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Issue 91. The Tipping Point January 28, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
Tags: , , , ,

Much of my work over the last several years has involved attempts to measure intercultural competence. The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is one indicator I have used extensively. (Read more in “Research and Relevant Bits” here on the www.interculturaleyes.org site.) Based on the Milton Bennett theory of how cultural sensitivity is developed, I am still convinced that the IDI provides a relevant marker and profile for the way that a person experiences cultural differences. The Bennett theory includes strategies for moving from one developmental stage to another, and from my own experience in working with training programs, I am fully convinced that motivated people can be “taught” sensitivity through guided reflection and by calling their attention to the way in values and habits have been developed within their own culture. But the key word here is “motivated” and it’s much less clear how that motivation is developed.

The research I conducted with AFS alumni from the 1980s suggested a relationship between international experiences and intercultural sensitivity, but so often the first experience came from childhood exposure to other countries and cultures, and especially from parents who encouraged their children to meet people from other countries and cultures. The fact that participation in an AFS high school program so often runs in a family reinforces this theme: the motivation is already there.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about motivation, which increasingly strikes me as the most important variable in developing intercutural understanding. While groups involved in violent conflict or even just verbal conflict may grow tired of conflict, they are more likely to be motivated to avoid the other group than to engage them, even though engagement may ultimately be more productive in ending the conflict.

If motivation for study abroad often comes from parents, then why do parents encourage their children to meet people from other cultures? I would guess the impetus is similar to encouraging their children to enjoy music, play sports, read books, go to museums. While there may be an element of “it’s good for you” in the push parents give to these activities, I would suppose that in general, parents who encourage their children to study abroad believe that other cultures are interesting and attractive. 

This caused me to revisit the work of Todd Pittinsky on allophilia. Five years ago when I first learned of his work, allophilia reminded me of the “Reversal” type of defense in the Bennett model, which emphasizes an excessive focus on the flaws of one’s own culture and an idealized view of the other culture. Presentations of Bennett’s model often exclude the dicussion of “Reversal” which is one of three types of “Defense” experiences. Developmentally, Reversal is seen as no more advanced than Defense, but rather is Defense against one’s own culture. Nevertheless, the factor analysis that was used in creating the IDI scales clearly showed that Reversal was a unique scale, seperate from the Defense scales. Though a Reversal outlook still experiences cultures as “Us” versus “Them” it may well be the tipping point that pushes people to engage with other cultures.

Reversal is not exactly allophilia, which focuses on the attraction, comfort, affection, kinship, and engagement with the other culture or group, but there may well be a correlation between the two concepts. Of course, the exchange student who arrives in a new culture with nothing but good things to say about it tends to be more welcomed in the host family than the one who constantly talks about what’s better back home. And that first exchange student may be more motivated to change, to learn, and to form new relationships with people in the other culture. In a newer article, Pittinsky lists some common and simple ways to try to generate interest and familiarity with other cultures in the classroom. These may be some of the same things that parents do to encourage their children to become interested and engaged with other cultures.

Might attitudes of allophila prevent conflict? My guess would be no. My research has found that Defense frequently exists side by side with Reversal in many individuals’ experience of other cultures. A certain level of conflict is even quite compatible within many committed relationships. But the attitudes of allophilia — particularly affection, kinship (or belonging) and engagement — are essential for the kind of personal commitment that would be crucial to maintain a relationship when conflict occurs.



1. Ciciolina - April 1, 2010

good .. i like it !! 🙂 this is a new knowledge for me .

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