Distinguishing Group and Cultural Influences in Inter-Ethnic Conflict: A Diagnostic Model

Audrey Habke (Univeristy of Calgary)

Ron Sept (Univeristy of Calgary)

Abstract: This paper examines the issue of inter-ethnic conflict from the dual perspectives of intercultural and intergroup communication. Based on reviews of literature in each of these areas, the paper argues that instances of inter-ethnic conflict tend to be interpreted either as the result of ineffective intercultural communication or as a product of intergroup dynamics, but seldom both. Although it seems natural to suggest that ethnic conflict contains elements of both, there has been little crossing over between the intercultural and intergroup literatures. The current paper presents a framework which considers ethnic conflict as the joint outcome of group and cultural forces, and provides a typology of conflict situations based on the relative importance of group or cultural factors. The model provides a means of identifying distinct combinations of group and cultural factors underlying individual conflicts, and provides the basis for suggesting appropriate strategies for conflict prevention and resolution.

Résumé: Cet article éxamine la question du conflit interethnique des perspectives doubles de la communication interculturelle et intergroupe. Se basant sur des revues de la littérature dans chacun de ces domaines, cet article soutient que des instances de conflit interethnique ont tendance à être interprétées soit en tant que résultat de communication interculturelle inefficace, ou en tant que produit de dynamiques intergroupe, mais rarement en fonction des deux. Même s'il semble naturel de suggérer que le conflit ethnique contient des éléments des deux, il y a eu très peu de croisement entre les littératures interculturelle et intergroupe. Cet article présente un modèle de base qui considère le conflit ethnique en tant que résultat entre forces culturelles et de groupe, et fournit une typologie de situations de conflit basée sur l'importance relative des facteurs culturels ou de groupe. Ce modèle fournit un moyen d'identifier des combinaisons distinctes de facteurs culturels ou de groupes sous-jacents aux conflits individuels, et fournit une base pour suggérer des stratégies appropriées pour atteindre la prévention et la résolution de conflits.

Over the past two or three decades, the pattern of internationalization that has defined North American society as a cultural "mosaic" has continued to make ours one of the most dynamic and varied populations in the world. In order to reap the many benefits of cultural diversity, however, social institutions have faced significant challenges in dealing with the interaction of distinct cultural groups. The presence of inter-ethnic conflict is one of the unfortunate realities that government officials, educators, and administrators of numerous social institutions will address on an increasingly frequent basis as our society continues to globalize.

Dealing with racial or inter-ethnic tension, whether it occurs in a classroom, an inner city neighbourhood or some other context, is a particularly sensitive and complex problem. For professionals charged with addressing such conflicts, it is important to understand that the sources of tension are seldom simple. The dynamics of conflict between identifiable groups of any kind are always difficult enough without being overlayered with additional elements of cultural and ethnic difference. Intervening appropriately in such situations calls for an ability to clearly identify the underlying sources of tension and to understand how these give rise, both separately and in combination, to the overt conflicts we face. Clarity about the underlying nature of inter-ethnic conflicts is essential if we are to learn the important lessons that stem from effectively addressing them. How professionals understand situations of ethnic conflict and how they might derive appropriate strategies for addressing these is therefore an issue of considerable import for scholars interested in questions of communication and culture.

In this paper we hope to shed some light on the underlying nature of inter-ethnic conflicts by examining these from the dual perspectives of intercultural and intergroup communication. We begin with the premise that much of the complexity represented by inter-ethnic conflict derives from the interaction of these two related, but distinct, social processes. On the one hand, these conflicts are, by definition, the product of cross-cultural interactions, where differences in modes of interaction and interpretation lead to different meanings about shared activities and events. At the same time, such conflicts can also be understood in terms of the dynamics of intergroup interaction, in which individuals' sense of affiliation with distinct sub-groups (independent of ethnicity per se) may influence interpersonal perceptions and attributions of meaning.

Our assumption in this work is that most instances of inter-ethnic conflict reflect an interaction of these two dimensions which are, in practice, inseparable. We propose, however, that it is useful for analytical purposes to view each as acting independently of the other, and to examine specific instances of inter-ethnic conflict as a particular mix of intercultural and intergroup dynamics, each acting independently. Doing so, we suggest, provides useful insight into the specific dynamics affecting individual conflict situations and provides a basis for selecting intervention strategies that address more adequately the actual dynamics of the situation at hand.

In developing this argument, we review literature pertaining to communication and conflict in both intercultural and intergroup contexts in order to identify their differential effects. We then present an analytical model and a typology of inter-ethnic conflict situations based on the relative importance of these two underlying dynamics. The implications of the typology in relation to practical strategies for identifying and dealing with different kinds of inter-ethnic conflict are then discussed. We begin with a concrete example of inter-ethnic conflict within an educational setting which will serve as a point of reference for our analysis:

During the first part of the term in a multiethnic language classroom, the instructor noticed growing division between ethnic groups. Initially, the division was only apparent at coffee and during any interactive time, a common occurrence in multiethnic groups usually attributed to cultural and linguistic comfort. The division grew, however, and began to influence classroom dynamics. In any group activity where groups where not designated by the instructor, choice was inevitably linked to ethnicity. Group X seemed to be largely Eastern European. Group Y was comprised mostly of Southeast Asians, leaving one individual, a Nicaraguan immigrant, to wander between the groups, with no apparent allegiance to either.

