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Intercultural perspectives and professional practice in the university: what’s new in Germany?


Lena Inowlocki, Maria Teresa Herrera Vivar and Felicia Herrschaft




“Foreign” students at German universities


Attracting students from other countries and regions of the world has been an objective for German universities for some time now, and more recent policies have facilitated the admission of foreign students. Their attendance is understood as contributing towards internationally recognised standards of education. It was always expected that graduates would act as multipliers upon their return to their countries of origin, although currently there is also a perceived need that for a competitive economy highly qualified graduates should stay on in Germany to work. At the universities, new study courses and credit point systems are established towards internationally comparable academic degrees. Intensive academic contacts have developed through student and lecturer exchange programs funded by the European Commission. Through cooperation in international research projects, a new transnational academic landscape has emerged, at least among the EU and accession countries. And as everywhere, students and lecturers have gained a more global understanding of subjects and issues through the electronic media.


With these ongoing changes in perspectives, there are also social changes at German universities, in the composition of the student body. Exceptionally few lecturers are of foreign origin, but many students, at least in the western part of Germany, are either children of former “guest workers” or other immigrant families, or have come from abroad to study. In many ways, the attendance of students of “foreign” background at German universities presents a new situation that has not yet been recognised in its potentials for teaching and research practice and, possibly, its implications for social theory. In this article, we would like to describe some aspects of this situation and ask how social knowledge can emerge, as part of professional academic practice. Over the course of the last few years we observed certain positive changes: topics of migration have become more generally interesting, for students with different immigrant and local backgrounds. “Migration” does not automatically evoke a social problems discourse but can rather lead to discussions of more general changes in society. We also noticed that one’s (family) background is referred to more frequently and talked about more openly. This could be troubling in fact, if it would mean intensified social identification and self-definition in ethnic terms. According to our observations, however, what is new is that these references can be relational. By this we mean that differences in (family) background can be referred to in more general ways and as related to one another rather than excluding or devaluating certain backgrounds versus others.


There is still political disagreement and social hostility to the fact that Germany has become an immigration society. Predominantly it is taken for granted that immigration brings social conflicts and problems and “integration” cannot be achieved. To “integrate”, immigrants are expected to fit into a given state and character of society. It is overlooked that societies actually change through immigration. Migrants sometimes pioneer these changes, but education and academic success are not part of what is generally associated with either immigrants or “foreigners”. Low scores for school education in Germany, learning deficits and lack of achievement are commonly attributed to the percentage of children from immigrant families in school classes, rather than looking for exclusionary mechanisms in institutional set-ups and in teaching which actually concern all children from low income families .


Probably as a consequence of the focus on problems of “integration” in the ongoing debates in politics, in the news media and in the social sciences, the achievements of high school and university students with an immigrant background are not widely recognised and rarely mentioned. On the one hand this neglect is positive, in the way that the immigrant background of students is not an issue, in the sense that it has not been associated with problems. This might be an unforeseen outcome of the classic ideals of German universities, which emphasise educating autonomous personalities. In this sense there is more of a difference between high school and university education than in other European countries. While the conditions under which professors and students meet are usually far from ideal, there is a certain carry-over in the fact that teaching and studying in universities are still very different from school situations. In most schools, there is an orientation towards deficits and compensatory measures, and references to “cultural differences” of students are quite common. In comparison, universities offer a more open environment, in which important learning experiences can take place, which go beyond, or can even transform fixed notions of identity.

In this article, we would like to focus on some of the “seen but unnoticed” phenomena of academic education and their potentials for the emergence of more equality and reciprocity in social relationships. The university, and especially the social sciences are potentially in a position to counter the hegemonic discourse on the “strangeness” or backwardness of immigrants, by recognising and pointing out, for example, the strong and dynamic link between immigration and educational motivation. Our aim is to explore intercultural perspectives in their potentials for the professional practice of lecturers, and for students’ gaining an understanding of becoming professionals.


It is certainly true that no one at the university – or for that matter, anywhere – wants to be reminded of where he or she has come from, be it in terms of social upward mobility from low-income populations, or be it from other countries of origin. Instead, everybody has a right to dignity and equality of treatment, and can reasonably expect both especially at the university where the pursuit of knowledge is valued. It is therefore important to explain why considering cultural difference or difference of origin can make sense for professional practice, and how this can be possible without singling out individuals. In our view, biographical perspectives are an important part of such professional practice, in opening up an understanding for how individuals relate to their own history, in relation to the history of others. Further on, we discuss some cases of relational biographical perspectives.


