“Quite often cross-cultural nuances and culture-centric perspectives—grounded in one’s experience or merely assumed—often cloud conversations between faculty researchers and research administrators when they are negotiating the shared development of meaningful international research agreements. In this session we will hear from a number of experts on cross-cultural communications, understanding, and collaborations.” (Workshop agenda)
Dr. Riall Nolan, previously Associate Provost and Dean for International Programs and currently Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University, provided perspectives on how cultural differences can influence international research collaborations. Researchers are increasingly focused on addressing important social, political or economic issues in their research, and on application as well as discovery. This work is increasingly cross-national and cross-cultural in nature, and a central challenge is ensuring that people from different backgrounds work together effectively.
1In this section and other sections summarizing presentations, views and opinions are attributed to the presenter unless stated otherwise.
Dr. Nolan predicted that in the near future the best universities will be those that have established strong structural relationships with other top universities around the world. Success or failure in these relationships will be determined by how cultural differences are managed. Globalization does not mean the end of difference, but that we now have to deal with difference directly instead of at a distance.
Culture can be thought of as a management system; a shared understanding of how the world works. Culture has three components: (1) the things we make (artifacts), (2) the things we do (behavior), and (3) what we carry around in our heads (cultural knowledge). An individual may belong to a number of “cultures,” for example institutional (e.g., Harvard, Purdue), disciplinary (e.g., law, engineering), and national. Furthermore, individuals may have a professional culture based on their main area of work (e.g., “she’s a quant,” or “he’s a soybean guy”). Finally, there are the national and international aspects of culture, including the emerging body of laws, regulations, and customs that inform or constrain research activities. These include export controls and intellectual property.
Dr. Nolan trains many engineers for international internships, and finds that they return with a greater appreciation for how common sense can be defined differently in different countries. Culture does matter to what people see, how they interpret what they see, and what they do. One problem is culture’s inflexibility and low tolerance for ambiguity in messaging, which leads to miscommunication. For example, in one negotiation between American and Chinese university deans, the American dean would give responses such as “we’ll think about that,” or “we’ll look into that.” In Chinese culture those sorts of phrases are almost always interpreted as “No.” After the issue was explained to both deans, they quickly came to agreement.
Research collaborations can take many forms (Figure 3-1: Forms of Collaboration, Riall Nolan). They range from lab-centered collaborations between individuals with a defined scope and limited duration to long-term, developmental partnerships between institutions that involve many participants doing external applied work. As collaborations become larger and more complex, they are more influenced by cultural rules, norms, and expectations.
Dr. Nolan has drawn several lessons from his 20 years of experience in helping several large research universities forge structural relationships. It is always important that the institution itself understands both its own cultural identity and the nature of the partnership that it is seeking. University partnerships can take one of three basic forms: (1) Predominant capability,
FIGURE 3-1 Forms of collaboration.
SOURCE: Riall Nolan
where an institution is the strongest in a particular field, and partners with the strongest counterpart in a given country, (2) Complementary partnerships, where the institution is strong in one area, perhaps less strong in another, and the partner institution brings what is lacking, or (3) Technical assistance, which is a helping relationship. Each type has different cultural norms and expectations. There are also great differences between a project (short-term), program (longer term), and a partnership. The partnership is the most cross-cultural and it is also the hardest to develop and sustain.
Multiple intersecting and often internally contradictory cultures make it difficult to create and sustain good partnerships. They render true collaborative work difficult even within a single institution, to say nothing of collaborative work with institutions 10,000 miles away. In the end, collaboration occurs between people and not between institutions.
It is important to understand how individuals operate in cultural terms and how well they know how to operate across cultures. Faculty development becomes very important in this context. A few of the cultural factors that tend to shape success or failure include attitudes toward protocol, politeness, approaches to information sharing, how relationships of trust and confidence are developed, and notions of what constitutes good leadership. Some of this can be handled with interpreters and translators, but not all.
According to Dr. Nolan, the good news is that research indicates that many of the individual characteristics that favor cross-cultural aptitude are found in most researchers. These include openness to others and to new information, tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility, curiosity, the ability to ask good questions, and the ability to quickly discern pattern.
In today’s world, everybody knows something, and nobody knows everything. Cross-cultural collaboration, when it works, is synergistic, bringing into existence arrangements and understandings between partners that no one partner is likely to be able to develop working on their own.
Christopher Williams, Washington Representative of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT, discussed in Chapter 2 above), gave examples and perspective on cultural issues that can arise when doing research in the developing world. UN-HABITAT, one of the few UN agencies not based in Geneva or New York, is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, with operations in over 87 countries.
The context for UN-HABITAT’s work is that the world is rapidly becoming more urban. A majority of the world’s population now lives in areas with 20,000 people or more, and the world is expected to be 75 percent urban by 2035 to 2040. Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are urbanizing fastest. This represents a massive change. Unlike the urbanization of Europe and North America that occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the current urbanizing trend is not being accompanied by widely distributed economic growth.
Mr. Williams gave three examples of research undertaken by UN-HABITAT that indicate what the agency is trying to accomplish and that illustrate the issues. The three research activities were very different, but all were applied research within the context of informal settlements and slum improvement. Each faced significant cross-cultural, linguistic, and ideological challenges.