Just after the midway point of the ten-week term, open antagonism began to surface. Group X members refused to work with group Y members, complaining of food odours and group Y's tendency to stick together during breaks, "chattering" in their own language. They also insinuated that much of the work done by the other group was collective and that their marks on assignments reflected this.

When interviewed, Group Y reported being bothered, even intimidated, by the outspoken habits of group X. They felt group X was arrogant and loud, and resented that the group so easily and informally approached the instructor regarding assignments and other classroom issues. One student was frustrated enough to comment openly regarding group X's lack of proper respect.

The instructor, disturbed by the increasing deterioration in the classroom, instituted a seating plan to try and encourage increased interaction between the groups. This, however, produced only an overwhelming silence in the classroom, hardly an environment conducive to language learning. Finally, aware that cultural differences were causing at least some of the problem, she directly approached the issue by orchestrating a number of workshops on culture and communication. Students became less openly antagonistic, but interaction ceased completely. Finally, in frustration, the instructor abandoned any attempt at interactive learning and resorted to more a traditional one-way (teacher to student) means of instruction. The term ended with the instructor dissatisfied with both classroom dynamics and the language learning demonstrated.

Before undertaking a detailed analysis of this case, a note on terminology is in order. We identify the above situation as an example of inter-ethnic conflict in recognition of the fact that the primary distinction between groups of participants in the situation is based on either national or racial grounds. There are clearly several interacting elements which might be distinguished in this context, including those of national and geographic origin, race, culture, and so on. While the boundaries among these concepts are frequently blurred, we will use the following conventions: "Culture" here will indicate the set of shared beliefs, customs, and practices which give identifiable groups their own uniquely coherent world view. We will assume, for present purposes, that distinct ethnic groups frequently maintain distinct cultures, although it is recognized that national, racial, and geographic considerations also play significant roles in determining cultural identity. In keeping with the bulk of literature in intercultural communication, we will use national and geographic references as a kind of shorthand to refer to ethnic and cultural issues, as the context demands. Further, in our examination of inter-ethnic conflict, we acknowledge that conflict manifests itself in a variety of forms ranging from unexpressed feelings of discomfort and tension through to overt anger and antagonism. The conflicts of interest here include all those in which there is a direct expression or manifestation of the conflict that impacts on the nature and quality of communication among the parties involved. Conflict is not assumed to be automatically negative; in moderate amounts it can be seen as a force toward innovation and positive change.

Having set out these preliminary assumptions, then, how are we to understand the nature of the conflict that arose in this situation? The natural assumption for most people would be to see this as yet another example of conflict arising from the obvious cultural differences between individuals in the class. Yet, while cultural factors are certainly relevant, they do not seem sufficient to explain the antagonism that developed between the groups. One might well expect a breakdown in understanding between the two groups, but why should this lead to overt conflict? Other, similarly comprised groups function quite successfully in such situations. What caused this particular group to stratify so strongly according to ethnic group?

To answer this, we propose, we must look beyond the obvious cultural dimensions of the conflict to see the influence of a second set of social forces operating alongside, and to some extent masked by the more visible cultural ones. We argue that situations of inter-ethnic conflict, such as that described above, are as much the product of group forces as they are cultural ones, and to understand fully the dynamics of such a situation we must look to the interaction of group and cultural forces in the production of the conflict. We will argue that it is possible that group and cultural influences, although distinct, frequently interact in the context of inter-ethnic conflict, and that they tend to reinforce each other and to contribute mutually to the emergence of overt conflict.

In developing our argument, we will use the example of a classroom conflict above as a point of reference, viewing it first from the perspective of intercultural communication research and then from the point of view of intergroup research. The distinct contributions of each perspective are then combined to provide a model of the potential interaction of cultural and group forces that identifies four distinct types of situations, each reflecting a different mix of cultural and group dimensions. Finally, we discuss this model in terms of its implications for intervention and mediation in various types of inter-ethnic conflict.

The Intercultural Dimension

Intercultural research attempts to understand the cultural factors that affect interaction between members of diverse cultural groups. This is a relatively new area of concern, growing largely out of the changing composition of national communities and increased international contact. Early attempts to understand intercultural interaction took an "information-seeking" approach which assumed that the major barrier to communication with other cultures was a simple lack of information. If only we understood the other culture, communication would be so much easier. Much current interest in cross- cultural study grew directly out of this approach. "Experts" specializing in various cultures appeared, and, perhaps for the first time, it was reasonably easy to gain accurate and current information about a culture.

