UR – Designing Intercultural Research

COURSE: Understanding Research—UR

FORUM: Designing the Research Proposal

TOPICS: explore your research interest

Step 3 – Part 2

Keywords: intercultural communication, Intercultural research, interviewing by e-mail, culture, reflexivity

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Article review

Aneas, María Assumpta & Sandín, María Paz (2009). Intercultural and Cross-Cultural Communication Research: Some Reflections about Culture and Qualitative Methods [57 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 10(1), Art. 51, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0901519 Accessed on Dec.10, 2009 at http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1251

During the break I found this interesting article that addresses specific issues emerging in research with an intercultural slant. Considering that in the ALGC we are all one way or another going to deal with the intercultural dimension of our experience and of our relevant research project, I thought of sharing some reflections on this very issue.

What follows are my considerations. I posted them here not as a topic for discussion, but merely to share them.

Quotes are shown indented.

Content of the information being gathered (INTERVIEWING)

BHAWUK and TRIANDIS (1996, p.29) offer an interesting collection of insights and recommendations when it comes to the content of interviews. Interviewing is one of the fundamental techniques used in qualitative research on cross-cultural and intercultural communication. One of the principal concerns when conducting an interview is whether an emic or an etic approach is more appropriate—that is, whether to ask different, tailor-made and culture-specific questions or ask the same questions in all the cultural contexts being studied.

my comments:

My research won’t be about discussing, exploring, analyzing the participants’ host or original cultures; in that sense it does not take an emic approach. My research will explore the experience of the participants and the extent to which they may share similar views and experiences of processes of adaptation and intercultural competence building. In a sense, my research has an emic nature, in that it attempts an in-depth exploration of one specific culture, the culture that informs a transnational personhood/identity.

Doing semi-structured interviews through e-mail prevents the interviewer’s culturally-affected reactions to influence the respondents. See BHAWUK and TRIANDIS (1996, p.28) I believe this method has advantages that will be beneficial to my research. (see this article for more on this method).

It will also diminish opportunities for the emergence of intercultural anxiety provoked by the uncertainty typical of intercultural contexts, as defined by Gudykunst (1993) in his theory of Anxiety Uncertainty Management (AUM).

Language in the research process

In order to understand and interpret utterances or gestures in a given language, a minimum degree of language equivalence between the language of those being studied and that of the researcher is needed (LUSTIG & KOESTER, 1996; SAMOVAR, PORTER & STEFANI, 1998).

my comments:

Utterances or gestures in my e-mail interviews  will be automatically disregarded.

Language issues will be partly sidestepped by using English as the language of the research, and selecting participants who have a certain degree of fluency in English. Though this choice may introduce a level of bias, it will facilitate both the collection and the analysis of the narratives, based on the assumption that – to a large extent – the respondents share an equivalency in the meaning of the vocabulary they use.

Nevertheless, I will need to be mindful of this assumption.

Culture, analysis and interpretation in qualitative research

Mental schemas

In this same sense, according ERICKSON (1989), the base for theoretical constructions is the immediate and local meanings of action as defined from the point of view of the social actors involved. In other words, we interpret a reality, a given piece of information according to the parameters of our experience in which our culture occupies a fundamental position. Culture is the reason why a given phenomenon, a specific form of behavior can be given a very different meaning according to the origin culture of the person analyzing and interpreting the process. [47]

Mental schemas constitute a cognitive system which enables us to interpret the gestures, utterances and actions of others. Culture influences the organization of the schemas developed by individuals with the justification that different visions and interpretations of reality are culturally variable. In the same sense constructionism stresses the importance of socio-cultural background in the higher order psychological processes (VYGOTSKY, 1979) as an argument with which to demonstrate the union of culture with cognitive processes and the relation between learning, development and the contexts of personal relations.

Summing up, theories of categorization and social attribution facilitate the development of explanations concerning the perception and interpretation of the behavior of others in intercultural contexts.

Language and mental maps are cultural elements with which the researcher operates in the analysis and the construction of results.


The fallacy of the monolithic view of identity alerts us to the need for prudence and the importance of avoiding categorizing cultural studies of communication in stereotypical terms, as built on folklore beliefs and essentialist in terms of culture.

On the other hand, it is already widely accepted in qualitative research that the researcher becomes the “principal information gathering instrument,” and thus some of the objectives which have been identified for studies of cross-cultural and intercultural communication are associated with the reflexivity of the researcher (my note: see Bryman, p. 682) over her or his own cultural biases together with the associated theoretical, and even social and political standpoints.

