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Sabine Krajewski

Globalized Societies and Cultural Identities

In my paper I focus on the effects of intercultural transition on cultural identity. I use the example of increased international student mobility to argue that in emerging knowledge based societies there is an urgent need to research the effects of transition and in particular the effects of multiple cultural transitions that people may experience in their lifetimes. Intercultural communication will be presented as a means to develop various coping mechanisms. The processual nature of cultural identity needs to be the focus of intercultural communication theory in this context.

Cultural identity in intercultural communication theory

Though the concept of social and ethnic identity has been included in intercultural communication theory and the interaction between identity and communication has been acknowledged, there is still a lack of reliable research into the impact of (cultural) transitions on identities. We all have multiple identities that overlap and influence each other. They are determined by nationality, language, religion, ethnicity, social class and gender. Identities are constantly confirmed or reworked through communication with others. While some facets that shape our identity (e.g. the families we are born into) remain fairly stable, others are fluid and change depending on how far we physically move away from our ‘comfort zone’ and who we communicate with. The more distinct the changes in our environment, the wider the gap between our own culture and the new culture we come in contact with, the greater the cultural stress. The transformative role of the transition may not depend on cultural dissimilarity though, but rather on value differences, the extent of social support and the depth of involvement with the host culture.

Ting-Toomey concludes that effective identity negotiation depends on communicative resourcefulness, it depends on “smooth coordination between interactants concerning salient identity issues, and the process of engaging in responsive identity confirmation and positive identity enhancement” (Ting-Toomey 1993: 73). Communicative resourcefulness is important in emerging global knowledge societies and the fluid nature of ethnic and social identity is still underrepresented in the theoretical framework of intercultural communication. The meaning of self is created by avowal (self assessment of identity) and ascription (labelling of our identity by others) over time and is embodied in intercultural conflict situations. Conflict occurs when the cultural experiences of the people involved in communication are different and the interactants do not fulfil each other’s expectations.

It is “a form of intense interpersonal and/or intrapersonal dissonance (tension or antagonism) between two or more interdependent parties based on incompatible goals, needs, desires, values, beliefs, and/or attitudes” (Ting-Toomey, 1985: 72)

Identity is being transformed during processes of cultural transition and adaptation. In the current phase of globalisation, the number of people who become sojourners and live in another country for a number of years increases dramatically. I will explain the implications of increased international student mobility to exemplify the importance of research into identity change. International students are part of international knowledge transfer and experience the impact of cultural and social change as a change of their objective identity as well as a change in their own perception of cultural self.

Global Knowledge Economy

Globalisation includes a shifting from commodity based economies to knowledge economies that are based on intellectual capital. The term ‘knowledge-based economy’ was coined by the OECD and defined as an economy that is ‘directly based on the production, distribution and use of knowledge and information’ (OECD 1996). It was later added to and defined as an “economy in which the production, distribution, and use of knowledge is the main driver of growth, wealth creation and employment across all industries” (McKeon and Weir 2001 p 4).

A strong commitment to education and human resources development is one of the key dimensions in knowledge-based economies. Universities are vital parts of the cultural infrastructure of knowledge economies, they are a most important link between education and economics. Emerging global knowledge societies are in the process of transforming their education systems through internationalisation, of adjusting their production methods and their human resource management to remain competitive in global markets.

Higher education institutions will be measured upon their organisational sustainability and compete for students who will be counted in terms of revenue. Universities in developing knowledge economies such as Australia, Singapore, and Canada place high importance on internationalisation programs (including internationalisation of staff and student body) to expand their market shares and to remain competitive. With accelerated technical development and global mobility, students will become life-long learners and during their lifetime experience various kinds of cultural transition. They will demand flexible access and flexible degree programs and may repeatedly return to the university to develop further skills and knowledge that they need in an ever changing work environment.

