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An Interview with Adrian Holliday


In October 2018, a symposium entitled ‘Interculturality in a Precarious Future: Multiple Contexts, Multiple Voices’ was held at the University of Leeds to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the MA in Professional Languages and Intercultural Studies (MAPLIS) and raise awareness of intercultural studies as a new subject area in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (LCS). As well as considering how individual speakers make use of the concept of interculturality in their work, the symposium encouraged discussion about the sustainability of the concept and its continuing relevance, particularly as the concept is frequently co-opted to serve a range of ideologies such as neoliberalism and state multiculturalism. The symposium also critiqued the possibility of a ‘post-intercultural’ or ‘post-cultural’ world, reflected on how and when the notion of difference is important or immaterial and considered whether alternative concepts such as critical cosmopolitanism offer greater epistemological perspectives for understanding social interaction. The symposium also included a keynote presentation by Professor Adrian Holliday whose work needs no introduction to most people working in the field of intercultural communication, intercultural studies and language education. Professor Holliday was interviewed after the symposium about his work by Ramzi Merabet (a postgraduate researcher) and
Daniela Nicolaescu (a MAPLIS student).

Transcript Code
[???] = word(s) not clear
… = indicates a pause or switch of thought mid-sentence
Word with (?) = indicates best guess at word
[IA] = sentence(s) inaudible or indecipherable

MI = Ramzi Merabet
DN - Daniela Nicolaescu
AH = Adrian Holliday


RM: Thank you for the presentation today.We have some more questions that may be related to today and other ones that may be related to your career. The first one is personal – I’ve read many of your books and articles and they made me question essentialism in my daily practices. Although people can develop a kind of critical cultural awareness, can they totally get free of essentialism?

AH: No.

RM: Why can’t they totally get rid of essentialism?

AH: Because it’s the way that we are brought up. It’s the nature of being a human being - we’re naturally tribal.Whenever we live in small groups, to survive, we have to pitch ourselves against other groups because resources are scarce. I guess sometimes, if we’re lucky enough to live in plentiful environments, we don’t have to worry so much about that but it is part of our human nature. It’s a survival instinct. I think that when we live in larger groups and we think about civilisation, we have to find ways of moving away from this. So this is our natural way of thinking but that doesn’t justify it.

MI: So we should always resist this way of thinking?

AH: If we want to be civilised, yes. I guess civilised means that you become part of a civility rather than being part of a small competitive group fighting to survive. Perhaps that’s what civilisation means. So I think we are naturally racist. This is our nature, to be racist.

RM: It’s so difficult to agree on this one because I’m still questioning whether we are naturally racist or not.

DN: We spoke a lot about this and, as I said, we are all racists by nature and this phrase makes me think a lot about the idea of belonging, because people tend to belong all the time or to belong to an ideology, to belong to a group or to some ideas and, as I said before, it is this desire together because if we’re not together, we are not gathering, we don’t have like… we feel a sort of anxiety because we are floating. We don’t have like a territory, we don’t have something that makes us secure. So what I thought about it’s that we are always… even if we are choosing not to belong, not to be rooted, no territory, if I make this choice, it’s my decision, it’s not a decision of other. It’s not an identity that is imposed by the other. I choose not to belong but if I choose this, I will select… like even if I choose to belong to a group, I select. It’s like this process of selectivity and if I select, I will select something in detrimental of another group. I don’t know, I think I made that very confusing.

AH: Well, if you’re interested in what I think, my earliest memories are of being entirely alone and then my parents told me I had to mix with other children, which I didn’t want to, and then I had to go to school, which I didn’t want to.When I was at school, I didn’t understand what it was. So for me the pressure was to join, not not to join. I felt more comfortable being an isolated person.

DN: Do you think that this pressure alienates you, like changes your identity, because it’s imposed, it’s a pressure?

AH: Well, it depends on who you are. I think it depends entirely on who you are. Perhaps I was very antisocial. So for me the pressure is to join, not not to join and perhaps that’s what helps me to be a researcher. Is that a question or is it a statement that you’re making?

DN: It was a question. I was very interested in how… if it’s a choice, if this process of selection…

AH: Well, it might not be a choice.

RM: Yes, it could be imposed.

