Learning to Live in a Different Culture: A Phenomenographic Study of the Adaptation Experiences of Cultural-immersion Study-abroad Sojourners

Hitchcock, Leo
Harvey, Sharon
Clear, Tony
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This thesis investigates the learning required for study abroad sojourners to live effectively inside another culture. To live effectively in another culture, the research participants tracked in this thesis had to learn the knowledge, skills, attitudes and awareness needed to adapt to different ways of doing things. Cultural knowledge and skills, along with appropriate attitudes and awareness, constitute the four elements of Intercultural Competence (IcC) (Byram, 1997; Deardorff, 2006; Fantini, 2000; Sercu, 2005a).

On entry into their host community, sojourners began to interact with symbols (the products and visible elements or observable realities of a culture [Shaules, 2007; Trompenaars & Hampden- Turner, 1998]) and rituals (a culture’s ways of doing things: their practices) of daily life. Through internalisation of the perceptions of their interaction experiences, they formed understandings to create meaning. Sojourners needed to reshape their long-held cultural understandings to accommodate the meanings of the different culture in which they were immersed. This involved adjustment difficulties for some sojourners, and they resisted some aspects of adjustment to cultural practices. The internalisation process was theorised through symbolic interactionism (SI) (Blumer, 1969/1986; Prus, 1996; Stryker & Vryan, 2003) and examined through phenomenography.

Noteworthy is that participants’ recorded their experiences and the perceptions of those experiences immediately, or soon after, an incident occurred. The recorded experiences formed the primary corpus of texts that were analysed, and were supported by an end-of-sojourn interview. Also significant was the adoption of symbolic interactionism which, framed how participants experiences were understood. As the methodological approach, phenomenography enables the analysis of experiences themselves rather than the phenomenon.

Phenomenography and its associated variation theory specifically studies the variation in perceptions of, and the ways of understanding experiences (Berglund, 2005; Berglund, personal communication, 2014; Pang, 2003). Through examining the variations in perceptions and subsequent understanding of experiences over a period of time, the researcher analysed the learning of the IcC required for effective adaptation to a host community. The findings are presented as a set of ‘categories of description’ summarising the key concepts in terms of what was learned in each category, and how it was learned (Berglund, 2005; Marton & Booth, 1997). Extensive data was received from 21 participants in varying amounts. Ten phenomenographic categories of description were identified from the data:

  1. Learning to adapt to the community’s sights and sounds;

  2. Learning to adapt to common everyday community practices,

  3. Learning to adapt to greeting rituals;

  4. Learning to adapt to food and rituals associated with food and eating;

  5. Learning to adapt to differences in orientations to time;

  6. Learning to use the local language;

  7. Learning to build and adapt to local social networks;

  8. Learning to cope with adaptation stresses and overcome culture shock;

  9. Learning to adjust to the education and schooling system; and

  10. Learning to adapt to different values and beliefs at a more implicit level and to maintain relationships

The findings show that all research participants reached advanced levels of adaptation in some categories. In the remaining categories, research participants reached varying levels of acceptance of and/or adaptation to different aspects of host community life. Some participants merely reached a level of tolerance in some categories and in a few cases, resistance remained. It was thus concluded that IcC learning is not a general continuum as depicted in some key literature (for example Bennett, 1993) but rather varies according to values within specific ‘dimensions of culture’ (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998. See also Shaules, 2007).

It is anticipated that future study-abroad programmes, and sojourners themselves will benefit from this research, which provides suggestions for the development of techniques and strategies that can be developed to help sojourners to learn IcC during their study-abroad sojourns. Such techniques include a process model for experiential learning of IcC.

Intercultural Competence , Cross-cultural adaptation , Phenomenography and variation theory , Study abroad , Symbolic Interactionism
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