Geodesic wall. Photo courtesy Graham Crumb and wikicommons

Frictions in Defining Community

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Jennifer Long
Melissa Fellin
Secil Erdogan-Ertorer


Trying to Avoid the Lone Anthropologist in Community-Based Research

As a team of interdisciplinary colleagues, we conducted research on behalf of a for-profit and a not-for-profit community partners with the end goal of creating intercultural competency curricula that would be used for training employees and employers in medium and large size businesses. As politically engaged researchers interested in issues of social justice, this project started off like any other in that we began by focusing on marginalized individuals’ experiences of prejudice and racism, the only difference being the setting of the workplace. We also defined our community in light of the social injustices we encountered in the field, for example, siding with those experiencing unfair hiring practices, a choice which aligned with our politically engaged research ideals. Yet, when the time came to develop intercultural competency training materials, it became apparent that we had narrowed our definition of the community to only those who negatively experienced power and privilege in the workplace, thereby excluding employers and employees who were not adversely affected by discrimination. Importantly, it was this latter group who also happened to be the training material’s target audience. In hindsight, it is apparent that we instinctively took a position where we could represent those individuals who negatively experienced issues of privilege and power in the workplace, when in fact we should have kept a more holistic perspective in order to speak to the entire group of individuals who chose to become involved in our research and its outcomes. In so doing, we struggled to find the best way to incorporate a diversity of perspectives and experiences into our definition of community and within the (written) products of our research; a situation which we argue necessitates further discussion in our respective fields.

Geodesic wall. Photo courtesy Graham Crumb and wikicommons

Geodesic wall. Photo courtesy Graham Crumb and wikicommons

At the outset of this project, our funding partner, a settlement and integration organization, hired us to develop training materials to teach workers and managers how to handle intercultural miscommunication and promote self-reflection concerning their own biases. The call for such research and development of training tools was in line with our partner’s institutional mandate and it was in response to the recent research that suggested discrimination has continued to have an enduring role in North American workplaces. For instance, in their report entitled, “Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew, but not Samir?” Philip Oreopoulous and Diane Dechief argue that individuals with Indian or Chinese sounding names were 35% less likely to be called for an interview because hiring professionals assumed that these candidates lacked the necessary language or social skills to do their jobs (2011). Furthermore, in their study “The Colour Coded Labour Market,” Grace-Edward Galabuzi and Sheila Block found that white immigrants earned more than non-white immigrants regardless of age or educational attainment (2011). These findings pointed to a need for continued education concerning perceived cultural and racial attributes in the workforce and the existence of prejudice and bias in the North American workplaces.

A further literature review of contemporary cultural competency training revealed that most programs viewed culture as a static entity and as something people are born with, rather than something that is learned. Moreover, these trainings failed to show the ways that systemic racism continued to affect immigrants, Aboriginals and other racialized groups today, through such issues as hiring and promotion, tolerance of diversity, recognition of credentials and workplace experiences. Thus, there was also a lack of political or critical approaches to cultural competency training programs that examined employee and employer relations within corporations as they relate to their social locations. This lack of awareness was a theme that presented itself in our fieldwork as well.

While conducting 80 in-depth interviews with employees, employers, human resource managers and diversity trainers concerning their experiences of culture and racism in the workplace, certain participants argued that diversity or cultural competency training was unnecessary because they believed that they “don’t see color” at their workplace or, that discrimination did not exist at their workplace because, they “hire the best person for the job and don’t base it on someone’s background.” Additionally, we found that respondents often believed that Canadian-based organizations “had no workplace culture” or, that it was “the responsibility of those individuals coming from different cultures to change their behaviors and assimilate into their workplaces.” These responses spoke to the need for education regarding the role of privilege and power at both the individual and organizational levels which maintain and reproduce systematic inequality that continue to characterize Canadian, and arguably North American, workplaces. Consequently, our job as researchers was to investigate the relationships between those in power and those being discriminated against in the workplace and then, to use this data in designing a cultural competency training that would demonstrate to the participants: how power manifests itself in the workplace; how North American workplace values are built on longstanding social and historic inequalities; and, what role individuals can play in the larger processes of change. Using this approach, our goal was to engender self-awareness so that training participants may engage as agents of change for workforce equality in their own workplaces.