For the outlook of researching cross-cultural and intercultural communication we would stress that

  • Culture is a “system” and not the sum of a collection of fortuitous traits
  • It is an integrated whole which cannot be understood by examining its components individually and in isolation.
  • It is a dynamic whole which is in flux, and constantly changing, and which reveals itself as being in interaction with the world in a multiplicity of complex and diverse situations and contexts.


Bampton, R. & Cowton, C.J. (2002). The E-Interview [27 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(2), Art. 9, Retrieve on Dec. 19, 2009 at http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs020295

Bhawuk,D. & Triandis, H. (1996). The role of culture theory in the study of culture and intercultural training. In Dan Landis & Richard W. Brislin (Eds.), Handbook of intercultural training (pp.17-34). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Erickson, Frederick (1989). Métodos cualitativos de investigación sobre la enseñanza. In Merlin Wittrock (Ed.), La investigación de la enseñanza, II. Métodos cualitativos y de observación (pp.195-301). Barcelona: Paidós/M.E.C.

Gudykunst, W. (1993). Toward a theory of effective interpersonal and intergroup communication. In Richard L. Wiseman & Jolene Koester (Eds.), Intercultural communication competence (pp.33-71). London: Sage.

Lustig, M. & Koester, J. (1996). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures. New York: Harper Collins.

Vygotsky, L. (1979). El desarrollo de los procesos psicológicos superiores. Barcelona: Crítica.


GLL – On Freire’ Education for critical consciousness

COURSE: Global/Local Learning– GLL

FORUM: Samarbeta

TOPICS: local global learning, development, Transformation, Adult Education

Step 3 – Part 1: What is Transformative Adult Education?

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Freire, P. (1973) Extracts from the essay entitled Education as the Practice of Freedom in Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum Publishing Company.


Consciousness, critical consciousness, conscientization, conscientizaçã, oppression, radicalization, sectarianism, assistencialism, fanaticism, Brazil, pedagogy of transformation, social change, education;


Freire presents the case of education as a means to achieve critical consciousness, which in turn would support the emergence from a state of oppression into a full-fledged democracy.

The excerpt is complex and deals with epistemological, ontological, economic, and social dimensions. Freire begins with ontologically defining men as separate from reality, which he sees as “objective”. He also juxtaposes men to animals, recognizing how the former are conscious being who can be critical of reality. He then proceeds to outline the epistemology of his thought by asserting that learning is the result of reflection (whereas animals learn by reflex). Men, therefore, are equipped with the capacity to critically reflect on their experience, to achieve a state of conscientizaçã that will allow them to conquer oppression and discrimination.

Freire also outlines his idea of time. To him, time is linear – past, present and future – and the perception of such progression is what makes men different from animals. This ability allows men to “enter into the domain which is theirs exclusively – that of History and of Culture.” (p.2)

Still using the analogy men vs. animals, Freire distinguishes between integration and adaptation. He sees adaptation as a form of dehumanizing passive acquiescence to the status quo, whereas integration is a form of active participation that can eventually transform reality. Accordingly, adapted people are mere objects, whereas integrated people are subjects in participative processes of personal and social transformation.

He advocates for a level of awareness that he calls critical consciousness, which will empower people to transcend their status of “oppressed” and become integrated into a new kind of democratic society. Freire recognizes the uncertainty that develops in times of transition from an epoch of oppression to one ensuing from people’s participation and critical consciousness. During such transition, people’s level of social consciousness would hopefully move through stages, from a semi-intransitive level, through naïve transitivity, to critically transitive consciousness. Politically, this latter, higher form of conscientizaçã “is characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless and dialogical forms of life -in contrast to silence and inaction, in contrast to the rigid, militarily authoritarian state.” (p.10) He also recognizes the danger of fanaticism, which would prevent people from developing a full-fledged critical consciousness.

“Naive transitive consciousness can evolve toward critical transitivity, characteristic of a legitimately democratic mentality, or it can be deflected toward the debased, clearly dehumanized, fanaticized consciousness characteristic of massification.” (p.11)

He sees education as instrumental to achieving political and social change through the process of conscientizaçã.