The limitations of this approach for improving cross-cultural communication are readily apparent. First, a comprehensive study of any culture is always a formidable endeavour. Cultures are complex, dynamic, and deeply ingrained in virtually every aspect of life. Second, knowledge of culture does not guarantee successful communication, a realization that continues to frustrate travellers, businesspeople, and diplomats world-wide. Finally, and especially relevant to multicultural countries like Canada or the US, gaining expertise in enough cultures to facilitate communication in a multi-ethnic context is extremely difficult. A close examination of a classroom in the downtown core of any major North American city would illustrate this. It would not be uncommon to find a child from the People's Republic of China sitting next to a child from Pakistan, next to a boy from Ghana, separated from a girl from Hong Kong by a third-generation Canadian child of Scottish descent, and so on. To ask the already challenged teacher to pursue a useful level of understanding of each culture represented would be completely unreasonable, and perhaps even futile, as the next year s/he could easily face a classroom containing a boy from Poland, a girl from Guatemala, a boy from Chile, and so on.

So how can communication be facilitated in contexts like this multi-ethnic classroom? Two things are needed: (1) a framework that identifies and effectively organizes specific dimensions of cultural difference, and (2) an understanding of how to communicate around these differences. One useful step toward establishing the first of these lies in the work of Sarbaugh (1988), who conceptualizes cultural differences not as opposing characteristics but as degrees of difference on a continuum of heterogeneity/homogeneity.

Sarbaugh suggests that we redefine intercultural communication, not in opposition to intracultural communication, but in terms of degrees of participant distinctiveness according to cultural variables such as world view, normative patterns of beliefs and overt behaviours, code systems, and perception of relationship and intent (Sarbaugh, 1988). Briefly, "world view" in Sarbaugh's terms represents beliefs regarding the nature of life, the purpose of life, and one's relationship to the cosmos. "Normative patterns of beliefs and behaviours" refer to rules governing appropriate beliefs and actions. By "code systems," Sarbaugh is referring to culturally specific rules for the interpretation of both verbal and non-verbal symbols. "Perceived relation and intent" encompasses interpersonal factors in the communication, including compatibility of goals, power relationships, and positiveness and negativeness of feelings toward one another.

Sarbaugh suggests that the above variables are interdependent and, when viewed on a continuum of heterogeneity/homogeneity, allow us to determine the level of interculturalness in an interaction. What Sarbaugh terms "level of interculturalness" depends on the extent to which two individuals draw on distinct cultural information in their interaction with each other. This view of interculturalness is useful in understanding the multidimensionality of cultural differences, and in demonstrating how variability along any one of several dimensions can contribute to the perception of cultural difference. This perspective, for example, admits cultural differences based not only on race and ethnicity, but also on factors such as age, social class or religion.

While Sarbaugh's framework is useful for anticipating degrees of intercultural difference, in the end it conflates various elements of difference into a single dimension that offers little help in addressing the practical complexity of cultural interactions. In order to understand the communication implications of cultural differences we need a framework that preserves and organizes specific elements of difference rather than collapsing them. For this we must pursue other avenues of research in intercultural communication.

Among several available taxonomies of cultural variability (see, e.g., Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988), dimensions elaborated by Hall (1976) and Hofstede (1980) have been given the most consistent attention by students of intercultural communication. Hall (1976) was the first to draw distinctions between cultures on the basis of abstract, generalized characteristics. He introduced the widely used and now well-researched continuum of "high context" and "low context" cultures. To this basic framework, Hofstede (1980) added dimensions of power distance, masculinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and individualism/collectivism. In combination, the research of Hall and Hofstede provides a multi-dimensional array of cultural differences that have direct implications for intercultural communication.

Hall's concept of high and low context cultures differentiates cultures according to the relative importance given to context in processes of communication. In a low context culture, the message is found primarily in the spoken or written word, with contextual information adding relatively little to the overall message. In a high context culture, however, meaning is frequently implicit and mediated by details of the situation, relationships, and non-verbal messages.

Another dimension researched extensively in the literature and applied frequently in intercultural handbooks is Hofstede's dimension of individualism versus collectivism. This dimension separates cultures according to the degree to which the individual is valued over the group, or the group over the individual. In an individualistic culture, great emphasis is placed on the ability of the individual to control the immediate environment, tasks, and goals. By contrast, collectivist cultures emphasize harmony within the group, with group loyalty taking precedence over individual achievements (Hofstede, 1983; Hecht, et al., 1989).

The masculine/feminine dimension distinguishes between cultures based essentially on the task orientation of both male and female members of society (Hofstede, 1980, 1983). Rigidly masculine cultures value such traits as assertiveness, competition, ambition, and earnings. More feminine cultures value co-operation, affection, and conciliation.

Hofstede uses the term "power distance" to refer to the degree to which a culture values power and authority. A culture that values and respects traditional authority structures and stratification according to levels of power maintains a high "power distance"; here, very little interaction between levels is sanctioned, and any communication that does occur tends to be formal. A low power distant culture is less rigid in power structures and allows mobility between levels of hierarchy. Communication between levels of power may be frequent and informal (Hofstede, 1980).