The first project was an evaluation of the UN-HABITAT Community Development Program, which had been undertaken over ten years in seven countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The project assessed the impacts of the program on living and working conditions in informal settlements and slums. It involved development and measurement of a set of indicators and the use of a survey of households to allow for comparison across countries.
The second project was an examination of Slum and Shack Dwellers International, a group that represents 12-14 million urban poor in 15 countries who are associated in savings groups. In particular, the research looked at the methodology the group uses to stop violent forced evictions and create
policy alternatives for resettlement in South Africa, India, and the Philippines. The research was turned over to Slum and Shack Dwellers International itself, in order to document its own experience and develop case studies.
The third project was a situation analysis of 110 informal settlements and slums in UN-HABITAT’s home city, Nairobi. This was done on a very short timescale (four months), and was sensitive because Kenya’s President Moi was a patron for the exercise. It was based on focus group analysis. Urban social movements, the central government, international and local NGOs, the donor community, and private industry all gave perspectives on trends and what could be done to improve conditions.
Mr. Williams reviewed several important lessons generated by these research projects, including: (1) the need for coordination among multiple stakeholders; (2) the necessity of establishing agency (whose project is it?); (3) how to address problems arising from the differing pay scales of international and local researchers; (4) how to determine appropriate contracting mechanisms (with institutions or individuals?); (5) a greater appreciation for cultural nuances and ethnicity (need to hire beyond groups that might be overrepresented in a given country’s university system); and (6) how to address challenges that arise when the research agenda is politicized.
Finally, these projects raise the broader issue of how findings can ultimately be acted upon. How do researchers and scientists hold themselves accountable for addressing the implications of their work?
Tembeka Mpako-Ntusi, Director of Research at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Cape Town, South Africa, focused her remarks on cross-cultural nuances and culture-centric perspectives in international research collaborations, particularly how the personal experiences of individual researchers influence research.
As collaborations move from those undertaken between investigators to more complex partnerships at the departmental, school, and institutional levels, layers of cultural nuance are added. In the case of South Africa, the historical issues of race, past intimidation, and power imbalances play a role. Researchers collaborating across racial barriers may be carrying baggage from those experiences. Care needs to be taken to ensure that imbalances of power based on history do not affect the research.
Gender can also unexpectedly raise issues. Dr. Mpako-Ntusi related her experience in setting up a women-in-research program. At the outset, one of
the senior female members of the faculty was reluctant to become involved, expressing the belief that women should not get preferential treatment. This faculty member later reconsidered her stance and become one of the most active participants in the project.
Other barriers to international collaboration include “cultural noise” (misunderstandings that can occur even when collaborators speak the same language), material differences in working environments, and government policies. Making sure that any formal ethical codes (national or institutional) are compatible is also important.
Objectives and mechanisms to address problems encountered in the collaboration need to be honestly stated in the beginning. Is the partner’s primary motivation to attain a better status for collaborating within a given country, or to obtain funding? Is the opportunity to work with a particular researcher driving the collaboration? Recognizing the possible impacts of personal backgrounds and cultural orientations is also important.
For Dr. Mpako-Ntusi, concluding a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is a valuable first step. This is a document that is drawn between two institutions, and the signatories are members of executive management. When that process is over, the next stage is to conclude a memorandum of agreement (MOA). This second document is between the actual individual researchers from the different institutions who are going to be involved in the research project. It is a contract about roles, intellectual property rights, timeframes, other partners and the disposition of data. At Cape Peninsula University of Technology, MOAs are processed by the Legal Office and managed by the Research Office in order to protect the integrity of the institution, as well as that of the country. The Research Office sees its role as one of providing support in addition to ensuring compliance with institutional and national policies.
Elias Wondimu, Publisher and Editorial Director of Tsahai Publishers, is also associated with Marymount Institute Press and the African Academic Press. He discussed the role of diaspora communities in fostering international research collaboration, reflecting on his own personal and professional experience. He is an exiled journalist from Ethiopia.
Looking at international statistics for global knowledge production, Africa is underrepresented, and a large part of Africa’s scholarship comes
from South Africa. African scholars working in Africa as well as diaspora scholars working in other parts of the world often experience difficulties in publishing. What are the causes for this, and what can be done about it?
Dr. Wondimu previously worked for the journal Aztlán, an interdisciplinary journal of Chicano studies founded in 1970. Aztlán was launched as a response to the difficulties that Mexican-American scholars were facing in getting published at that time. Over the decades since, many of the young academics who had an opportunity to publish in Aztlán later became department heads and leaders in their fields.
In founding the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies some years ago, Dr. Wondimu was inspired by the Aztlán experience. The journal did succeed in fostering a community of Ethiopian diaspora scholars, and connecting the younger and older generations. But Dr. Wondimu also realized that the challenges facing Ethiopian scholars were also facing the broader community of African scholars working both inside and outside of Africa. This realization led him to launch the African Academic Press and Tsahai Publishers to publish African scholarship within and outside of Africa. These are now fulltime enterprises for him.
This work has to be done on a shoestring, but there are many significant rewards. One major focus is on human resources, developing the next generation of African publishing professionals. In addition, Dr. Wondimu has seen his publishing ventures build bridges between African intellectuals working within and outside Africa.
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