Communication 372 – Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

Updated 06/01/09

Verbal Communication and Research

Today’s readings include two different short articles on verbal communication and Jandt’s chapter on identity and communication.

I.  Researching Verbal (and nonverbal) Communication:

      Intro: There are, of course, a variety of ways to study verbal and nonverbal communication, and our research look over the next few days will include everything from surveys to experiments to naturalistic observation using photographs and high numbers of individuals. We may say more about comparing some of these methods later, but we are going to turn our main attention today to one method.  A traditional method of doing research on verbal and nonverbal communication is the closed-ended quantitatively focused survey. You will likely learn about these in a social-science methods course in your disclipline.

Here is an example of a survey study, but the authors actually created their survey through earlier open-ended diaries:


Some researchers, as we have noted, have turned away from survey and experimental designs. Some of these, such as Mark Orbe and Mary Jane Collier, have turned largely to interview style methods (one-on-one and open-ended). Others are using observation as a method. I will say a bit about each, and then will provide some very sketchy notes to guide you through today’s readings. You will find Theory & Research Portfolio 3 relies on these methods.


A.   Open-ended questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups:

1.   The purpose of these methods is usually to provide in-depth understanding of a smaller group of respondents, not meant to be generalizable. Often the researchers are seeking to uncover norms, meanings, or values of a group. Collier and Thomas (1988) talk about locating the “constitutive” and “regulative” meanings, that is, what is it that makes this what it is (how do groups define friendship?) and what are the appropriate rules for this thing (how should friends behave?—Note: This research often uses “norms” and “rules” interchangeably, unlike our earlier readings).

2.   The method involves

o   Coming up with carefully chosen questions that are open-ended and will impose less of the researcher’s structure. Thus, the questions are rarely “yes or no” questions, but might involve motive (why do people think they do things), process (what are the stages for doing something), examples (tell about a time you…), consequences (what happened when someone did X?), and so on. From my class on qualitative research methods, here are some types of questions one might ask. In an open-ended questionnaire, you must select and even pilot test a small number of questions that will best help you address the research question (Note: Interview/survey questions are not the “research questions” for your study. The latter are at a higher level of abstraction. The open-ended questions are meant to gather data that you will analyze to answer the study research questions. If you are doing an interview or focus group, you often must choose how much structure you use. If you ask the same questions in the same order of all participants, it is a standardized interview. If you use the questions as a loose guideline for conversation, mostly to keep the participant talking about the general topic as long as she or he addresses your main area of interest (a method favored by many more “interpretive” researchers), the interview is semi-structured.

-          grand-tour questions (ideal-typical, memorable story tour)

-          probes (indirect: eyebrow flash, pause, repeat key words, tell me more..)

-          experience questions, example questions

-          motive questions

-          native-language questions [what does this word mean to you?]

-          auto-driving questions [show a text, like an advertisement, and ask for a response]

-          posing the ideal [what would be the best way to respond to someone who… what is the ideal friend like?]

-          structural question [how would you classify different types of racist communication?]

-          contrast question [how is this different from/alike that?]

o   Collect the data. Your sample can be “random,” a large convenience sample (like a classroom), or “purposive.” Especially if you are doing interviews or focus groups, you might want only a small number of participants, and you might want to choose them carefully, for example having some commonality on one feature (Spanish-speaking Latina users of prescription medication) but maximum variation on other dimensions (age, social economic status, etc.). The type of sample depends on how you want to analyze the data!

o   Analyze the data. There are a variety of things you can finally with your data, but the initial steps are usually the same:

-          Manage the data: Often, you will “transcribe” your survey answers or interviews into a typed text. From there, you can either analyze it ‘manually’ or using computer software (sorry—the latter is beyond the scope of our course!)

-          Unitize the data: Look through your questionnaires or interview transcripts and indicate the “units” that will become categories. (Some people put each open-ended answer in a category (the answer is a unit). Others use the first idea as the unit or the last idea, if there are more than one ideas in a unit. And some use each idea in an answer as a unit, so that a response or comment might contain one, three, or more units! (See example below).

