Intercultural Communication, Interethnic Relations and

views updated


Polyethnicity, the side-by-side existence of people with varying ethic backgrounds, has become the norm for most of the human community around the world. As a result, concerns about interethnic relations have increased. Even as individuals of differing ethnic backgrounds live and work in closer proximity than ever before, issues of ethnicity and ethnic identity frequently bring about volatile responses in many people. Indeed, hardly a day passes without reports of some new incidents of ethnic conflict in some part of the world. Of course, each society, each locale, and each incident involves a unique set of historical, situational, and psychological twists, making it difficult to generalize about the nature of interethnic relations. In the case of the United States, interethnic relations has been at the forefront of public consciousness and a source of social unease and struggle ever since the Reconstruction era of the late nineteenth century when debates about civil rights began. Today, the traditional American ideology rooted in the primacy of the individual is challenged by the ideology of pluralism, a conflict that has galvanized many Americans into us-against-them posturing in the form of what is commonly referred to as "identity politics" or "politics of difference."

Social scientists have attempted to find systematic ways to understand the nature of interethnic relations in general, and interethnic communication behavior in particular. The literature created by these individuals presents a wide array of concepts, theories, and research findings that offer insights into how and why different ethnic groups and individuals interact with one another. Psychologists have tried to identify factors within individuals and the immediate social situations that help explain ingroup communication behaviors (i.e., between people of the same background) and outgroup communication behaviors (i.e., between people from different backgrounds). Sociologists have examined interethnic relations mainly from the perspective of society, focusing on macro-structural factors such as social stratification and resource distribution. Anthropologists have provided case studies of interethnic relations in specific societies, while sociolinguists and communication scholars have focused on the processes and outcomes of face-to-face interethnic encounters.

Key Terms and Definitions

The word "ethnicity" is employed in the field of sociology primarily as a label to designate a social group and to distinguish it from other social groups based on common indicators of national origin, religion, language, and race. In this group-level definition, ethnicity becomes the objective (i.e., externally recognizable) character, quality, or condition of a social group as well as an individual's membership in an ethnic group. Likewise, anthropological approaches to ethnicity emphasize the group-level collective cultural patterns including language, norms, beliefs, myths, values, and worldviews, as well as symbolic emblems, artifacts, and physical characteristics—from foods, flags, folk songs, folk gestures and movements, and folk dances to skin colors and facial features. Such features associated with an ethnic group are commonly referred to as ethnic markers that connote a common tradition linking its members to a common future. In contrast, psychological studies have defined ethnicity primarily in terms of ethnic identity, that is, an individual's psychological identification with, or attachment to, an ethnic group. Social identity theory, originally proposed by Henri Tajfel (1974), provides a systematic account of the significant role that membership in an ethnic group plays in shaping an individual's self-image and how that person behaves in relation to members of ingroups and outgroups. Other scholars, such as J. Milton Yinger (1986), see ethnic identity as a primordial "basic identity" that is embedded in the deep core of personhood. For others, such as George de Vos (1990), ethnic identity provides "a sense of common origin—as well as common beliefs and values, or common values" and serves as the basis of "self-defining in-groups" (p. 204).

Interethnic communication occurs whenever at least one involved person takes an ingroup-out-group psychological orientation. As explained by Tajfel (1974), John Turner and Howard Giles (1981), and Marilynn Brewer (1979, 1986), the participants in interethnic communication tend to see themselves and their interaction partners along ethnic categories. The degree to which ethnic categorization influences communication, according to Rupert Brown and John Turner (1981) and Tajfel and Turner (1986), varies on the "intergroup-interpersonal continuum." At one end of this continuum are communication encounters between two or more individuals whose behaviors are fully determined by their respective ethnic group categorization. At the other end are those encounters in which the participants are not at all affected by ethnic categories and, instead, communicate with each other based entirely on the personal relationship that exists between them.

