Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Cultural Contexts

Last week, we had a postgraduate seminar on conducting research in different cultural contexts. I participated more than I usually do, because this is my area--I'm researching people who are researching in a different cultural context (i.e. study abroad students). The discussion topics were the very questions I'm asking my interviewees--the obstacles they face, the disadvantages and advantages of being a 'foreigner', the risks/benefits of 'going native', etc.

Our professor mentioned a book on Chinese culture that helped him with difficulties when conducting research in China. I didn't bring it up at the time, but Kate Fox's Watching the English has been a really useful resource for me. It's pop anthropology--a very readable study of the English culture that I picked up on a whim from the best-seller section of Borders. It's aimed at an English audience, so it's more social commentary than a guide for foreigners. But its explanations of language and customs have actually been really useful for me. I learned the importance of discussing the weather (can be used to initiate small talk or fill awkward silences--they're not really obsessed with the weather, they just don't want to have awkward conversations). As a non-research related side-note, Kate Fox also deserves some credit for my love life--the chapter on dating customs was very useful, and I still turn to it occasionally when I want to figure out my English partner's behaviour! (Sometimes it's an English thing, and sometimes it's just a guy thing...)

Apart from its implications for my own research, the seminar was interesting just because of the different perspectives in the room. We were nearly all foreign students researching our own countries, studying in the UK but conducting field research in our home countries. The Chinese students are all doing topics related to China, the American/Canadian-American students were doing UK/US -related topics, the Ghanaian student was researching Ghanaian journalism, etc. It was interesting to see how we all felt about critical distance in our research. I think the geographic distance of studying in the UK helps to some extent--allows us to look at our home country from a different perspective. But I find it really interesting that we tend to incorporate our home countries into our research projects. Is it simply a case of 'write what you know'? If we researched another country, could we be as effective? How would we know what questions to ask, or how to ask them in order to get what we want? This all circles back to the reflexivity issue raised in Alford's Craft of Inquiry that I mentioned.

On an unrelated note, I've drawn some more conclusions from my quantitative data sets.

1) Popular destinations are the same for Fulbright and non-Fulbright students, judging by the numbers of Fulbright applications to each region, and the number of total (non-Fulbright) U.S. study abroad participants for each country. Europe is, in both cases, by far the most popular region for U.S. students. This is followed by Asia and Latin America, for both groups. I find it really interesting that the patterns are so similar--what influences are shaping them? Is it language education in U.S. high schools? Is it the prestige of institutions in Europe? Or do they just offer strong programmes in areas that U.S. students prefer?

2)I've answered the question of Germany's high popularity: Funding. They offer the most grants because they have the most resources. U.S. State Department contributes only 28% of the funding for exchanges between the U.S. and Germany--the rest of the bill is paid by a combination of German government & private contributions. It is an anomaly among the various Fulbright bilateral agreements, and an interesting case to consider. Why does Germany contribute so much, and conversely, why don't other countries contribute funds to this extent?

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