-          Categorize the data: You now have two choices: You can use a pre-existing (called a priori) framework to guide your analysis (such as Imahori and Cupach’s study, which uses an existing list of response to embarrassment to categorize the open-ended questionnaire data), or do “grounded theory” where you inductively cluster the ideas into like categories. Either works, depending on your purpose.

-          And after that? Some people are then ready to write up, with the write-up including a list of categories, definitions of categories, examples in the words of the participants, and discussion summarizing categories, showing nuances within categories, or analyzing relationships between categories. These are presented as an “interpretation” of the data (interpretive/humanistic paradigm). If you do TRP 3, you will use this method, as your sample size will be too small for the later. This is the standard method for semi-structured interviews and focus groups. However, if you have a scientific orientation or want to compare two groups (e.g., men and women on preferred conflict resolution strategies) to make a ‘verifiable claim,’ you will (1) collect a much larger sample; (2) will conduct standardized interviews of a large sample, if you use interviews at all, so that there is less bias of the interviewer on the answers; (3) turn the open-ended categories to numbers. You can then do a frequency count of how many of the participants (e.g., men and women) used each category (e.g., open conflict, e.g., smoothing conflict); and (4) possibly run statistics to determine if the differences are significant. I even have formulas to determine intercoder reliability, to verify that two or more coders are unitizing and categorizing the data in the same fashion!



Open-ended response: While in college, I have encountered many professors who have left a lasting impression on my life, however, there is one professor who is responsible for encouraging me to stay focused and achieve my goals.  This teacher is insightful, encouraging, and always has time to help students when things begin to get rough.

Open-ended response unitized [Looking specifically for “characteristics of an effective instructor”] :

-          While in college, I have encountered many professors who have left a lasting impression on my life, however,

-          there is one professor who is responsible for encouraging me to stay focused and achieve my goals. 

-          This teacher is insightful,

-          encouraging, and

-          always has time to help students when things begin to get rough.

Possibly five different units in this answer! Now to break into categories. I would use this with answers from other surveys to create a set of categories. These might include, but not be limited to:

In-class instruction

Out-of-class instruction

Character traits

-          Insightful, prepared etc.

-          Sense of humor

-          Clear structure of presentation

-          Etc.

-          Encourages goals (the two mentions of this in the above answer become one unit)

-          Time for students

-          Quick turn-around time on assignments, etc.


-          Impression-leaving

-          Concern for students, etc.



o   Summary: We see that open-ended surveys, especially, are qualitative, but not necessarily subjective. The responses can be treated either interpretively or scientifically. For TRP, you will use interpretive, as the sample size will be far too small to use the scientific approach.


For your reading pleasure only (just to see some examples), here are some possible readings on verbal language using different methods (as noted). You may recognize these from the “abstract” article list.

Statistically focused:


Interpretive: categories with definitions & words from particpants  Ethnography of Communication: Our key method for today’s readings is Ethnography of Communication. This method stems largely from the work of Gerry Philipsen, based on the prior work by Dell Hymes. Hymes, a sociologist, began looking at how groups used communication specifically. Philipsen got his doctorate under Hymes and began incorporating his approach full-scale, first to look specifically at speech (the “ethnography of speaking”), but later applied also to silence and use of nonverbal communication, hence the broader name, the Ethnography of Communication. Hymes has actually developed a theory surrounding this method, called Speech Codes Theory. Here is another link by a class where students summarize and do projects specifically using this theory.


Ethnography is alternately both a research methodology and a way of writing up research. Some say that the methodology itself is observation, with varying roles of participation by the observer (from strict observer to participant observation, in which the observer is also participating in the activities). Frequently the observation will be followed up with interviews, in which the researcher verifies conclusions drawn from observation. In this sense, the research is observation, and the write-up, or report of the research, is an ethnography. However, ethnography is not simply observing—it might also include document analysis, interviews of people in the social setting, and other methods, such as conversation analysis. For our purposes, ethnography will be considered to be the detailed observation of a society--a holistic analysis and description of a society. Hammersley and Atkinson (1983) state:

For us ethnography (or participant observation, a cognate term) is simply one social research method, albeit a somewhat useful one, drawing as it does on a wide range of sources of information. The ethnographer participates, overtly or covertly, in people's daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions; in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues with which he or she is concerned. (p. 2)

