You are on page 1of 3



There are three contemporary approaches to studying intercultural

the social science (or functionalist) approach,


the interpretive approach, and


the critical approach.

These approaches are based on different fundamental assumptions about
human nature, human behavior, and the nature of knowledge.

Each one contributes in a unique way to our understanding of the
relationship between culture and communication, but each also has limitations.

These approaches vary in their assumptions about human behavior, their
research goals, their conceptualization of culture and communication, and their
preferred methodologies.

As a student of intercultural communication, you may not see yourself
doing research on intercultural communication issues;

However, it is important to understand the assumptions behind the
scholarship that is being undertaken.

The social science approach (also called the functionalist approach),
popular in the 1980s, is based on research in psychology and sociology.

This approach assumes a describable external reality.

It also assumes that human behavior is predictable and that the
researcher’s goal is to describe and predict behavior.

Researchers who take this approach often use quantitative methods,
gathering data by administering questionnaires or observing subjects firsthand.
Social science researchers assume that culture is a variable that can be

This suggests that culture influences communication in much the same
way that personality traits do.

The goal of this research, then, is to predict specifically how
culture influences communication.

The interpretive approach gained prominence in the late 1980s among
communication scholars. One interpretive approach, rooted in sociolinguistics, is
the ethnography of communication.

the interpretivist sees culture as created and maintained through communication. • However.) • Whereas the social scientist tends to see communication as influenced by culture. • Macrocontexts: The political. • They tend to be more interested in describing cultural behavior in one community than in making cross-cultural comparison. • Interpretive researchers believe that human experience. or environment. such as the political and social structures that influence communication. • This type of research uses qualitative methods derived from anthropology and linguistics such as field studies. (Predicting behavior is not a goal. culture is. 3. • In this perspective. social. and historical situations. is subjective and human behavior is neither predetermined nor easily predicted. • For them. researchers who use the critical approach believe in subjective (as opposed to objective) and material reality. and participant observations. including communication. . backgrounds. observations. • The goal of critical researchers is not only to understand human behavior but also to change the lives of everyday communicators. critical researchers usually focus on macrocontexts. THE CRITICAL APPROACH • A third approach to the study of intercultural communication includes many assumptions of the interpretive approach. • For instance. • Interpretive researchers try to describe patterns or rules that individuals follow in specific contexts. background. in essence. unlike most social scientists and interpretivists. usually based on field studies. • Critical scholars are interested in the power relations in communication. identifying cultural differences in communication is important only in relation to power differentials. are interested in the historical context of communication.• Ethnography: A discipline that examines the patterned interactions and significant symbols of specific cultural groups to identify the cultural norms that guide their behaviors. • They also emphasize the importance of studying the context in which communication occurs—that is. and environments that influence communication. the situation. The goal of interpretive research is to understand and describe human behavior. • Critical scholars. a battleground—a plan where multiple interpretations come together but a dominant force always prevails.

Discipline on which approach is founded Social Science (or Functionalist) Psychology Interpretive Critical Anthropology. journals.” such as media (television. the scholars generally analyze cultural “products. and so on). • That is. rather than observing or participating in face-to-face interactions or conducting surveys.• The methods preferred by critical scholars are usually textual analyses. observation Participant observation. movies. field study Textual analysis of media Relationship of culture and communication Communication influenced by culture Culture created and maintained through communication Culture a site of power struggles Research Goal Assumptions human behavior of . which sometimes occur within the economic contexts of the culture industries that produce these texts. as powerful voices in shaping contemporary culture. sociolinguistics Various Describe and predict behavior Describe behavior Change behavior Predictable Creative and voluntary Changeable Method of study Survey.