The social element in (Intercultural) communication

Some of the earlier work produced on intercultural communication has been grounded in the concept that participants in any interaction bring with them a system of ‘symbols of meanings’ (Schneider, 1976) that shapes their perceptions. Societies create and preserve common systems of symbols by which their members can assign and exchange meanings. Individuals are expected to meet up with very different expectations in different areas of life in society but the situations that produce these expectations fall into certain clusters that have been socially bestowed, socially sustained and socially transformed.

Autoloze Dimanche 2010 ¬ 0965b

Erving Goffman, the author of ‘role theory’ (1971,1981), explored the nature of individual participation in social encounters. Individuals, he explained, function in their environment on the basis of ‘roles’or main units of socialisation. Roles play an important part in the maintenance or destruction of the system as a whole. Participation in any face-to-face activity requires the participant to keep command of his/her role. A failure to maintain his/her kind of role makes the systems as a whole suffer. Every participant, therefore, has the function of maintaining his/her own control, and one or more participants have the function of  modulating activity so as to safeguard the poise of the others.

In Goffman’s paradigm, each participant is allowed to establish a tentative role regarding matters that are vital to him/her but not to others; there is a modus vivendi whereby the participants together contribute to a single overall definition of the situation which involves an agreement as to whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured and regarding the desirability of avoiding conflict of definitions of the situation; there is a vision of a society organised on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him/her in an appropriate way. When he/she then projects his/her image making an explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, s/he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him/her in the manner that prsons of this kind have a right to expect (Goffman 1971 b:24).

John Gumperz (1982,1984), expanded the framework presented by role theory and applied the ethno-methodological approach developed by Harold Garfinkel (1967,1972) to outline a theory of how social knowledge is stored in the mind, retrieved from memory and integrated with grammatical knowledge in the act of conversing. Conversational inference is the context-bound process of interpretation, by means of which participants in a conversation asses others’ intentions, and on which they base their responses.  Speakers must enlist others’co-operation  and actively seek to create conversational involvement. This process, according to Gumperz, is not just a matter of prior extra-linguistic presuppositions. Interacting parties induce others to participate in conversational encounters by evoking expectations about what is to come and symbolically alluding to shared values and obligations.

Therefore, for speakers to create involvement and to co-operate in the joint development of specific themes effectively, there must be a successful control over a range of communicative options. Speakers must also have the knowledge of the signalling potential that these options have in alluding to shared history, values and mutual obligations.

Unfortunately, these conditions are not always met, and harmonious and effective communication suffers and eventually breaks down. Gumperz’ s studie of interethnic encounters in the United Kingdom led him to conclude that negative outcomes in inter-ethnic encounters were likely to occur when there were mismatched expectations as to how personal or fact-oriented an account is to be or when there were mismatched expectations as to how concrete the account was to be or how much and what kind of detail to present. Speakers were likely to be seen as either vague or overly general or impersonal and not knowing their businesses, or uncooperative. He deduced that such perceived problems were partly due to differences in cultural knowledge and partly to differences in rhetorical conventions. Both causes were used to justify negative evaluations and refusals (Gumperz and Roberts 1987:78).

Often, however, participants in conflicts are taught to use different meanings and symbols in incompatible and incommensurable ways. Richard Rorty believes that when people use meanings differently, they are confronting ‘final vocabularies’ (Rorty 1989:73). A ‘final vocabulary’ comprises those words and phrases used to justify things people do and believe. Each side resorts the to the deep-seated and deeply belived stories about itself, ultimately protected by silence, force and by tautologies.

I, personally, don’t agree with this representation of meanings. I prefer not to see ‘final vocabularies’as beasts readily and willingly confronting each other. I presume that ‘final vocabularies’ are but small cells in large bodies of institutions, political manoeuvres and international relations. People are instructed by institutions to believe that certain vocabularies are incommensurate. In many occasions the stories told by institutions become ingrained and remain unshakable. Dominating institutions learn to shape parties in conflict at their will. To facilitate their task they forge antithetical stands such as the East and the West, Palestine and Israel, Male and Female.  The inability and the unwillingness of these parties to rise above their own worlds, their own truths and their incapability to manufacture new positions, reinforces the line between the community and the outsider.  And often, in order to reinforce these boundaries and to protect their own stories and rhetoric, people tell and retell stories about us and them.

Goffman, E., 1981. Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goffman, E. 1971. The presentations of the self in every day life. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Gumperz, John, 1984. Discourse strategies. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Gumperz, John, 1982. Language and social identity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Gumperz, John and Celia Roberts, 198. Understanding in intercultural encounters. In Blommaert, Jan and Jef Verschueren, (eds.). 1987.  The pragmatics of intercultural communication. Selected papers of the International Pragmatics Conference, Antwerp, August 17-22 

Rorty, Richard, 1989. Contingency, irony and solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press

Schneider, D. 1976. Notes towards a theory of culture. In Basso, K. & Selby, H. (eds.), Meaning in Anthropology, ps. 197-220. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


2 thoughts on “The social element in (Intercultural) communication

  1. Teresa: seria molt interessant aplicar això a la relación entre australians no aborigens i aaustralians aborigens….

    • Si, Marina, tens tota la rao. Porten’intenant desenvolupar un proces de ‘reconciliacio’ desde fa gaire be decades, que no els hi ha servit d’absolutament res. Es una llastima pero no es cap surpresa si les bases no hi son, ni l’interes per part d’una de les parts. Potser, com esta passant a tot arreu, ha de sortir del poble! Gracies per llegir! Teresa

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