Misunderstandings, often considered as problems to overcome, are in fact sources for analyzing the very conditions of communication. This panel invites theoretical and ethnographic reflections on misunderstanding as a means to (re)conceptualize cultural difference and transcultural communication.
The idea of 'cultural misunderstanding' is at the very root of anthropology's concept of difference. By acknowledging 'misunderstanding' we recognize that no system of communication can be fully translated into another system. However, 'misunderstanding' has hitherto been treated mostly as a source of disquieting uncertainty and as a problem to overcome instead of as a source of knowledge and innovation. Condemning or attempting to improve upon 'misunderstanding' implies a normative view of communication as consensus-driven. In addition, this view is often based on simplistic ideas of what means 'to understand', in doing so leaving unanswered important questions concerning the nature and substance of 'cultural understanding', for example, whether it refers to the propositional contents of acts of communication or merely to the symbols employed in them. In contrast to this, a view of communication as being driven by difference turns 'misunderstanding' into a fertile source for analyzing the very conditions of communication. Seen from this perspective, 'misunderstanding' appears as a necessary and constitutive aspect of communication. The panel invites both theoretical and ethnography-based reflections on the question of how misunderstanding can be explored in its practical, heuristic and epistemological dimensions as a means to (re)conceptualize cultural difference and transcultural communication.