If we look at the numbers of international students enrolled in higher education institutions in English speaking countries, the need for internationalised programs and at the same time for intercultural communication competence becomes apparent:

“If nothing else changes, in terms of domestic demographics and domestic demand, the international student program may be the only component of the Australian university student population that grows, out to 2025. Universities may face choices about whether they downsize or whether they grow their international student programs.” (Banks, Olsen and Pearce, 2007)
According to ‘Global Student Mobility: 5 years on’, long term projections of global demand for international higher education suggest an increase from 2.173 million in 2005 to 3.720 million in 2025. The British Council projects similar numbers for the future global demand for higher education, an increase from 988,000 in 2003 to 3.4 million in 2025 (British Council, 2003 p.12).

Examples of Cultural transition

Intercultural transition is on the increase and affects groups such as students, refugees, sojourners and immigrants. They will all go through experiences of uncertainty and anxiety and encounter various obstacles until they can participate in social communication processes according to the host culture’s rules. Sojourners of all types need multiple strategies and behaviours such as tolerance, acceptance and sensitivity beyond the cultural differences together with an awareness and positive reception of cultural similarities during their transitional period. (Mansell, 1981, p.93) Cultural transition and culture shock have been recognised to be not only negative but also positive learning processes than can be smoothed by effective intercultural communication. However, there will be effects on individual’s cultural and social identities and a modification of a person’s core values. Without support during the transition phase, the effects can lead to severe emotional distress as well as physical health problems.

In identity-based intercultural communication theories, identity is seen as an influence on communicative behaviour. The influence of identity on the management of anxiety and uncertainty is fundamental to effective communication (Gudykunst 1995). Subjective identity (the way we see ourselves) and objective identity (the way others see us) are determining factors in effective communication processes and key factors in successful intercultural communication. Due to the symbiotic and transactional nature of identity and communication, identity is in turn constantly shaped and re-assessed through communication with others.

Collier (1997) exemplifies how ethnic identities are negotiated through communication and Ting-Toomey (1988) uses examples of conflict management to analyse the impact of ethnic identity on conflict styles in high context and low context cultures. Collectivists tend to de-emphasise verbal communication but take information from the environment. Individualists on the other hand emphasise verbal communication and derive meaning from verbally transmitted messages rather than context. Identity is an integral concept of intercultural theories but it is not always acknowledged as a process rather than a fixed entity.

Global knowledge transfer, cultural transition and intercultural conflict situations transform identities and the integration of a more fluid concept of ethnic and social identity into intercultural communication theory will open new perspectives.


ABS 2003. Discussion paper: Measuring a knowledge-based economy and society – An Australian framework [online]. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au [Accessed 15 May 2009].
Banks, Melissa, Alan Olsen, David Pearce (2007) Global Student Mobility: An Australian Perspective Five Years On. [Online]. Available from: http://www.idp.com/research/main.aspx [Accessed 15 May 2009].
British Council 2003. Educating UK: Positioning for Success [online] available from: http://www.britishcouncil.org/education_uk_-_positioning_for_success_-_consultation_document.pdf [Accessed10 May 2009]
Mansell, Mauren 1981 “Transcultural experience and expressive response’, Communication Education, vo. 30, no. 2.
McKeon, R. & Weir, T. 2001. Preconditions for a knowledge-based economy [online]. Australia, Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources. Available from: http://www.industry.gov.au [Accessed 10 May 2009].
Obst, Daniel 2005 “Recent trends in international student enrollments in the United States”. Institute of International Education.
Oetzel, J. G., & Ting-Toomey, S. (2003). Face concerns and facework during conflict: A test of the face-negotiation theory. Communication Research, 30, 599-624.
Ting-Toomey,S. (1985). Toward a theory of conflict and culture. In: W.Gudykunst, L.Steward & S. Ting-Toomey (Eds.), Communication, cultural and organizational processes (pp. 71-87). New York: Sage.
Ting-Toomey, S. (1993). Communicative resourcefulness: an identity negotiation perspective. In R.L. Wiseman & J. Koester (Eds), Intercultural communication competence (pp. 72-111). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.