Purpose: Ethnography has its roots in anthropology, in the early work of Branislow Malinowski (Conquergood, 1991). It is used frequently in both anthropology and sociology today. More recent discussion of ethnography frequently looks to the work of Clifford Geertz, Dell Hymes, and others. Hecht (class notes) in his discussion of interpretive theory (see Tools for Research II) notes that much of interpretive theory is based on Geertz' Cultural Approach, in which "the researcher seeks to described the surface level artifacts and events, and then figure out the deeper levels of meaning by 'peeling' back the layers of meaning" (referring to Geertz' notion of "onion peeling"). Hammersley and Atkinson (1983) take the reader through the steps involved in doing ethnographic research and writing up the report (see also van Maanen, Wolcott, 1990).

Ethnography of Communication: Several scholars have borrowed from concepts of ethnography to look at communication specifically. Thus, Philipsen (1989) bases his work on the assumption of communicative meaning: "In general, interlocutors establish, through their actions and interpretations of actions, a sense of shared meaning, such that interlocutors orient to each other and each other's acts as if they expressed a common sense" (p. 258). He goes on to say that interlocutors (or, if we can use Conquergood's metaphor, social actors), coordinate their actions; communicative meanings are "created and the particular patterns of conduct that are enacted vary across communities" (p. 259). These communities of communicative resources are cultures. Thus, he defines culture as a "historically transmitted system of symbols, meanings, premises, routines, and rules" (p. 259).

Philipsen’s Propositions of Speech Codes Theory (1989)

For our purposes, we nearly need a summary of the theory as a whole—specifically that communicative action is specific to each group. That is, each group creates a set of resources for the people within that group for when, how, and to whom to communicate. People “coordinate” their meaning, but that meaning is specific to a culture. (Organizational researchers, such as Putnam, Pacanowski, and O’Donnell-Trujillo apply this principle even to the level of an organizational culture!)

Many ethnographers of communication use Dell Hymes' descriptive framework to research and present their findings. This framework (Hymes, 1972), is intended to be used to look at any naturally occurring speech to discover the rules for speaking (modes of speaking, topics, message forms within particular settings and activities). The key elements [SPEAKING] are:

Scene: physical setting where talk occurs, cultural definition of the scene

Participants: the actors in the scene and their role relationships the purpose(s), outcomes, goals of talk

Act Sequence: the relationship between what is said and how it is said

Key: the tone, manner, or spirit in which the talk [or silence] occurs

Instrumentalities: particular channel, language, dialect speech variety of the talk

Norms: normative aspect of interaction; normative aspect of the interpretation of talk

Genre: the cultural category of talk (e.g., insults, compliments, apologies)

Examples of Ethnography of Communication

Typically, a single study will not walk through each of these, but will use the ones that are most relevant. For example, if we wanted to look at shaking hands, we could start at the “genre”—shaking hands as a sign of showing friendship (e.g., flipping someone off might be an insult or a gesture of camaraderie). We could then find out who shakes hands in a culture (participants), the scene (only upon first meeting, or do you always shake people’s hands when you see them again. Hmmm. ‘Hi Mom! Glad to be home (hand shake).” “Hey, dude, whassup” (handshake). . . No, I don’t think so.

We could determine why people shake hands, the “key” or tone (for example, in the flipping off example, one might flip a stranger (participant) off in traffic or at a grocery story (scene), following either a traffic goof-up or someone saying something rude to begin with (act sequence). Here the key would be tense, uncomfortable, angry. But if you are at a game and your buddy flips you off, the tone could be “joking,” “light,” etc. The instrumentalities are the channel. Thus, if we take a larger “genre” of camaraderie behaviors, these could be verbal or nonverbal. The norms dictate the expected rules for how to shake hands (not a wimpy shake, not too firm, not too long, and don’t milk the other person’s fingers!).

Carbaugh (1994) goes on to list three areas of interest to the student of cultural communication:

1.   Cultural Models of Personhood: What does it mean to be a (good) Osage Indian, a good Anglo American, a good ISU Greek member?

2.   Communication: How is communication accomplished? What are the logic patterns, forms of talk (e.g., metaphor, word usages, analogies, argument styles), meanings, and rules.

3.   Emotional Expression: As an example of the above, what are the "display rules" of when and how emotion should be displayed.

