Intercultural Competences

What do we mean by “culture”?

“The word ‘culture’ is used because it implies the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group” (NASW, 2000b, p. 61). Culture often is referred to as the totality of ways of behaving being passed on from generation to generation. The term culture includes ways in which people with disabilities or people from various religious backgrounds or people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender experience the world around them.” (NASW 2001 p9)

This is a broader definition, than I think has been assumed in the planning and application stages of the project. We need to be clear whether we are looking at a narrower definition that focuses on ethnic, linguistic and religious differences within and between nation states, or a more inclusive definition that includes other marginalized groups and what may be termed sub-cultures.

O’Hagan (2001) observes that while the Children Act (1989) s22 (5)(c) obliges professionals to “give due consideration to a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”, the term “culture” is not defined. He adds that:

“This has the potential for developing a limited, unbalanced, even negative perception of culture, particularly the culture of others…If cultural competence is the goal of health and social care agencies, then it seems a worthwhile exercise to seek useful definitions of culture and cultural identity for health and social care professionals.” (p22)

What do we mean by “intercultural competence” in social care work?

One starting point would be to say that it is the ability to offer as good a service to someone from a culture different from one’s own as to someone with whom one shares the same cultural background; clearly this implies overcoming barriers of communication and values and is not to say that services offered in these different circumstances should be identical.

NASW, the professional association for social workers in the USA clearly cultural competence within the larger context of social work values and anti-oppressive practice:

“Cultural competence requires social workers to recognize the strengths that exist in all cultures. This does not imply a universal nor automatic acceptance of all practices of all cultures. For example, some cultures subjugate women, oppress persons based on sexual orientation, and value the use of corporal punishment and the death penalty. Cultural competence in social work practice must be informed by and applied within the context of NASW’s Code of Ethics and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.” (2001 p16)

There is a clear warning here regarding the risk of compromising other professional values in the quest for cultural competence and slipping into a dangerous relativism. On one model the highest stage of “intercultural sensitivity” is “the application of ethnorelativism to one’s own identity” (Bennett 1986). Rodgers et al (1998) comment that the thrust of various approaches to teaching cultural competence “…is to move students from a state of ethnocentrism to one of pluralism whereby they accept and respect the inherent right to coexistence of all cultures (Nakanishi & Rittner, 1992).” Bennett’s (1986) stages of development of cultural competence, identify “Integration of difference: the application of ethnorelativism to one’s own identity as the most desirable outcome for training in this field. Ben-David (1998) advocates a three stage approach to teaching “cultural pluralism: becoming aware of one’s own culture, becoming aware of cultural differences and developing a “pluralistic attitude”.

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