Communication 372 – Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

Updated 29 May 2013

Co-Cultural Theory

(based on Mark Orbe, 1998; by Daniel Chand, COM 372, ISU, Fall, 2003)


Objectives for UNIT on Co-Cultural Theory

·        CCT: Be able to describe the overall approach of the theory—what it is trying to do. What is it about? (e.g., Not all communication b/t dominant and subordinate cultures—whose communication is it about?

·        CCT: Be able to explain specific communication behaviors a co-cultural member (btw, what’s that, according to Orbe!) might take in terms of the 6 “universal influences.” Nice application essay topic! Important. Know ALL 6 influences, not just the two Orbe uses to create the grid.

·        The background theories—standpoint and muted group—are helpful for understanding any minority communication. But if you are applying/describing co-cultural theory, these are only the background. Do not give them a lot of focus in your discussion/application.



What is a “Co-Culture”?

l A group that has little or no say in creating the dominant structure of society

l E.G. Ethnic or religious minorities, gays/lesbians the disabled, etc… 


Why learn about co-cultural communication?

l “Identification and explication of the communication practices of co-cultural groups are valuable and important for understanding how persons, marginalized in a dominant society, communicate with those who have direct access to institutional power.”


What is the difference between “co-culture” and “sub-culture”?

l “Nothing really.”

l Same thing, co-culture is just a more P.C. term.

Many writer prefer “co-culture” to “subculture” to demonstrate that all cultures live together within a single geographic area, without one being any better or worse “sub”) than the other. Many feel that the advantage of this usage is that it allows us to realize that White is only another ethnicity that exists alongside other identities [a notion we will come back to at the end of the semester. However, there are some interesting readings some may want to read early on the notion of Whiteness, such as Peggy McIntosh’s famous article, “Whiteness: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Others see a disadvantage of the usage of “co-cultures” to describe all cultural groups in the U.S. (or any other nation) ns that it hides the fact that there are power differences between groups and that some groups are disadvantaged.


Orbe takes the second approach, using “co-culture” to describe a disadvantaged or marginalized group in a society.


Co-Cultural Theory: Overview and Background

§  Overview: The main focus of this theory is to explain how people in a co-cultural group (as Orbe uses the term) communicate when talking to people of the dominant group. People choose different strategies, such as trying to eliminate stereotypes, “passing” (trying to go along as a member of the dominant group), working to build connections with the dominant group, or even avoiding the dominant group (for example, by creating Black churches or organizations, working within the “Rainbow coalition” of businesses, etc.). The theory is not just about the specific behaviors, or even the two dimensions by which these can be divided in figure below, but about a fuller explanation for why people make the communicative choices they do.

§  Assumptions: While Orbe talks about “influences” on the communication choices co-cultural members make, and the word “influences” suggests a ‘realist,’ ‘determinist’ view of the world (that is, suggests that factors cause or influence people to do certain things, as suggested by the scientific perspective of social research), his research suggests otherwise. Most of his work uses focus groups, interviews (for example, a study of how African American men use communication with and about White people) and rhetorical media analysis (such as examples of African American men in The Real World, or an analysis of those “Whassup?” Budweiser guys. The critical focus of the theory (that is, that construction of identity of a co-cultural group exists within the power structures of a dominant society, in resistance to that society, make this theory more critical than the original statement of the CTI, though Orbe cites Hecht and Collier’s work in the constructing of his theory. That is, this is more of a critical theory than the CTI, as I read it.

§  Mark Orbe, the author of the theory, is associate professor of communication at Western Michigan University. For one explanation of the theory, from his 1998 book, Constructing Co-Cultural Theory, class members can go here, but the reading is optional!