AH: I didn’t have a choice. I had to join. I had to go to school. I was told I had to go to school because that’s the way that society is structured.

DN: We are conditioned to think in a certain way.

AH: Well, I’m not sure it’s… no, it’s not conditioning I don’t think, I think it’s political. The way your society is structured requires that you behave in a certain way and that you join certain groups. That’s my view.

RM: And to react against this at a younger age is so difficult because when we observe this situation when we are grown-ups and able to do kind of change, we say that we have the ability maybe to resist that social structure.

AH: Because we know more about it.

RM: Yes, because we know more about it, but when we are at a younger age, I think that the only way of resistance is by isolating ourselves and that’s what you have done.

AH: This is extremely personal…

RM: Yes, exactly.

AH: … and my memory is that I was trying to find out how the structure of the group that I had to join was organised so that I could manage it. So my first research was to find out how this group worked so that I could manage my membership of it and then as you get older, you begin to understand. I didn’t learn anything at school about groups, except that I didn’t say anything in the classroom. I never answered any questions, I never took part in any discussion, and then I discovered that this gave me a bad reputation, so I learned that participation was valued. Then I went and did a degree in sociology and then I began to learn how the politics and the ideology of this works and that gave me the knowledge to work out how to behave. But that’s personal, that’s got nothing to do with my research, it’s purely personal.

RM: In a world where new essentialism is still prevalent, based on what I have read until now, when new essentialism is still prevalent, how could we make the voice of the decentred heard?

AH: I think you have to read Stuart Hall.

RM: I read some of Stuart Hall.

AH: This is not my business to… I’m not in a position to say because I’m not struggling for my identity in the way that you’re talking about so it’s not my business to speak for others.

RM: But it may be our business as researchers to study the other.

AH: Well, this is for you to sort out. I did basic sociology at university and I would recommend that for anybody, or you might even get this if you study literature because you study how ideas and stories are formulated. This is your education and… I guess the question is how to preserve enough openness in education so that people can work out what their choices are. But it’s interesting because some people say that the more rigid and the more totalitarian your education is, the more you will resist and the more you will rebel. So the nice education system that encourages you to explore might seduce you into not thinking for yourself. That sounds a bit radical.

RM: No, I totally believe in this.

DN: I thought about the Communist period, especially in Romania, for example, when a lot of writers emerged in that period. Paradoxically in that period, they opposed, they…

AH: Yes, exactly, and interestingly this generation, which I sort of belong to, which has tried to make education more open, was educated at a time when it was more closed. I think Basil Bernstein talks about this but I’m not sure where. Did you come from Romania?

DN: Yes.

AH: Because I’ve got no idea who you are.

DN: The first question people ask me here is, where are you from? Sometimes I feel a little irritated or anxious because I feel that they are not interested in my person because this is the first question. Maybe it’s just an innocent curiosity or maybe it’s like a veiled question trying to put me in a category.

AH: Well, I wasn’t going to ask it until you mentioned Romania and I sensed that you mentioned it from a position of knowledge. That was my sense so that was an opening for me to… because I know where Ramzi comes from because we met before.

DN: I spoke about my experience about this question; it made me think about this question is harassing me.

AH: Yes, but this morning I started talking about where I came from.

RM: Yes, actually we talk a lot about this and she is struggling with this question of where are you from? A lot of people start by asking this question and why this question exactly – do you have a kind of image that you want to impose on that person by asking them?

AH: I’ve thought about this quite a lot because it’s a very normal question to ask, very normal. The problem might be what the agenda behind the question is and I don’t know if you can tell what the agenda is in the way that somebody asks it and that’s what makes people anxious. I’m not sure if it is the expression on the face or something like that. I think it’s probably one of the most common first questions that anybody asks anybody.

DN: Yes, I noticed.

AH: And it might have nothing to do with a foreign country, just you’ve got an interesting accent, where do you come from? I come from Leeds.

DN: I actually invent a country because I cannot identify with that country so I invent one.

RM: Exactly, so the answer here again like maybe the person who asks the question expects to hear a name of a country, why the other person has another expression regarding what coming from means.

AH: Yes, and I think during my long life, I will have answered it in different ways at different periods because I’ve had different views about my identity at different times, so at the moment I’m very attached to Yorkshire but I probably wasn’t ten years ago.