Our research team took a political approach to intercultural competency training and set about grounding our discussions in the repertoire of critical social science theories—theories which are often lauded for their critical approach toward experiences of discrimination or findings of prejudice or injustice. For example, Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ (1995) call in The Primacy of the Ethical for anthropologists to be politically committed and morally engaged in their work or, Laura Nader’s (1972) longstanding appeal in “Up the Anthropologist” for anthropologists to “study up, down and sideways.” Yet, the crucial difference between the training materials we created and the articles reporting the findings of our past projects, was our audience. When using critical theories to interpret our data in the past, we were writing for an audience of academics. By keeping critiques to the pages of academic journals, one is not often faced with the uncomfortable realities of potentially criticizing those who took part in the research. In taking such a critical approach in the current context, however, we flirted with the possibility of ostracizing certain members of the community who had participated in our research. This realization led us, as authors, to ask whether the people for whom these materials were intended would buy a product that questioned their own role in larger processes of systemic racism. If this was the case, how could our tools then be used to limit the negative experiences of immigrants in the employment field or break down some of the systemic barriers to employment? It was at this moment that we questioned how we could advocate for change in the workplace while still being mindful that being too political could not only lead to the training participants to resist the material making it ineffective, but it could also influence the marketability of such materials. In the end, this heightened our awareness of the language we used and the tenor of how we discussed inequalities in the workplace so as to not ostracize our future participants. In doing so, we could account for an audience that would not necessarily agree or be sympathetic to our political position toward social inequality, or, recognize their own culpability within larger systemic inequalities. The inability to recognize racism is particularly relevant to the Canadian context as certain participants in our research, especially those members of non-racialized groups, believed that racism no longer existed in Canada.

In creating these materials, we experienced a situation where our efforts may, in the end, seem more like those of the “Lone Anthropologist” whose work did not fully reflect the effects of imperialism and power relations. In metering out our highly political and critical response, we sought to find common ground by which to engage in a dialogue about discrimination, disparity and inequality in the workplace. Using this strategy, we included socio-demographic information and national history to contextualize experiences of discrimination in the workplace. We also used engaged learning activities, including case studies developed from our in-depth interviews, to help participants sympathize with different perspectives. In order to change attitudes toward discrimination, we needed to represent a spectrum of perspectives in the materials. For example, to speak to those whose first concern might not be social injustices, we included a return on investment section where participants would understand how social inequality affected their bottom line.

In trying to train others on the issue of workplace culture and discrimination, we came to the conclusion that we had in fact closed our minds to a holistic definition of community; a decision which could squander an opportunity to speak across across the boundaries of privilege and power. In taking a one-sided approach, that is, working on behalf of those who are often marginalized, our hubris in ignoring Laura Nader’s call to study up, down and sideways almost obscured our ability to present and signify all those individuals who were interested and became involved in our research. Representing disparate views and accounting for potential disparities is one avenue for discussion that we felt ill-equipped to handle in the field and, we argue, would benefit from more open discussions in the field of collaboration among academics and community partners. By creating a community of practice and a dialogue about issues of collaboration, it is our hope that anthropologists and other social scientists will have a practical resource to consult if they come up against similar difficult situations in their future endeavors in the community.

Jennifer Long conducted this research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations at The University of Western Ontario with the support of a Mitacs Accelerate Grant. She is currently an instructor at the G Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.

Melissa Fellin conducted this research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations at The University of Western Ontario with the support of a Mitacs Accelerate Grant. She is an instructor at The University of Western Ontario and the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.

Secil Erdogan-Ertorer was involved in this research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations at The University of Western Ontario with the support of a Mitacs Accelerate Grant. She is currently an assistant professor at the department of sociology at York University.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 24, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    In Frictions in Defining Community printed October 2013, the authors stated that individuals with Indian or Chinese sounding names were 35% less likely to be called for an interview than those with non-Indian and Chinese sounding names. The percentage should have read ’26% less likely’. The authors apologize for this mistake and wish to thank Jay Siegel who brought this to their attention.

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