Volume 8: Role of Culture and Understanding

Culture and Understanding
In order develop and organize intercultural messages and cultural rules for intercultural communication relationships.

The role of culture in intercultural communication will need to be examined. We offer a concise presentation of the history of cross-cultural and intercultural communication as a research field, and then continue by offering an outline of the basic idea of culture as it is applied in studies of intercultural communication. We introduce to some approaches which are currently used in studying culture. Then we outline how cultural research and qualitative research intersect conceptually.

The next section, which is dedicated to the analysis of empirical reality in qualitative research, is mainly focused on the role played by culture in the information gathering process. In particular, and using a very generic approach, some theoretical contributions are presented which illustrate the role that culture plays in determining the content of the information which is assembled, the interpersonal climate which is established, and the language through which the world of facts is approached. The section does not examine specific techniques or strategies but rather it identifies some elements which may influence the way culture enters and influences the research process. The section also includes the relation between culture and the processes of analyzing and interpreting reality, and offers a brief summary of some of the principal theoretical approaches applied for analyzing culture and their backflow on the research practice in an intercultural context.

At this point we would like to emphasize the necessarily generic character of the present work, since the complexity and the theoretical richness which underlie the concepts "culture" and "qualitative research" would really justify the writing of a separate article for each of the sections we present here. Thus, accepting the risk of offering, at times, what some might consider a rather superficial account, we have tried to outline a more general framework from which the conceptualization of culture and its relations with the process of qualitative research in the context of intercultural communication may be addressed.
The Role of Culture in Researching Intercultural Communication
A brief history of the field of intercultural communication research

Intercultural communication is a scientific field whose object of interest is the interaction between individuals and groups from different cultures, and which examines the influence of culture on who people are, how they act, feel, think and, evidently, speak and listen (DODD, 1991). As described by VILA (2005), intercultural communication may be defined as a communicative process involving individuals from reference cultures which are sufficiently different to be perceived as such, with certain personal and/or contextual barriers having to be overcome in order to achieve effective communication. Even if the origins of the study of intercultural communication can be situated in the years following the end of World War II, and coincide with the creation of the United Nations (1945), it is generally accepted that Edward T. HALL (1959) was the first to use the term itself.1) Most of the work which was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s was very much under HALL's influence, together with that of KLUCKHOHN and STRODTBECK (1961). During the 1970s the field flourished, and the most notable works were possibly that of CONDON and YOUSEF (1977), as well as SAMOVAR, PORTER and JAIN (1981) who were the first researchers to systematize the area of investigation. During the 1980s and 1990s publications were focused on deepening the outreach of theory and on refining the applied methodology (CHEN & STAROSTA, 1998).

LOMAS, OSORIO and TUSÓN (1993) divided the various areas of study (together with the pertinent theoretical contributions) into four blocks:

the analysis of the communicative process—among the most significant contributions here are the work of GUDYKUNST (1989, 1992, 1993,1994), KIM (1977, 1988, 1992) and CASMIR (1991,1993, 1999);
the role of language in intercultural communication—here the work of WITTGENSTEIN (1953) and DODD (1991) are seminal;
the cognitive organization of the communication process—stimulated by CHOMSKY (1957,1968), FODOR (1986) and VYGOTSKY (1977, 1979); and
the development of interpersonal relations, which includes contributions from authors like ALTMAN and TAYLOR (1973) and TING-TOOMEY (1984, 1999).
The influence of quantitative methodologies on studies about intercultural communication was hegemonic until the 1990s, when the publication of the journal "International and Intercultural Communication Annual" began to promote methodological pluralism, opening the doors to the use of qualitative methodology.

Culture as applied to cross-cultural and intercultural communication
There have been numerous attempts to define the meaning of the term culture following the classic proposal of TAYLOR in 1871. But, as GUDYKUNST and TING-TOOMEY (1988, p.27) point out, "no consensus has been achieved when it comes to formulating an interdisciplinary definition which can be accepted across the diverse fields of study." The sociologist PEDERSEN (1997, p.159) also illustrated the difficulty in defining culture when, following an extensive literature survey he states "people use culture in the same way as scientists use paradigms (...) to organize and normalize their activity (...), the elements of culture are used, modified or discarded depending on their utility in organizing reality."

KEESING (1974), using an anthropological approach, was able to distinguish between two main currents: one which considers culture as an adaptive system, and a second one, which treats culture as a symbolic system. Given that both approaches, when taken separately, present serious limitations when it comes to capturing the complex situations which can be found in the context of cross-cultural and intercultural communication, authors like ADLER (1975), KIM (1988) or PEDERSEN (1994) have proposed the use of an interactive approach wherein they define culture as the universe of information that configures the patterns of life in any given society.

FRENCH and BELL (1979) in their classic "Iceberg Model" identify the behavioral, cognitive and emotional components of culture, and these include values, conceptual systems, behavior and both material and symbolic artifacts. On this base, ANEAS (2003, p.120) synthesized as a definition of culture "the set of knowledge, values, emotional heritage, behavior and artifacts which a social group share, and which enable them to functionally adapt to their surroundings." Thus culture affects us in the way we interact with our environment, influencing both how we construct it, and how we understand it.

Clearly the construct "culture" is one which is under continuous modification in the different disciplines in which it is deployed, and especially when it is applied in the context of the processes of globalization and diversity which characterize modern societies. We can, however, identify two main approaches to the use of the term:

a traditional conception, which embodies a more popular and static approach and identifies culture with a group of "products" (knowledge, skills, ...) that a community has generated historically, (the "expressive" culture), and
an extensive and instrumental conception (the way of being of a community, the conceptual model in which the world is interpreted and the culture is situated) which incorporates a more dynamic use of the term.

The role of language is fundamental in cross-cultural and intercultural qualitative research. We would like to give special attention to the mediating role of language in the process. Language is the main medium in which information circulates and it assembles itself as the message transmitter.

My Conclusion on the Intercultural Communication
Coming back to the intercultural communication relationships, this will leave me with the below conclusions:

we consider the presence of culture in the cognitive processes of research. These processes include a wide spectrum of intellectual activities: knowing, understanding, comparison, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. To what extend does culture influence such processes? As ANDERSEN (1993, p.51) suggests discussions of race, class, and gender need to be thoroughly integrated into debates about research process and data analysis. This requires an acknowledgment of the complex, multiple, and contradictory identities and realities that shape our collective experience.

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). Clearly situations may easily arise in which the lack of such equivalence is a real barrier to communication and understanding for the research. These barriers extend from simple lexical non-equivalence to an experiential non-equivalence, passing through various other degrees of difficulty.

The references to the role of language which are to be found in DODD's (1991) theory of the coordinated management of meaning and rules are interesting and relevant. DODD's theory holds that all human communication is by its very nature imperfect. For him the objective of communication, in our case the communication which is developed during the research process, is coordination, understood here as a model of interaction between participants.


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