Associative and Dissociative Communication Behaviors

Young Yun Kim (1997) has conceptually integrated various interethnic communication behaviors along a bipolar continuum of association and dissociation. Associative and dissociative behaviors are not two mutually exclusive categories but vary in the degree of associative social meaning that is being communicated. Behaviors that are closer to the associative end of this continuum facilitate the communication process by increasing the likelihood of mutual understanding, cooperation, and convergence or the coming-together of the involved persons. Participants in an interethnic encounter behave associatively when they perceive and respond to others as unique individuals rather than as representatives of an outgroup identified by an us-and-them orientation. Such a cognitive tendency to perceive others as unique individuals is variously labeled in social psychology as "differentiation," "particularization," "decategorization," "personalization," and "mindfulness." The associative orientation is expressed outwardly in what Cynthia Gallois and her colleagues (1995) refer to as "convergent" verbal and nonverbal encoding behaviors. Among such behaviors are attentive and friendly facial expressions and complementary or mirroring body movements, as well as personalized (rather than impersonal) speech patterns that focus on the other person as a unique individual.

Conversely, dissociative behaviors tend to contribute to misunderstanding, competition, and divergence (or the coming-apart) of the relationship between the participants in the communication process. A communication behavior is dissociative when it is based on a categorical, stereotypical, and depersonalized perception that accentuates differences. Dissociative behaviors also include many forms of divergent verbal and nonverbal behaviors that indicate varying degrees of psychological distance and emotional intensity-from the subtle expressions in what Teun van Dijk (1987) has referred to as prejudiced talk (e.g., "you people") to blatantly dehumanizing name-calling, ethnic jokes, and hate speeches. Nonverbally, dissociative communication occurs through covert and subtle facial, vocal, and bodily expressions that convey lack of interest, disrespect, arrogance, and anger. More intense dissociative expressions of hatred and aggression include cross-burnings, rioting, and acts of violence.

Dissociative communication behavior is not limited to observable verbal and nonverbal acts. It also includes intrapersonal communication activities. One of the widely investigated intrapersonal communication activities in interethnic encounters is the categorization or stereotyping of information about members of an outgroup based on simplistic preconceptions. Such is the case whenever one characterizes any given ethnic group in a categorical manner, failing to recognize substantial differences among its individual members. This stereotypical perception is accompanied by a tendency to accentuate differences and ignore similarities between oneself and the members of the outgroup and to judge the perceived differences unfavorably. Robert Hopper (1986) explains such an ethnocentric tendency when he focuses on "Shiboleth schema" as the way in which people consider the dialects and accents that are displayed by non-mainstream groups to be defects and therefore objects of discrimination.

The Communicator

Associative and dissociative interethnic communication behaviors are directly linked to the internal characteristics of the communicator. An often-investigated psychological attribute is the communicator's cognitive complexity, or the mental capacity to process incoming information in a differentiated and integrated manner. As explained by George Kelly (1955) and by James Applegate and Howard Sypher (1988), individuals of high cognitive complexity tend to use more refined understanding of incoming messages and to display more personalized messages. Other researchers such as Marilynn Brewer and Norman Miller (1988) have linked low cognitive complexity to ignorance, erroneous generalizations, biased interpretations, and stereotype-based expectations.

Another characteristic that is important for understanding interethnic behaviors is the strength of the communicator's commitment to his or her ethnic identity. Commonly referred to as ingroup loyalty, ethnic commitment often supports dissociative behaviors such as ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination. Ingroup loyalty tends to increase when the communicator experiences status anxiety about his or her ethnicity in the face of a perceived threat by a member or members of an outgroup. In contrast, communicators tend to act associatively when their identity orientations reach beyond an ascribed ethnic identity and embrace members of an outgroup as well. Kim (1988, 1995), refers to such an orientation as an intercultural or interethnic identity—a psychological posture of openness and accommodation that reflects a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

The Situation

In addition to the communicator characteristics, situational factors influence the way communicators behave in interethnic encounters. Each encounter presents a unique set of conditions. One of the key situational factors is the level of homogeneity (i.e., similarity) or heterogeneity (i.e., dissimilarity) that exists between the participants, based on ethnic differences such as distinct speech patterns, skin colors, and physical features. A high level of homogeneity is likely to encourage associative behaviors, whereas a high level of heterogeneity is likely to increase a sense of psychological distance between the participants and block them from noticing any underlying similarities that they might share. Heterogeneous encounters are also likely to increase the perceived incompatibility between the participants and inhibit their ability to form a consensus on topics of communication. However, while certain distinct features of communication behavior are strongly related to dissociative behaviors, not all ethnic differences are incompatible.