Education in an immigration society


In a brief overview, we would first like to point out some specifics about the situation in Germany, where the immigrant background of students is not discussed in the context of university education but has for a long time now been an issue concerning school education. An obvious reason for this could be that only in the last decade has the younger generation in immigrant families come of age to study at the university, and enrolment in larger numbers from this population is even more recent. Already in the 1970s, however, the background of children from immigrant families was a central issue in debates on school education and policy. The so-called “foreigners’ education” (“Ausländerpädagogik”) was based on the culturalist assumptions that the social and educational problems of such children were tied to their difference in background and to their resulting cultural and identity conflicts. According to these assumptions, identity conflicts resulted from the difference between their culture of origin and the culture of the receiving country, in the sense that the children were “torn”, so to speak, between “tradition” and “modernity”. The problem was defined in theoretical terms with the concept of a “basic cultural personality” (Schrader, Nikles, and Griese 1976) from which it followed that once young children reached a certain age, their cultural identity was determined. Thus, immigration after such an early age would account for a lack of educational success and social integration, as well as for psychosocial problems. In this view, schools faced the difficult task of working against the disintegrating factors of immigration, by compensating for the educational deficits of the children. At the same time, the children were to be prepared for their return back to their countries of origin. This took place in special language and preparatory classes which segregated the children in many cases from their German peers.


Educational practice moved away from deficit definitions at a time in the 1980s when it had become clear that immigrant families were here to stay. A new perspective on immigration found expression with the concepts of an “intercultural education” oriented towards dealing with “cultural difference”. This difference was denoted in a positive sense, since all cultures were to be equally valued. It corresponded with giving up on the idea of preparing the children for the improbable “return” to their parents’ country of origin. Instead, they should learn to value their “own” culture so they would be able to maintain it as members of a culturally plural, or “multicultural” society. Such a society requested of everybody to learn how to practise tolerance and to respect cultural differences, of all children, their parents and teachers.


The presence of foreign children was now understood as culturally enriching and as a chance to didactically create learning situations. “Intercultural education” was set against the previous explanations of lack of educational success because of “culture” differences. But “culture” was still understood as being explanatory of social differences, even though now no longer in terms of pointing out deficits, but rather as a means of learning tolerance. A background of “foreign culture” no longer functioned to be explanatory as a deficit factor, but was now considered to be of equal value. Students with a history of immigration, however, could still be perceived and addressed in a reductive way as being representatives of “their culture”.



The situation of “foreign” students at the university


Against the backdrop of this discourse on culture and difference in school education, foreign students at the university are – so far – only mentioned in administrative categories. Since 1992, there is a distinction between those who have been educated within the German school system (Bildungsinländer), but who are not German citizens. They could be children or even grandchildren of immigrant workers who arrived as early as 1960; as residents of Germany, they would still have only a foreign passport because of German citizenship regulations. Then, there are high school graduates from other countries who come to Germany to study (Bildungsausländer). Some are also from families of labour migrants, who finished high school in Turkey, for example.


Up until 1984, graduating from high school in Germany did not mean equal chances for university admission for those without German citizenship. Identified as “foreign” students by their passports, they had to compete with students from other countries for restricted subjects, such as medicine or psychology, unlike German graduates who could apply for these subjects through a central distributive agency, and who were guaranteed a place to study sooner or later. They were thus treated as “foreigners”, to their disadvantage. The rationale for this treatment lay, as we pointed out, in seeing “foreigners” as suffering from learning deficits. Even those who were born and lived here were not recognised as citizens, or even possibly future citizens of a society itself defined as non-immigrant.


Early in the 1970s, a quota of 6-8% had been set for foreign students at German universities. Under the old definition, this quota was all but filled up with graduates from German high schools who held foreign passports, leaving little room for “real” foreigners. The latter, however, were sought by the heads of universities, in the name of an international orientation and the education of those who would return to their home countries and be leaders of economic and social development. Slowly, political support was gained for this position in the federal states, which have certain autonomy in education policies. In the federal state of Hesse, for example, which is also where Frankfurt is situated in, the winter semester of 1987/88 was the first time graduates of German schools with foreign passports were treated equally with German students applying for a place to study.