The willingness or unwillingness of a culture to take risks is measured by Hofstede as "uncertainty avoidance." Countries, cultures, or groups with low tolerance for ambiguity and a tendency to form structured codes of behaviour demonstrate high uncertainty avoidance. Cultures with low uncertainty avoidance tend to value freedom and allow ambiguity (Hofstede, 1980).

Taken together, these dimensions provide a framework by which cultural differences can be understood and applied to the context of inter-ethnic communication and conflict. Approaching situations of cultural diversity with such a framework provides a manageable basis for describing (and perhaps even predicting) behavioural differences, and for understanding how these differences affect the dynamics of interaction in cross-cultural settings.

In practice, communication is an intricate process of imperfect exchanges. A complex thought is encoded in a limited coding system, transferred through unreliable channels, to be decoded by another's unpredictable thought processes. The encoding process is restrictive; the medium is challenging; the decoding process is far from the encoder's comprehension and control. It is a wonder we manage to communicate as successfully as we do.

The fact that we communicate reasonably accurately is in no small way a result of the addition of rich non-verbal and cultural supplements to purely verbal communication. Each of the dimensions of cultural variability discussed above represents an area in which important ground rules for effective communication are shared by members of the same culture. The ambiguity and contradictions that arise in intercultural encounter are frequently a result of the application of inconsistent rules, based on participants' different cultural conditioning. In this sense, the cultural dimensions that make intracultural communication possible also make intercultural interaction a perfect vehicle for misunderstanding. In the intercultural context, accurate interpretation of verbal and behavioural signs is a challenge. Ambiguity increases the likelihood that messages will be misinterpreted, and in turn heightens the probability for mis-communication and conflict.

Understanding how cultural differences in communication behaviour can give rise to intercultural conflict has been an active area of concern for many intercultural communication trainers. Experiences in the training context have led many practitioners to focus on encouraging participants to question initial perceptions, and to expect that awkwardness, even seemingly inappropriate communication, may well be a function of differing cultural codes. Although a comprehensive review of the theoretical perspectives underlying current training practices is not possible here, a number of recent studies (Casmir & Asuncion-Lande, 1989; Kim, 1988; Sarbaugh & Asuncion-Lande, 1983; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1989) point toward a growing awareness of the importance, as well as the complexity, of cultural influences in interaction.

Early perspectives, including frameworks based on Berger & Calabrese's (1975) uncertainty reduction theory (e.g., Gudykunst, et al., 1988), tended to view intercultural communication as a matter of identifying causal relationships between the initial conditions and expected outcomes of communication. Consistent with the early "information-seeking" approaches to studying culture, these perspectives generally assume that an understanding of cultural differences as an "input" to communication leads to improved intercultural communication outcomes. As a result, training programs within this tradition focus primarily on methods for describing differences between cultures rather than on strategies for successful intercultural communication.

More recently, interpretivist theories, such as Cronen's co-ordinated management of learning theory (1988) or Applegate & Sypher's "constructivist"-based theory (1983), give more recognition to the complexity of human communication and sense-making, and strive to wed the theory and practice of communication in an intercultural setting. In these perspectives, dimensions of cultural variability are clearly understood not only in terms of their behavioural impact, but also as ordering principles through which participants experience interaction as coherent and meaningful. Training programs grounded in these perspectives challenge participants with the complexity of communication, and seek flexible strategies for reaching communication goals in an intercultural environment.

If we return briefly to consider our initial example, we can see that intercultural communication theory provides a framework for understanding why behaviour and communication were misunderstood, and perhaps how communication could be facilitated in such a situation. By drawing upon relevant dimensions of cultural variability we might, for example, attribute group Y's tendency to form a cohesive group as an outcome expected from a more collectivist culture, just as group X's seeming arrogance and informality might be the reflection of a more individualistic culture. The differences in communication style that further divided these groups can also be examined in terms of the open, more outspoken form appropriate to a low-context culture in the case of group X, and the more reticent style familiar to group Y's high context culture. In addition, we can interpret group Y's respectful deference toward the instructor's authority and group X's casual informality, and the tensions surrounding these, as the product of differences along Hofstede's "power distance" dimension. And in each of these cases we might examine how the meanings attributed to specific actions by the parties involved were the product of culturally-based views of appropriate classroom behaviour.

Even without going into a detailed analysis of the case, it is apparent that intercultural encounters can entail a complex interaction of elements which might contribute toward growing tensions between groups. As useful as this analysis might be, however, intercultural communication theory cannot completely untangle the interaction encountered in our illustration. By themselves, elements of intercultural communication do not provide a satisfying explanation for the emergence of strongly cohesive sub-groups in this case, nor for the animosity that arose between them. To understand the processes that led to the stratification and antagonism between these ethnic groups, we must turn to research on intergroup behaviour.