Note that these three intersect with one another. That is, emotional expression has certain meanings. In some cultures, to be a "real man" means not showing certain emotions, or to be a real "x" might mean showing emotions in certain ways. It is within this framework that our readings for today fit. The two readings from the MN&F reader are both from students who got their doctorates under Dr. Philipsen and are now professors at different universities.

II. Specific Studies on Culture and Identity:

     A. American Indian Students (Carbaugh)

Carbaugh, D. (2002). “I can’t do that!” but I “can actually see around corners: American Indian students and the study of public “communication.” In In J. N. Martin, T. K. Nakayama, & L. A. Flores (Eds.), Readings in cultural (2nd ed., pp. 138-149). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Students in a ClassroomThought Questions:

-          According to Carbaugh, what is the role of Blackfoot “deeply communicative silence”? What seem to be the main values that undergird Blackfoot communication?

-          What constitutes “effective communication” for Blackfoot culture?

-          What is nixokowa and what does it express (p. 141)?

-          What are the premises (underlying assumptions) of the “Whiteman’s” culture?

-          How might this impact the Blackfoot student in the mainstream classroom?

-          What, according to Carbaugh, should be the researchers role as it regards learning and writing about other cultures?

Photo credits:


B. Leave-Taking in Colombia (Fitch)

Kristine & daughter EricaFitch, K. L.. (2002). A ritual for leave-taking in Colombia. In In J. N. Martin, T. K. Nakayama, & L. A. Flores (Eds.), Readings in cultural contexts (2nd ed., pp. 149-155). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Thought Questions:

- what Fitch calls the salsipuede ritual (Note: This is her own name for the ritual, though it makes sense). What is the “act sequence” involved (to use

-          Notice the transcript notation in Fitch (e.g., pp. 150-151). This is quite different from the way Carbaugh uses transcripts (and different from anything you will do in COM 372!). She is using a sort of conversational analysis, which uses a much more fine-tuned look at stops, starts, interruptions, and so on.

-          What are the underlying values that the salsipuede ritual represents?  Fitch, along with most ethnographers of communication, would argue that communication rituals such as this reflect the underlying psychology (meanings, values) and sociology (social structures) of a culture. We could see the same returning to our handshake structure or to bows in some Asian cultures. How starts the bow or the handshake? How long does one hold it? Who is allows to interrupt and in what way? We could easily apply the speaking framework to a ritual of any culture at any level to uncover the underlying structures and meanings of the culture.


Thought Box: Describe a cultural communication ritual using Hyme’s SPEAKING framework (or as much of the framework is applicable—but try to use at least 4 of the aspects). This can be a ritual of a culture (with a small c) to which you belong—workplace, organizational, household. Or it can be a larger cultural ritual that you have observed. Try to use one that you have observed frequently, so that you do not draw a strong conclusion about a culture based on insufficient evidence. Finally, tell what the ritual might reveal about the underlying psychology (values, beliefs), sociology (social structure, relations) or rhetoric (ideology, underlying assumptions) of the culture.



Sample Ethnographies:

Ø  Rhetoric in flames (“fire inscriptions” among Israeli youth):

Ø  Sites of memory: Israeli historic museums and the way the guide handles the “artifacts” depending on whether the museum visitors are Jewish or Palestinian:

Ø  Doing Whiteness in the College Classroom (ethnography of a college “performance” classroom on intolerance)

Ø  Latino Nights: a study of a nightclub that has a special night for “Latinos” in Ohio:

Ø  Directive sequences in Colombia & Colorado (using ethnography & interviews):

Ø  Talking “race” in the classroom (not on-line, but Baldwin has a copy)


Optional readings for your files!

Ø  More on the background of ethnography—another reading for your files on Speech Codes Theory by Philipsen:

Ø  Clearly beyond the scope of our class—but a good “qual methods” reading: Rethinking how we do ethnography in a “postmodern”/ “critical” sense:




Note: See Philipsen & Carbaugh (1986) for a bibliography of fieldwork on ethnography of communication; Leeds-Hurwitz (1990 for a review of three works, including Katriel's talking straight. Braithwaite and Carbaugh have also prepared a paper on the contribution of ethnography of communication to the study of intercultural communication.