Self-Exploration to Understand Third Spaces in Intercultural Critical Incidents: An Experience in Higher Education

Self-Exploration to Understand Third Spaces in Intercultural Critical Incidents: An Experience in Higher Education

Copyright: © 2023 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-8402-9.ch002
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This empirically based chapter investigates how higher education students from a Colombian university explore the meaning and construction of third spaces in the development of their intercultural awareness and competence. Based on a narrative, critical-incident approach, a group of 14 undergraduates analyzed their real intercultural encounters. These narratives and subsequent semi-structured interviews led to important findings. For the most part, when confronted with critical incidents, students opted for proactive participation and engagement in third spaces. Some frequent strategies addressed unveiling conflict, establishing dialogue, valuing knowledge co-production, propitiating active listening, (re)accommodating power relations, and revisiting how one's cultural identity and that of others are (re)shaped in a transitory relationship that could lead to the strengthening of intercultural competence. Students advocate for critical incident analysis and how it can be applied as extended knowledge in future intercultural encounters and in their own intercultural growth.
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I imagine a Third Space as an empty scenario where you assume a Lego challenge: you enter with a series of building blocks of different colors and sizes […]—your cultural identity, prejudice, stereotypes, expectations, feelings—and then you try to build things with others, but sometimes the pieces wouldn’t match; sometimes you want to build one thing while other participants another thing […] but maybe through dialogue, there is a moment you build things together (Óscar, “For Europeans only”).

The Third Space is a world of creativity, wisdom, and resistance. (Martin, 2022, p. xxii).



Major goals of 21st century higher education institutions aim at educating future global citizens. Higher education (HE) is, thus, confronted to the imperative of students’ needs to become intercultural individuals and develop intercultural competence (IC) in order to cope with global challenges, resolve intercultural conflicts (Deardorff & Arasaratnam-Smith, 2017) and contribute to the construction of more equitable, human-right oriented, peaceful societies (Parson & Ozaki, 2020). In Colombia, the exponential growth of HE international mobility and internationalization abroad and at home has raised concerns about how students can be educated to strengthen intercultural experiences and attain global and intercultural competence. Challenges are greater in Colombia since intercultural education and internationalization often seem a paradox due to the limited actions to acknowledge local interculturalities within the country’s cultural diversity that is frequently disregarded or overshadowed by international goals (Castillo Guzmán & Caicedo Ortiz, 2016).

Despite this unresolved quota and clashing epistemologies from the Global South and the Global North, many HE institutions advocate for bold strategies privileging Western approaches to education and assume that students will become interculturally competent through these programs (Sierra-Huedo & Nevado-Llopis, 2022). Recent studies, however, show that intercultural experiences neither make individuals become intercultural, nor do they increase the development of intercultural competence per se (Witte & Harden, 2021). In education, to achieve interculturally-oriented thinking, concrete pedagogical actions and guided reflections are needed (Cressy, 2021).

This chapter puts forward that intercultural self-explorations and reflection about one’s self and others’ interculturalities are integral parts of intercultural learning and education. For this reason, this study investigates how HE students from a private Colombian university explore their approaches and understandings of third spaces during critical incidents to develop intercultural awareness and competence. In the framework of the course The Intercultural Individual, the chapter examines how participating students seek to promote mediation strategies and intercultural dialogue around intercultural encounters that actually occurred throughout their lives. The chapter also focuses on the ecology of an interculturally-aware classroom that sees teaching and learning as transformational third spaces that place students’ voices and experiences at the core. In other words, the classroom itself becomes a broad Third Space for intercultural communication (Hawley & Potter, 2022).

The research question that subsumes this discussion and guides the chapter is: How do HE students approach and understand the concept of the Third Space during critical incidents? In the following sections, some important concepts such as interculturality, intercultural encounters and critical incidents, and the Third Space are discussed to further approach some details of the case study and the construction of third spaces. Later, major findings are examined and illustrated with participants’ excerpts from narratives to draw on the discussion. The chapter ends with a set of conclusions and final reflections.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Third Space: Third spaces are transformative liminal spaces with multiple intersections where knowledge and discourses merge and emerge from the blending of individuals’ understanding and experiences ( Bussert-Webb & Lewis, 2021 ).

Intercultural mediation: Intercultural mediation is a strategy to understand, minimize conflicts, and prompt reflection and potential solutions between groups or people with cultural differences or misunderstandings. Intercultural mediation is an essential resource to bridge understanding and collaboration.

Critical Incidents: Critical incidents are intercultural encounters with an open conflictive nature or events involving interaction between people from different backgrounds and cultures in which misunderstandings or conflicts may emerge as a result of the cultural differences between the people interacting ( Lantz-Deaton & Golubeva, 2020 ).

Intercultural Dialogue: Intercultural dialogue is a step forward mutual recognition and understanding. It is an open, flexible, respectful (and maybe unfinished) exchange and negotiation of views between individuals and/or groups belonging to different cultures.

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