Friday, September 16, 2011

Culture of mediocrity continued: Presence

Further building on our earlier discussions, I want to point toward the notion of "presence" in the field which has occupied a key position in CCA research. The co-constructive moment of CCA calls for the researcher to be "present" in the field, at the moment of the interaction where knowledge is co-constructed.

For my own research, this has meant that I spend substantive amounts of time in the field and on the road. For example, with the heart health disparities project with African American communities in Lake and Marion counties, I personally often spend between 6 to 10/12 hours in the field. Our CCA research team as a collective spends between 20-60 hours in the field collectively, in addition to our community organizers and community partners who are present at the field sites. Although all this presence in the field takes up both a lot of time as well as lot of energy, the fundamental tenets of CCA rely on these different forms of investment in order to create openings for culturally centered mobilizing in local communities.

This notion of presence then is tied to the epistemological assumption that the researcher has to be "present" at the field site at which he/she is doing the research. You at least have to travel to those field sites of a project where you are the principal investigator. You have to make some semblance of an attempt to get to know the culture before you can make cultural generalizations.

Therefore, with respect to communication research that seeks to make cultural comparisons in the context of specific communication variables, it is worth asking: To what extent has the researcher spent time in the field? To what extent can we expect anything authentic from a US-bred middle class White academic from the midwest for example (trained at midwestern institutions) when they are making cross-cultural comparisons of China and the US based on some random survey data gathered by some graduate students who happen to be from China?

To what extent can we expect any meaningful or useful data from an academic piece that is based on cheap and dirty surveys that have been given out to students at partner institutions abroad, and the researchers themselves have not cared to travel to these spaces or learn about the cultures? I guess we can point to the whole etic-emic debate to locate this conversation amidst the notion of different worldviews. Having said that though, I don't think we are relieved of our responsibility toward carving out valid cultural narratives that at least have some semblance of cultural relevance/meaningfulness when conducting cultural work.

Unfortunately, the culture of mediocrity perpetuates itself by making it acceptable for researchers to publish cross-cultural research projects that have the right kind of buzzwords. Unfortunately, our review processes don't ask reviewers to evaluate culture-based studies on the basis of questions about the direct presence of researchers at field sites. As a result, a lot of what gets produced under the name of cross-cultural communication research reifies specigic stereotypes about cultures elsewhere.

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