Cultural Pluralism vs. Cultural Hybridity

Both cultural pluralism and cultural hybridity attempt to move beyond traditional nativist conceptions of the superiority of the language and culture of the “Self” and the presumed inherent inferiority and deficit-oriented view of the “Other.” Both phenomena incorporate postmodernist notions of cultural relativism, but they do so in different ways. While cultural pluralism respects and values differences among cultural groups, it still places individuals in traditionally bounded cultural spaces and for this reason has been criticized for essentializing culture. On the other hand, cultural hybridity allows for the transcendence of traditional cultural zones and their boundaries by transforming individuals into culturally sophisticated members of a global community who have control over the formation of their own identities by selecting from an almost unlimited number of distinct cultural elements drawn from their inherited culture and the cultures in which they interact (or perhaps even cultures in which they come into only tangential contact yet willingly choose to adopt). Thus, whereas cultural pluralism places individuals into honored yet confining cultural spaces, cultural hybridity seeks to liberate individuals and their cultural identities from predefined cultural compartments, allowing them to move beyond traditional cultural spaces into highly-individualized “third spaces” forged out of their own unique cultural experiences.

Although the idea of cultural hybridity is seductive, I find it more problematic than cultural pluralism. I believe that what might be conceptualized as the weak version of cultural hybridity, that all cultures are hybrids and that all individuals have hybrid cultural identities to the extent that no two individuals exist in the exact same cultural space, is as unproblematic as it is obvious. However, the strong version of cultural hybridity as proposed (essentially as a postcolonial solution to cultural nativism) seems somewhat oblivious to the socioeconomic realities of the modern world. While cultural hybridity supports personal liberation from traditional and confining cultural spaces, only those privileged individuals with the means to move from one cultural area to another (à la Pnina Werbner’s “gorgeous butterflies in the greenhouse of global cultures”) can take full advantage of its liberating power. And so while cultural hybridity may be a liberating phenomenon, relatively few (as Kumaravadivelu has pointed out, it is “fairly limited to the globe-trotting citizens of the world”) can avail themselves its benefits, despite its lure. On the other hand, while cultural pluralism may lack some (or even much) of cultural hybridity’s philosophical attractiveness, it is a solution to nativism that is readily available to all. I personally believe that all cultures should be honored and valued, and while Kumaravadivelu (2007) has criticized even this liberal interpretation of cultural pluralism as essentialized, I am comfortable accepting the continued existence of ethnic, racial and national boundaries so long as we respect them as legitimate, valued and coequal manifestations of human cultural diversity.

Turning to model pedagogical approaches for teaching language learners about cultural hybridity, I find the Australian approach of Intercultural Language Teaching (ILT) particularly compelling. The ILT approach’s attempt to create a holistic linguacultural learning experience (through the inclusion of the student’s native linguaculture and the target linguaculture as pedagogical elements to be contrasted) and the development of intercultural competence through learning about cultures, comparing cultures and exploring them can empower students to see themselves as more than just language learners. I believe that this type of empowerment can motivate learners to become more deeply invested in the learning process as they experience the challenges, frustrations and joys of personal cultural development, exploration and growth in addition to simple language acquisition/learning. I would incorporate the approach’s “three dimensional” teaching methods into my lessons to explore not only the how and what of language use (i.e., language structures, functions, vocabulary, etc.) but also the why (such as the cultural beliefs and values that are intertwined with and drive language use). An example of this type of teaching strategy would be the exploration and comparison of the verbal and non-verbal rituals involved in specific culturally-driven language functions (such as apologizing or responding to compliments, both of which can vary greatly from linguaculture to linguaculture but tend to be ritualized) in both the native and target linguacultures so that learners can understand and appreciate what cultural elements motivate language use in these types of personal interactions and how they do so.

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