DN: To what extent do you think that the identity can be negotiated, because I assumed that the context, religious, cultural or linguistic in which we live, plays a role in the way we perceive our identity, so should we assume that our identity will inevitably change when you move in a place, to a new place we are not familiar with? Is our identity something changeable?

AH: Well, this is a huge discussion, everybody’s talking about this and I have no idea. Personally I’ve always felt… I think it’s a personal thing. I don’t think academically it’s a question that can be answered. I don’t see why we have to pin down and define identity. I think it means different things to different people. I know that if you’re studying identity, there are different theories about what it is, but I’m not interested in the theories of identity particularly, it’s not my field, so I can only speaking personally, so personally I’ve just always been who I am and that’s it.

DN: Yes, but I think that the otherness could affect our identity by promoting a false image, a distorted image of ourselves, and sometimes this image is internalised by us; this can change our identity.

AH: Well, I don’t know why I keep going back to when I was at school, I guess because that was the period in my life when I felt under the most pressure, and also from my parents – I felt I was being pushed to be something that I didn’t necessarily want to be and as soon as I was old enough to be independent, I was suddenly liberated and I could be whatever I wanted. I was lucky because I was young at a time in Britain when there were opportunities, I would automatically be earning more money than my parents, there was easy employment and university education was free; I was brought up at a time when I believed I could do anything I wanted.

RM: How about now, like what if that scenario was now?

AH: So perhaps this is what you mean by identity - we have that so we still feel free.We can do what we like as long as we have the economic ability. Yes, I don’t particularly feel constrained by religion or culture; it’s a matter of having the economic ability to do what you want.

RM: So economy plays a role here?

AH: Of course you have to have… freedom comes from affluence in this particular society.

RM: So if you don’t have affluence, you may sometimes be obliged to accept something that is imposed on you?

DN: It could be this sort of behaviour, this approach, the context influences us very much in the way we perceive our identity or in the way we construct our identity in a certain moment.

AH: Well, there’s another factor. I don’t think I would be alive - I was very ill when I was a baby and had it not been for particular resources, I wouldn’t be here, so this is to do with an affluent society which has the resources.

RM: I kind of asked you this question last year but I will repeat it again – sometimes people start to believe the images constructed about them. For instance, I usually hear the expression back home of ‘this country will never develop,’ like a lot of people living there saying this country will never develop, and I believe that that’s an image imposed on those people and they started to believe it. They are in the process of self-othering themselves or accepting this stereotype. I believe this is so dangerous as it may turn an ideological discourse into a regime of truth, as Michel Foucault says.What do you think about that and how should people resist such stereotypes?

AH: If we start off with the premise that people are naturally intelligent and people are naturally aware of the forces of persuasion, so, for example, I think most people are aware of the politics behind advertising.We know that we are being bombarded with images. But sometimes there are other pressures, for example peer pressure. It must be very difficult if you’re a very young person, or even a much older person, and you’re surrounded by people who are constantly bombarding you with images of how things ought to be. People say this about Facebook, and I don’t have this experience because I’m not somebody with a thousand Facebook friends who are all my age group and my social group, so I’m not seeing hundreds of posts every day that are trying to persuade me that I should do certain types of things in order to be accepted, but I know that sort of pressure does exist. If you are put under pressure, either because of a lack of resources or because of the power of your peers, or, I guess, if you live in a country where the… I mean we have the image of 1984 with the totalitarian society and how far your independent,  intelligent way of thinking can continue to survive if you’re bombarded all the time with propaganda. These are the sorts of pressures and I think again this depends on the circumstances in which you are unlucky or lucky to be living in, and if people want to be accepted by others, then it’s very easy to be taken in. So I guess a very clever governmental organisation would create a media which was so seductive that people would be taken in, and then you wouldn’t have to have political prisoners and secret police because you’re just feeding people with something they really like. I was thinking about… people get a huge amount of pleasure out of window shopping, so you’ve got just enough money to be able to buy something sometimes and so this feeds your hope and so you spend your time looking in shops and walking around. It totally absorbs you and takes away your independence, so you know temptation. I don’t know if this is answering your question or not.