For all of (former west) Germany, equal treatment was later provided only for children of work migrants from EU-countries and not for the largest groups, not for Turks, Yugoslavs, and Iranians. Since 1991/92, all students who graduated from high school in Germany can apply for a study place through the central federal distribution agency, regardless of their passport. Since 1993/94, foreigners from EU countries with good knowledge of German have the same rights as German applicants.


This development of educational policy somewhat reflects the debates on whether the younger generation of immigrant families are considered “foreigners” or not, and on whether gaining admission to a German university can count as successful integration into German society. The shift in policies towards equality shows that the integration of foreign students – in any definition – at the universities seems to be the aim . This implies that the labour migration of the 60s and 70s is retrospectively more and more understood in terms of immigration. It also extends the constitutional rights of freedom of choice of profession, place of work, and educational institution to all of the resident population, regardless of their citizenship status.


In the most recent survey published by the German student corporation on the social and economic situation of students, there are separate overviews for students who came from other countries. For those who went to school in Germany, it is assumed that living and study conditions are the same as for students from German families (BBF 2002a). It is noted, however, that students from immigrant families receive less financial support than their peers from German families, and depend more on part-time jobs. At the same time, they might face more difficulties in finding employment. They more often live with their parents than their German peers (47% in comparison to 21%). This could mean that they have less room for themselves.


The most recent social survey shows a rise of foreign students from abroad of 21,1% between 1997/98 and 2000/1 (BBF 2002b). 39,6% came from so-called development countries, 29,4% from developing countries and 26,2% from industrialised countries. The majority of 84% came as “free movers”, that is, on their own initiative and not with an exchange program or a stipend. Foreign students generally study under more difficult conditions than their peers. They have more problems finding a place to live and a job; they have less income on the average and less space to live. There are restrictions concerning their permits of residence and work. Beyond these structural disadvantages, their previous academic achievements from abroad are not always recognised.


Foreign students encounter racist discrimination outside the universities and also within. According to a survey conducted by World University Service among foreign students at German universities between October 2000 and June 2001, about a quarter of the respondents mentioned open or subtle discriminations by lecturers, other students, or administrative personnel. The origin of students is often associated with prejudice against their academic abilities: “You’re from Brazil? But that’s where you dance the Samba and don’t do any serious work!” (Jäger 2002, p. 102).


Foreignness and difference


Briefly, we would like to focus on the social psychological situation of “foreign” students in German universities. “Me-Images”, that is how others perceive us can coincide and also differ from our own sense of self, the “I”. “Foreign” students, and this includes students from immigrant families raised here, can find themselves confronted with strange “Me-Images” of their cultural difference and otherness. As members of social minorities, foreign students may furthermore not be included and may even find themselves excluded from the “generalised other”, the collective representations of the members of the university and the institution itself. With these concepts of the Chicago social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1934) it can be explained how strange Me-Images can negatively affect processes of personal and social identity constitution.


To our knowledge, there is no research on university students that addresses these issues. Such research could, for example, ask how students position themselves in relation to a taken-for-granted discourse on the problems of migration and integration. With regard to schools, this has been studied recently in a comparative study in four different European countries. It became clear that adolescents situate themselves in relation to the political and educational discourse on immigration, citizenship and nationality in each country (Schiffauer et al. 2002). According to this study, the identity work of adolescents in immigrant families in Germany involves coming to terms with a discourse of taken-for-granted ideas about their cultural difference and strangeness, and also their non-membership in an imagined ethnic and cultural community.


How do students deal with strange Me-Images and with their non-inclusion or exclusion from collective representations of the university and other parts of society? In the following, we would like to describe our observations of students’ personal and theoretical reflections of the discourse of foreignness and immigration. Our observations are not part of a systematic study but rather result from our experiences within the university as students and lecturers, as well as counsellors for foreign students.

Observations on processes of identity work


As we already explained, many “foreign” students belong to the so-called 2nd or 3rd generation of immigrant families, due to the fact that German citizenship has been reserved until very recently to those born of German descent . Then there are also those students who have come to Germany especially for their studies. In the following, we use “foreign” for all students of immigrant background whenever we discuss strange Me-Images.