The Intergroup Dimension

Cultural differences are not the sole influence in intercultural interactions. Factors relating to group identity and intergroup behaviour also need to be considered. What differentiates intergroup interaction from intercultural or interpersonal interaction? Sherif, whose work provides a foundation for a great deal of recent intergroup relations work, conceptualized intergroup behaviour as follows: "Whenever individuals belonging to one group interact, collectively or individually, with another group or its members in terms of their group identification, we have an instance of intergroup behaviour" (Turner & Giles, 1981, p. 4). So, according to Sherif, when the primary point of reference in an interaction is group identification, whether that group be formed around culture, age, or nationality, the interaction is intergroup. When the primary point of reference is personal identification, the interaction is interpersonal. At the one extreme, participants view each other as merely representatives of differing groups, a situation one can only imagine in contexts such as war, or perhaps labour negotiations. On the other extreme are interactions based purely on personal identity with no reference to group identity. Here one can imagine classifying moments in intimate relationships and close friendships. Rarely will an exchange not be influenced somewhat by the various groups the participants relate to.

However, how can interaction that does not fall neatly into either category be classified? Tajfel (1981) proposes that the relationship between intergroup and interpersonal identity is not a dichotomy but a continuum. Behaviour at either extreme of the continuum, he suggests, is rare, but three characteristics are found in interaction tending toward the intergroup end: (1) there is some sort of dichotomous social distinction evident (perhaps male and female, Asian and Caucasian, boss and subordinate); (2) there seems to be little variability within the groups; and (3) out-group members are treated in a fairly standard manner (Brown & Turner, 1981).

Much of the research around intergroup conflict in the earlier part of the twentieth century focused on aggressive tendencies in individuals, implicitly rejecting the suggestion of group action or thought. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sherif & Sherif (1953) began to suggest that intergroup interaction did exist as a separate form of interaction from interpersonal interaction. They promoted a theory of intergroup relations based on theories of competition. This approach, known as realistic conflict theory (Condor & Brown, 1987; Brown & Turner, 1981; Turner, 1981), suggested that much of group conflict can be attributed to competition for resources. Where interests are in competition, rivalry and conflict are likely; where they coincide, harmony is more likely.

Uncertainties about realistic conflict theory gradually focused around competition as a necessary cause for intergroup conflict. Research began to show that, while competition may be a sufficient cause, little could establish it as a necessary cause. More disturbing was some evidence that co-operation between groups could actually aggravate conflict (Turner, 1981; Condor & Brown, 1987). Theorists began to search out routes that could broaden the theory without rejecting it totally. The most comprehensive theory to come out of this search has been Tajfel's social identity theory, a perspective that guides much of intergroup research today.

The social identity perspective proposes that social categorization is employed by an individual not only to order and make sense of a complex world but also to make sense of self. Self-concept, Tajfel argues, is built both on personal identity, who we are as individuals, and on social identity, the groups with which we align ourselves. Group allegiances assist in defining, to ourselves and to others, who we are in terms of our social connections (Turner, 1981; Tajfel & Turner, 1986; Tajfel, 1981; Condor & Brown, 1987).

If group affiliation is linked to self-concept, it follows that protection of group identity could be positively correlated to self-esteem. An attack on a group is an attack on one's sense of self; protection of the group identity positively reinforces one's self-concept. Tajfel & Turner (1986) suggest that this link precipitates broad social effects. They propose the following:

  1. Individuals strive to maintain or enhance their self-esteem: they strive for a positive self-concept.
  2. Social groups or categories and the membership of them are associated with positive or negative value connotations. Hence, social identity may be positive or negative according to the evaluations (which tend to be socially consensual, either within or across groups) of those groups which contribute to an individual's social identity.
  3. The evaluation of one's own group is determined with reference to specific other groups through social comparisons in terms of value-laden attributes and characteristics. Positively discrepant comparisons between in-group and out-group produce high prestige; negatively discrepant comparisons between in-group and out-group result in low prestige (1986, p. 16).

These conclusions have been extended to suggest that individuals will strive either to improve low group prestige or to leave that group for one of higher prestige. They may strive for more positive distinctiveness by competing directly with the high-prestige group (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Such a strategy is typical in ethnic groups. Ethnic group identity is not an identity that an individual can choose and, in many cases, it is a salient component of self- identity. Because it is also one that cannot be easily walked away from, the only option, if that identity holds low prestige, may be struggle to improve prestige.

Negative ethnic group prestige may well exacerbate intergroup competition, perhaps leading to conflict based more on the prevailing comparative prestige of the groups involved than on actual issues between the groups. Negative group prestige may also increase the distance between groups, as the group strives to prove its own value within its uniqueness. Looking back at the introductory example, it is possible that group Y members interpreted group X's seeming arrogance as a message of superiority. This may have influenced them to solidify as a group and to take measures to achieve higher prestige. It is also possible that the interpretation of superiority was a misinterpretation of a culturally based behaviour intended to signify confidence. If that is the case, a culturally based misinterpretation has combined with group behaviour to produce unexpectedly negative results.

