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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

August 31, 2009

Handy-Dandy Guide to Sloppy Cross-Cultural Research

If you’ve read many of my pieces in the Daily Yomiuri or have come across some of my articles in The Language Teacher, ETJ Journal, or JALT Journal you may be aware that culture in ELT is something that I get particularly stoked about.

Not because I’m passionate about 'learning about different cultures' or 'experiencing the rich cultural mosaic of the world’s languages' or anything like that (although I like to think that I’m a seasoned traveler and a bit of a human geography boffin), but mainly because most of the research is so blatantly poor and basically serves as a foundation for, or reinforcement of, prejudices. It also, if you ask me, fosters a sense of psychological distance from others, promotes simplistic binary logic, creates false dilemmas, and serves as a platform for stereotyping, xenophobia, and exclusionary thinking.

That so much of this 'research' is accepted as fact in pseudo-academia and is subsequently regurgitated by teachers and other ‘authorities’ it is no surprise that it has taken root among both the gemeinschaft and the zeitgeist (not to mention the meme) of the general public. And no, I’m not just talking about Japan so please don’t think of this as some kind of Debito-lite harangue. I am, however, talking about the kind of mentality as expressed in this type of TV presentation (lifted from the Japan Probe site), likenesses of which can be found worldwide (note that this example came from South Korea).

Anyway, without further adieu, here’s a template for carrying out your own legitimate sounding but nonetheless sloppy cross-cultural research:

Let's start with a sample social experiment-
At the bottom of a series of steps (such as the entrance to a museum or large public building) in two locales place a prominent sign that instructs all those walking up or down the steps to take two steps at a time. No reason or further instruction is to be given.

Observe people responding to the stimulus in one such place marked representatively as THE EAST (let’s say Seoul) and one representing THE WEST (let’s use London). Assume that whatever happens in Seoul must be essentially ‘Eastern’ and that which occurs in London must be quintessentially ‘Western’. (Also pretend also that Easterners and Westerners are simple monolithic categories- it makes the research that much easier)

Note how many people followed the two-step instruction (or not) in both locales. The results will be different. Don’t mention that results would also be different even if the test was being conducted in two different locales in the same city, even in the same neighborhood. This is crucial because the study can then legitimately be called a CULTURAL difference!

Now the key point: It doesn’t matter which locale had more people follow the instructions or not because what’s really important is to confirm your existing prejudice about Eastern or Western people. It’s great! You can ‘prove’ your tautologies and convenient a priori reasoning can be achieved regardless of which group followed the instructions! How convenient! Let’s see how this works next in our all-important analysis section!

All important analysis section:
OK. Let’s imagine that in Seoul 120 out of 200 people followed the two-step at a time instruction whereas in London 105 did so. (Don’t mention that the notion of Westerner might be very foggy and imprecise in highly multi-cultural London because that might compromise any pre-conceived conclusions). Now we can do the all-important racial stereotyping… oops I mean cultural analysis. To wit: “This result shows that Eastern people place a great emphasis on social harmony as evidenced by their willingness to follow a rule believing that it was for the social good. Westerners on the other hand do what they think is best for them personally without regards to social harmony or society at large.” Pretend that the above is not making a judgment about which is better but is just a matter of stating ‘cultural differences’.

That’s a pretty pleasant way of describing the alleged Eastern mentality isn’t it? And conversely, rather hard upon the selfish, narcissistic Westerner. OK, I can imagine that some Asia fans might want to stop right there. Case closed. But hey, if you feel uncomfortable with Asians and their 'deviously inscrutable ways' and weird cuisines, you might want to alter this analysis to something less sanguine for the East. So let’s ‘analyze’ the very same results again: “This result shows that Easterners are cowed by any apparent authority and have little ability to think for themselves. Westerners on the other hand, think more deeply about the justification, necessity and other complex philosophical concepts”. Pretend that this analysis too is not being judgmental but merely explicating ‘objective’ and ‘visceral’ cultural differences. Repeat either of the above analysis to school children with the added belief that this will help them to ‘understand and appreciate other cultures’ better. Do your best to stifle the mocking laughter that should be rattling your conscience at this point.

But we can go even further! Let’s imagine the results were exactly the opposite of what we said above, with London having the more ‘compliant’ populace. Then, if we are partial to the West we can say: “This shows the sense of public duty and obedience to the rule of law found in Western institutions” whereas if you are one who feels threatened by the ‘resurgent, ascendant East’ you can add: “...whereas Easterners display little regard for laws, social propriety, or public duty”. Sounds like something out of 19th century British travelogue, doesn’t it?

And the Uncle Tom/’apologist’ Asiaphile or cloistered Japanese/Chinese/Korean nationalist can play the same game too- only with the qualitative analysis reversed: “This result shows the Western fetish for iron-clad rules and bureaucratic minutiae as opposed the warmer and fuzzier logic of Eastern people where sensibility is determined by an awareness of surrounding environment and circumstances”. Feel free to add something about harsh, stark desert cultures vs. fecund harmonious agricultural societies here. This will help children learn that agriculture never existed in Europe due to the harsh desert climates of Ireland, Norway, and the like. Add that it will also likely lead to major cultural clashes when sorting out garbage in Japan.

Garnish all of the above with a few university eggheads to lend it the tang of academic credibility then serve it up to the general public for consumption. Do the same thing with some alleged feature of two languages under the banner of ELT research. Inject this type of thinking into government ministries and boards of education.

Hey- it’s all about generating cross-cultural understanding, right?

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Heh, you got this one absolutely pitch perfect, Mike. Well-deserving of a wider public, why don't you make it one of your Yomiuri pieces?

Just a bit of anthropological history, what you rightly skewer has its antecedents in Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which, while of course dated, is still much better than much of the stuff that came out of the short-lived Culture and Personality school of American cultural anthropology, the most ludicrous of which was Geoffrey Gorer's infant-swaddling hypothesis. In more recent times, the late Edward Hall, among many lesser luminaries in the cross-cultural field, including those who incorporated it into second-language teaching, took up the stereotype mongering torch (not to mention the associated reductionism of geographic and climatic determinism) to perpetuate this elevation of anecdote to explanation.

I recall a colleague taking pains to explain to her students that they didn't have to become Americans to speak English fluently ;)

Hi Walter.

As you know, a number of those early pioneer attempts at cross-cultural research are seen primarily as anachronisms now. I suppose that Hall, for example, was quite revolutionary for his time. Who else had tried to quantify low/high context (a recent topic in my Yomiuri column) or proximetrics in the mid 60's? Likewise, the Boaz school of anthropology, which influenced the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, seems to hold more historical than research/knowledge value.

EXCEPT, that is, in the good old world of ELT, where Hall's ruminations still seem to hold great currency. Go figure.

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