As we also said, the presence of the students is a “seen but unnoticed” (Harold Garfinkel) social fact. Theories and statements on immigration continue to perceive immigrant minorities as uneducated and therefore as a social problem within a modern, well-educated majority. Migration and minority groups in society are important topics and research areas in the social and educational sciences, especially concerning the consequences of migration for the second and third generation in immigrant families. The emphasis is regularly on problems, deficits and their possible compensation. Now, such theories are taught in the same departments in which immigrant students, or students from immigrant families, are enrolled. This raises the question how students and staff relate to these theories of immigration.


Our point is that foreign students should not be a research object in the sense of a problem group, but that their perspectives and identity work within the university opens up new and different research perspectives. In the sociological literature, groups of foreign students are studied sometimes according to their origin (for example, Morocco), or in how they deal with specific problems, such as identity and cultural conflicts, religious orientation, return or further stay. In such research, it is rarely asked how the paradoxical presence of students in the university from among this “problem” population is even possible, much less on how this reflects back on what is said and taught on these topics. Their contributions and especially their potential contribution towards understanding migration processes in the social and educational sciences have not yet been taken notice of. It can be objected that “foreign” students should not be particularised and therefore not be made an object of inquiry in any sense. It can be argued, however, that it makes sense to introduce notions of biographical work and identity constitution to counter how difference is generally assumed and perceived.

Difference vs. “making strange”


‘Difference’ can be based on particularistic or universalistic notions of strangeness. In Emmanuel Lévinas’ concept of “radical strangeness”, difference is understood in a universalistic sense as a general characteristic of every one being the other. In the perception of particularistic strangeness the other can be reduced to being different and categorised in terms of ‘not belonging’. Awareness, or “sensitivity of difference” would mean that the strangeness of the other is not the object of talk about the other but rather part of experiencing strangeness in meeting with the other (Liebsch 1999, p.116). Such “sensitivity of difference” would also critically consider the political and social terms of belonging and not identify difference according to taken-for-granted notions. Can communication and interaction be independent of such collective definitions of belonging? Consider, for example, what a student said: “when you are talking to me, remember that I am Black and forget it at the same time”. The desired space is where situated communication takes place, reflecting knowledge of one’s own and of the other’s situation without the identifying markers of “belonging/not belonging”. But how is this possible?


Social science often proceeds by assigning properties to others that have to do with their background or origin, “making them strange” or “seeing them from above”. Situated knowledge, in contrast, as in Donna Haraway’s feminist critique of knowledge at the university (1991), would imply an awareness of the political and ethical basis of research. It is quite obvious, for example, that anything which has to do with immigration from Turkey, or with Islam, has bad press (not only) in Germany. Still, many research projects continue to promote stereotypes and prejudice by the very questions they formulate, instead of working towards a shift in paradigm. In the following, we would like to show how situated knowledge could be an important part of academic professional practice.


Characteristics of professional practice


In our observations on professional practice, we refer to different aspects that have been conceptualised by Fritz Schütze (1996) and by Ulrich Oevermann (1996; 2001). Very briefly, what concerns us here in the context of teaching is that professional practice is characterised by the paradoxes of continuously making mistakes, failing, and reflecting, as an inherent part of this practice; only through awareness and reflection can systematic errors and mistakes be avoided or repaired (Schütze). Then it is important to note that professional practice cannot rely on routines. Basically, routines are solutions that were developed previously in reacting to crises situations. Unlike in engineering, in each personal and social crisis, specific solutions have to be developed. Professionals in the different fields, in health, mental health, legal matters, and also in the acquisition of accumulated knowledge react to severe crises that cannot be resolved by those who encounter them personally (Oevermann). However, professionals who manage crises in the place of the individual need to restore his or her autonomy as soon as possible. We propose to include the professional practice of academic teaching in the context of intercultural processes at the university into the discussion opened up by Schütze and Oevermann. According to the latter, the working alliance between child and teacher that sustains crises management is based on the structural curiosity of the child. We think that also university students have curiosity towards new experiences and that since learning about the world continues also after adolescence this constitutes a basis for a working alliance with academic. Moreover, crises occur quite frequently during academic studies because the acquisition of accumulated knowledge is hardly ever a smooth process, and acquiring scientific reasoning and methodical procedures changes a person’s identity and is thus often accompanied by crises. In the following, some examples of crises situations will be discussed, and also the possibilities they have opened up.