While social identity has an influence on intergroup interaction and communication, particularly through its impact on self-concept, the categorization of self and others--and its concomitant stereotyping--is also an important group-related variable. Snyder (1981) suggests that:

In stereotyping, the individual: (1) categorizes other individuals, usually on highly visible characteristics such as sex or race; (2) attributes a set of characteristics to all members of that category; and (3) attributes that set of characteristics to any individual member of that category. Stereotypes are usually simple, overgeneralized, and widely accepted. (Snyder, 1981, p. 183)

Tajfel (1981) suggests that stereotyping serves four major functions, two of which are primarily individual (cognitive) and two of which are social. The individual, or essentially cognitive functions of social stereotypes are (1) to make a complex environment orderly and predictable, and (2) to preserve and defend personal value systems. Full information regarding all peoples, groups, and organizations is overwhelming and perhaps even inaccessible. People rely on categorization and stereotyping simply to manage the chaos until a need arises to expand the amount and accuracy of information in a given category. If one never encounters Vietnamese refugees, for example, there is little impetus to expand the category into which they and the issues surrounding them fit. The second individual function of stereotyping arises from establishing categories based on socially valued rather than purely neutral differentials. This type of stereotyping may be influential in maintaining a personal belief or categorizing individuals or events according to religious affiliation or political leanings.

The two social functions of stereotyping identified in Tajfel's work are (1) social explanation of intergroup relations, and (2) preservation of positively valued distinctions between in-groups and out-groups. The first is concerned with the creation and sustenance of group perspectives that "justify and explain" existing intergroup relations. The second social function, maintenance of positively valued distinctions, is related. Group distinctiveness is formed and given value through comparisons with other groups. Hence, it is to the benefit of group identity to retain clear images of the out-group. As a positively valued distinction is strengthened, group identity is preserved. It is only in contrast with other groups that a group identity can be maintained (Tajfel, 1981; Hewstone & Giles, 1986).

The dynamics of intergroup perception and their relation to individual sense-making are further explored in formal attribution theory, which examines the process by which individuals make sense of, or attach meaning to, the behaviour they observe. Attribution theory, based on Heider's theory of causal analysis, played a major role in psychological research in the 1970s. Jones and Davis's (1965) theory of correspondent inferences builds on Heider's ideas to suggest that individuals use two types of information in attributing cause to action: the behaviour of the actor and the situation (Ehrenhaus, 1983b; Jones & Nisbett, 1972). In short, when cause is attributed to behaviour, the action is most likely to be seen as reflective of the actor and his/her disposition; when cause is attributed to situation, the action is seen to be mediated by contextual factors. In later work, Jones & Nisbett (1972) suggest that actors tend to attribute actions to the situation while observers tend to attribute actions to personal characteristics of the actor. The authors argue that this is due to the quality of the information available to the two. The actor sees more fully all the forces influencing his/her behaviour, while the observer tends to see only the actual behaviour. In an intercultural context, this would suggest that there is not only a danger of misinterpretation of culturally based codes but a tendency to attach motivation for an inappropriate action to personality (rather than to the cultural context that produces it).

In intergroup attribution there is also a tendency for group members to attribute negatively the actions of outsiders. The actual attributional process in intergroup communication is, of course, the same as that employed in interpersonal communication. Intergroup interaction, however, seems to stimulate specific attributional responses. There are a number of comprehensive reviews regarding attributional effects in intergroup relations (Hewstone & Jaspers, 1982; Detweiler, 1986; Hewstone, 1987; Wilder, 1981). For the purposes of this discussion, we will provide only a brief overview.

Detweiler (1986) summarizes five attributional effects of intergroup relations:

  1. Expanding on Jones & Nisbett's (1972) differentiation between attributional biases of observer and actor, research indicates a tendency for attribution to be positively biased toward the in-group.
  2. When a sole out-group member is present, more attention is placed on his/her attributes. In-group members tend to focus on characteristics that reflect the out-group member's distinct nature as a member of another group.
  3. Categorization of a person influences what is remembered about that person. Observers tend to recall traits that are consistent with group membership, and lose traits inconsistent with membership.
  4. Group categorization determines expectations about an individual's behaviour and traits, even before the individual is met.
  5. In-group members will treat out-group members in manners consistent with their expectations, rather than on actual traits. This understandably can lead to fulfilment of expectations, reinforcement of stereotypes, and further distancing of groups.

The implications of these tendencies for communication are obvious: the out-group member faces a perpetually untenable situation. When a positive behaviour by an out-group member is observed, the in-group member will tend to attribute it to the situation; yet at the observance of a negative behaviour, attribution is made to personality and group membership. Added to that is the tendency to see and remember behaviours that reflect group stereotypes, and a tendency to act according to expectations based on these stereotypes. It is easy to see how communication and relations can fall into a growing spiral of conflict. In-group members focus on stereotypical characteristics, look for certain types of behaviour, receive what they are looking for, thus reinforcing the stereotypes and distance between groups. "They" remain clearly the "outsiders."

