From my experiences, the most effective qualitative researchers and evaluators are expert cross cultural communicators who can connect and build rapport with people from all walks of life. The best qualitative researchers and evaluators have honed cross cultural communication skills, that allow them to understand other cultures, as well as their own culture. They understand cultural cues and are patient and tolerant of other people and cultures. They are good listeners, observers, and communicators, and are able to use diplomacy to bring people together. They know enough about other cultures that they can craft culturally appropriate research and evaluation designs, yet they have deconstructed their own cultures so as to anticipate how others will view them as individuals.
Using Cross Cultural Communication Skills to Uncover the Emic
As qualitative researchers and evaluators, we aim to uncover the emic understanding of local level phenomena. An emic viewpoint helps us to understand local level perspectives that can help us to pinpoint micropolitics issues that impact programming positively or negatively. It helps us to understand what local level people think. Very important to us as researchers and evaluators, an emic understanding helps us to craft culturally appropriate research and evaluation designs.
It is not practical that qualitative researchers and evaluators will already have emic knowledge of every culture in which they work. As researchers and evaluators, we oftentimes need to gain an emic understanding as we approach a particular project. One way to gain an emic understanding is by conducting ethnographies. However, ethnography can be time consuming and expensive, and is not practical for most qualitative research and evaluation activities. Qualitative researchers and evaluators sometimes use participatory tools to gain an emic perspective more quickly. The effective use of participatory tools requires solid cross cultural communication skills, however.
The cross cultural communication literature helps us to conceptualize world cultures and cultural cues to better understand them. The literature includes a very common conceptualization between low and high context cultures. Western culture is said to be low context—where the individual is more important over the society as a whole. Westerners are said to think individually, and put pride in individual opinions and freedoms that do not necessarily coincide with those of the elders or the ways that we used to do things in the past. Low context cultures tend to be contractual, where relationships might be based on law or on merit. In contrast, people in high context cultures, including many cultures in the developing world, see the community as more important than the individual. When someone acts, they think of the entire community and the ramifications of their actions on it. Elders and tradition in such a community are important because they embody cultural cues that must be respected. In such a culture, personal relationships are important.
Of course, low and high context culture conceptualizations are generalizations that vary from place to place and country to country. For instance, urban culture in the United States is said to be lower context than rural culture in the same country. These generalizations help us to understand tendencies, and may guide our behavior as researchers and evaluators. For example, an evaluator in Africa would likely seek favor from the chief and other elders before conducting research. That evaluator would also spend time getting to know people before conducting evaluation research. As researchers and evaluators, we should remember that conceptualizations such as low and high context culture classifications are helpful to our work, but they will not predict cultural behavior.
It is also important to have knowledge and understanding of what the literature calls your own cultural iceberg. The literature conceptualizes culture as an iceberg—where your observable behaviors, including the ways that you talk and the ways that you act, are only the tip of your cultural iceberg. Your core values and how you interpret the world around you are the larger, invisible part of the iceberg, that influences your behavior. Core values are learned, and are very much influenced by the culture in which you grow up—the core values of what you learn from your family and your education. When we work in another culture, our observable behaviors are easily changed; we might change our diet or the way that we dress, for example, to fit in and be accepted into another culture. At the same time, our core values are not easily changed. Knowing and understanding the observable and invisible cultural iceberg can help you to understand the ways that you think and interact with people, and can help you to become a better cross cultural communicator, researcher, and evaluator.
Losing the Etic
Sometimes when qualitative researchers and evaluators embrace cross cultural communications and change their way of doing things over extended periods of time, their thought processes change—they lose their ability to see things through an etic, or outsider, perspective. When this happens, sometimes change also occurs to your internal, or invisible, cultural iceberg. A researcher or evaluator might even come to have different values over time, as you start to see phenomena like someone from the native population does.
I have found that when I am in another cultural setting for a long period of time, I start to lose my etic perspective—my ability to think and analyze like an outside researcher or evaluator. My invisible cultural iceberg starts to change. An anthropologist would counter this by taking a fieldwork vacation to gain more perspective on their research. Evaluators oftentimes approach this challenge by having multiple people work on our evaluation teams, so that we are able to balance the emic and the etic, and have a more holistic impression of a project, its activities, and its performance. This is also one of the reasons why many organizations include external evaluators in their monitoring and evaluation activities.
Cross Cultural Communications and Effective Evaluators
The best evaluators use cross cultural communication skills to think through the varied unexpected consequences of an intervention. They have critical thinking skills and are able to organize their thoughts and analyses to understand the different scenarios that might emerge from an intervention. They are the kinds of people that can take utter chaos and organize it so that it can be easily understood. Good evaluators are unflappable in the face of adversity; they are able to think through several plans of action--so if plan A does not work, they can easily pivot to plan B or come up with plan C. They do not get bogged down with short-term distractions, but rather, use their cross cultural communication skills and emic knowledge to come up with real alternatives that are appropriate to the local cultural, political, and social environment.
Weaver, Gary. Intercultural Relations: Communication, Identity, and Conflict. New York: Pearson, 2013.
About The Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.
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