COM 372 – Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

John R. Baldwin

School of Communication

Illinois State University

Updated 20 May 2013


Ethics: Can we determine right and wrong across cultures?

Social Action and Civic Engagement: Can we make a difference?




Ethics: Before we begin our study of intercultural communication, we must consider issues of the right and wrong of intercultural communication and IC research. Martin et al. (2002) define ethics as the same as morals, or considerations of “what is considered right and wrong” (p. 363, emphasis added). (Hall, 2005) defines ethics as the “moral standards by which actions may be judged good or bad, right or wrong” (p. 334). Johannesen, one of the leading writers in the field of communication ethics, contend that, more than cultural values—or what is important to a culture—such as individualism/ collectivism, ethical judgments are more about “degrees of rightness and wrongness in human behavior” (in Martin et al., p. 363). We will make the distinction that morality refers to the right or wrong of any behavior in and of itself. As a subset of morality, ethics deals with rightness and wrongness specifically in our interaction with others.


All of us make decisions about what is right and wrong every day of our lives. Do I cheat on the exam? Do I return the $5 bill I found in the parking lot of the gas station? Do I copy my friend’s CD instead of buying my own? If he asks me if he looks fat in that shirt—and he really does—do I tell him so? Do I tell my children I love the flowered tie if it’s really a Spring color and I’m more of an Autumn? Do I cast a vote on the Internet survey for my friend’s or student’s video, even if it’s really not the best of the videos in the competition, just so my friend might win the contest?


And, of course, there are more weighty ethical issues! If I see racism occur, do I confront it, or do I remain silent? Do I lie for my company? Do I sell research and ideas that I know may not be based in fact or that, if sold, might work against some population?


All of us are guided by some ethical principles, even if we are not aware of them. The problem is, if we have not really thought about what ethics guide us, the principle that guides us may not be the best principle!


The Question:

Perhaps one of the biggest debates in the field of intercultural communication is whether we can apply the same ethical dimensions or framework to all cultures, or whether each culture has its own standard. The latter view, that each culture determines for itself what is right and wrong, was held by most anthropologists and intercutluralists for a long time, and still held by many (e.g., Shuter, 2003).


There are really two main stances

Ø  Cultural relativism: Each culture determines on its own what is right or wrong.

Ø  Meta-ethic: There is some overarching ethical ideal or system that can be applied to all cultures.


The choice between these is not as easy as it first seems. In a postmodern, multicultural world, we want to say “every culture should adopt its own ethical stance.” But this raises questions about practices that are held by cultures (even the people who seem to us to be at the “bad end of the stick”) at different times in history, like:

Ø  Human sacrifice, even if the sacrifice is willing

Ø  Slavery, even if those enslaved feel that it is “right” that they be enslaved or be serfs of some royalty [Joke: I used to believe in the system of kings, queens, and serfs, but I decided the whole thing was feudal].

Ø  Wife-burning, where widows willingly throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres

Ø  Oppression of women in terms of female genital mutilation (a process by which sex organs that produce pleasure are removed), denial of education, or forcing to wear veils, etc.


Of course, as the last instance shows, these issues are often difficult. In many cases, human rights activists come to countries to “enlighten” them only to find that the women feel protected and fully accept as right for them the cultural standards others want to change! Let us consider both options:




Possible Answers:

There is NOT a universal ethic

Shuter (2003): Ethics, culture, and communication: An intercultural perspective

In a reading that is not required for this course, but is available on-line for ISU students, Robert Shuter (2003) argues that there is no easy answer for ethical questions and that we need to re-evaluate how we even treat ethics in intercultural communication:

Because an intracultural [within-culture study of a single culture] analysis uncovers deep structures in a society and its communication, it obviates easy cultural answers such as those traditionally offered about intercultural ethics: Be empathetic, understand that people are different, values vary from society to society, ad infinitum. In truth, one could attempt to follow all of these intercultural caveats and still reject the ethical principles that regulate a society’s communication and its relationships.  (pp. 453-454)


That is, in contrast to most intercultural scholars today, Shuter believes that each culture determines its own ethics for everyday communication (he does not speak about moral issues such as human sacrifice). He centers his essay around different types of ethics:

Ø  Communicator ethics: “That which contributes to the well-being of others, to their happiness and fulfillment as human beings” (Nilsen, in Shuter, p. 449)

Ø  Message ethics: The right or wrong of communication behaviors (aspects of the message) [my def! I could not find one in the chapter]

Ø  Receiver/audience ethics: What ethical guidelines guide those who receive the messages?


