Friday, January 23, 2009

Constructing Cultural Boundaries in Academia

The main paradigm in the study of communication remains undoubtedly Western. Perspectives from African (Asante, 1980) and Asian (Chen, 2006; Miike, 2006) worldviews have challenged the underlying Eurocentrism of the values embedded in the main paradigm: control, individualism, linearity, static view.

Chen (2006) talks about the alternative epistemology offered by Asian worldviews. He first goes about the identify the 'essence of Asian Communications', then discusses the 'yin and yang of Asian communication studies' and finally he proposes the 'Tao of Asian communications'.

I have a Western worldview, and that explains why yin and yang, Tao say very little to me. My sense of them is mostly from secondary literature and not first-hand experience. It is easy to mistrust them, because the information I get from such literature is not part of lived communal experience, which heightens my tendency to resist them.

Take for instance the concept of 'harmony' Chen describes as a main feature of "Asian communication". Exactly what is harmony? And how is harmony achieved? I have had this discussion over and over again: there are no human communities which do not have power structures and do not perpetrate violence to some. So, I'm suspicious of what 'harmony', 'whose' harmony, etc. Chen writes harmony is internalized by each individual as an understanding that we all are part of the whole, and this gives us a certain responsibility. Harmony implies "hard work, respect for learning, honesty, self-reliance, self-discipline, and the fulfillment of obligations", as well as "an orderly society, respect for authority, consensus, and official accountability" (2006, p. 298). Well, doesn't it sound exactly like the discourse legitimizing the feudal system? To each their place, that they have to accept.

We are talking generalities here. I am sure there are people living in Asia who are neither accepting of the social order and the status quo, nor eager to self-discipline themselves. Maybe the trouble is the application of 'harmony'. I'm also thinking the silent half of the Western world - women - have been recuperated by feminist literature as the workers of harmony in their family. 'Harmony', as a female value, may not be a visible value in the Western system of thought (hold on, what about feminism?) - but then, just because women were silenced, does it mean their values are not 'Western'? Oh, and to complicate matters: what am I say, there are no 'women' as a homogeneous category! ...

As I go on and read Chen's arguments, I'm resisting the idea of an 'essence of Asian communication'. I take his points that alternative worldviews have different normative universes; but I'm also thinking we do a gross generalization when we speak like this. Chen also recognizes the dilemma: "With such a vast geography and a great variety of cultures, and religions, it is extremely risky to generalize the essence of a so-called 'Asian communication'. However, in addition to the internal variety of Asian communication, evident similarities as well exist in it" (2006, p. 296).

And here is where he makes a choice, a choice based on his values and purposes: to talk about the 'essence of an Asian worldview', even when such an enterprise is problematic because of the internal diversity. Chen has a project - and it is that project which prompts him to draw the boundaries. He criticizes the imperialism of Western knowledge, and to do so, he needs to do two things: 1). to generalize Western knowledge; 2). to oppose to it an equally powerful generalization: Asian knowledge. As much as this is the source of empowerment (the source of the forcefulness and legitimacy of the argument), it is also the demise. The problem lies also in the underlying visions for generalizations: what are the criteria we choose to generalize? Based on what?

We always choose to see the similarities across some borders, across some geographic and linguistic boundaries, and not others. Indeed, the power structures in which we live prohibit us from this: there is a power (im)balance - or rather a power negotiation - between those boundaries Chen invokes (and thus constructs). But the reverse - there is always a reverse - is that we end up placing essentialized entities in opposition and conflict (going precisely against what Chen calls the 'essence' of Asian communication, namely achieving harmony).

Asante, M.K. (1980) "Intercultural Communication: An Inquiry into Research Directions." In D. Nimmo (Ed.) Communication Yearbook 4: 401-410
Chen, G.M. (2006) "Asian Communication Studies: What and Where to Now," The Review of Communication, 6(4): 295-311
Miike, Y. (2006) "Non-Western Theory in Western Research? An asiacentric Agenda for Asian Communication Studies," The Review of Communication 6(1/2): 4-31

1 comment:

Restructure! said...

It's interesting that Chen identifies the essence of Asian communications with Orientalist cliches: yin-yang, Tao, and harmony.

This whole project smacks of Orientalism, as Orientalism presupposes that the East is East and the West is West.

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