If our aim is to improve already poor intergroup relations, this spiral is discouraging. In the original example, perhaps some of the deteriorating relations between groups X and Y were largely due to this pattern. Could this deterioration have been prevented or stopped? Can narrow stereotypical categorizations be broadened?

A number of approaches have been used to combat intergroup conflict (Berger, 1986; Brislin, 1986). Perhaps the best known of these is the "contact hypothesis" based on work done by Allport in the 1950s and 1960s. Allport's work suggested that contact could decrease intergroup bias when participants are of equal status, united in a common goal, and supported by institutional or social forces. Cook (1978) adds some conditions: the behaviour of the out-group member must disconfirm common stereotypes; the situation must encourage interpersonal rather than intergroup interaction; the situation norms must foster group equality (Hewstone & Giles, 1986).

In a review of research in this area, Hewstone & Brown (1986) suggest several weaknesses of the contact hypothesis and recommend that contact be supplemented with a number of other factors: superordinate goals, co-operation, multi-group membership and cross-cutting of social categories, and equal status of participants. These additions parallel those outlined by several other researchers (Wilder, 1986; Quattrone, 1986; Brislin, 1986; Turner 1981).

What are the practical implications of this research? Contact is important, but only under certain conditions. When possible, the encounter should centre around the accomplishment of a superordinate goal, with the co-operation of all members. To ensure that the experience can be generalized beyond the immediate encounter, participants should also be exposed to a variety of out-group members. This exposure should illustrate that out-group members are also a heterogeneous group that cannot easily be labelled. Finally, stereotypical expectations of behaviour need to be challenged. This may done indirectly through multiple exposures or perhaps directly through careful confrontation.

In summary, in an intercultural encounter where group identity has become salient, any steps towards mediation must recognize the intergroup factors that may be present. First, a group is motivated to maintain and defend group identity. In cases where ethnic identity is tied to group identity, this motivation may be very strong. Second, communication may be distorted by tendencies to make negative attributions, to focus on stereotypes, and to form expectations of behaviour based on stereotypes. These tendencies may act to reinforce the sense of group solidarity, creating a spiral of communication breakdown.

Intercultural and Intergroup Factors Combined

So how do cultural and group factors interplay in an intercultural encounter? The existence of broad cultural differences can exacerbate group boundaries, increasing isolation and tension. Simultaneously, group allegiances can predispose a misinterpretation of cultural differences. To examine the combinatory effects of these two influences, it is useful to consider them as intersecting dimensions, using Tajfel's and Sarbaugh's dimensions of intergroupness and interculturalness, as in Figure 1.

Behaviour in the extreme of any of the quadrants illustrated in Figure 1 would be rare, just as behaviour at the extreme of each continuum is rare. It is, however, useful to examine each separately in order to understand the different combinations of possible influences.

Behavioural and communication issues will differ as the influence of cultural and group factors vary. In the case where intergroup influences are salient but cultural differences are not (quadrant I), attention to intergroup factors in communication is essential, but cultural influences are for the most part predictable. In this category, we might find interaction between labour and management groups within a relatively homogeneous community as an example. Here we might well expect conflicts to arise on the basis of group differences related to socio-economic or class distinctions, occupational groupings, or gender, for example, without these being attributed to any identifiable cultural or ethnic grouping. The distinguishing feature in such cases would be the presence of relatively uniform modes of communication and interpretation across the groups involved, with the basis for group identity resting more on non-cultural factors. In such cases, conflict could be understood to grow more directly from issues such as relative power and status, access to resources, and so on, rather than on world view, specific behavioural patterns, or modes of communication and interpretation. The specific nature of conflicts falling within this category are most appropriately addressed by reference to conflict resolution guidelines described within the intergroup literature.

In other instances, interaction is primarily interpersonal and intracultural (quadrant II). While the interpersonal dynamics in these situations may be complex, they are essentially free of strong intergroup and intercultural forces, and communication should be relatively free of group or cultural impediments. Such conflicts would be felt and expressed almost entirely in personal terms, without reference to either cultural or group identity--what might typically be called a "personality conflict." Conflict of this type can be treated strictly as an individual or personal matter, and can be addressed in relation to interpersonal conflict resolution strategies, without reference to either group or cultural influences.

When cultural differences are salient, but group differences are not an issue (quadrant III), we might find communication difficulties arising from cultural differences in linguistic and behavioural code systems, without direct reference to the specific groups associated with those differences. Conflicts concerning specific behavioural patterns, such as the use of ethnic costume or rituals, which occur in settings where group stratification along ethnic boundaries has not otherwise occurred, would be placed here. In the example presented earlier, this may well have characterized the situation in the early part of the term, before group-based influences began to overshadow the culturally based tensions that preceded them. Although many conflicts take place in the contexts where ethnic stratification may already be institutionalized, it is frequently the case that tensions arise around individual cultural practices, without reference to broader ethnic group distinctions. In fact, such conflicts may represent an important phase in the emergence of inter-ethnic conflict where culturally-based interventions may well prevent the emergence of further, group-based conflict.

