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64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998

 


Code Number: 077-155(WS)-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Library Services to Multicultural Populations
Joint Meeting with: Library Theory and Research: Workshop
Meeting Number: 155.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Differences: Experiences from Education in Library and Information Studies

Mirja Iivonen,

Diane H. Sonnenwald,

Maria Parma

and

Evelyn Poole-Kober

Department of Information Studies
University of Oulu,
Tampere, Finland


Abstract

In the paper the need to understand cultural differences is discussed. The authors show how cultural differences can be analyzed. They also describe how cultural information was exchanged and analyzed during the library and information studies course that was taught via the Internet simultanously in Finland and North Carolina. In addition, the authors discuss how libraries could use experiences of the common class when they act in a multicultural environment.

In the paper, culture is defined to be a framework to our lives, something which affects our values, attitudes and behavior. In analyzing and understanding cultural differences it is important to pay attention to how members of various cultures see i) the nature of people, ii) a person's relationship to the external enviroment, iii) the person's relationship to other people, iv) the primary mode of the activity, v) people's orientation to space, and vi) the person's temporal orientation. These dimension will be explained in the paper. In addition, the authors pay attention to language and communication styles as a dimension of cultural differences.

The paper describes differences in cultures of Finns, Sami People, North Carolians and Cherokee Indians. Sami People and Cherokee Indians were chosen to represent minor cultures in Finland and North Carolina. An interesting similarities can be found on the one hand between major cultures (Finland and North Carolina), and on the other hand between minor cultures (Sami and Cherokees).

The authors propose that there are a few lessons learnt in the common class which can be useful also for libraries and librarians serving multicultural populations. They are i) to undertand people's behavior as a reflection of their cultural background, ii) to understand of differences in language and communication styles between cultures, iii) to understand that collaboration across cultural boundaries and sharing cultural informations occur together, and iv) to take advantage from the Internet in crossing cultural boundaries but not to forget that people have various attitudes toward the Internet and therefore some clients continue to prefer books and face-to-face interaction with library professionals. The authors emphasize that cross-cultural communication and collaboration does not occur effectively without understanding other cultures.


Paper

Introduction

The need to understand cultural differences is obvious today. Many societies are multicultural, and many people and organizations collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. Although it is typical for people to see themselves as unigue (Reed 1986, 1) and to be somewhat parochial, parochialism is not a good strategy for the future. According to Adler (1997, 10) "parochialism means viewing the world solely through one's own eyes and perspective. A person with a parochial percpective neither recognizes other people's different ways of living and working nor appreciates that such differences have serious consequences."

Today we live in a world that is somehow smaller than it is used to be. New communication technology (e.g. email and the WWW) has made it easier to a certain extent to cross previous boundaries and communicate across time and space. However, the new technology does not necessarily make it easier to collaborate and communicate interculturally. To effectively collaborate and communicate we have to share meanings. This often requires that we understand cultural differences and share cultural information.

The purpose of the article is to discuss how culture and cultural differences can be analyzed and understood. We describe how cultural information was exchanged and analyzed during library and information studies course that was taught simultanously in Oulu, Finland, and in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the USA, in the spring semester 1997. In addition, we discuss how libraries could use our experiences when acting in a multicultural environment.

Our common course explored human information behaviour in the context of collaboration. The course also provided students the opportunity to collaborate with fellow students from another country and culture. Many class sessions included small group exercises in which students from Oulu and Chapel Hill collaborated to discuss and complete the exercises. This collaboration was supported by Internet-based videoconferencing technology; students were able to see others and talk to others in a real-time connection although physically there was an ocean between them. (For more information about the course, see Iivonen & Sonnenwald, 1997, and Sonnenwald et al., 1998).

The core assignment in the course included papers and presentations written and produced together by Finnish and American partners. One such team (Parma & Poole-Kober) focused on the role cultural information may play in the context of collaboration. In particular they analyzed the cultures of Finns, Sami People, North Carolinians and Cherokee Indians. Sami People and Cherokee Indians were chosen to represent minor cultures within the major Finnish and North Carolinian cultures. Using a framework to explore these cultures led to insights with respect to the importance of analyzing and understanding cultural differences when collaborating across boundaries.