His main argument is that the Western, Judeo-Christian ethic emphasizes free choice, with humans at the center of the world. Honesty, truthfulness, and giving choice to others are privileged. However, other ethical systems, such as Hindu and Confuci9an systems focus on harmony over honesty in many instances. His point is that we should consider each culture in its own right to determine what communication is ethical.


There is a universal ethic—but what is it?

The first approach is that there is some ethical principle that can be found to guide behavior across cultures. This is the sort of idea that guides the Geneva Convention standards on appropriate warfare, Human Rights groups (and nations) who work across national and cultural borders, and so on. Some writers look across cultures to try to find the similarities between them all (for example, most cultures have an ethic against unwarranted killing, though cultures may differ on what warrants a killing. For many cultures and countries, one of the highest forms of “human rights” violation is the U.S. use of the death penalty). Interestingly, most intercultural scholars today believe or write as if there is some universal guideline for ethics. Few would state that anything a culture does (like human sacrifice or slavery) is equally right as any other behavior. The question is, what is the universal guideline and who gets to determine it?


The Five “Goldens”: Classical approaches to ethics

Hall (2005) presents “five golden approaches,” a nice way to learn five classical ethical approaches (I will describe only briefly. You should know the standard names (from Em Griffin’s A First Look at Communication Theories for the approaches). For more detail see Hall. I’m putting these in my own order. There will be a mandatory “case study” where you can give your feedback on one last journal post!

Ø  The golden purse (ethical egoism): As it sounds (“ego” for “I”), this approach is based on what works best for me or my group (organization, country, etc.). This approach considers a weighing of the advantages and disadvantages of a decision and choosing what is best. . . for me. I think that the statement in Hall, “the one who has the gold makes the rules” is true in many cases (see my discussion of Critical Theory elsewhere!)—but I think it confuses the standard as I want you to know it.

Ø  The golden consequence (utilitarianism): If something has “utility” that means it is “useful” or “pragmatic.” That may help you learn this approach—what works? The difference between this and egoism is that this approach is focuses on what works for the most people involved. That is, it seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people. One might lie, assassinate someone, even drop a Hydrogen bomb on a city, if it is felt that this will benefit more people in the long run (yes, this was the principle used to justify the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII). What benefits people in one situation may not benefit people in another situation, so things are contextually right or wrong.

Ø  The golden law (categorical imperative/divine right): This approach suggest that there is a single right or wrong that does not differ by context or situation. Emanuel Kant believed that something was either right or wrong (one of two categories), and that we must do what we know to be right (imperative). We determine what is right through the use of logic, for example, the logical question our parents asked us, “What if everybody behaved this way?” Augustine, an early Christian, believed also that there was a single right or wrong, but that it was determined through the scriptures rather than through logic (divine right). Thus, both believe in a “golden law,” but for different reasons. [We might say that, while Augustine can believe in God, Emanual Kant!]

Ø  The golden rule: Also originally based in religious philosophy, the Golden Rule states, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Interestingly, this is a rule or principle that appears in many religions (see figure 11.1). The platinum rule might go a step further in both interpersonal relationships and in intercultural communication! Rather than treating others as you want to be treated, treat them as you think they would want to be treated.

Ø  The golden mean: Finally, Aristotle believed that the best choices lie between extremes in any situation, and that extremes should be avoided. The “golden mean” refers to the “average” or “mean” between extreme behaviors.