Some observations of how students encounter the discourse on migration


In our seminars, we address different aspects of migration processes and of immigration to Germany. Topics range from biographical narrative accounts of migration to migration as a project of families and generations, transformations of the practice and meaning of gender, religion and tradition, to socio-economic conditions and consequences of immigrant entrepreneurship and to educational opportunities. Some teaching includes the introduction to qualitative-interpretive research of these topics. In all classes students attended whose families had immigrated, or who were immigrants themselves. In seminar discussions, in papers, theses, and exams, as well as in tutorials, students talked about their own experience of migration, or the experience of family members in different ways. Of course, students from German families also discuss issues of migration. We have noticed changes in how issues are raised and talked about among all students.


The topics we teach and the research styles of qualitative-interpretive methods, especially biographical analysis, probably create a setting in which students refer to subjective experience. Given the semi-public setting of university seminars, however, accounts of experience are rendered in more general terms as part of an argumentation since direct biographical accounts can lack legitimacy and raise personal vulnerability. In tutorials, in contrast, students tell more about what their own or their family’s history of migration means to them, in relating it to their research, writing, and exam preparations. While institutional settings sustain such a division between what is told “in public” and “in private”, more recently we noticed a shift towards more interchangeability between the settings. Now we find that students point out aspects of migration and identity, for example, also in the classroom, in what we would describe as a non-identificatory and more generalised way. There has been a development towards more theoretical and personal sensitivity concerning migration processes that we would ascribe to the participation of students with an immigrant background in seminars that facilitate open interaction and communication. In the following examples, we retrace different kinds of student interventions we noticed over the course of time, beginning with seminars from over six years ago up until the present.


1. Stating the relevance of migration experience


In a seminar on “Empirical Investigations in the Sociology of Music and Cultural Analysis” a student research team interviewed members of Hip Hop groups. One of the students found that language and background were important in specific ways for group members with an immigrant background. In her seminar thesis she explained how she discussed this with the two other students in her team who would not see the importance of the migration backgrounds of the artists, but would only consider how forms of music move from one place to another. From her own binational upbringing as well as through her work in a youth centre, she insisted that immigration experience mattered, that it was important to challenge taken-for-granted notions of “identity” and “culture”, and that processes of social exclusion took place even in the Hip Hop scene. The research team resolved the crisis by dividing the work on the thesis into different topics. Professional teaching practice in this case included all participants of the seminar in the discussion of “hidden” migration topics. In this way, the student’s perceptiveness and awareness became extended to all other participants.


2. Transferring knowledge and experience of migration


In a seminar on sociological concepts of tradition, a thesis was handed in on the formation of political traditions among youth from a North-African background in French banlieus. Based on many documents, theoretically sound and well argued, this thesis had been authored, it seemed, by a student who had taken part in a European academic exchange program and therefore knew the local situation as well as the discussions in the literature. It then turned out that the student had never been to France. Instead, she came from a country in Latin America and had inferred her political experience and knowledge into the French situation. In this case, there was no crisis involved, but the recognition of the student’s achievement included acknowledging her transference ability.

In the dominant discourse on migration, learning deficits of migrants are often stated in terms of their lack of local knowledge. In reality it is often the case that experiencing migration can lead to an understanding of structural similarities, through contrastive comparisons. Professional practice should acknowledge this and make use of it for the additional strengths it brings.


3. Creative attacks on stigmatising notions


A student came to the tutorial to discuss her final exams and mentioned that she had come to Germany to study and join her family here, after finishing high school in Turkey. She said that she noticed there was so much talk about “honour” concerning Turkish migrants, and that she had questioned her mother and her neighbour on this topic, whether this might be something she had missed out on. Was “honour” something she possibly lacked and had only become aware of in Germany? In her written exam, she tackled the social science literature on “honour” which contributed to culturalist interpretations, in discussing the history of “honour” concepts in Western societies.

In their professional practice, lecturers can learn from students, in how they tackle taken-for-granted notions in everyday life and in the social sciences.


4. Taking the perspectives of others


Students sometimes choose topics for their research that reflect their family’s migration experience. In several cases we noticed, this had to do with being members of minorities groups in, for example, Turkey. But in other cases students took a minority perspective that was different from their personal background. Thus, a student of Spanish background did his exam on the situation of Moroccan youth in the south of Spain, to study the specific relations between immigrants and majority in that context. Through such changes in perspective, interesting and important aspects on modernisation and traditionality can be discovered, as well as on minority status and migration. Such imaginative work can arise especially when topics are not assigned, but rather developed out of the students’ interests. Professional practice should enable students to pursue topics related to their specific experience.