What is culture?

Culture has been studied and defined in many ways by multiple scholars representing various disciplines. Adler (1997, 15) has synthesized many definitions of culture. She says that culture is:

Something that is shared by all or almost all members of some social group. Something that the older members of the group try to pass on to the younger members. Something (as in the case of morals, laws and customs) that shapes behovior, or... structures one's perception of the world.

Culture is more than arts, it is a framework to our lives. It affects our values, attitudes and behavior. On the other hand we are actors in our culture and affect it. According to Levo-Henriksson (1994), culture covers the everyday way of life as well as myths and value systems of society. Roos (1986) sees culture as a system of lifestyles and as a common dominator for lifestyles. Lifestyle reveals culture that is large and stiff wholeness, uniform, regular and like-minded in our lives. Lifestyles is a possible way to outline one's life within the framework of culture.

According to Adler (1997, 15-16), culture, values, attitudes and behaviors in a society influence each other. Values can be defined as factors that are explicitly or implicitly desirable and that affects our decisions. Values do not need to be conscious, they can be also unconsious. The values we have are based on our culture. Attitudes express values and get us to act or to react in a certain way toward something. Attitudes are always there when people act even if they do not see them. There is no action without attitudes. Behavior can be described to be any form of human action. The behavior of individuals and groups influence the society's culture. There is no culture in the society without people's behavior.

Examples of cultures: Finland and North Carolina

Finland is located in the Northern part of Europe. The Finnish culture has been influenced by the Swedish-Nordic, eastern European-Baltic and southern cultures, mainly the German, and most recently the Anglo-Saxon culture (Levo-Henriksson, 1994.) On the one hand, the Finnish culture can be described as rather homogenous; although there are regions with their own dialects and characteristics, they are strongly part of the main culture. On the other hand, there are also features of a multicultural society in Finland. There is an unique culture of Sami people in the northern part of Finland. Today there live also many people, e.g. refugees, who have immigrated from other countries including Somalia, Vietnam, Russia, former Yogoslavia, etc.

Sami people live in the northern part of Finland, and also in northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Russia. This area is called Lappland or Sami. Today, in Finland there are about 6,400 Sami people. The Sami lifestyle is often a mixture of nature's seasonal cycles, traditions, and modern times. (Aikio et al., 1994.) Because Sami people have lived as a minority in four countries, the Sami language has not been approved for use in schools until recently.

North Carolina is located on the east coast of the United States of America, to the north of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and to the south of Virginia and Washington DC. North Carolina was discovered, explored, named, and settled by Englishmen. Powell (as cited in Crow and Tise, 1979) says: "North Carolina is the only one of the United States that can claim an Elizabethan background." For a long time Africn-Americans and other Americans lived segregated lives in North Carolina. Following the civil rights movement in the 1960s and passage of the Civil Rights laws by the U.S. Congress, legal segregation ended in North Carolina. Today, people work, play, and go to school together. Although there are still some scattered problems, generally racial groups associate peacefully.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lives rather isolated in the western reaches of the North Carolina mountains on the largest organized Indian reservation east of Wisconsin. Snowbird Cherokees live in isolated community fifty miles from the main reservation (Neely, 1991.) The mountains were a hideout for the Indians who refused to leave the great Smokies during the Indian removals in 1838 in what has become known as the Trail of Tears. Today there are nearly 11,000 tribal members on the reservation (see Cherokee... in http://www.cherokee-nc.com/) and hundreds more living in mountain communities outside the reservation. The Cherokee Indians are taking pride in their heritage and again learning to speak and write their own language. The Cherokee Indian alphabet was invented by Sequoyah, the only man in the history of mankind who invented a complete alphabet without being able to read or write any other language (Underwood, 1961)

Cultural differences: An analytic framework

Adler (1997) gives six dimensions that we can use to analyze cultural differences. She pays attention to the understanding of the nature of people; a person's relationship to the external enviroment; the person's relationship to other people; the primary mode of the activity; people's orientation to space; and the person's temporal orientation.

These dimension are used to explore differences in cultures of Finns, Sami People, North Carolinians and Cherokee Indians, and to develop an understanding about cultures. In addition, we pay attention to language and communication styles as a dimension of cultural differences.

