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Where do culture and research meet?

By Josey Landrieu

I'm part of a large research team working with Latino youth who participate in community-based after-school programs. Among other things we want to understand how culture might impact the experiences of young people in youth programs, especially Latino youth.

I find myself reflecting on two things. First, what is the impact or relationship between culture and the program experience of the participants? And second, where do culture and research meet? In other words, how does culture influence not only the experience of the youth but also how does it affect our research process? How is culture part of our work?

I haven't lost sleep over it, but I'm pretty close. And this is where I need your help. How do we anchor ourselves as culturally relevant researchers while trying to understand the cultural experiences of young people?

The definition of culture varies with a person's perspective. Consequently, no single definition is universally accepted by social scientists. Nevertheless, if we engage in culturally relevant work, it is important to set some common understanding of how culture might intersect with our work as researchers, practitioners, and policy makers.

I draw from the work of Rohner , who defined four elements of how culture is embedded in our work and often, the entire research process.
  1. All individuals develop in a cultural context.
  2. Culturally based values are passed from one generation to the next.
  3. Many aspects of culture are abstract, in that they are not overtly or intentionally socialized: "they are simply absorbed by children throughout the course of development" (Hughes, Seidman, and Williams, 1993)
  4. Culture is evidenced in patterns among members of a group as well as between the group and the larger context.
As researchers we ask ourselves questions like: How is culture experienced in these community-based settings? How do these youth learn and explore their culture through positive learning experiences? How does culture influence the development of adolescents in after-school programs? How do we make sure to capture the impact that cultural processes might have in these young people's experiences?

My question to you is: In order to find the answers to these questions, should we anchor our work culturally? Should we struggle through cultural meanings and nuances both within our work teams and with our participants? My answer is "of course!"
In 1993, Hughes, Seidman, and Williams said: "The culturally anchored researcher must weigh the trade-offs between sensitivity to cultural nuances of the target population and the methodological requirements of objectivity, standardization and generalizability". These authors also ask researchers to adopt the following guidelines when working with underrepresented, often underserved audiences and participants:
  1. Bring multiple stakeholders to the table when formulating the question or topic of interest, the target populations, instruments, and relevant concepts.
  2. Choose, combine, and develop methods applicable not only to your research question but also to the cultural nuances of the population you wish to work with.
  3. Use caution when defining a cultural group. How do you decide who is part of a group and who is not?
Our team has worked actively with youth and program staff to devise questions for participants and piloted a few of them. For example: "How is culture present in the program experience?" "What stories do your parents tell you about their youth?"

What additional guidelines would you offer to work teams who strive to understand and illustrate the experiences of minority youth in after school programs? What questions would you ask youth participants about the role of culture in youth programs? What has worked for you?

-- Josey Landrieu, former assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

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  1. Josey - Anchoring our research in culture - it is hard to imagine a research situation that involves real people in real life situations when a cultural anchor isn't needed. Your post is really a call to action for all of us to re-consider and re-examine what we hold up as credible research involving youth. Your post also calls on us to think realistically about the resources and processes needed to do this work well. If it is worth doing - and it is - then it is worth doing well is a charge that could be the tagline of your post title!
    Your questions and the guidance you offer about anchoring our research in culture bring to mind three issues that occur to me, and that I will add to the list you have offered- 1) the importance of our role in fostering an appreciation for, and valuing of ways of knowing that may not be familiar, comfortable, or easily fund-able, 2) being close enough as a researcher to assess what can be "known" and having the courage to stray from the mainstream ways of gathering evidence to answer the question, and 3) designing inclusive and careful processes to best make meaning of the evidence once it has been gathered.
    We can all learn from what your team is finding in this study. I hope you continue to share your insights and the lessons you are learning in your future posts!

  2. Pam, thank you for your comment and insight. The 3 additional guidelines/considerations you presented resonate with me but it is the first one: "the importance of our role in fostering an appreciation for, and valuing of ways of knowing that may not be familiar, comfortable, or easily fund-able" that truly speaks to me. If we can be comfortable and appreciate ways of knowing that are unfamiliar and not always comfortable, we can model that to youth in our programs and communities. We should also support one another as we work with and learn about different ways of knowing and the diverse realities of programs, youth, and families in our state.
    Thanks again for your response and thought provoking ideas. I will certainly continue to share my insights and learning from the project.

  3. Thank you for the post, Josey. As a team member of this same study, I, personally, am finding it difficult to get at something as implicit as culture through such explicit methods. This is not an ethnographic or phenomenological study; we are asking specific questions trying to get responses that explicitly reveal how “culture” impacts experiences. That’s tough; culture is not so conspicuous. Instead, culture offers “implicit guidelines” on how to behave and what to value (Ting-Toomey &Chung, 2005).
    My intial thoughts on this have been to ask more questions around values as they really are the link between culture and human behavior (Bennett, 1998). Learning what the participants view as “good” or “bad” might lead us to understand the underlying cultural assumptions informing these values. But to me, it seems that understanding the role of culture relies heavily on the analysis of responses more than the questions asked. We, as researchers just need to keen enough to detect them. Right? That’s my worry. I am afraid I am/we are going to miss some telling data because it does not seem so obviously connected to culture. So in addition to echoing Josey’s question regarding what questions to ask, I also would love to hear what has worked for others in cultural analysis? How do you effectively look for the implicitness of culture in data?

  4. Joanna you are absolutely right, analysis is crucial and I would add that analysis doesn't occur only after the question has been asked and answered. Analysis happens from the moment you begin collecting data, doing observations, interviews, etc...implicitly and explicitly you begin to analyze what's coming from the participants and it can inform the process throughout.
    I also believe that having the right people within the team is key to ensure that our analysis and our work is culturally anchored. Different people bring different perspectives and skills that can help us see both the explicitness and implicitness of culture and the youth's experiences.
    Your last question is right on...but I'm afraid that there is no single answer, instead we can look at best practices and the experiences of other researchers as well as our own experience and see how it can positively and effectively inform the entire process.
    Thanks again for your comment.

  5. Hi Josey –
    I enjoyed reading your blog. In addition to all the good conversation so far, I’d like to add some thoughts to the mix. You raised the point that social scientists have not agreed on any one single definition of culture. A part of me is glad that “one” definition has not been selected. Rather we have the richness of many different definitions that stem from diverse perspectives, worldviews, fields, disciplines, agencies, organizations, individuals and so on. With that said, I do think there is merit for research team members to talk about their working definition of culture as it relates to the study and discuss its implications in regard to methodology, analysis, participants and more. That exercise could help ground the study in cultural foundation and help lead to culturally responsive research practices.

  6. Jen, thanks for your insight once again. I'm glad as well that there is no one, single definition of culture. I often find myself using more than one at different times and in different contexts. I also appreciate the idea of the team exercise to come together on a working definition that works for the project. I'll keep you posted on how the conversation goes...So far we have discussed that culture in the context of our study does include broad concepts such as ethnicity, race, SES, language, values, traditions, and family background. I still think we could go much deeper though. Thank you!