Lectio: Dorothea Breier

The vague feeling of belonging of a transcultural generation

Lectio praecursoria Helsingin yliopistossa 10.11.2017


Dorothea Breier

– Transcultural?! We certainly know the term “culture”, also the prefix “trans-“ is something we probably came across several times in our lives, for instance in terms like transaction, transatlantic, transgender etc. So: “trans-“ as an indicator for something that goes “across” or “beyond” something else.

So, what do we mean when talking about “transculturality”? The view on culture has changed significantly over the past years. Since the 1970s, approximately, the concept of multiculturalism spread in an attempt to describe the increasingly diverse societies. It is still used in everyday talk, in magazines, newspapers, etc., while science started to become more critical about it.

Part of the criticism is that the idea behind multiculturalism would actually support and strengthen boundaries between groups of people by creating the image of clearly distinct cultures living side by side. The problematic nature of this image is that it denies the fact that those cultures are no homogeneous bubbles, but in fact have always been in active exchange with each other, thus having been shaped by ideas, beliefs and ways of living of other societies. Precisely this interconnectedness is what the concept of transculturality tries to describe: it means that there are no homogeneous cultural bubbles, they have always been heterogeneous, shaped by people, goods and ideas coming from elsewhere.

Ideas of national cultures and the fear of the “Other”

So, what does this mean in turn?

Should we abandon the idea of national cultures? All those pictures we have of ourselves and others, which we keep on re-inventing; images we might acknowledge to be stereotypes, but hey, there has to be some truth in it, right? – What happens if we admit that none of those traits developed just at this specific place within this specific group of people? If we consider a shared history and culture as foundation of our nation-states – and if we then deny the existence of distinct national cultures, wouldn’t this suggest as a reverse consequence to question the right of existence of exactly such a nation-state?

In fact, there are claims to overcome the general concept of nation-states. As more and more people relocate and live somewhere else than their ancestral home, the idea of a nation of people with a shared heritage becomes increasingly questionable. – And from a conservative point of view this indeed might seem like an undermining of a presumed homogeneous population. – Which causes fear among those who do not move around, but stay where their family has “always” been living. They feel that what they see as “their” cultural heritage is threatened by those coming from outside.

This is nothing new. As a German, stories about attempts to keep the bloodline clean and to protect some “national heritage” sound somehow familiar. However, I personally thought Europe had learned from the catastrophic consequences such endeavours could bring. Unfortunately, recent developments in Europe taught me differently. After the sudden increase in refugees coming to European territory, especially in 2015, it seems like the borders dividing the “Western countries” from the rest of the world became more and more tangible. Not only was the actual defense of EU borders intensified, but also the boundaries in people’s minds hardened. The fact that people tend to perceive the “Other” as a threat explains a rise of right-wing populist parties all over Europe that we could witness in recent elections. Those parties heavily exploited their people’s fear of the Other in order to gain votes. They drew on pictures of what people commonly regard as “their” culture and way of living, and presented those as being under threat.

– And it worked.

It worked because the idea of an own, national culture is ever-present, deeply seated and unquestioned in many people’s minds. This is what many refer to when defining themselves and even take pride in – as if it were something they achieved themselves.

Justification of exclusion

Which leads to the questions I keep on asking myself – and I am now drawing on the frame of reference I am most familiar with, which is Europe:

So, I am asking myself: With what right do Europeans think that the area they live in is theirs only? What are the grounds to think that they are the ones to defend it against those outside? Because they were born there? – Should birth, something that lies completely beyond the control of a person, decide on their right to live a life they desire – or: to live in general? Should birth decide over the mobility of a person, whether one finds a border to be open or closed when getting there?

And just as a side note: There does not seem to be much of a problem with people from “Western” countries moving freely and settling down in other countries – while those, who wish to do so on European grounds are being eyed suspiciously. Is the reason for that their perceived heritage that appears to be “just too different” from the perceived own?

Here, several problematic ideas come into play. First, the image of inherited values and beliefs. How often do people draw on groups of foreigners who “just” act in a certain way – all of them! – as if members of this group were genetically predestined to act and think like this. – No one inherits certain beliefs, thoughts or ways of behaviour by birth. Every one of us is shaped first and foremost by our social surrounding. And this is what the second issue links to. Just as we have to admit that our society is no homogeneous unit, in fact none is. Even within a group that from the outside appears to be most homogeneous, we find diversity, we find people who identify more and others less with what by definition makes this group.

If we now connect those two aspects, so if we admit that a person’s values and behaviour are shaped by their social surrounding, and that precisely this social surrounding is made of individuals with various attitudes – what reason should there be to put people coming from outside under general suspicion?

Besides – most of our contemporary nation-states are of very young age and did not naturally form. Instead, they were put into shape artificially by politics, in the course of which the narrative of one people with one history and one culture was created. This aspect should not be left aside as it underlines the constructed nature of what is often seen as a distinct national culture until today.

