by staff from a diversity of backgrounds allowing plenty of room for intercultural dialogue and exploring multiple viewpoints.

The core ingredients of an international classroom

Could we possibly derive from this format any pointers towards arranging spaces for intercultural learning for another target group, namely adult learners? So, let's take a closer look at the concept and its core ingredients.

First of all, the contents of the course is often of an international or comparative nature and/or based on international literature or theories, whatever the theme of the course. Whenever possible, the input of the international students is welcomed, e.g. by inviting them to provide their countries' as well as their own know how and experiences on the issues dealt with. Their international backgrounds are often effectively used as a resource and considered as added value to enhance the learning process.

Secondly, the lecturers teaching the course often have mixed backgrounds, sometimes because their parents have mixed roots, sometimes because their parents were expats, sometimes because they themselves married a partner from a foreign country. Because of this background, they have no difficulties identifying with the international students as they went through similar experiences. They may also have taken part in international exchange programmes themselves, or any international project or training course. In fact, all of these experiences develop the capacity to see situations from multiple perspectives and welcome other viewpoints, an essential quality in an international setting.

Thirdly, the students: those who go abroad for an international classroom experience took a well-considered decision to participate, even though their motives may well differ. These are students who demonstrate a willingness to take up the challenge of study abroad, of meeting people in a new context, in an unfamiliar country. As all is new to them and as they are often there on their own, one of the first things they do is find support and friendship in their immediate surroundings which is the international group more often than not. Bonding starts early on as they are all in the same boat: away from home, away from friends and family. Many international courses explicitly address this by setting up getting to know each other and other teambuilding activities, as part of the informal curriculum.

Despite the fact that these students choose to go for an international and intercultural experience,  it doesn't mean that it is all plain sailing for them. Most of them experience ups and downs, as well as each other's (sometimes frustrating) working methods, other methodological approaches that they don't feel at ease with, other learning styles, other teacher-student relationships etc., plus all that in a language that is not their mother tongue.

In order to derive full benefit from this total immersion, most curricula make sure to build into the programme moments to reflect on experiences, either in debriefing sessions or in intervision-type of peer groups.

Creating spaces for intercultural learning for adult learners

To what extent can adult education centres or courses replicate such an international classroom experience? In fact, many of the core ingredients can be applied when creating spaces for intercultural learning for adult learners (as well as for adult learning staff in a professionalization track for that matter). Admittedly, there may be quite a difference between eager students on an international exchange and adult learners, as far as motivation is concerned. However, as any educator knows initial motivations to start out on a course may change after the first few sessions when they’ve met their fellow learners and their trainer. A stimulating and inspiring kick off built on a well-considered scenario can do wonders. Learners need to know from the start that they are in good, stable hands and that there’s something valuable for them to learn.

Listening, for one, is one of the most important necessities for trainers. People will always listen to you when you listen to them and to what is on their mind. Everybody wants to feel important and special. The act of recognizing another is a strong motivator in any learning process, as well as an important first step in any intercultural encounter. Especially where intercultural issues are concerned, spaces for learning and discussions about prejudice, stereotype and creating understanding of“the other” need to be safe environments.

Apart from this there could be another issue that could present some trouble in arranging, and that is diversity. What if there’s actually little diversity within the group of learners or within the teaching staff. How to solve that issue?

The Human Library – a tool for enabling meaningful conversations and dialogue

How are we to understand each other, if we do not have the opportunity to talk to each other?  It was this question asked by Danish Ronni Abergel that initiated a global movement called The Human Library. Its aim is to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotyping and prejudice through dialogue.

The Human Library is best described as a place where real people are “on loan to readers”, a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered. This innovative approach enables non-confrontational and friendly conversations by engaging real people in meaningful conversations. How does it work? Individuals from typically marginalized groups volunteer as “human books” and openly share their life story with participants who want to “read” them. This provides an opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet and allows you to exchange inside information, feelings and insights into the type of diversity you are curious about.

