Study Abroad Dynamics: Anthropological Perspectives


Cultural reflexivity, or the ability to identify and describe one’s own cultural characteristics has been a difficult concept for Americans to grasp. Since America is a relatively young culture with a historical record of rebellion and conflict amongst its various ethnic groups, anthropologists have had a difficult time convincing Americans that they have a culture. By joining an education abroad program and observing its dynamics anthropologically, I hypothesized that participating in study abroad programs will help to teach Americans that they do have a culture. However, since education abroad programs vary in lengths of time, topics studied, and housing (host family vs. hotels/hostels), not to mention that Americans vary in individual temperament and ethnic origin, reflexivity may be learned in different ways. More particularly, some students may initially reflect on their native culture and the foreign culture ethnocentrically, i.e., believing that their native culture is better than any other, rather than ethnorelatively, i.e., viewing all cultures as equally valuable. Consequently, I thought it necessary to explore the dynamics of education abroad programs anthropologically in order to determine how such experience may facilitate the acquisition of cultural relativism, i.e., the understanding that all human behaviors and activities must be understood in reference to the culture in which they emerge (Boas 1920).

Reflexivity can be learned, but there is a strong interdisciplinary debate on what process can best favor its acquisition. On the one hand, some anthropologists continue to argue that it can only be learned through a series of experiences akin to rites of passage: that is, lengthy fieldwork in a foreign culture (to really understand the all-encompassing impact of culture on human behavior), followed by fieldwork in one’s own culture (to recognize the cultural parameters of one’s own behavior). On the other hand, some psychologists, communication specialists, and management consultants have long argued that intercultural expertise can be acquired quickly and effectively through appropriate short training programs.

The latter argument is favored by most study abroad programs, especially at the university level. For instance, about a month before my trip all students had to attend a one-hour cross-cultural presentation on cultural awareness and communication techniques. Examples that illustrated simple misinterpretations were used to encourage cultural mirroring, without any emphasis on cultural reflexivity. For example, the “moutza” in Greece is an open-palm gesture used to insult someone, whereas in America we may wave with an open-palm gesture to greet someone. In the end, the lecture was intended to build enthusiasm about the study abroad program and to ease any worries about going somewhere foreign.

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