Text Box: An Example: We can see how these rules might play out in the different intercultural scenarios that appear at the end of this Website (created by Baldwin). For example, imagine a White patron see a clerk in a hotel by not giving a Black a room, although the White patron knows that there are vacancies. Should the White patron address the case directly? Should she or he report it to the manager? Should the patron start a boycott? Should the patron say nothing? In this scenario, if the patron follows:

Ø	The golden purse (ethical egoism): The patron already has a room. Maybe he or she could keep the case confidential and sell the movie rights.
Ø	The golden consequence (utilitarianism): The greatest good may be met by doing something about it, even if the patron loses something or sacrifice something personally. If the White patron can get the clerk to change her or his behavior, or perhaps get fired, especially if other clerks can know it was because of racist behavior, this might make more people show fairness in giving rooms. However, sometimes a different behavior might be the best for the most people.
Ø	The golden law (categorical imperative/divine right): Two possibilities: Categorical Imperative: What if everyone barred minorities from hotels? There would be no place for Blacks to stay, and we would begin to revert to Jim Crowe days of segregation and overt impression. Logic may tell the White patron that the behavior is wrong and he or she must do something about it. Divine Right: What do scriptures say about it (whether Christian or other). What would key religious leaders do? Do scriptures say anything about equal treatment or not playing favorites? Hmm. That might influence the White patron’s behavior in her or his own treatment of minority members, but does that require the patron to speak out? Cornell West, a Black author who blends racial justice with Christianity, says it would…
Ø	The golden rule: How would the White patron want to be treated in the same situation? Would she or he want the same treatment from the clerk? (On the other hand, would she or he want someone who is not involved to step in and make it their business when the patron may want to handle it personally)? Perhaps the White patron can give the Black customers at the counter the information that they are aware that there is a vacancy (and their evidence for this information), and let the Black patrons handle it the way they see fit. 
Ø	The golden mean: The White patron could file a complaint with the owner of the hotel chain, mount a protest, and get the clerk fired. Or he or she could do nothing at all. But either extreme would be bad. If the patron follows Aristotle’s golden mean, she or he will choose something “in the middle,” such as addressing it directly and rationally with the clerk.


If a universal ethic can be determined (a single ethical system that might apply to all cultures), it will likely come from either studying all cultures to find out principles they have in common, from logic, from dialogue, or from external standard to which all people can agree.


Samovar, Porter, & McDaniel reader


Our ‘reader’ includes two chapters on ethics, notably, at the end (I as I have traditionally treated ethics, until recently). These are short chapters, so please read each. Here are some thought questions



Questions for reading:










Richard Evanoff (2013), professor in the School of International Politics, Economics, and Communication, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, compares two approaches to ethics that we have described above and offers a “way out”

·         What are the universalist and particularist approaches and how do these relate to our idea of “meta-ethic” and “cultural relativism”?

·         Evanoff’s thesis is that “a communicative approach to intercultural ethics may offer a viable alternative to both universalism and particularism” (p. 477).  What is the “communication approach”? What its benefits? How does this relate to perspectives in the BCGS text?


Ninian Smart (2013) was a Scottish educator and theologian who passed away in 2001. In this essay, Smart compares different religious ethics. His discussion is helpful as we consider ethics, but will also be useful later when we talk about world views. His main point is that we cannot divorce a view of ethics from (religious) world views.

·         How are ethical systems, such as we have described above (e.g., utilitarianism) related to specific views of the world (e.g., scientific humanism)?  One of the questions at the end of the chapter suggests that Smart believes that ethics based only on humanistic and not religious principles will be insufficient. What do you think?

·         Look at some of the specific religious systems. Take notes on some key ideas. How might the religious systems (e.g., Theravedic Buddhism, Islam, Christianity) impact how people who follow those religions see what is “right” and “wrong” in human interaction?

·         What does Smart’s idea of social personalism mean (p. 489), and how might this be useful in discussions between people with different religious/world view and ethical systems?


A Way Out


Martin et al. (2002) offer their own three principles for ethical communication. You should mostly be able to tell the main difference between these three:

1.  The Humaneness Principle: deals with treating others as humans—that is, with respect as persons. Embedded in this are various other principles that would deal with treating others humanely, such as peace, honesty/accuracy, recognizing uniqueness of other groups, and empathy.