“The special contribution of the educator to the birth of the new society would have to be a critical education which could help to form critical attitudes, for the naive consciousness with which the people had emerged into the historical process left them an easy prey to irrationality. Only an education facilitating the passage from naive to critical transitivity, increasing men’s ability to perceive the challenges of their time, could prepare the people to resist the emotional power of the transition.” (p. 12)

“The education our situation demanded would enable men to discuss courageously the problems of their context -and to intervene in that context; it would warn men of the dangers of the time and offer them the confidence and the strength to confront those dangers instead of surrendering their sense of self through submission to the decisions of others. By predisposing men to reevaluate constantly, to analyze “findings,” to adopt scientific methods and processes, and to perceive themselves in dialectical relationship with their social reality, that education could help men to assume an increasingly critical attitude toward the world and so to transform it.” (p.13)

Freire uses the case of Brazil as a scenario for his argument, concluding that, in order to achieve the changes he supports, Brazil would need to re-appropriate itself of its history and autochthonous culture, rejecting the imported Eurocentric worldview that has contributed to so many problems. This final remarks reminds me of the “emic and etic” perspective used in anthropology and cross-cultural counseling.


1) Contradiction between his ontological and epistemological approaches.

I notice a discrepancy in Freire’s initial thoughts. His ontological introduction reminds me of the original view of Behaviorism and Gestalt. Behaviorists believe that reality exists externally and needs to be learned. His epistemological view, however, resonates more with constructivism, which denies the assumption that people are empty boxes, a tabula rasa, that are eager to be filled by instructors with fixed samples of an externally existing world. (in his book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Freire called it Banking Education.) Constructivism affirms that reality in not extrinsic to learners, who instead use motivation to actively and collaboratively construct their knowledge and meaning from their personal experience. Therefore learning is seen as the product of self-organization and to this end teachers’ role is that of mediators and facilitators.

2) Approach based on an either/or exclusion.

His ideas seem to develop within a dichotomous world, where themes and factors are juxtaposed to one another. This is the case with his view of reactionaries vs. progressives; men vs. animals; state-supported oppression vs. people’s needs; old epoch vs. new epoch; integration vs. adaptation. However, he also recognizes areas that transcend a dichotomous approach. For example he talks about a transition time between past and future.

In general, his world is fairly polarized, with Eurocentric, imported approaches facing off against what he sees as the natural character of autochthonous cultures. I believe that such views are strongly influenced by the contextual conditions in Brazil that he is trying to analyze.

3) His view seems at times to follows the same patters he strongly criticizes.

For example, he sees people at the mercy of “social forces” and relevant “myths”, (p.3) as if his was the only approach top make a correct sense of reality. This is also evident when he suggests that people should overcome adjustment “to become integrated with the spirit of the time.  I wonder who defines such spirit.

4) An overemphasis on rational thinking.

In a citation, the paper says that men will have to make “more and more use of intellectual, and less and less of emotional and instinctive functions.” I disagree with this. As I believe that today’s worldviews suffers from an overload for Western-style thinking based on a Cartesian world view. Transcending it would offer an opportunity for a paradigmal change.


COURSE: Fostering Learning in Practice

A hot issue in my workplace and its relationship to learning and identity

integral paper available at: O_VALLAZZA_Assignment1_FLIP.doc


Yolanda pointed out that my paper includes my learning from other courses.. This is the way I see the ALGC. Didn’t we start with the capability envelop and our learning plan? A pivotal part of mine was/is the “making sense” of my life/professional/academic experiences, in an attempt to organize all that into a systemic whole. This course has been so far very helpful in that regard.  I try to stick to a systemic view, which implies making references across disciplines and contexts. My assignment 1 links some of my reflections to previous learning experiences, hopefully not to the detriment of the assignment’s specific requirements. Feedback from teachers will tell.

Next week’s tasks seem to offer a great opportunity for all of us to address our learning experience. I look fwd to the discussion.

Hot issue

COURSE: Fostering Learning in Practice

FORUM: Koala 5

TOPICS: Hot issue, Case study



TITLE:  Given the demands placed on teachers in today’s hectic professional practices, introducing and fostering intercultural communication awareness and competences outside the instructional framework provided in specific courses is difficult. Unfortunately, unless such capabilities are anchored in the curriculum, chances for intercultural relativism and misunderstandings will float like mines in the education field


I am a European teacher at an art college in Seattle, WA (USA) that attracts a good number of international students. I teach general education and foreign language courses. The latter ones are design to provide an arena not only for language acquisition and practice, but also for the development of rudimental intercultural communication competencies, which are – however – not specifically recognized in the academic syllabus.

