Theresa Klinglmayr | PhD Candidate, Department of Transcultural Communication University of Salzburg
“We don’t want Chinatown, we don’t want Little Italy” – with these words, the Austrian federal minister for women and integration Susanne Raab emphasized the importance of opposing so-called ‘parallel societies’ when presenting the Integration Report 2020. In this ‘battle’, she considers the promotion of ‘cultural integration’ as crucial. Although this statement claims to refer to real social conflicts, it predominantly reflects prevalent political-media discourses and leading opinions of specific groups in Austria’s population. Major surveys show that negative attitudes towards migration and migrants, especially Muslims, are relatively prevalent in Austria.
The political discourse of integration is not only controversially discussed in public, but steeped in a rhetoric of problems and deficits on the side of immigrants. In my research, I propose to open up a new perspective, which focuses on resources and potentials instead of shortcomings and failures, especially when it comes to the integration of so called ‘cultural others’. One of the pressing concerns of Austria’s ‘immigration society’ therefore is: How can we communicate successfully in order to promote a respectful and caring society and a good life for all? I argue that socio-cultural resilience is a necessary precondition for successful communication in culturally diverse environments and needs to be developed and supported at various levels of society.
- Minds make Society
The philosopher and cognitive scientist Paul Thagard criticizes contemporary social sciences for neglecting mental processes of individuals and therefore failing to explain social change. Given the popularity of postmodernist theories, it has become common to assume that “everything is constructed on the basis of social relations such as power, with no inkling that these relations are mediated how people think about each other”. In contrast, Thagard’s social cognitivism emphasizes that “[s]ocial change comes from the combination of communicative interactions among people and their individual cognitive-emotional processes”. Thus, “social scientists who have ignored what happens in individual minds” could explain social change more sophistically by integrating psychological and neuronal theories. By referring to the concept of socio-cultural resilience, we are able to meet this demand.
- Resilience and Communication
Resilience serves “as an overarching cipher for dealing with risks, hazards and incalculable events of disruptive change” and combines concepts such as “robustness, immunity, adaptivity and coping”. From the perspective of developmental psychology, resilience describes “resistance to stressful circumstances and events” and refers to “patterns of positive adaptation during or following significant adversity or risk”.
Socio-cultural resilience is built at the individual level, while simultaneously being linked to contextual factors and social environments. Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that communication science can contribute significantly to resilience research by emphasizing the genuinely communicative character of resilience building: “human resilience is constituted in and through communicative processes that enhance people’s abilities to create new normalcies”. Resilience is fundamentally anchored in messages, discourses and narratives and is formed through five processes: 1) crafting normalcy, 2) affirming identity anchors, 3) maintaining and using communication networks, 4) putting alternative logics to work, 5) downplaying negative feelings while foregrounding positive emotions. Resilience as a “relationship construct” is formed in a “dynamic, transactional process” between an individual and its environment.
- Socio-cultural Resilience
Socio-cultural resilience generally refers to an individual’s capacity to deal with cultural diversity. It is more a “competence” bundled from various “individual abilities” in dealing with different everyday situations and development tasks rather than a matter of higher-than-expected coping with a risk situation. Resilience as a variable process of adaptation is actively constructed through change and is more than just surviving traumatic experiences unscathed: It consists of the “small triumphs of everyday life” and involves a permanent process of adaptation, resistance, resource activation and learning.
According to an integrated approach of individual cognition and social construction, building socio-cultural resilience means developing a mindset to deal constructively with culturally diverse situations and contexts. In order to build sociocultural-resilience and communicate successfully with people perceived as ‘culturally different’, I define, based on previous literature research, three key constructs: cultural expertise, resonance, and empowerment.
- Cultural Expertise
Intercultural communication, in a narrow sense, occurs “whenever at least one of the participants changes his/her mindset by critically reflecting on the representations, value orientations and action dispositions held by his/ her group […]”. The main actors in such communication processes are individuals who have acquired “intercultural competence” and have integrated cultural otherness in their mindsets. Intercultural competence, or cultural expertise, as a concept infused by interculturality, cannot be limited to a set of skills, certain knowledge or ‘learned’ attitudes, but rather evolves from the continuous interplay of perception, affect, cognition and action. Based on the connections between mental processes and social interactions, individuals develop cultural expertise, which contributes to the building of sociocultural resilience.
Referring to Hartmut Rosa, I consider the relationship between individual and environment as an important factor for successful communication and the development of socio-cultural resilience. Resonance refers to a mode of world-relationship, which allows subject and world to “reach” each other, resulting in a “response relationship” with transformative effects. The term resonance covers feelings of self-perception, self-efficacy and a sense of coherence, which are considered as important aspects for developing resilience in individuals.
The process of empowerment, as Jo Rowlands understands it, is about „bringing people who are outside the decision-making process into it“. More precise, empowerment describes “processes by which people become aware of their own interests and how those relate to the interests of others, in order both to participate from a position of greater strength in decision-making and actually to influence such decisions”. Naila Kabeer distinguishes three dimensions of empowerment: resources (conditions), agency (process) and achievements (outcomes). While resources and agency together, as she argues, constitute what Amartya Sen calls capabilities as a form of “potential that people have for living the lives they want […]”, empowerment goes one step further and also includes the realised achievements (or failures). Empowerment as a process of promoting decision-making competences and finding one’s own voice is a key element in the development of sociocultural resilience.
The concept of sociocultural resilience offers a perspective that goes beyond traditional approaches of integration or intercultural dialogue. By taking into account the interrelatedness of individual cognition and social processes, this account considers the development of sociocultural resilience essential for successful communication in culturally diverse environments. How the three defined key constructs – cultural expertise, resonance and empowerment – contribute to this process will be investigated in further theoretical and empirical analyses.