Crosscultural Research Communicating With Participants

Cross-cultural research methods have become a specialized study area and have been the focus of entire texts (Brislin, Lonner, & Thorndike, 1973; Triandis & Berry, 1980; Berry, Poortinga, & Pandey, 1997). Abasic aspect of good methodology is communicating with subjects. Without clear understanding of instructions directed from the researcher to the participants, and without clear understanding of what responses mean, a research study not only may be misleading but may also possibly be damaging (Bhawuk, 2001).

Various techniques have been devised to ensure good communication between researchers and participants. Irvine and Carroll (1980) suggest a number of steps in testing, such as separation of individual subtests to avoid confusion; oral instructions with visual aids; translation of instructions carried out by typical members of the respondent group; supervised practice on sample items; commencement of each test session with items already familiar to respondents; and creation of an enjoyable atmosphere for testing. If the subject matter under study is a complex concept, such as the stage reached according to Piagetian theories of mental development, training studies can be intro duced (Dasen, Lavallee, & Retschitzki, 1979). The acquisition of Piagetian stages is influenced by people's previous experiences; people in various cultures do not have the same everyday experiences that might lead (at least at the same rate) to the various stages. Realizing this, Dasen and his colleagues (working among the Baoule in West Africa) created training studies in which the same sorts of experiences, theoretically posited as triggering a given stage, were emulated. Compared to a control group that did not have the training experience, experimental subjects scored higher on independently assessed Piagetian tasks. Without the training study—one example of researchers' attempts to empathize with respondents, so that competencies and not just atypical performances are assessed—conclusions about "slower development" might have been made.

A little creativity may ensure researcher-participant communication. De Lacey (1970) made sure that Australian aboriginal children understood such terms as red, circle, and round by showing them wooden replicas and inviting them to handle the different shapes that were painted different colors. They were also asked to indicate examples of the terms before the actual experiment on classification ability began. In another study, Price-Williams (1961) tested the acquisition of various Piagetian concepts among the Tiv of Central Africa. In his experiment on the conservation of discontinuous qualities, the normal Piagetian method is to use beads in containers. Price-Williams tried his method but found communication difficulties were prevalent, so he changed the materials to nuts, which are far more familiar in the Tiv culture. Results showed a degree of conservation similar to acculturated European groups of children. In many cross-cultural studies of theoretical ideas where Euro-American children might be compared with children from other cultures, there is a factor that can be called explicit attention to communication with subjects. When this factor is clearly present in a study, there is a much greater probability of similar Euro-American and other-culture results (e.g., Dasen & Heron, 1981).

If researchers are attentive to communication issues, they will be alert to an important fact: If a person cannot perform a task or do well on a test, this does not mean there is a deficiency in ability. This implication contrasts with the normal inference that if a person does not perform well, then there is no competence or ability. The preferred interpretation, supported vigorously by Cole and Scribner (1974), is that the task itself or the situational nature of the testing situation may well be causing the poor performance. These situational elements include uncommon materials involved in the task; unfamiliar time pressures to complete the task; the presence of a nervousness-producing, highstatus outsider doing the testing; and so forth. Cole has used the research technique of redesigning the testing situation until the person performs well on the task, taking the original poorer performance only as a starting point. Sometimes this is a very difficult research procedure to implement, but when successful it gives infinitely more infor mation about the exact reasons and exact cues for good performance than if one stops immediately after the first testing. The cues that brought out good performance, such as those that encourage effective organization of information rather than rote memorization, can then be used in other learning situations.

In cross-cultural studies, research instruments have to be prepared in languages other than the researchers' own. One of the most important recommendations in such studies is to "decenter" instruments (Brislin, 2000). Instruments should not be prepared in one language with the expectation that they be translated without modifications into other languages. Such a procedure often forces the use of stilted, unfamiliar phrases in other languages that leads to poor communication. In decentering, materials are prepared at the earliest stages so that the wordings chosen will lead to clear and familiar wordings in all the languages that are part of the research study. There is no "center" to the research (e.g., instruments from the United States that must be translated verbatim) in this recommended procedure. Researchers should work closely with translators and should ask them to identify phrases that are difficult to translate or that will lead to wordings unfamiliar to the eventual respondents in the research study.

Cross-cultural data can edit findings found in only a few countries and thus point to the specific limitations of theories. Further, cross-cultural data can provide a stimulus to new thinking, which in turn leads to new and more powerful theories. As more and more psychologists accept the necessity of taking a worldwide view of human behavior, the necessity for a special section on cross-cultural studies will vanish.

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