5. Intervening in crises situations


There can be, of course, also crises in the context of referring to migration experience. Such situations may occur, for example, when students underestimate the impact of institutional settings. Thus, in a case reported on, there was a discussion in a seminar in educational sciences on the problems in school of children of immigrant families. To counter mounting stereotypes and prejudice within the discipline on this topic, a student from an Italian immigrant family began telling about her own and her parents’ experience, to explain that “integration” can mean something different from taken-for-granted notions. In the situation of the seminar, her story had no effect on the dominant course the discussion took. It remained a single case in the sense of a personal exception from the rule. Instead of explaining the matter, as the student tried, she found she had to explain herself. What she said about herself became stigmatising information, in Erving Goffman’s sense of a person becoming nailed down by her or his biography. Good professional practice would have consisted in the lecturer’s intervening to move the discussion away from the personal experience of the student to a more general perspective.


6. Personal crises situations under the impact of the discourse on problems of migration


Under pressure, as sometimes in exam situations, especially when there was no opportunity to critically discuss hegemonic theories on migration, minority students can sometimes refer to theories that heavily focus on personal deficits and social problems as caused by migration. While they are actually the living proof that there is more to migration than problems, this knowledge cannot always be critically used. In the case of one student, it can be said that his topic became strange to him . For his final thesis he wanted to study a discriminated religious minority in Turkey and the migration of members of this group to Germany. There was not much literature, but since his family belonged to this group, he thought he would be able to find out about cultural and religious traditions and how the group organised itself in Germany.

In the tutorial, the student took the opportunity to explore what this topic meant for him in a personal autobiographical sense, and also in more general terms what it meant to belong to “a minority within a minority” in Germany. He talked about the ambiguities of enjoying more recognition in Germany than in Turkey but, at the same time, how much more easily he had learned Spanish and gained friends during an academic exchange, in contrast to the constant doubts and ambivalence of remaining a foreigner in Germany.

It turned out to be impossible for him to study his minority group. Instead, he focused on socialisation and integration of the 2nd generation in immigrant worker families. When he handed in the first version of his thesis, his original question had become unrecognisable. In a personal crisis, the problem discourse had become overbearing and he ended with a resigned conclusion on the impossibility of integration. The professional intervention consisted in a critique of his argumentation that he could use for rewriting his thesis. At the same time, during tutorials, he returned to his original quest and talked about what he had found out about the group his family belonged to.


This example shows as well as the previous ones that it is not self-understood to talk about and explore one’s background, maybe especially as member of a minority. The ways in which one’s biography and family history are different raise pressures to constantly explain oneself. It can be very difficult to develop one’s own biographical perspective of exploration and reflection under the constraints of strange Me-Images without open communication with others.


What’s new?


Over the course of the last years, we have observed certain changes in how immigration becomes a topic. It seems, first of all, that more students with an immigrant background now choose a topic concerning their family history. Discussing different aspects, such as work migration, passages from rural to urban life and the transmission and transformation of values between the generations adds new dimensions to social theory on migration processes. But interestingly, there are also more students now of German background who focus on their family’s history to work towards more general concepts of family and social processes. One student, for example, presented a paper with many visual documents of her family who had been living in the same farm for many generations. It seems that discussions of different local and migration contexts had prompted her interest in the conditions of remaining settled down. There is thus a natural laboratory taking place in the seminar situation, similar to a student workshop in which research cases are interpreted and discussed in a contrastive-comparative way, in order to build and elaborate general theories of family processes.


It occurs more frequently now that students adopt perspectives beyond their particular background. This is important for tackling issues of a seemingly taken-for-granted character. Thus, a student’s presentation of research on urban Turkish families was followed by a discussion of types of families, and a (German) student remarked that it did not make sense to talk about “the Turkish family”, otherwise a common sense notion in social science research. Another student who had transferred from a university in east Germany gave a paper on right extremist youth groups. The discussion proceeded to more general aspects of the transition of the former German Democratic Republic to becoming a part of the Federal Republic of Germany. Students then referred to earlier discussions of migration processes, which made it possible to recognise the actual transition difficulties involved in the unification process, which have mostly been glossed over and seem already forgotten. Also in this seminar, during another meeting, research on Turkish youth in Germany was presented, in which young men talked about village life and their grandmothers, when one young woman student commented how this reminded her of her own – German – grandmother.


