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Eyes on the IAIR Conference in Honolulu

Drummer at opening ceremonies

Drummer at opening ceremonies


Fellows Day

One of the best features of the IAIR biennial conference is the “Fellows Day” where a few senior scholars present their ideas to other researchers and conference guests and we spend the entire day hearing fully what the scholar has to say and debating it until we are ready to hear from someone else. No one holds up a “5 minutes” sign, but each person uses about an hour. The theme this year was “World Peace through Intercultural Understanding” and each presenter had a different approach.

Symposium 4: Intercultural Sojourn as a Way to the Peaceful World: Research and Reflections on Sojourners’ Cultural Transitions
This symposium was organized by Valery Chirkov from the University of Saskatchewan. I believe it was meant to provoke new ideas and thinking about how we think about the outcomes of study abroad experiences and student exchange. One of the problems with the symposia and papers sessions — unlike the Fellows Day — is that there are serious time constraints for each presenter and very little time available for the kind of debate that helps hone in the concepts. Valery sped through his paper simply so that he could touch all the concepts he wished to present. As a listener, I wanted to have more time with this presentation, to savor the new ideas, decide how I thought about them, and maybe have a chance to ask a question. But there was simply not enough time allotted for 4 research topics to be introduced and have the findings appropriately highlighted in just 90 minutes. Nonetheless, Chirkov’s paper, Critical Reflections on the Studies of Cultural Transition during Sojourns and Suggestions for Future Research, which was done with Daniela Grisi, invovlved a qualitative analysis of published articles on sojourner research. Their main critique of the research is that much of the research on sojourns tends to exclude the context of the sojourn as an important variable and instead chooses to aggregate and analyze a range of imperical data without much attention to the whole notion of the culture and context in which each sojourn takes place. 

A Longitudinal Study on the Cultural Transition Cycle of Student Sojourners: Nan M. Sussman of the City University of New York at Staten Island has recently reported her findings on a small scale study that looks specifically at cultural identity and self-concept as predictors of cultural adaptation and re-adaptation. Her findings show that cultural identity variables were more successful than other variables in predicting students’ distress after returning to their home countries. Nan also presented another study using her model by a presenter from the U.K. who was not able to make the conference.

Intercultural Relations in Homestays: Variations in Mutuality and Engagement: Jane Jackson of The Chinese University of Hong Kong reported on her 18-month ethnographic study of Hong Kong Chinese students of English who participated in a short-term homestay program in the United Kingdom. This multi-method study also used the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to measure intercultural sensitivity levels for these students at a few key intervals.

Keynotes
Each day of the IAIR conference brought a morning keynote address, all focused on the conference theme of World Peace through Intercultural Understanding. Tony Marsella’s powerful “Cultures of War, Cultures of Peace” keynote on Sunday was largely focused on criticisms of US foreign policy over the past years, while Min-Sun Kim’s entertaining presentation on “World Peace trhough Intercultural Research” highlighted some of her own self-questioning about what the intercultural field is doing, and her insights and concerns about how a culture might be “swallowed up” by a more dominant one. On Tuesday, Thomas Pettigrew talked about “Intergroup Contact: How to Facilitate Intergroup Harmony” based on his years of research about contact theory. There was much to talk about and discuss after each one.

Min-Sum Kim’s direct challenge to the field and to herself is the one I will remember most, especially her own self-doubt about how she reacts to evangelical missionaries who come to her door, seeing her as “a worthy target” for conversion. I especially appreciated that she brought peace down to the level of her own fear of being “swallowed up” by the culture of the missionaries trying to convert her. Maybe, she noted, peace building begins by dealing with her own tendency to think of “us” versus “them” in this situation.

Multicultural Societies
I became more interested in the history of a few places in the world that are known for their ethnic diversity and relative harmony. Vijayan P Munusamy’s dissertation “Decoding the Meaning of Multiculturalism: An International Study of Malaysia, Singapore, and Hawai’i” was given the “Outstanding Dissertation Award” by the IAIR, no doubt because of its very thorough analysis of the context of multiculturalism in these places. What was most intriguing to me was that Vijay took for his data 10 years of letters to the editor of two major English language newspapers in each location and did a very fine text analysis of the themes of multiculturalism that were found in the paper. His models varied for each society but dealt with the histories of colonialism and state formation, racial riots and the government response. Achieving harmony among diverse cultures is about respecting those cultures in their entirety, and not just examing and dealing with cultural differences. Harmony among cultures may also mean the development of certain taboos: speaking about race relations, for example.

My own Paper Session handout from Tuesday’s presentation will be posted shortly on http://www.bettinahansel.com

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