      This principle, as stated in this text, combines ideas from two different perspectives presented elsewhere (ask me for citations)—the humaneness principle (e.g., Hatch), and the peace principle (e.g., Kale). By Hatch’s view of the humaneness principle (not in our text), it would be unethical to cause or allow human suffering. Thus, to see suffering and not do anything to address it—be that poverty, racism, sexism, or some other suffering—would in fact be unethical.


2.   The Dialogic Principle: the core of this principle is human relationship and, in relation to this, interaction with others (dialogue). It regards gaining an understanding of the perspective of the other before making any ethical decision—relational empathy, caring for others.


      Guidelines for this principle include “for example, authenticity, inclusion, presentness, a spirit of mutual equality, and a supportive climate” (Martin et al., 2002, p. 365). Milton Bennett, for example, suggests the platinum rule, “Do unto others as they themselves would have done unto them” (in Martin et al., p. 366). Power is a problem, because groups with higher power in a situation often lead people not to want to—or need to—understand the other person’s perspective; or people in the dominant group might perceive their to be equality in ability to dialogue, while people in the minority group may not perceive the same freedom. The point here is to understand other’s perspective from their point of view, from their power position, and from their contextual perspective. This can only happen through dialogue with them.


3.   The Principle of speaking “with” and “to”: To me, this principle seems very similar to the dialogic principle just above. The main point here is for scholars who write about other cultures: Scholars must not simply “represent” others, but must speak with them, to be “critical” (in the sense of carefully evaluating their perspective—not necessarily in the sense of “critical theory”) about what they write, realizing their own role in their writing. Specific guidelines deal with self-reflexivity, listening, and dialogue. Again, the last two principles, for me, could not be distinguished from the dialogic principle. Perhaps what this perspective adds is the notion just to treat our representation of other cultures and perspectives critically. On an exam, I’m not sure I could ask you to distinguish between this and the dialogic principle.


Thought Question: Applying ethics to human rights: Take a popular human rights topic, such as treatment of women in some Middle Eastern cultures (including female genital mutilation, a practice allowed in some cultures). Compare ethical stances (as presented by Shuter or by Martin, Flores, & Nakayama)—how would different approaches treat this. What do you feel—should the U.S. or human rights groups have any right to tell other cultures how they should treat women, how many children they should allow, and so on?




Civic and Political Engagement

How we relate to others also involves the very practice of our profession and education. Some have argued that in the United States, we are moving away from involvement with others, “bowling alone,” in the words of Robert Putnam (2000), or engaging in a heightened individualism that works against social involvement and social capital (Bellah et al., 1985). Recently, universities have turned—or returned—to the goal of educating students not only to be successful in their careers, but to be citizens engaged with the world around them. We might even consider such engagement to be ethically responsible or imperative!


Here are some general questions to guide you as you read BCGS 2, pp. 8-16/

·         What are political and civic engagement? What seems to be the main difference between them?

·         What are some of the reasons for and against including civic engagement in college curricula? [an interesting question! But this will not be on the exam]

·         What is altruism (as a possible motive for engagement)?

·         What are some specific behaviors one could engage in for political or civic engagement, especially as these relate to culture, difference, intolerance, etc?


Application Essay ideas:


·         Describe an ethical dilemma in which you have been involved (using terms of class, of course—preferably make it an intercultural or interethnic dilemma).

·         Watch a movie from India, East Asia (e.g., Korea), or the Middle East that has an ethical dilemma in it. To what degree do you see the different ethical stances discussed by Smart played out?

·         Look on-line for an intercultural ethical issue. This could be an issue faced by intercultural travelers (like, should I offer a bribe to the police officer to not give me a ticket, since this is what is generally understood in this culture?) to an ethical issue that straddles international borders (such as a human rights issue or the rights or responsibilities of one government or organization to intervene in the human rights of another culture). Approach it from the 5 golden stances; choose your own stance and describe which of the above, if any influence you (are you a cultural relativist or a universalist?)