Interethnic communication behaviors are further influenced by the structure that organizes the way in which interactions are carried out. The structure of an interaction provides each communicator with guidelines for his or her behavior. One such structural guideline is provided by a shared higher goal that transcends each party's own personal interest. Groups with this type of shared goal would include military combat units, sports teams, and medical teams fighting an epidemic. The presence of the shared goal provides a structure of interdependence and mutuality that is geared toward cooperation, thereby creating a climate that promotes associative behaviors. On the other hand, a competitive, task-oriented structure for interactions tends to accentuate ethnic differences rather than similarities, engender mistrust, and discourage the building of interpersonal relationships across ethnic lines. According to Brewer and Miller (1984), people also tend to exhibit more dissociative behaviors when they find themselves in an organization that is governed by an asymmetric power structure that has been created along ethnic lines. For example, if few ethnic minorities occupy leadership positions in an organization, this power differential is likely to foster separateness and divisiveness between members of differing ethnic groups in that organization.

The Environment

The social environment is the broader background against which a particular interethnic encounter takes place. One environmental factor that is crucial to understanding associative and dissociative communication behaviors is the history between the ethnic groups represented in the communication process. Dissociative communication behaviors, for example, are more likely to occur in an environmental context that has had the history of subjugation of one ethnic group by another. Often, subjugation has taken the form of political, economic, or cultural domination through slavery, colonization, or military conquest. Members of a group that has been subjugated in the past may feel that they have the right to live on or possess territory that the group has traditionally claimed as its own. Many historical accounts have been written on the topic of colonization and the subsequent influences on interethnic discrimination and mistrust. In the case of the West Indian immigrants living in England, for example, the traditional colonial history and the domination tendencies of Whites over non-White immigrants have been observed to play out in interethnic encounters even today. Similar historical influences on contemporary interethnic power relationships can be found in many other societies, including the situations of Native Americans and African Americans in the United States, Koreans in Japan, Palestinians in Israel, and French-speaking Canadians in Quebec.

This inequality is further reflected in patterns that separate ethnic groups by socioeconomic class. Some investigators such as Harold Wolpe (1986) have argued that capitalistic economic systems exploit ethnic minorities. Michael Hechter (1975) used the term "internal colonialism" to explain a structural (or institutionalized) discrimination in which the imposed division of labor allows the core or dominant group to keep for themselves the major manufacturing, commercial, and banking roles while delegating the least profitable kinds of work to the peripheral groups (such as the ethnic minorities). Under conditions of inequality, the ethnic actions of subordinate groups serve as an outlet for the expression of comparative feelings of dissatisfaction, thereby increasing the likelihood of divergent interethnic behaviors.

By and large, inequities among ethnic groups in a given society are reflected in the laws and rules of the society. In contemporary democratic societies, laws and rules generally mirror the ideological climate and the values and opinions that are held by the majority of the citizens. Over time, changes in institutional inequity in interethnic relations in a given society tend to accompany corresponding changes in judicial actions as well as governmental and other institutional policies. Since the 1950s, countries such as the United States and Canada have undergone a significant transformation toward an increasing equity among their majority and minority ethnic groups. There has been a series of legal actions such as the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling against racial segregation in public schools. However, some formal barriers persist, as demonstrated by the continuing patterns of intense racial discrimination in housing. Nevertheless, significant progress has been achieved in some institutions, notably in education and employment, to promote equal treatment of individuals of all ethnic categories, thereby fostering a social environment that is more conducive to associative behaviors at the level of the individual.