Discussion

There were a few lessons learned in the class which can be useful for libraries and librarians serving multicultural populations. First, people's behavior reflects their cultural background. This happens also in libraries. Therefore we have to be aware about cultural differences related to a person's relationship to other people, orientation to time and space, etc. When librarians try to learn to know their clients - as they should - we suggest, they also try to learn to know their clients' culture. This may give them the analytical framework to understand their clients' behavior and needs.

Second, we learned that there are differences in language and communication styles between cultures. Library services are based very heavily on language and communication. When librarians act in a multicultural environment differences in language and communication styles may cause misunderstanding and even lead to bad service. Good communication skills can, however, be learned. We suggest that these skills should be taught to librarians, as they should also be taught to other professionals working in the service sector.

Third, we learned in our course that the project that focused on sharing cultural information interested many students. This project was discussed by the students more than other projects. This is easy to understand. Every student worked with a partner from another country. To the students, Finland and North Carolina were not mere foreign countries on the other side of the globe but the countries where their partners lived. The students really wanted to learn about the cultures of their classmates. Collaborative work seems to generate interest in other cultures. We suggest that collaboration across cultural boundaries and sharing cultural information occur together. It happened in our course, it works in IFLA, and it could work also in a library practice. Libraries in multicultural environments could proactively support collaboration across members of different cultures by getting people together and providing information about their cultures.

Fourth, we learned that new information and communications technology will make other cultures closer to us and offer possibilites to overcome cultural boundaries. However, cultural attitudes toward technology may influence people's beliefs and use of the technology. For example, students in Finland rated some applications more highly than their classmates in North Carolina (see more in Sonnenwald et al., 1998). The Internet and Internet-based services are available for public use in many libraries world-wide. On the one hand, we can see this as a benefit, e.g., in public libraries the Internet can facilitate an access to information about other cultures that would not otherwise be possible. On the other hand, we have to understand that clients' attitudes forward the Internet and their abilities to use it will vary. We have and will continue to have clients who appreciate books and face-to-face interaction with library professionals.

Today we live in the world where there is a need for collaboration across cultural boundaries both internationally and internally within countries. Cross-cultural collaboration may be facilated through an understanding of others' cultures. In our class we learned that cultural differences are not necessarily disadvantages but can be enriching and provide many benefits. This framework may be applicable to library education, library research and library work.

References

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Aikio, S., Aikio-Puoskari, U., Helander, J., 1996. The Sami culture in Finland. Helsinki: Lapin Sivistysseura.

Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. In: http://www.cherokee-nc.com/ (April, 1997).

Crow, J.J., Tise, L.E., 1979. Writing North Carolina History. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Fellman, J., 1980. Poimintoja muistiinpanoista Lapissa. 3rd ed. Porvoo: WSOY.

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Kortteinen, M., 1992. Kunnian kentät. Hämeenlinna: Hanki ja jää.

Lehtonen, J., Sajavaara, K., 1985. The silent Finn. In Perspectives on silence. Ed. by D. Tannen & M. Saville-Troike. Norwood, NJ: Abler Publishing.

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Neely, S., 1991. Snowbird Cherokees: People of persistence. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

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Powell, W.S., 1988. North Carolina: A history. Nashville, TN: The American Association for State and Local History.

Reed, J.S., 1986. Southern folk, plain & fancy: Native white social types. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.

Roberts, N., 1973. The goodliest land: North Carolina. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.

Roos, J. P., 1986. Elämäntapateoriat ja suomalainen elämäntapa. In Kymmenen esseetä elämäntavasta. Lahti: Yleisradio.

Saville-Troike, M., 1985. The place of silence in an integrated theory of communication. In Perspectives on silence. Ed. by D. Tannen & M. Saville-Troike. Norwood, NJ: Abler Publishing.

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Sonnenwald, D. H., Iivonen, M., Alpi, J. A., Kokkinen, H., 1998. Collaborative learning using collaboration technology: Report from a field. Proceedings of the BITE (Bringing Information Technology to Education) International Conference, March 25-27, 1998, Maastricht, The Netherlands, pages 238-254.

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Underwood, T. B, 1961. The story of the Cherokee people. Knoxwille, TN: Newman Printing.