RM: Yes, it does.

AH: There are all sorts of different ways in which people are influenced against their better judgement. Because what your question implies is that there is an idea requiring a conformity which is against peoples’ better judgement, so it depends how clever the people who create these ideas are. It’s true isn’t it? I mean you are young people, you must feel awfully pressured to look in a certain way, like certain types of things, behave in a certain way. You know you are the age group that all of this stuff is aimed at.

RM: I always question the fact of shopping itself and ask myself questions, am I really doing something freely or am I shopping because it’s an image imposed on me and it’s so seductive that I cannot resist.

AH: How can you work that out?

DN: The problem is that we cannot draw the line, I cannot draw the line between what is false and what is true now because everything is like… I don’t know if it’s the way I’m is influenced or it’s something genuine.

AH: Well, this might be to do with your generation. You see I was brought up at a time when these forces were much less sophisticated. I remember a time when television was non-existent and then it was just a little grey thing like that; you walked in the streets and the advertising was much less. The biggest peer pressure that I had was my mother wanting me to look in a certain way because she wanted to have a certain status in terms of class, so she was forcing me to dress in a particular way because this was her image. And her generation, this was the beginning of a very intense modernity drive. She was the age group where suddenly you had a nuclear family with a house and a kitchen and a washing machine, these appliances, and you were watching your neighbours to see what they looked like and you wanted your children to go to a better school.We had this expression ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, and I don’t know if people still use that but it was very primitive in those days. There is a very famous writer who was born in Leeds, I think, Alan Bennett and he writes very satirical, very funny accounts of growing up in Yorkshire. Ten years older than me but I can identify with that - going to the right department store because you want to be seen there. And this was my interpretation of religion because the vicar had the big house and had a wealthy family and it increased your status if you were associated with the church. I couldn’t take it seriously at all. It was all to do with wearing clothes and wearing hats. It was all to do with appearance.

RM: Yes, what people look like.

DN: It’s very important this process of association all the time when you create your identity as to being associated, and sometimes this association can be done in a very essentialist way because, as you said, it’s an association of the language with the culture, or association between Western cultures and English, or between… this association can create stereotypes maybe.

AH: Well, I didn’t know anything about anything of this nature until I became older, because until I travelled, I wasn’t even aware that there were such things as stereotypes and national identity and culture and so on. I had no idea about these things. I was very conscious of my mother wanting to be a certain class that was the thing. So to me, in those days, class was the issue. I mean not that I particularly cared but it was forced upon me, how you eat, how you dress, what sort of manners you have, how you speak.

RM: Did you conform to their social class?

AH: Well, I lost my Yorkshire accent because to climb in social class, you had to have a standard accent. It was things like this, how you dress, how you speak. Well-spoken – if you’re well spoken, it means you speak like the Royal Family, this was the image.

RM: But the idea of social classes was there, like in Britain?

AH: Oh absolutely, completely.

RM: So we can say, as you say in your writings, about the universal culture processes that help us institute this kind of threat, here are universal grand narratives or something like that?

AH: Yes, I think so. I mean whether you call it class or you call it something else, there is a stratification in society. So regardless of how you position yourself in the world, in your own society there is a stratification. In your school classroom there is stratification; in your family there is stratification. There is always going to be a structure which you have to negotiate and it’s to do with power and prestige and class.

RM: So there will always be a superior and an inferior I think.

AH: I think that’s unavoidable unless you have something like an utopian, but that would have to be run by a totalitarian regime, so it would look like it but it wouldn’t be real.

RM: There is no hope then.

AH: Probably not. We do the best we can. Walking around this library and seeing all these different types of people, well dressed, affluent, with their laptops doing their studies, buying food, eating what they want, this is a wonderful image. Discussing things, no microphones, listening to what they’re saying to each other, we can say whatever we like. This is almost like a utopia for a particular group of people. The beautiful buildings, the trees and the sunlight, a university campus is like a paradise. Unless you are a very young person and you are worried how you compare yourself to the other students in terms of how you dress, how much money you have, what you can spend, what you buy, that’s where the pressure comes. So all these people you see sitting around, when they go out into the street, are they looking at each other and thinking, my god, I wish I had enough money to buy something like what she has. So that is always going to be there, I guess.