Outside the technical role as a foreign language instructor, I am also acting at an institutional level – in that I am bound by college policies and educational mission – and at the interface of cross-cultural discourses – in that I provide my students with opportunities to recognize patterns and assumptions that relate directly to their identities and world views. These cross-cultural discourses cover several areas of both personal and academic relevance, and are not usually recognized as part of the learning context.


See my comments below.

My personal background in and exposure to a broad spectrum of intercultural communication literature and experiences make me particularly sensitive to all issues related to cultural diversity and differences. In my teaching experience – however – I have rarely witnessed any institutional recognition and support for intercultural communication classes. I believe that when it comes to that, the general approach is that things will sort themselves out one way or another, and that teachers are well-versed in dealing with all sorts of academic, pedagogical and cultural issues. I happen to dispute such view.


Last quarter an incident happened in my Italian language class, where over half of the students did not speak English as their first language.

One day I was trying to get two female students from Korea to speak up a bit, as their voices were barely audible, and others, including myself, had problems hearing them.

“Would you mind to speak up a bit? It’s difficult to hear you,” I said, and noticed that one of the two students fell silent for the remainder of the class. When I approached her after class, she broke down in tears. She was visibly upset, so I asked if there was anything I could have done. “There is nothing you can do anymore. You have already ruined everything,” she responded.  If I remember correctly, she even said that I had ruined her life because I had exposed her in front of the class as a bad student.

Of course it wasn’t true. I had not tried to make her look bad. My invitation to speaking up was directly linked to what it takes to learn how to speak a foreign language. I apologized to her if I had said something that might have upset her, but that didn’t seem to make her feel better, so I added: “If you want to talk about this, please come and see me whenever you’d like,” and I left it to that.

The situation did not occur again, and that particular student did rather well in the class, but she never quite changed the level of her voice, and remained barely audible till the very end.


The cross-cultural dimension of this case is undeniable. As a long-time learner of intercultural communication, I immediately recognized that the situation was presenting itself as difficult, ripe with the potential for intercultural misunderstanding, compounded by the danger of power issues that are present in a higher education context. The student may have been dealing with issues of asserting and negotiating her own cultural identity in an alien environment, in a fashion very similar to that described in DE Vault’s article on Ethnicity and Expertise. Hers is one of the discourses that I have identified in this critical incident. Another intersecting discourse is the one emerging from my own experience and studies, covering a vast area that is both very personal, i.e. experiential, and academic, i.e. rooted in formal studies.

GINGER: Which discourse are you referring to?  Is it at odds with De Vault or complementary?


The discourses I am referring to are those that emerge from the actors’ personal narratives. In this particular case, my student’s narrative embedded – I assume – in her cultural background and personal history, intersect my own narrative, which is the result of a multi-dimensional experience made up of a lifetime exposure to other cultures and of formal studies of issues of intercultural communication.

Said intersecting narratives are not at odds with de Vault’s ideas. In fact, she made it clear that, in order for us to be able to understand someone from a different culture, we also need to address our own biases and assumptions. To do that, I believe we need clarity about our own narrative and a mindful and noticing approach to understanding the other. I am also aware of the risks entailed in using metaphors, as described in Mason’s article. For example, the metaphor of “Asians” being reserved and their fear of “losing face” that would seem to provide some guidance in this case scenario may or may not be appropriate in the case of this particular student. That would be too easy. Hence the usefulness of broader narrative analysis which, as I pointed out, is unfortunately would require much more time than we usually have in our professional lives.

My understanding of the situational dynamics can also be considered within the “emic” and “etic” dichotomy discussed in De Vault’s article.[1] How equipped am I to be able to be effective in facilitating such critical cases with a high intercultural component? Is my intervention going to be only partly effective because of my etic involvement?

GINGER: I’m not familiar with these terms.  Maybe a bit of explanation?

Etic and emic

I learned these terms in class on cross-cultural counseling. In a nut shell, emic refers to the perspective of an insider, i.e. of people belonging to a specific culture.

Etic instead is the perspective of an outside observer who does not belong to that specific culture.

The issue is very important, as it relates to how we see other cultures and is directly liked to issues of identity, representation and otherization. It is particularly relevant to ethnographic research, but also to cross-cultural counseling, where very often the counselor is an outsider and lacks the personal connection to a particular cultural context. De Vault’s institutional ethnographic study is a good example. Janetta claims that her insider’s knowledge of specific cultures put her in a better position to provide effective nutritional counseling.

I had included a link for more information and emic and etic approaches.



This issue matters to me because I believe I have a high level of intercultural communication competency that makes me acutely aware of the difficulties experienced by international students, and nevertheless I apparently fell into a trap.

