Another International Research Paper Supports the Cultural Detective Approach

Study coverBertelsmann Stiftung and Fondazione Cariplo Study*

Many of you ask us how you can make the case for and roll out a strategy for developing intercultural competence in your organizations and communities. Two of the world’s major philanthropic foundations, Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung and Italy’s Fondazione Cariplo (Cassa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde), published a research and policy paper that may help a bit in this regard. The objectives of the study were to promote tolerance, integration and cultural dialogue within Europe and with non-European partners. The paper makes several key points that are important for Cultural Detectives to understand as we go about our work. They are points that underscore the value of the Cultural Detective® approach, namely:
  1. The danger of reifying culture. Cultures are not static entities but open, dynamic, complex systems.
  2. Intercultural competence requires a process orientation.
  3. Intercultural competence involves recognition of similarities as well as differences.
  4. Intercultural competence development processes must be the core of school curricula, revisited in different contexts repeatedly over time; they can not be appended as supplementary learning.

In this article I quote from the Bertelsmann-Cariplo study regarding each of these topics, and then make the link to the Cultural Detective approach. Let me begin, however, by quoting from the article on the need for intercultural competence in today’s world.

The Need for Intercultural Competence

“Given the process of pluralization that has resulted from internationalization, the ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity of our societies will increase, as will contacts between people of differing cultural values and norms. Thus, in the coming years, the ability to deal constructively on an interpersonal level with cultural diversity and a multitude of attitudes, values, norms, belief systems and ways of life will not only remain a key qualification required of business executives working in international settings; it will also be required generally of each individual as a key factor for contributing to social cohesion and reducing exclusion so that cultural diversity can be experienced positively.” (pp. 3-4)

1. The Danger of Reifying Culture

“By focusing on what was assumed to be an integrated, almost static whole of locality, group and culture … culture was considered (and is still considered by many) to be the way of life of a certain group of people in a specific setting, people who – because of their culture – consider themselves members of the same group and who – because of their culture – are different from other groups in other localities. This notion is often depicted as a global map with different discrete cultural groups, or as a mosaic, whose pieces are distinct individual cultures.

Since Ulf Hannerz (and others) formulated the ideas of “culture as flux” and the idea that cultures are open, dynamic and constantly changing ‘entities’ or ‘practices,’ many leading figures in social theory and cultural studies in the 1990s increasingly relinquished the viewpoint that culture can be understood as a closed and static, island-like entity. In addition internationalization and globalization processes have shown the previous notion – that locality, group and culture exist as one unit – to be false or oversimplifying.

The changed, process-oriented conception of culture as a dynamic entity therefore tries to accommodate the contradictions, the intermixing and the new diversity, which are based more on relationships than autonomy.” (pp. 5-6)

Link 1: Cultural Detective’s Approach to Culture as an Open and Complex System

There are several ways in which Cultural Detective helps users learn that a culture is not a static, definable entity, but a dynamic system. Each Cultural Detective package comes with a page entitled, “What is Culture?” The first words on the page are “culture is a complex …” Culture is said to affect how we do things, with further explanation that “common sense” is really a process of “cultural sense.” Readers are asked to think about central tendencies and patterns of a group of people, and that each individual is a composite of the influences of many cultures simultaneously (nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, spiritual tradition, sexual orientation, organizational culture, professional training).

The Cultural Detective Worksheet is an interactional analysis and planning tool, one that reinforces for the learner that the importance of culture is how it colors what we do, what we perceive, and how we want to proceed. Culture is not presented as some static, separate thing but as affecting individual people in real situations in complex but visible ways.

The Cultural Detective Values Lenses are positioned as a view of group norms or tendencies, a filter through which members of a culture are taught to view the world. The Lenses are used as clues: tools that may or may not prove helpful in unraveling the mystery of a given case study. Not all members of a culture will hold these values; in fact, some may have an almost allergic reaction to a society’s dominant values, even while recognizing the norm. It is also noteworthy that the same or similar values can provoke different or even contradictory behaviors, depending on the person and the context.

Thus, Cultural Detective, by its very nature, relates to cultures as open, dynamic and complex systems.

2. Intercultural Competence Requires a Process Orientation

““…This procedural understanding of culture as a dynamic flow and ongoing process of negotiation between norms, values and lifestyles only underlines the need for a conceptualization of intercultural competence which is in its turn able to take account of the changing nature of culture and the interactions it influences. Some existing models of intercultural competence, in fact, underscore the importance of a process-orientation.”