Interethnic communication behaviors are further influenced by the collective strength of the communicator's ethnic group. As Raymond Breton and his associates (1990) have theorized, a strong ethnic group with a high degree of "institutional completeness" is likely to encourage its members to maintain their ethnicity and discourage them from assimilating into the society at large. Individuals in a well-organized ethnic community, such as the Cuban community in Miami, Florida, are likely to adhere more strongly to their Cuban identity and maintain their ethnic heritage more than their German-American counterparts, whose ethnic community is not cohesively organized. The same Cuban Americans tend to place less emphasis on embracing the mainstream American culture at large. The extent of interethnic contact across different ethnic groups is also an environmental factor that influences individual communication behaviors. Arrangements such as integrated schools and neighborhoods in urban centers allow for maximum contact and interaction, while other arrangements such as segregated ethnic neighborhoods provide the least amount of potential for interethnic interaction, which results in the cementing of any existing hostilities or prejudice. Accordingly, the classical approach to reducing interethnic dissociative behaviors—the contact hypothesis originally articulated by Yehuda Amir (1969)—has been to increase equitable and cooperative interethnic contact so as to increase mutual understanding and cooperation. This approach has not always been successful. Research has shown that, at least in the short run, interethnic contact is just as likely to heighten conflict as it is to reduce it.


The communicator, the situation, and the environment are all important elements to consider when examining the specific contextual factors related to understanding the associative and dissociative behaviors of individual communicators in interethnic encounters.

Associative communication is more likely to occur when the communicator has a high degree of cognitive complexity and an inclusive identity orientation that embraces individuals of differing ethnic backgrounds as members of the ingroup. Communicators are more likely to engage in associative behaviors when there are minimal ethnic differences between them. In addition, associative behaviors are more likely to occur in a situation where there is a shared higher goal, where there is a spirit of mutuality, and where there is a power structure that is minimally differentiated along ethnic lines. Associative behaviors also tend to occur in a social environment where there has not been a strong historical legacy of one group dominating another, where there is minimal socioeconomic stratification along ethnic lines, and where legal and other social institutions are based on the principle of equal rights for all individuals without regard to their ethnic backgrounds.

Dissociative communication is more likely to occur when communicators categorize members of an outgroup based on simplistic and rigid stereotypes and an exclusive ethnic identity that engenders ingroup favoritism and outgroup discrimination. Communicators are more likely to engage in dissociative behaviors when there are salient ethnic differences between them, when there is no common goal that binds them together in a cooperative relationship, and when there is a clear power differential along ethnic lines. Dissociative behaviors are further encouraged in a social environment that is steeped in a history of conflict and subjugation, where there exists systematic ethnic differences in socioeconomic status, and where various institutions favor a certain ethnic group while discriminating against another.

Each interethnic encounter presents a unique circumstance in which some factors may be of greater relevance and play a more prominent role than others. Even a single factor, such as an individual's strong loyalty to the ingroup or a prejudice against an outgroup, may be so powerful as to overshadow all favorable situational factors that are operating in a given encounter. Such would be the case when two individuals respond to an identical set of situational and environmental conditions in vastly different manners. Yet, a serious consideration of the factors related to the communicator, the situation, and the environment can lead to an understanding of the hidden constraints that may potentially lead to dissociation and the conditions that facilitate association between individuals of differing ethnic backgrounds.

Much work is still needed to refine the understanding of how interethnic communication plays out in a specific real-life setting. Detailed questions need to be raised, for example, about how each layer of factors simultaneously influences the way people communicate in an interethnic encounter. There also needs to be a better understanding of the long-term interaction and the significance of associative and dissociative communication behaviors at the grass roots. Clearly, associative communication is vitally important to the cohesion and continued evolution of a society as a single entity. At the same time, it is essential to develop a clearer and more systematic articulation of the role of certain forms of dissociative communication (e.g., nonviolent protests) that can be important forces in the defense of society against stagnation and for the reinforcement of new learning, self-renewal, and growth for all sides involved.