“The Books” share very personal stories that promote dialogue about faith, gender identity, survival, privilege, handicaps, ethnicity and so on. In open and honest conversations “the readers” are asked to examine their assumptions and stereotypes around those issues. It’s these types of face to face, intercultural encounters that any adult education course provider can organise as a space for intercultural learning (and probably as part of a course for either adult learners or adult learning staff.)

A short video explains this inspiring and powerful concept of the human library on YouTube: The Human Library Promo. The Human Libary Organization's website gives you a good overview of the many types of diversity of “human books”, ranging from HIV to homeless, ADHD, autism, brain damaged, deafblind, muslim, sexually abused to refugees, naturists, bipolars, obese etc. As you can see in this map, these human libraries are organised nearly all over the globe. So in case an adult education course provider lacks a diverse staff or if a rich mix of backgrounds, heritages, experiences among the learners is missing, here’s a potential approach worth trying out.

In case you do, feel free to share your experiences with us.

Anja Stofberg

The writer is a senior lecturer as well as in charge of international affairs within the School of Social Work of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Her motto is: think global, act local.

Intercultural learning is finding new tracks together

According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the base sense of the verb to learn is “to follow or find the track”. We can look at the question of learning and finding the track either on a personal or on a collective level.

On a personal level, learning means that we have to find the track by ourselves. However, we are not alone in this world. Our tracks are constantly overlapping with those of other people. In addition, there are many destinies that we simply can’t reach alone. It is necessary to combine our competences in order to find the new tracks.

Many viewpoints, better solutions

The essence of learning together is the variety of viewpoints which different people bring to the discussion. All of us have different approaches to problems or tasks. It might be that none of these approaches alone bring the answer to a problem. However, taking the effort of making a synthesis and combining diverse approaches might lead us forward – closer to the right solutions.
Consequently, one could argue that the more our points of view different from those of other, the more significant new ideas and innovations we can come up with. Very often we like to work together with people who think the same way we do. Often we are also afraid of telling our opinions if they differ from the common way of thinking in the group. This is very human.

The more our points of view different from those of other, the more significant new ideas and innovations we can come up with.

However, thinking about the big global challenges we are facing in today’s world, we should actually be passionately looking for approaches and points of view that differ from each other as much as possible – and then try to make a synthesis of them.

This is one of the core ideas in our interpretation of intercultural learning. People who represent different cultures – be it the ethnic background, gender, generation, religion, social status or something else – will most likely to have the possibility to make us open our eyes. This kind of intercultural learning can be the solution even to the most wicked problems; the problems that do not have easy answers.

Intercultural learning is not only an individual process

To be able to learn together and to solve problems with people who have backgrounds different from ours, is obviously not always easy. For example ignorance may lead to prejudices against unknown and different, and prevent fruitful dialogue. This is why we need intercultural competence. We must learn skills, knowledge and attitudes that help us behave and communicate in appropriate and effective ways in intercultural situations.

It is important to provide tools for educators, facilitators and instructors, so that they are able to teach intercultural competence.

It is necessary that intercultural learning takes place at an individual level. However, that is not enough. Solving common problems is possible only when intercultural skills extend from the individual to the group level and even to a larger context, society as a whole. This way, it is possible to be creative together and find new solutions to the challenges we face as a humanity. Intercultural learning will come into the lives of communities through encounters, active listening and empathy between the people.

Many scholars have argued that people do not become interculturally competent naturally – instead, it must be intentionally addressed. Therefore it is important to provide tools for educators, facilitators and instructors to teach these skills. It will be interesting to see what kind of new tracks we will find together in our project Spaces for Intercultural Learning.

Welcome to follow our blog and join the journey!

Jaakko Rantala & Pekka Kinnunen

The writers are passionate about lifelong learning and work in a Finnish adult education institution, Citizen’s Forum.