·         After working through this course and thinking about these ideas, what could you, as a person, do to make this world a better place in terms of intercultural and intergroup communication? How might you incorporate the concepts of empathy, or even implicature into your own life, concretely and practically?


For the Exam:

v  Be able to recognize main statement of these ethical stances (class notes, Hall’s 5 “Golden’s):

v  Ethical egoism, utilitarianism, “divine right,” categorical imperative, cultural relativism, golden mean

v  Know difference and/or be able to describe 2 main approaches by Evanoff/class notes (distinction b/t “meta-ethic” and “cultural relativism”).

v  What is a communicative approach? Dialogic approach? Humaneness principle?

v  What are some stances that guide your ethical stance? [possible essay question?]






Intercultural Communication


Case #1: Intercultural Sales and Marketing

Your group consists of an intercultural communication firm that specializes in both intercultural training and research. Nestlé Corporation, an international food conglomerate, has hired your group to supervise research in Africa, Asia, and South America. Your goal is to design research to uncover the values and appropriate and credible communication behaviors in different cultures. The corporation will use this information to develop media and interpersonal sales strategies to use in the marketing of infant formula in these nations. What will you do? What ethical choices will guide your decision?


Case #2: Intercultural Media Production

You have landed a job with a very prominent world health organization. The agency is currently seeking a wide financial support base in the United States and Europe to fund efforts to reduce starvation. You have visited the area that your company works in, and you know that many people struggle with daily nutritional and housing needs. However, the people in their country tend to keep their housing areas and their children neat and clean. You find an extreme case that looks much more like “abject poverty” than the average home in the area for which you are raising funds. You must prepare advertising copy with photos. What will you do? What ethical choices will guide your decision?


Case #3: Intercultural Research:

This case is based on a real-life study presented by some scholars at the 1994 Speech Communication Association national conference (including a principle writer of intercultural textbooks).  Let's say that as a researcher, you are invited by a maquiladora (foreign-owned plant in Mexico) to do a value study of the Mexican workers and the German and American managers.  You come to understand that the research is primarily for the purposes of the managers in developing personnel relations practices and strategies with the employees.  Should you do the research?  What are the bounds of what you will or will not do?  What ethical principles guide you as you do your work?


Case #4: Intergroup Research:

You are interested in studying a religious group that you feel promotes a view that is unhealthy, weird, or strange (this could be a group that advocates that gays and lesbians give up homosexuality through “reparative” therapy, or it could be a Zen Buddhist group that seeks to convert individuals, or it could be a Central Illinois neo-Nazi group that recruits women and children—all have been proposed research topics by some of my students). You want to research the group to uncover how its practices really work against the group members and may be harmful to society at large. You decide to go undercover to do research as a participant observer… Should you do the research?  What are the bounds of what you will or will not do?  What ethical principles guide you as you do your work?


Case #5: Everyday Communication: Media Use

You find that you really like international music, after taking Baldwin’s COM 372 class! You are partial to Brazilian music. A friend tells you that he has found a great source to get pirated international music on-line. You know you could go through Amazon or the local record distributor to find the latest CD from the Paralamas do Sucesso (the mudflaps of success). But you also know that international copyright police will never find you if you cop a CD off the Internet or burn one from one that a friend has lent you. What will you do? What ethical choices will guide your decision?



Some Links:

·         Capurro: A paper on intercultural information (e.g., Internet) ethics

·         An annotated bibliography on intercultural communication ethics (Hatch)

·         Ethics Updates: A Case Study on culture and ethics (look at the tabs on the top—lots of links to ethical explanations, approaches, etc.)

·         Case study: manufacturing strategy and culture in Mexico

·         Research issues: ethics in cross-cultural research

·         Case studies (some ethical) in organizational culture (Center for Management Research—Asian case studies)

·         Business Week article: Confucian (Asian) ethics as applied to Western bail out of Greece economy



Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. (1996). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life (updated ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hall, B. ‘J.’ (2005). Among cultures: The challenge of communication (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.