RM: Can’t we go beyond this image, this definition of affluence and redefine affluence in other ways?

AH: Oh sure.

RM: Define affluence not necessarily in material things?

AH: I’m sure but we don’t know. We have imaginations of… yes, I mean there was something on television about Polynesian society before the Europeans arrived and it was some sort of paradise where everybody had the food that they… but do you believe that?

RM: Actually not.

AH: So it’s an image.

DN: Of paradise.

AH: Yes, it’s an image.

DN: Romanticised.

AH: This morning I mentioned patriarchy. Well, it could be matriarchy but it would be some sort of ‘archy’ and that would be that everybody has to fall into, yes.

RM: There is always something that.

AH: Yes, it’s to do with power.

RM: Here when we assume that there is difference, this patriarchy or hierarchy or anything, it’s always there?

AH: Somehow we don’t seem to be able to survive without it.

RM: What is the future?What will be the future of intercultural communication then?

AH: This sounds awful to say but the future has to do with affluence. There is enough for everybody to have what they need so people don’t have to start competing in difficult ways. But of course there is also… it’s very hard to work out. There are revolutions and civil wars and there are leaders who want to take all the money and put it in their own personal bank accounts, they want to get a cut out of every single industrial thing that’s going on and we call it corruption. Now why is that? What I don’t understand is why do some political… well, it seems to me that most political leaders in the world want to stash money away in their bank accounts and they all know this isn’t going to end well, because nearly all of them end up either assassinated or exiled or whatever, but there is something that makes people need to...

RM: Seducing.

AH: Yes, and I don’t know why. I just don’t know why. Is it because they are living in countries which are not sufficiently affluent that there isn’t enough for everybody so some people have to take from others. I don’t know.

RM: But don’t you think that the world can live peacefully and all people can get what…

AH: I don’t know.

DN: Maybe that question is about this desire to acquire power is instinctual, something that people just do it because they feel they need it. If it’s something that is so imposed by the society, by the image, or it’s something that is instinctual.

AH: Well, it might be a matter of tradition, so if you take a patriarchal… so marriage, who decides who can marry who? This seems to be a big question. I was lucky enough, nobody cared and I could marry whoever I liked. At that particular moment, there were no pressures at all. But it seems to be one of the big things so everybody has to get involved and who owns who, what families do they belong to? People claim religion but I don’t think it’s got anything to do with religion; it’s a much more basic thing than that. There is something instinctual to do with ownership of gender, which seems to be very deep in our psychological make-up. I don’t know, perhaps in very basic more animalistic communities, you couldn’t afford to allow anybody in the group to run off whenever they wanted, you had to keep together in order to make things work. Perhaps that’s where it all came from. I don’t know but it seems to be a major thing, who marries who, where do people belong, what is their definition, how do they fit into the group? The issue with gender, this problematizes the way that we define each other, so if you’ve got a big society with lots of affluence, it doesn’t matter because people can go off and do what they want, but in another sort of society, it doesn’t work, everybody has got to be in their place.

RM: You reminded me of one of your blogs I read before and you, I think, ended with one of the questions saying can we construct people just as people. Do you remember?

AH: No.

RM: You asked this question saying, can we construct people just as people? Do you think you can answer this question right now?

AH: I guess I’m saying that we probably can’t because of all these pressures we’re… perhaps it is instinctual. There is no way we can just think of people simply as people, everywhere you look, images come into your head. You’ve got to keep putting them down but they arrive.

DN: It’s a struggle maybe, it’s like we struggle with ourselves.

AH: Yes. As I walk around here, there are people from all over the world and everyone I look at, an image rises up, a traditional image, which I have to push down again.

RM: So we can push them down?

AH: Yes, I think we should.

RM: Can we get rid of them?

AH: I don’t think we can, but we don’t know where they come from, they’re ancient. Everything we have we got from other people.

RM: For instance, you mentioned in your books and articles making the familiar strange…

AH: You’ve got to try and think your way out of these things. That’s your only hope.

RM: Like these things will just reduce the appearance of those images in our minds?

AH: Yes, enough for you to try and understand something else.

RM: So there won’t come a time when we can go beyond?

AH: We’re getting into some very deep and complicated areas.


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