Why Cosmopolitanism?

Guest PostsWhy Cosmopolitanism? Guest post by Miriam Sobre-Denton.

Ah, cosmopolitanism.  The first time I found you, I was taking a class on global and transnational ethnography with Dr. Takeyuki Tsuda.  I read an article by Ulf Hannerz titled Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture.  He has since retracted many of the things he wrote in this article.  And yet, for the first time, I felt that I had read an intercultural theory (in an anthropology class, no less) that actually applied to my life.  So much of the work I’d done up until this point examined intercultural theories that provided dichotomies.  You were EITHER individualist OR collectivist.  When you travel, you EITHER make friends from your home culture OR your host culture.  You are EITHER a patriot OR an interculturalist.  Profoundly unsatisfying to me, as my experiences often hinged on dialectical tensions and dialogical experiences—those moments that exist between the both/and, rather than the either/or.  Cosmopolitanism was the first theory I’d ever read that said you could be BOTH rooted AND rootless; BOTH local AND global; that maybe you would be the most comfortable with others who experienced similar tensions, who live in spaces of in-between-ness.

And then the backlash set in.  Cosmopolitanism, you were not what I thought you were!  Cosmopolitanism, I was informed, really isn’t a theory of both/and.  This is a theory of exclusivity, of the ‘class consciousness of frequent travelers’; sure there was a sense of both/and-ness, but only for those privileged enough to be able to engage in voluntary sojourns that inevitably involve Western imperialism and cultural commodification.  Why would anyone want to study this concept? I was interrogated about the inherent violence that cosmopolitanism—particularly in its Kantian and previously Greco-Roman Stoic iterations.  This is a theory of global citizenship only accessible to those who have the privilege of being citizens in that kind of world.

And yet, cosmopolitanism, you continued to proliferate, to grow in breadth and depth.  From when I first learned the term in 2006, to the present day (2014), cosmopolitanism theorists flocked to you, across disciplines ranging from sociology and political economy to religious studies and linguistics.  Everyone was coming to the party—which also involved directly addressing the critiques of elitism and western imperialism brought with such ferocity by its opponents.  Forms of vernacular, non-Western, non-elite and critical cosmopolitanism, which have actually been around since its nascence in places like ancient China in the philosophies of Mo Tzu and Mencius, as well as being promoted by the African philosophy of Maat, are resurfacing in work by such scholars as Pnina Werbner, George Delanty and Walter Mignolo.

In intercultural communication, we are, to extend the metaphor, late to your party.  Intercultural communication scholars, particularly those who embrace critical and postcolonial approaches, are only now beginning to accept that this cosmopolitanism a term that is growing in strength, rather than waning.  As the world shrinks and difference becomes something that can no longer be hidden from (if it ever could), cosmopolitanism in its critical and vernacular forms has reemerged as a theory for our time, which insists not that we should all embrace each others’ many and varied values, but rather that we should understand that we all have values, and all hold those values dear to ourselves and the people and things we love.  This kind of dialogic empathy requires hope as an approach to non-binary thinking.  Cosmopolitanism is not a project that can be forced upon people; instead, it must be voluntarily embraced as an ethic of care for the world, from those next door to those across the ocean.   My colleague Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan and I have recently published a book titled Cultivating Cosmopolitanism for Intercultural Communication:  Communicating as Global Citizens, in which we propose cosmopolitanism’s use for our discipline as a space of hopeful dialogue to move from either/or to a space of both/and.  Cosmopolitanism, you may not be the answer, but you certainly deserve to be a part of both the discipline the dialogue.

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Building bridges from theory to practice

I’m currently teaching a course on communication theory.  It’s an undergraduate class, one of those that’s designed to recruit majors.  Recently, one of my students, Joel, raised his hand in class.  You know the type:  he’s talkative, friendly and bright, a bit overbearing, and trying to figure out ‘what does it all mean’.  And that is precisely what he asked in the middle of a lecture/discussion on the importance of communication theory:  “But Miriam, what’s the point?  How does this stuff work in the real world?  Why should I care?”

It’s an age-old question, and one that students and teachers alike often struggle with, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities:  what is the connection between abstract, above-the-clouds theory and the pragmatic, day-to-day life we lead in the world?  But the question is, really, neither mundane nor naïve.  Indeed, I would argue that, in intercultural communication, this question is particularly important and yet woefully under-addressed.  We come up with all of these amazing theories to describe alienation, assimilation, identity processes, cultural difference—but we publish them in reputable journals and exorbitantly-priced textbooks and provide ‘in real life’ examples primarily at the undergraduate level.  Meanwhile, interculturalists who work in the world (outside of academic research), in such areas as refugee counseling, immigration, study abroad, international business, etc., are often working with little-to-no theoretical training, or with outdated approaches to difference such as the U-Curve or Iceberg models.

Where is the dialogue between theorists and practitioners?  What’s the point of doing such great and important work, on theories such as cosmopolitanism, hybridity, critical race theory, and others, if they are only accessible to other academics?  Those of us who identify as critical intercultural scholars are constantly talking about teaching others that difference should be embraced rather than feared, and yet here we are, talking in a language that is only accessible (literally, in terms of access to academic articles; and figuratively, in terms of being able to translate the academese we learn in graduate school) to a small portion of the population: those most like us.

In a discussion of intercultural dialogue, we would do well to listen to questions like Joel’s—the “how does this work” and “why should I care” questions.  If we are the idealists that the field really demands, then shouldn’t we be taking our work outside of the academy and applying it to those who need it, such as those who work with migrant populations, underserved urban youth, patients without health insurance, and on and on?  How can we build bridges between the important work that is done by university researchers and the communities we intend to serve?

I don’t propose that we stop building intercultural theory.  I think the work we do in intercultural research, particularly with today’s critical and postcolonial turns, is imperative to thriving in a world in which difference is coming closer to our doors rather than farther away.  However, with this divide between town and gown, between theory and practice, particularly in intercultural communication research, too much is lost in the translation.  I’d like to call for creative ways of applying academic theory to real world contexts, in ways that get our students jazzed about life beyond college, to see futures for their intercultural understandings of the world they learn in the classroom.  Programs such as Dr. Amy Stornaiuolo’s work with adolescent literacy, called Space2cre8, are heeding such calls, but there is room for so much more.  Students like Joel, those who understand that there could be more to theory than just memorization and regurgitation on an exam, can start to build these bridges, but only once we realize that our work needs to go further.  Let’s get this conversation moving outward, starting by answering Joel’s question:  “You should care because this work is essential to living in a multicultural world.”  This is the opening of our dialogue.

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Miriam S. Sobre-Denton
Assistant Professor | Intercultural Communication
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

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