Ethnic vs Ethnicity; Third World and Development : The language of intercultural studies and conversations… a language of inequality?

CherubDuring the last five or so years my life has been marked by the bittersweet experience of writing a thesis in Education Sciences. This means I’ve bothered and bored my friends, co-workers and students with ideas, doubts, questions, readings an authors; and that I have spent days and hours planning what to write, but not actually writing it. The thing is that writing a research work like this one demands not only rigorous revision of well respected thinkers, but also be courageous enough to put forward your ideas and not write a long (long, long) report of a subject.

This is what I’ll be doing 24/7 for the months to come, in the hopes of getting closer to the final goal. The idea is to write a decent text discussing the possibilities of learning about cultures through the Web 2.0.

Now, among the things I’m hoping to discuss in the thesis there’s the mere use of the language in it. And that is because a lot of what has preceded and what has come after the interaction of certain cultures is more often than not, conflictive. The evolution of the language that tries to talk about the other has several layers, and it can come from invisibility to straight bigotry. But just like language, talking about others tends to be difficult, and it also brings to the table what we know and what we don’t know about the people we’re talking about.

I have found myself facing these questions when reading important authors about «civilization», «culture», «development» or «under-development», and an old favourite : «Third World». I’ve had long conversations about this with friends (that try to understand why this concept is kind of insulting), and I’m at the moment, swimming deep in literature about the language of intercultural research.

I was disappointed, for example, to read in a quite celebrated author on intercultural exchange here in France and find, after a carefully crafted chapter explaining how there’s no hierarchy among cultures, a whole chapter called «France and the Third World». This book was published in the 90s, so, not quite recent. But the use of the concept, even if a lot more limited, keeps being present. In this kind of discourse a big number of people are denied difference and specificity, while the mighty old powers are still given their name. I found a nice blog post when looking for info about this, and I agree with what the blogger says:

[the concept of the Third World] suggests a hierarchy that in people’s minds is not neatly restricted to some ranking of progress in development indicators, and certainly not to the historical allegiance of nations during the Cold War, as its origins are claimed to be, but is attached to real people and by association, their ethnicities. It suggests that the US with its White majority is innately better than, say, India, and encourages not an examination of global inequality as a result of historical exploitation, but of the notion that these countries have less because they are objectively worth less.

I have the same feelings about the use of the word «Ethnic» in English, which is used to to point at communities coming from the big world called the «non-West». I went to the dictionary to be sure, and found ‘ethnicity’ as:

the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition 

But when I went to ‘ethnic’ the first result was:

of or relating to a population subgroup (within a larger or dominant national or cultural group) with a common national or cultural tradition

And after that:

of or relating to national and cultural origins

So, when reading blogs, press, and research articles from the UK and the US (I have to try in «non-Western» anglophone texts!) I find a lot of things about Ethnic food or Ethnic shops or Ethnic communities. Or even the example of the dictionary for its 4th meaning of the adjective:

characteristic of or belonging to a non-Western cultural tradition : cheap ethnic dresses

Am I being too sensitive? I still feel that with that use of those terms we tend to see Western culture (whatever that is) as the default, the norm, the reference. No wonder why anti-globalist movements feel they will be erased from the map.

If there’s something I have learned with the study of language, as a research apprentice and also as a blogger is that words matter. And that people like to belittle their importance. I would also add to that learning process the fact that research and sciences, despite the ivory tower, has not been completely safe from media’s and common people’s prejudices. When research in countries that have money and platforms for it concentrate their reflection on immigration, «integration», and how corporations can deal better with other cultures, the main point is, to me, quite lost. It’s a display of ethnocentrism, which, almost by definition, is contrary to interculturality.

But!.. and however…

It would be quite naif to think that there’s a perfect language to talk about differences and interactions, of course. Our history as humans is way too heavy and language is incredibly mutable. However, I believe in encouraging the visibility of countries and communities, of talking about Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and not Africa. Specially if next to it, we have the nerve to talk about «France» and even «California» (I saw this in an ethnology manual). I love the words of R. Kapuscinsky on this matter :

The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.

I also believe it’s important to think about the ways in which we understand «development» (and its evil twin «under-development»). What are our goals in terms of this so-called «development» ? We talk about it as if it was a «normal», or ideal thing, specially in the West; a West in which I include the countries that make Latin America and our ideas of «progress». The goal we all aim at, which is «development» in the US/Europe sense not only is not «normal», it’s not even sustainable.

I would also like to put forward the need of discussion about what we understand as «civilization», and what is «civilized». I liked very much the ideas used in the series Crash Courses (A YouTube account I tend to be glued to and that I strongly recommend watching). For this post I prefer to quote them instead of another fancy author (which will make this post even longer):

Civilization is a complicated and controversial concept (…) to describe a group or a person as ‘civilized‘ is to give them a privilege status that they maybe haven’t earned, or to call someone «uncivilized» is an insult… right…?

It goes on here:

So, to wrap up. Are matters of language important? Yes. Are they important beyond the realm of research? Yes, again. The way media and people in general refer to a group of people reflects what they think of them and how they see them. I have learned as a Venezuelan, and as a foreigner in France that words are an easy bridge to people’s views; and that these views tend to reflect a deep process of dehumanization of the other that we need to work on.

More on the idea of civilization used in media in a couple of days…

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