Journal of Intercultural Communication, issue 5, 2002

Ruth Lillhannus

Open, Closed, and Locked Images; Cultural Stereotypes and the Symbolic Creation of Reality


In this paper, I address the complex question of cultural stereotypes and how these kinds of categorising and simplifying notions of the perceived "other" and of ‘difference’ affect the special context of international project industry, a context where cultural diversity is one of the most prominent features. This paper aims at discussing the notion of cultural stereotypes as it appears in an empirical material consisting of field diaries written by Nordic students during their time as trainees at international industrial sites around the world.

I want to suggest that a deeper understanding of stereotypes and their role in cultural encounters can be achieved if an analysis of their contents and functions is connected to a more comprehensive existential question of how people in general create their world-views and interpret their reality. To enhance our understanding of the form and function of cultural stereotypes, I want to propose an alternative perspective in which to interpret them. In this article, I view stereotypes from the humanistic and theological perspectives of intercultural hermeneutics and as structuring components in the symbolic construction of reality (symboliska verklighetsbygget). The question of cultural encounters must not be addressed solely as a question of knowledge, I believe, but as a question also of attitudes and individual emotionally shaped dimensions. This can, I believe, contribute to a more dynamic and comprehensive understanding of the stereotypes and their significance in a world where cultural encounters have become everyday experiences.

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