If the assumption is correct that culture is constantly in flux, then individuals must learn and master the ability to deal with ongoing processes. The development of intercultural competence is thus complex and multidimensional and, depending on the intercultural situation, can take on a variety of forms.” (pp. 6-7)

Link 2: Cultural Detective’s Process Approach to Intercultural Competence

The Cultural Detective Method is a process. It is to our knowledge one of (if not the only) intercultural competence tool available in the world today that is process-based. The approach looks at individuals in real situations, urging the learner to describe the facts of the situation, as would a good detective, filtering out biases and assumptions, and seeing what actually occurred or was said. The learner is then encouraged, at least temporarily, to set aside negative judgment and give benefit of the doubt. What could have been the possible positive intent underlying behavior in the situation? Once possible positive intentions have been formulated, the process asks the learner to discover or create methods in which the contributions of all involved can be most fully used. How might the people in the interaction behave, both to be fully themselves and to be cross-culturally effective? What steps could the organization or community take to encourage and reinforce intercultural competence?

One of the strengths of the Cultural Detective process is that it is not linear. Individuals or groups can jump around and between steps of the process, in a holistic manner, with powerful results.

We would like to caution that saying “culture is constantly in flux” can be as dangerous as the traditional boilerplate. Of course, everything is in flux; Heraclitus told us “you can’t step into the same river twice.” However, our questions can include what is changing, how fast, how much and where? We need to deal with the ongoing process, and we also need a standpoint from which to do this. Cultural Detective gives us exactly that.

3. Requisite Intercultural Competencies

“With regard to the definition [of intercultural competence], one may distinguish four dimensions, namely attitudes, comprehensive cultural knowledge and intercultural skills, an ability to reflect on intercultural issues as an internal outcome of intercultural competence [relativizing frames of reference and feeling empathy], and an ability to interact constructively as an external outcome of intercultural competence.

It is important to remember that the relevant cultural knowledge differs in each intercultural context and, as global knowledge, is potentially unlimited, i.e. too extensive to always be known in the intercultural context. Therefore, many experts attach much more importance to certain behavior related (conative) communication skills than to explicitly knowledge-related (cognitive) elements. According to the specialists, to the degree that comprehensive cultural knowledge cannot be definitively known, process-oriented skills on how to handle the situation grow in importance, skills that make it possible to acquire and process (explicit and implicit) knowledge about one’s own as well as foreign ways of life, cultural determinants and practices.”(pp. 7 and 9)

Link 3: Cultural Detective and the Requisite Competencies

The first two skills upon which Cultural Detective is premised “make it possible to acquire and process (explicit and implicit) knowledge about one’s own as well as foreign ways of life, cultural determinants and practices,” as described above. The first is Subjective Culture: knowing yourself, in context, as a product of personality and multiple cultural influences. Subjective Culture knowledge allows us to explain ourselves, what is important to us, and why we do what we do, to others. It also helps us to predict how we will respond in a given situation. Cultural Detective: Self Discovery is an entire package, approach, and tools for developing subjective culture understanding, and such understanding is developed and reinforced with every critical incident and Worksheet. When learners reflect on a critical incident and complete a CD Worksheet, they naturally reflect on their own values and behaviors: what they would do in a similar situation, how they would expect someone to behave, what would upset them? Analyzing incidents from diverse cultures and situations is an organic, intuitive way of getting to know ourselves, individually and as products of cultural influences.

The second Cultural Detective skill is Cultural Literacy: knowing others individually, in context, as a product of their personalities as well as the multiple cultural influences on them. Cultural Literacy helps us to understand others’ intentions and why we respond to them the way we do. It enables us to put culture “on the table” as a perspective to be used, rather than as something that we don’t recognize or talk about, but which reaches out to bite us when we least expect it. Every Cultural Detective package, critical incident and Values Lens helps the user to develop cultural literacy.

The third Cultural Detective skill goes farther than the Bertelsmann-Cariplo report. It is Cultural Bridge, the ability to leverage similarities and differences for interpersonal, organizational and community satisfaction, productivity and effectiveness. Cultural Bridges allow all parties to retain their authenticity, encourage all parties to develop intercultural competence. They involve processes, structures, and systems that sustain intercultural competence in the organization or community. Sustainable Cultural Bridges must be multi-directional; one-way Cultural Bridges may work in the short term, but are rarely if ever viable over the long term.

a. Specific attitudes (emotion), knowledge (cognition) and behaviors (conation)
One set of questions we are sometimes asked is, “Where does emotion fit within the Cultural Detective framework? By reporting facts and behaviors, are we to divorce ourselves from emotion?” On the contrary, emotions are crucial pieces of a Cultural Detective approach. Contemporary cognitive science is showing that what we consider emotion has cognitive content and vice versa. Evaluation and emotion are automatically present in nearly everything we do. The Cultural Detective Method helps the learner develop the capacity to see this, and the desire, as well as skills, to purposefully shift perspective in order to see a situation more thoroughly and accurately.

