Intercultural Personhood: A 'Mainstream' Australian Biographical Case Study

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Funnell, Bob

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Loke, Kit-Ken

Secombe, Margaret

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This thesis explores the question of intercultural personhood in two 'mainstream' Australian cases within interpersonal, intercultural relations in Australian contexts in the second half of the twentieth century. The problem is viewed through three disciplinary lenses: those of communication, psychology and sociology. A qualitative, interdisciplinary approach integrates these through an inductive biographical research design. Within cross-cultural communication studies, a host culture such as that of the Anglo-Australian majority is seen in a monolithic and static way to which Australians of other cultural backgrounds are seen to adapt. These studies give no place to the changes which members of the majority undergo. 'Intercultural personhood', a term coined by Kim (1988, 2001), describes the kinds of 'ethnic' individuals who through negotiating their identities within personal, social and mass communication contexts, both host and ethnic, move beyond the bounds of their own cultural heritage to embrace both their former cultural identity and the new 'host' (viz Australian) identity. In this thesis, the elements of cross-cultural adaptation theory and of 'intercultural personhood' are applied to the intercultural experience of 'mainstream' Australians. From preliminary memory work workshops and focus groups, the cases of two mainstream individuals who show some evidence of 'intercultural personhood' and make identity claims comparable with 'ethnic' adapters are then developed through biographical method. Their life accounts are drawn on for the exploration of issues of identity and personhood within interpersonal, intercultural relations. Major focus is given to the social psychology of Harre (1983, 1993, 1998), whose work provided both a conceptualisation and a methodological tool for the problem. In Harré's work, three dimensions of personhood, namely consciousness, agency and biography are identified together with the psycho-social processes through which an individual's identity and orientation to their culture is appropriated, transformed and publicised. This publication is then rejected or incorporated into the culture through processes of conventionalisation. These four psycho-social processes are explored in my study through an adaptation of assisted biography method (De Waele & Harre, 1979). The strength of the psycho-social approach of Harre lies in its ability to get below the surface behaviours to an analysis of the theory of self which individuals, as 'singular' beings, bring into play in their interactions within themselves and with one another. While this approach draws on social contexts to support the transformations, it is not designed to explicate to a sufficient degree the conditions under which such theories of self are activated and within which changes in identity occur and are maintained. For this reason it is essential to incorporate a sociological framework to understand the influence of the conditions within which such experiences are played out. Bourdieu's (1984, 1987) cultural, relational sociology is coupled with Harre's (1983, 1993, 1998) theory of personal and social being in that it brings together the individual and the society in a way which proves fruitful for ongoing analysis of the biographical data collected within the communication and psycho-social framework of the earlier research. Bourdieu's critique of a methodology based on biography points to the 'illusion' that is created through a biographical interview process. Taking this critique of biography into the study of interpersonal, intercultural relations meant a shift from the communication interactions and psycho-social analysis undertaken to an analysis of the various social constructions evident within the elements of the life account and a search for the cognitive imprint of social structures as durable dispositions within the persons. These dispositions are evident from within a social trajectory of the life and they are applied to the intercultural encounters recounted by the participants in their autobiographies. The addition of Bourdieu's (1984, 1987) sociology strengthens the ability to view the individual and the society through a single lens and to position the individual life course as secondary within a broader and primary analysis of social structure and social structuring as a means of interpreting lives. Its weakness lies in the degree of 'voluntariness' brought into effect as individuals both chart their course through life and are pushed and pulled by the various social forces at work within their trajectories. Within the scope of this thesis, these two approaches, that is, a psychological and a sociological one, are illustrated and incorporated into an interdisciplinary model for the study of interpersonal, intercultural relations. Further rigorous research to validate the components and the relationships of the model and to investigate these strengths and weaknesses more thoroughly is foreshadowed. This interdisciplinary model of interpersonal, intercultural relations is the major contribution of this work to the field of intercultural communication. Advances which are achieved through use of psychology, sociology and biographical research method as a tool through this study are also identified. The thesis concludes with a review of the contributions of the thesis and a discussion of the implications for future research on interpersonal, intercultural relations.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning

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social psychology


Rom Harre

Pierre Bourdieu



interpersonal relations

intercultural relations



case study

case studies





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