GINGER: Could you explicitly name the trap as you see it?

By trap I mean being caught “off guard.”  Here I mean the trap posed by the random occurrence of intercultural communication incidents when we least expect them and when we think we are doing everything we can to steer clear of them. Only after the incident happened I realized its intercultural dimension, even though I should have been aware of that.

I was not prepared to deal with this specific incident, also because, like De Vault says, I was distracted by other priorities.

I believe that the way I acted was an attempt to manage the high demands of my professional life and to oversimplify my teaching approach, detaching it from its cross-cultural context. In spite of my training, the level of my alertness was lowered.

GINGER: What do you mean by ‘oversimplify’ my teaching approach?

Brookfield defines this as teaching innocently, i.e. “means thinking that we’re always understanding exactly what it is that we’re doing and what effect we’re having.” I might have believed that by sticking to the lesson plan I was going to have a smooth ride. Instead, the incident proved that a state of mindful alertness would have been helpful in averting the surprise (what I described as being caught off guard).

I believe that this case could have been dealt more effectively if considered from the view point presented in Mason’s article on Forces for Development, one that emphasizes noticing, mindfulness, and reflection activities. All that took a back seat while I was concentrated on “teaching.”

Developing and nurturing the discipline of noticing, i.e. the mindful ability to be present and attend to others’ needs, allows me to act in a professional, appropriate manner. At a personal level though, my interaction and dealings with others are generally informed by this approach.

GINGER: How could it have been handled more effectively?  From your hindsight noticing and reflection, what could you do differently?

See my previous thoughts above. Briefly, I believe I should have kept in mind the powerful influence of intercultural nuances and the ever-present impact of the cultural dimension on everything we do in today’s globalized world. Even if such dimension is not explicitly recognized in the curriculum, I should have known better.

In this particular incident, I believe that – aside from a more mindful attitude on my part – there was little I could have done to turn it into a broader learning experience for my students. For that to happen, however, a much more persuasive approach would be needed, one that would make it possible for teachers to include such learning in their courses. This would require an institutional commitment and willingness to seriously sensitize teachers and staff. This is basically what I am advocating in this document. (see next section on What Next?)


With regard to cross-cultural communication awareness, the process of cultural identity negotiation and the attentive approach to someone’s narrative as presented by De Vault may be valuable tools for dealing with critical incidents like this one, although an intensive, narrative-oriented mode of investigation is not always feasible due to many other concurring commitments and lack of time and.

On the other hand, maybe there is a way to revive the importance of intercultural communication competencies that will give students, administrators and teachers a way to understand and appreciate the variety of cultural discourses that are by now a pivotal part of our teaching and learning universe.

Not everyone involved will become an intercultural specialist, but I sincerely hope that everyone would become at least mindful of the dynamics of cross-cultural interaction and of the traps that they can create.

I believe that designing curricula with an embedded cross-cultural dimension will enhance both the learning environment and the opportunities for personal growth and active citizenship of all the people involved.

GINGER: Can you give an example of ‘en embedded cross-cultural dimension’?

This is a great question! It links reflection to action.

From my point of view, I believe in adding cross-cultural communication awareness and competence to the college mission statement, including the list of graduation competencies. In so doing the learning environment would hopefully become more mindful of issues that are currently occurring under the radar.

The readings for this segment of our course are very helpful in identifying a framework for meaningful and effective intervention. In this case, however, I would need to refer to literature that is much more focused on the theme. It is necessary to adopt a vocabulary based on a non-essentialist view of culture; to explore and clarify issues of identity, assumptions, otherization, representation through an approach based on thick description of personal narratives and discourses. This is a lot to discuss at this stage, but it gives an idea that a long-term transformation of current approaches will require a convinced and convincing effort, otherwise we will have to resort – like I did – to a quick fix that does not really do justice to the complexity of our cultural diversity.

GINGER: Oscar, Your case is very clear and well presented.  What I like about the case is that you are addressing the micro level – your classroom – and seeking solutions at the macro level – embedding cross cultural dimensions in learning environments.  Your conviction about the need for intercultural communication is clear. What I think would strengthen the case is if you could make it more specific in terms of your learning and learning dimensions.  For me the interesting question is what will you do next time you are in a similar situation?  How will the noticing and mindfulness practically effect your actions?

[1] http://web.archive.org/web/20080418104024/http://faculty.ircc.edu/faculty/jlett/Article+on+Emics+and+Etics.htm


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