See also:Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and; Interpersonal Communication; Sociolinguistics.


Amir, Yehuda. (1969). "Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations." Psychological Bulletin 71:319-342.

Applegate, James, and Sypher, Howard. (1988). "AConstructivist Theory of Communication and Culture." In Theories in Intercultural Communication, eds. Young Yun Kim and William Gudykunst. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Breton, Raymond. (1964). "Institutional Completeness of Ethnic Communities and the Personal Relations of Immigrants." American Journal of Sociology 70(2):193-205.

Breton, Raymond; Isajiw, Wsevolod; Kalbach, Warren; and Reitz, Jeffrey. (1990). Ethnic Identity and Equality: Varieties of Experiences in a Canadian City. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Brewer, Marilynn. (1979). "Ingroup Bias in the Minimal Intergroup Situation: A Cognitive-Motivational Analysis." Psychologicla Bulletin 86:307-324.

Brewer, Marilynn. (1986). "The Role of Ethnocentrism in Intergroup Conflict." In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, 2nd ed., eds. Stephen Worchel and William Austin. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Brewer, Marilynn, and Miller, Norman. (1984). "Beyond the Contact Hypothesis: Theoretical Perspectives on Desegregation." In Groups in Contact: The Psychology of Desegregation, eds. Norman Miller and Marilynn Brewer. New York: Academic Press.

Brewer, Marilynn, and Miller, Norman. (1988). "Contact and Cooperation: When Do They Work?" In Eliminating Racism, eds. Phyllis Katz and Dalmas Taylor. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Brown, Rupert, and Turner, John. (1981). "Interpersonal and Intergroup Behavior." In Intergroup Behavior, eds. John Turner and Howard Giles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Vos, George. (1990). "Conflict and Accommodation in Ethnic Interaction." In Status Inequality: The Self in Culture, eds. George de Vos and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Gallois, Cynthia; Giles, Howard; Jones, Elizabeth;Cargile, Aaron; and Ota, Hiroshi. (1995). "Accommodating Intercultural Encounters: Elaborations and Extensions." In Intercultural Communication Theory, ed. Richard Wiseman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hechter, Michael. (1975). Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hopper, Robert. (1986). "Speech Evaluation of Intergroup Dialect Differences: The Shibboleth Schema." In Intergroup Communication, ed. William Gudykunst. London: Edward Arnold.

Kelly, George. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: W. W. Norton.

Kim, Young Yun. (1988). Communication and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: An Integrative Theory. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Kim, Young Yun. (1995). "Identity Development: From Cultural to Intercultural." In Information and Behavior, Vol. 5: Interaction and Identity, ed. Harmut Mokros. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Kim, Young Yun. (1997). "The Behavior-Context Interface in Interethnic Communication." In Context and Communication Behavior, ed. James Owen. Reno, NV: Context Press.

Pettigrew, Thomas, and Martin, Joanne. (1989). "Organizational Inclusion of Minority Groups: A Social Psychological Analysis." In Ethnic Minorities: Social Psychological Perspectives, eds. Jan van Oudenhoven and Tineke Willemsen. Berwyn, PA: Swets North America.

Tajfel, Henri. (1974). "Social Identity and Intergroup Behavior." Social Science Information 13:65-93.

Tajfel, Henri, and Turner, John. (1986). "The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior." In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, eds. Stephen Worchel and William Austin. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Turner, John, and Giles, Howard, eds. (1981). Intergroup Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Dijk, Teun A. (1987). Communicating Racism: Ethnic Prejudice in Thought and Talk. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Wolpe, Harold. (1986). "Class Concepts, Class Struggle, and Racism." In Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations, eds. John Rex and David Mason. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yinger, J. Milton. (1986). "Intersection Strands in the Theorisation of Race and Ethnic Relations." InTheories of Race and Ethnic Relations, eds. John Rex and David Mason. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Young Yun Kim