§  Background: As evidence of the critical (social change) nature of this theory, Orbe in many of his writings frames the background of the theory in terms of two feminist theories. Each of these theories focus originally on communication between men and women, but Orbe contends that what they say would apply easily to interethnic communication. [NOTE: If you are explaining the theory for an exam or journal, remember, this is the background to the theory. It is not the theory itself! If you focus only on the background, your essay will be severely limited! [These are my own, off-the-cuff summaries, not meant to reflect the full theories!]

o   Standpoint theory suggests that minority members (and women) have a different understanding of the world than dominant culture members (and men). All understandings are only partial, but those in the subordinated group often have a fuller understanding because (a) the understandings and meanings of the dominant world frame their existence, so they must understand them; and (b) it is often not in the interests of the dominant world to understand minority groups—then they might have some sense of responsibility for changing the world!

o   Muted group theory suggests that minority cultures (like women) are silenced (muted) in several ways by the dominant culture. For example, (a) dominant cultures (and men) write the dictionaries, make the movies (and Webpages), and write the history, framing the world in terms of their reality; (b) dominant cultures (and men) put down, deride, and devalue other ways of talking, communicating (by calling it “nagging,” “superficial,” etc.); (c) minority members (and women) who try to speak in the dominant culture language are often still rejected (women who are direct, assertive in the workplace are b****es, etc.). Because of this, women (and minority members) must create, maintain their own means of speaking, create new words to describe their experience (such as “date rape” and “sexual harassment” for women), and create their own communicative forms of resistance against the dominant culture.


Six Universal Influences

l  Preferred Outcomes—“What communication behavior will lead to the effect that I desire?”     

l  Field of Experience– “What past interactions have I had with dominant group members that will influence my current behavior?”     

l  Abilities– “What are my physical and psychological limitations in communicating with the dominant culture?”

l  Situational Context– “In what situation am I communicating with the dominant culture?”             

l  Perceived Costs and Rewards— “What do I stand to gain and lose from an interaction with a member of the dominant culture?”

l  Communication Approach– “Which of the three approaches will I employ to achieve my preferred outcome?”

The preferred outcomes and communication approach are joined into the grid below! 


Three Preferred Outcomes

1.   Assimilation – trying to get rid of all cultural differences in an attempt of fit into the dominant culture.                                                                     

2.   Accommodation – insisting that the dominant culture reinvent or change the rules of society so it can incorporate the life experiences of each co-culture group.                                                                                 

3.   Separation – rejecting the notion of forming a common bond with dominant group and seeking to maintain separate group identities outside the dominant structure.



Three Communication Approaches

Orbe’s Co-Cultural Communication Orientations, p. 110


1.   Nonassertive – behaviors in which individuals are seemingly inhibited and non-confrontational; putting the needs of others before one’s own.

2.   Assertive – communication practices that encompass self-enhancing expressive behavior that takes into account the needs of others and one’s self.                                                                            

3.   Aggressive – communication practices that can be perceived as hurtfully expressive and self-promoting.  Aggressive practices assume control over the choices of others.


Orbe’s Co-Cultural Communication Orientations, p. 110











Maintaining interpersonal barriers

Increasing visibility


Dispelling stereotypes

Emphasizing commonalities


Developing positive face


Censoring self


Averting controversy


Communicating self


Intragroup networking


Exemplifying strengths


Embracing stereotypes

Communicating self


Intragroup networking


Using liaisons


Educating others

Extensive preparation




Manipulating stereotypes






Sabotaging others



Gaining advantage





Strategic Distancing


Ridiculing Self




From M. P. Orbe, M. P. Constructing co-cultural theory: An explication of culture, power, and communication, p. 110 (c) 1998. Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications.


Thought Questions (and journal ideas!):

§  How might Orbe’s Co-Cultural Theory explain the class tension that this New York Times Article reports within the Black Community?

§  Recall a time that you were in a “co-cultural” communication situation. You may have been the member of the “co-culture” (a cultural group that is at a power disadvantage in relation to the dominant group)—or you may have been in the dominant group. Thus, the grid in CCT of specific behaviors may explain what you did or what the other person did. Special note: These are behaviors that oppressed groups, not dominant groups engage in (we still don’t have a good theory to describe what behaviors dominant members engage in!). Note that the grid combines two of the 6 “influences” of behavior in an interaction. How might any of the other behaviors (e.g., background experience) led to the behaviors the communicators used in the interaction?


Content for Exam:

§  Know main ideas (only) of Standpoint theory, muted group theory

§  Know overall explanation of theory and how it differs from CTI

§  Know the 6 influences, especially the two that lead to the development of the grid.

§  Know the 3 positions of the 2 axes of the grid (don’t need to know the specific behaviors)

Note: Essay question might involve choice b/t CTI and CCT to explain a scenario!