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Exploring intercultural interactions on a university campus through the lens of a local student: A multidimensional, multi-theoretical analysis

Colvin, Cassandra (2015) Exploring intercultural interactions on a university campus through the lens of a local student: A multidimensional, multi-theoretical analysis. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Modern-day universities are sites of unprecedented levels of cultural diversity, thus affording plentiful opportunities for intercultural interactions to occur. However, research from nations across the sector consistently suggests a pattern of limited intercultural contact among students on university campuses. Further, there is emerging evidence that this pattern is heightened among local students, with research suggesting that local students are less likely to engage in intercultural interactions than their international peers. The implications of this limited contact are concerning, suggesting that many local students are being denied the cognitive, affective and educational benefits that intercultural interactions can generate. However, the issue also raises a broader question: why, in a climate of unprecedented levels of cultural diversity and global mobility, are intercultural interactions on campus constrained in their frequency and depth?

Using a variety of qualitative methods and theoretical lenses, this research provides insight into how local students conceptualise, perceive and experience intercultural interactions on an Australian university campus. Participants were first-year students (n=27) representing a range of academic disciplines. Students were recruited for the study at the beginning of the academic year and participated in two semi-structured interviews (at the beginning and the end of their first study period) in which students’ subjective accounts of their intercultural interaction experiences were elicited.

The use of several conceptual lenses (including cultural identity, ethnorelativism and ethnocentrism, cultural awareness, structure and agency, and context) and theoretical paradigms (including Bourdieu’s Social Field Theory, Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory, Allport’s Intergroup Contact Theory, Tajfel and Turner’s Social Identity Theory and Phinney’s Model of Ethnic Identity Development) not only provided different views into the data, but different ways of seeing it, ensuring fine-grained, nuanced insight into the many and varied ways students perceived, understood and ultimately experienced intercultural interactions. Further, the development of a theoretically-informed and inductively-generated coding framework allowed the systematic and rigorous analysis of students’ accounts of their positive intercultural interactions across affective, behavioural and cognitive dimensions including agency, self-disclosure, duration, contexts, and cultural interest.

Positive intercultural interactions were revealed to be complex, multidimensional, and situated phenomena shaped by numerous, layered and often competing intrapersonal and structural dimensions. The findings highlighted the criticality of students’ cultural awareness and understandings in shaping intercultural interaction outcomes. Students who demonstrated higher levels of cultural awareness and ethnorelativist understanding were found to experience interactions at deeper levels of experience than students displaying lower levels of cultural awareness, and ethnocentric understanding. While the research highlighted the potential of transformative intercultural interactions to foster intercultural growth and cultural awareness, its related finding that students who entered an intercultural interaction possessing high levels of cultural awareness were more likely to benefit from intercultural interactions than students possessing low levels was noteworthy. Nuanced insights into the role of student agency (operationalised as the initiation of an intercultural interaction) in mediating intercultural interaction outcomes were also revealed, the findings suggesting that deep level intercultural interactions and intercultural transformation could still occur when agency was not exercised, provided other dimensions were present in the interaction. Related, a student’s failure to exercise agency may not necessarily reflect a lack of interest in culture and diversity, but could suggest contextual factors. Finally, the simultaneous adoption of two ethnic identity theoretical lenses in the analysis of students’ accounts allowed systematic relationships between how students conceptualised and understood their ethnic identity, and the depth at which they experienced an interaction, to be revealed.

From a higher education perspective, the findings of this research suggest that the cultural frames and understandings that students bring to university campuses might not simply mediate their intercultural interaction experiences, but also reinforce and perpetuate their existing levels of cultural understanding, thereby possibly constraining their intercultural growth. Related, institutional policies and practices vis-à-vis pedagogy and curriculum were also found to militate against meaningful intercultural interactions and intercultural learning, with this research highlighting the need for higher education institutions to engage in systemic and systematic curriculum and pedagogical redesign to effect changed frames of cultural awareness. Institutions could also consider broadening the range of academic, linguistic, social and cultural capitals that are valued on their campuses so that they are more representative and inclusive of the cultural diversity that is present in its learning and teaching structures, this potentially affording intercultural interactions.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Education
Supervisor: Volet, Simone
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