Much has been written about mediation and training in such environments from which appropriate intervention strategies might be drawn. Perhaps the largest challenge here is the fact that cultural and linguistic differences frequently play a direct role in the emergence of strong group boundaries, and thus facilitate related communication breakdown and conflict. Steps need to be taken early in development of intercultural groups to discourage this type of subgroup formation. This is a matter that needs further exploration at another time.

Situations in which both group and cultural factors are salient (quadrant IV) are of greatest concern in this discussion. What are the implications when a classroom or work unit stratifies into cultural groups? What types of behaviour might be exhibited, and how might it be most effectively managed? If we return to our introductory classroom example, we can isolate a few behavioural responses.

In the classroom situation described, boundaries began to form early in the term but only became rigid at about the midway point. The students did not seem to enter the classroom already divided, although they may have entered with attitudes that encouraged such stratification. One possible explanation for this pattern is that initial tensions which grew out of isolated instances of culturally-based distinctions gradually contributed to a growing sense of in-group and out-group identity; an accumulation of such occurrences, left unresolved, may well have fed an emerging sense of cohesion within and antagonism between sub-groups, becoming expressed in a final overt expression of group-based conflict. This dynamic would seem to be logically consistent with groups in general. It takes time to form the collective habits, values, and behavioural norms that are so important to group identity. In the case of ethnic groups, these norms can often be the product of a considerable history, and may reflect strongly entrenched group identities.

The demographics of the classroom described initially are by no means abnormal for a language classroom. However, the group dynamics produced within the classroom were abnormal. Why did this class stratify to such extremes while others, consisting of similar ethnic combinations, easily form a single cohesive working unit? In the context of the analysis outlined in this paper, we propose that the hostility exhibited in the example had little to do with cultural differences. Group members seemed willing to use their own interpretations of culturally determined behaviour (e.g., the seeming arrogance of group X) as motivation for increased isolation and growing hostility. Growing group identity demands proof of distinctiveness; cultural differences easily become that proof. Figure 2 provides one possible illustration of this process, when intervention is not made.

Implications for Cross-Cultural Communication Training

In the case of interaction between groups within a single culture (quadrant I), measures to reduce conflict can be based on the available body of research on intergroup behaviour. In the case of purely intercultural interaction (quadrant III), communication can be eased through many of the approaches discussed in the intercultural communication literature. But when both forces are salient, as in quadrant IV, special consideration is needed. Because both cultural and group factors are active in the interaction, both need to be addressed in any remedial action. What seems necessary is a two-step process of diagnosis and response.

Diagnosis is essential in any mediation. In the case of poor intercultural interaction, the problem needs to be correctly identified. A mediator must first evaluate if intergroup issues are salient (quadrant IV) or if the conflict is primarily interpersonal/intercultural (quadrant III). Responding to interaction that is both group relevant and culturally relevant with mediation based solely on cultural differences may serve to emphasize distinctiveness, and may be used by groups to widen the gap between them. This seems to have been part of the issue in the original classroom example. The instructor recognized the signs of cultural misinterpretation, but did not seem to recognize growing group tensions as such. As a result, mediation did not touch all aspects of the problem, and response was unsatisfactory.

How does a trainer or mediator respond to interaction impeded by both cultural and group processes? The time of intervention would seem to be crucial. In the process of increased stratification and faltering communication, early intervention may prevent continued deterioration. Some groups seem to do this independently; others may need more active intervention. The moment of intervention may also be important in determining the type of response made. Early in group stratification, cultural differences may be more salient, while later in the process, group issues may be most relevant. Reaction must be based on the dynamics of the particular group involved.

Group tensions in the introductory classroom example might have been reduced if action had been taken immediately when group stratification became noticeable, before tensions developed. Even at this early stage, however, the response needed to recognize both group and cultural influences. Intervention at a later point would seem to be more difficult, as group divisions are stronger, and communication patterns more established. At this point response would need to recognize and react to strong intergroup influences in addition to possible mediating cultural forces.

Both group and cultural issues must be recognized in any mediation attempt. Recommendations from intergroup research for decreasing intergroup conflict must be intertwined with intercultural training techniques to simultaneously decrease tensions resulting from both factors, in a combination determined by the characteristics of the group involved. In any event, two needs must be addressed: (1) alleviation of intercultural discomfort by encouraging an increased flexibility in interpreting culturally based verbal, non-verbal and situational behaviours; (2) alleviation of intergroup tensions by encouraging an increased flexibility when attributing motivation and significance to the behaviour of out-group members.

The nature of specific intervention strategies which can meet these needs, either separately or in tandem, is not well understood. The complexities of intercultural and intergroup conflict offer a rich field for investigation, both in terms of basic processes as well as the effectiveness of specific resolution strategies. Clearly however, the need to understand inter-ethnic conflict as potentially involving the interaction of two distinct types of social processes will enable researchers and practitioners alike to approach this task with greater sensitivity.


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