Mobile realities…

Our contemporary reality is that people are moving around the globe. According to the IOM, so the International Organization for Migration, about 214 million people are considered migrants. If they formed a nation of their own, consisting of those 214 million people, this nation would be the fifth most populous country in the world.

And naturally, migrants mingle with others, absorb ideas from elsewhere, modify their customs according to what they learn along the way. They always have and as long as we exist always will. It is an undeniable fact that for precisely this reason, cultures are interwoven and share innumerable traits between each other. This means in consequence that there is no national culture as such that would have to and even could be protected against external “threats”. – We might find patterns of behaviour, of tales, of beliefs that are shared primarily by people in certain areas. However, this does not mean that these patterns could not be found somewhere else or that they were not shaped by influences coming from outside of the area. So, what actually is it that makes what people regard to be their national heritage?

…in an interconnected world

This is no new development, no new threat we are facing today. Unlike political borders that are hard to abandon in the short run, we need to make sure that we deconstruct the boundaries in our heads.

There is no “us versus them”; instead, there should only be “us”. We live in one world, this is what connects us, what is our smallest common denominator. There is no safe haven Europe that will stand even if the rest of the world is falling apart. The problems in other parts of the world are our problems as well, what happens elsewhere will also affect us in one way or another. In times of severe global issues, like global warming or the pollution of the oceans that connect our continents, there remains no use in thinking within national categories. Even larger frameworks such as the European Union don’t help as much as it would be necessary.

Why should we care if somewhere far away forests are burning? If people are drowning in waste and running out of water? Why should we care? We are sitting in our comfortable homes with a seemingly never-ending supply of food and goods. So, why bother?

– Because we are all living on one planet. And if it were not for compassion and empathy, we in fact should care, because in the end we will be affected as well. The planet does not care about national borders. And what many of us privileged citizens still don’t understand: Our way of living is causing many of those problems that make others flee their homes. Our consumption, our careless consumption of goods and resources, our still way too large production of waste, it all is part of a larger circle. – The consequences of which in turn are often the reason why people leave their homes and try everything they can to get to the other side of the scale.

– Can we blame them for it? Isn’t it justified that they desire to escape harsh living conditions? – And many are not “just” fleeing in search for a more prosperous life, but in fact are fleeing from war or other acts of violence. In those cases – isn’t it still greed, the desire for more, more power, more resources, that is the very source of those conflicts?

“Us” rather than “us versus them”

Even though nation-states as such might not be directly to blame for such developments, still they do play a part in it. – Favouring the image of “us versus them” – and that is by nature inherent in the very concept of a nation-state – so, this image equally strengthens the race for power and resources: who gets most?

What we often forget in this race: the winner will actually not win. If for example rainforests, far, far away, are burnt down for the production of palm-oil – which we can find in basically any processed food or item here – so, even those events far away, they will affect us. In this case, the climate will be affected, also here, and with it the nature, the agriculture, the wildlife, our lives.

There is no reason to continue thinking in national terms. We need to learn that we, all of us, live in one world. The problems somewhere else are our problems. Our actions affect others, which in turn will get back on us – in one way or another, like it or not. There is no reason for, or use in, closing our borders and our hearts to others, this will not solve any problems. Instead, we should accept that our world is inter-connected and full of diversity, that people and cultures have always mixed and that this is nothing bad, but only natural. Instead of holding on to false ideas and imaginaries, we should open up to changes. Changes will occur anyway, but it is on us to make sure that they will lead to a world in which everyone can live in freedom and peace.

The role of Academia

Finally, some last words in order to bring this speech to the academic context that would be appropriate for this setting: What role does science, the academic world, play in all of this – and, which role should it play?

While doing research on my topic, I read a lot on migration, on lives of migrants and the so-called second generation. – And it made me reflect, it made me reconsider my own point of view on culture, on social injustice, on mobile realities and their effects on our societies. Thanks to the literature I read, but also talks at conferences, follow-up discussions, and finally the things my interviewees reflected upon; so, thanks to those sources, my mind got a lot of input that made me question my previous ideas on those topics. I did not always have this critical view on national categories, but it developed with the information and impulses I got along the way.

Academia has a lot of precious things to say that could make a difference in what is going on. However, what I realised is that it does not seem to draw on its full potential. Instead, those findings and reflections often stay within academia. The way the general public discusses issues such as the national culture and the seemingly Other seems to continuously re-invent images and impressions that should be overcome as outdated.

So, the mission I see for academia is to find ways to reach out to the non-academic world. In order to make people reflect upon unquestioned ideas, researchers and scholars need to find other formats than academic publications. We need to be bold, to experiment, to collaborate with non-scholars to spread our findings in ways that actually speak to people – and in this, to do our part in changing what is going wrong in this world.


Breier, Dorothea. 2017. The vague feeling of belonging of a transcultural generation. An ethnographic study on Germans and their descendants in contemporary Helsinki. Helsinki: Unigrafia. http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-51-3812-5


Ph.D. Dorothea Breier is planning on her PostDoc project in European Ethnology at the Univeristy of Helsinki.