Heightened emotion can provide a “beeline” into the salient aspects of deep culture that make a difference in a situation. The things that most upset us are important clues to the underlying values and intent that drive perception and action.

Cognition and conation obviously come into play in the Cultural Detective Worksheet. The “Words and Actions” as well as the “Cultural Bridges” sections of the Worksheet involve behavior and conation. The Worksheet and the Values Lenses involve knowledge and cognition.

b. Internal “relativizing” of one’s frame of reference
The Cultural Detective process requires us to step into the perspective of other people, to shift our frames of reference. The Worksheet provides a visual illustration of such a shift of frame of reference. Each Values Lens, through its positive values and negative perception of those values, involves shifting perspective or frame of reference as well.

c. External performance, or constructive interaction
This final Bertelsmann-Cariplo skill is well represented in the Cultural Bridges portion of the Cultural Detective Worksheet, and is also the focus of the Cultural Detective: Bridging Cultures package.

4. Recognition of Similarities as well as Differences

“Perhaps the search for commonalities is as important in intercultural competence as the sensitivity and recognition of cultural differences that have been talked about so intensively in scientific, political and everyday-life discourses on intercultural competence during the last decades.” (page 13)

Link 4: Similarities, Differences, and Cultural Detective

As a process-based, interactional approach, Cultural Detective naturally encourages the learner to explore similarities as well as differences. When analyzing a critical incident using the Cultural Detective Worksheet, it may become apparent that multiple parties are motivated by similar or compatible values or desired outcomes. An effective Cultural Bridge may involve building upon this shared outlook or purpose, while also acknowledging and working with difference.

Values Lenses also encourage exploration of both similarities and differences. Whether we are discussing our Personal Values Lenses in an attempt to better collaborate, or comparing and contrasting national-culture Values Lenses, the ways in which we are similar and the ways in which we are different make themselves apparent.

5. Intercultural Competence Development Processes as Core of the Curriculum

”The multidimensional and process-oriented nature of the development of intercultural competence can hardly be appended as a supplementary learning module to existing school curricula. Instead, it is necessary to examine to what extent intercultural competence as an educational goal can be established in curricula as they are currently structured.” (page 10)

Link 5: Cultural Detective Process as Core

Herein lies one of the true beauties of the Cultural Detective toolset. Because it is a process, it can be used as a design backbone for nearly any type of curriculum, courseware, teambuilding, coaching, technology transfer, competence development program, mediation or conflict resolution, or merger and acquisition. Because it is so simple, it easily integrates with nearly any topic. It can be taught once, and the learner retains it, being able to use it again and again in different situations for ever deeper or broader learning, applying it both at home and at work, across disciplines, to continue developing knowledge of self, knowledge of others, and the ability to collaborate.

The key, as with any tool or important learning, is to integrate it as part of an ongoing spiral learning approach, revisiting and reusing it at periodic intervals in order to improve users’ facility with the tool and to deepen and broaden user ability and sophistication. A tool left on the shelf serves no purpose.Cultural Detective, as any tool or approach, is useful for certain purposes and not for others, and it can be used well or poorly. We trust your efforts towards intercultural competence will bear positive results.

*This is a reprint from a Cultural Detective Newsletter article originally published in June of 2010.

4 thoughts on “Another International Research Paper Supports the Cultural Detective Approach

  1. I was an Intercultural Communication major in college and remember learning that wherever you find borders where two cultures meet, you also find increased levels of conflict. I think each time we have the opportunity to meet someone with differing cultural values and beliefs, it is a great opportunity to promote greater understanding and compassion for one another. Although I’m an optimist, I have enough street smarts to know that most of us have much learning to do in knowing how to truly respect and honor others in the way we would want to be respected and honored ourselves.


    • Wonderful to hear from you, Susan. I trust you are promoting that line of thinking in whatever profession you are working in today. I’m confident the Cultural Detective Online goes a long way in helping achieve those goals. Thank you for letting us know your thoughts!


  2. Pingback: Strategy for developing intercultural competence | Active Traductions

  3. Pingback: 2014 Year in Review | Cultural Detective Blog

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