In recent years, a turn to Islamic religion by the younger generation in immigrant families has been noted. This has become especially visible through women students who mark their specific Islamic practice of observance by covering their hair and body. It is widely debated whether this assertion of difference signifies turning away from Western societies or, on the contrary, expresses the quest for an individual, reflexive positioning within society, as a part of modernisation processes. What we have observed leads us to support the latter. In a somewhat different course of argumentation, however, we would accentuate the importance of the interactions that take place in the university, between students, and students and lecturers. We have found in many teaching and tutorial situations that students who observe Islam do not argue out of their religious convictions when it comes to social issues. In the few cases when they choose a specific topic that has to do with Islam, such as family laws, it is discussed in sociological terms. Many students with an Islamic background are explicitly secular, some study phenomena of fundamentalist group membership. One student of Turkish background gave an impressive paper on young women turning to religion, in which similarities became clear between Islamic, Jewish and Christian forms of new orthodoxy.


Certainly, students who observe Islamic religion do not speak more in terms of group or collective membership than other students. However, the presence and contributions of students from different backgrounds sometimes changes the ways in which certain sociological topics are discussed, such as family, adolescence, modernity, and traditionality. It is remarkable that in these discussions, a shift takes place in the usual awareness contexts of identifying conflicts, for example, between generations in families as caused by immigration, or of identifying traditional ways of life with non-western societies. A professional practice of teaching can enable interactions that de-emphasise identifying one another in terms of origin. This can free individual potentials of taking the perspective of others and can turn the university into a more inclusive generalised other, as a shared and participatory social undertaking. Sometimes a seminar can generate model situations. Students who later become schoolteachers might be able to transfer their own experiences of such situations into their own teaching practice.


Changes in perspectives can be related to reflexive biographical insights and, at the same time, indicate ongoing transformations of collective identities. As Fritz Schütze points out in a related context, “The active participation in social worlds and social arenas is indispensable for arriving at a democratic political quality on the level of the nation state as well as on the level of trans-national communities. Especially important in his regard is the biographical work of comparing the expectations of the various generalised others with whom the individual has come to terms with in the course of his/her social life and the biographical work of transgressing the demarcation lines of tradition-based milieus and of ethnic we-groups via all sorts of “intercultural” communication” (Schütze 2002, p.5/6).


Intercultural interaction processes further biographical work and also the crossing of habitual boundaries. In concluding, we sum up our ideas on how professional practice can support intercultural processes in the university.


In conclusion


First of all, we would want to emphasise again that topics concerning a “foreign background” are not conducive to intercultural communication by themselves. It can be stigmatising when students (have to) become speakers for their own we-group. The recognition of individuals depends on their non-identification.


Then, it is important to understand that educational processes are connected with biographical knowledge, which can be acquired outside of and beyond conventionally expected channels. It can be significant how parents who did not have the possibility to go to university or even attend elementary school explain to their children how they gained access to their own occupations, or how they experienced their project of migration. Many students from migrant worker families relate their educational effort and aspiration to their parents’ endurance and quest of a better life.


Finally, an interest in one’s background, religion, history, culture and traditions is commonly interpreted as turning away from modern society and as a sign that integration has failed. A task for teaching and research in the social sciences would be to make the exploration of one’s background generally “familiar”, for all students, in recognition that it may provide the basis for the exploration of theoretical issues.

Against making some backgrounds stranger than others and characterising minority members and their concerns as fundamentally “different”, it is important to show that biographical work extends to one’s family background and is not at all in opposition to modernity but rather generates it. The university is a good place to do this.






Earlier papers on this topic were presented by the first author in cooperation with the second author at a biographical research conference in Halle, February 2000, and by the first and third author in the session on “Comparative Social Research” at the International Conference on Methodological Problems of Biographical Research, University of Kassel, May 2001. For discussing these presentations, we would like to thank Ursula Apitzsch, Roswitha Breckner and Regina Kreide.












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published in:

Ursula Apitzsch, Prue Chamberlayne, Joanna Bornat (eds):

Biographical analysis and professional practice

Bristol: The Policy Press (2004)