Glaserfeld and Intercultural Communication

Glaserfeld and Intercultural Communication

16 October 2008

Glasersfeld, E. von (1989) Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese 80(1): 121–140.

Doolittle, P. (2000) Constructivism and Online Education. 1999 Online Conference in Teaching Online in Higher Education.

Winn, W., & Snyder, D. (1996). Cognitive perspectives in psychology. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook for Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 112-142). New York: Simon &; Schuster Macmillan.


I this essay I will reflect on some of the concepts outlined in the referenced literature and will try to apply them to the field of intercultural communication.

This is not meant as an academic paper, although citations will be provided for clarity and accuracy reasons.


In his article, Ernst von Glaserfeld states that, according to Piagetian definitions, social interaction is crucial to knowledge, although this premise may not always find acceptance in constructivist theories.

He also explains that, according to Piaget’s Theory of Cognition, for learning to occur, it is necessary to go through assimilation and accommodation. Piaget’s Learning Theory also recognizes that “cognitive change and learning take place when a scheme, instead of producing the expected result, leads to perturbation, and perturbation in turn leads to accommodation that establishes a new equilibrium.” (p.6)

Next I will attempt to argue that these stages of learning towards the development of  knowledge are also relevant to the experience of experiential learners in a cross-cultural setting, as they mirror similar stages of intercultural learning. I will also explore the possibility that a social constructivist approach may result in that kind of cultural transformation that may give birth to a new kind of social context that I refer to as third culture.


Von Glaserfeld says that “the use of a scheme always involves the expectation of a more or less specific result.” (p.7) Apparently we employ our personal interpretation of reality to make sense of the world. Also the process of cultural adaptation in cross-cultural situations seems to work like a schema as defined in Cognitive perspectives in psychology. However, when we find ourselves outside our familial cultural environment, things may work differently, and a scheme approach may lead to a kind of perturbation that is specific to intercultural settings. In fact, when dealing with other cultures, we may misinterpret symbols simply because we tend to perceive them through the lenses of our culture and filter them through our cultural schema. Such experiences may progress through learning stages such as perturbation and adaptation, resulting in new knowledge and possibly in opportunities for personal transformation.

Furthermore, in von Glaserfeld’s article, perturbations are presented as those fundamental events in the occurrence of learning. The social dimension of perturbations is also emphasized: ‘the most frequent source of perturbations for the developing subject is interaction with others.” (p.11) This reinforces my argument that cross-cultural situations, typically charged with human interaction, may lead to perturbation and subsequent adaptation. Of course, adaptation is a much debated term that may encompass several stages of intercultural competence, which I do not want to address in this paper. Perturbation is thus a pivotal stage in the adaptation process that may result in assimilation and may have powerful implication in many learners’  cross-cultural experience.

The terminology used by Von Glaserfeld is very similar to the one found in the field of intercultural communication, although there might be some differences in meaning.

The following are examples of terms used by von Glaserfeld that could be applied to an intercultural communication environment. The term “adaptedness” seem to parallel the concept of “tolerance for ambiguity,” which is one of the main skills that make up intercultural communication competence.

Von Glaserfeld also talks about a dualistic accommodation that “ascribes perceptual and cognitive capabilities to others based on reciprocity.” (p.7) In intercultural communication literature the concepts of avowed and ascribed identities (see explanatory note at the bottom) have become a source of conflict mainly – in my opinion – due to lack of reciprocity and cultural sensitivity, and therefore due to a lack of a compatible conceptual framework. I believe that the construction of such framework equals what interculturalists have come to call “intercultural competence,” a term already mentioned in the preceding paragraphs and that corresponds to a particular capability envelop that would also include culturally sensitive attitudes towards cultural differences. Even if not intended as a contribution to intercultural communication, von Glaserfeld’s article seems to have captured the essence of this important capability by defining reciprocity as its main component.

At this point I ask myself and the forum if constructivism could also include a dialectic transformation between (among) interacting learners, one that would establish a new shared compatible conceptual framework that could lay the foundation for a “third culture.” I define a third culture as one that would result from a Gestalt, wholistic vision, a culture that is not merely the sum of disconnected and independent cultural fragments.

This idea sprung into my mind from the readings on constructivism, and particularly from Constructivism and Online Education and its description of social constructivism. Specifically, two quotes prompt me to consider the possibility that constructivism may indeed serve as a platform for cultural transformation, in ways similar to those explored by David Bohm. He even went beyond the vision of truth as “socially constructed and agreed upon, resulting from ‘co-participation in cultural practices’ ” (Cobb &; Yackel, cited in Doolittle), and embraced the possibility that a new paradigm and relevant social context may emerge from the transformational power of dialogue and open communication.

For more on David Bohm, I suggest reading the book On Dialogue, partly available on-line.


In Cross-cultural communication we find the terms avowed and ascribed identities. In this web page I found the following definition:

Avowed and Ascribed identities: Not only do we have an image of our various identities, we also have an image of the identities of others. One’s avowed identity is the one that one claims (avows) in an interaction. An ascribed identity is one that we give to someone else. A woman might come to the workplace and see herself as a professional. But then if a man makes a harassing comment, he is treating her in her identity as a woman (specifically, a sex object). So also, among people of a given identity, one African American might enact her identity one way, and another might say she is not “Black” enough. This simply means that one person ascribes one Black identity the other person, but the person avows a different Black identity. Competent Communication occurs when the identity we avow to others matches the identity that they claim in an interaction.

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