Resolving intergroup tensions poses one of the most intractable
problems facing humankind, on both the community and national levels.
The act of drawing boundary lines around geographic formations,
naming them, and declaring that those within the lines differ
substantially from those outside peppers human history with tales of
clashes, battles, wars, disagreements, slavery and oppression as one
group defeats another, relegating the vanquished to a diminished
status. A hegemonic view of history would posit that the past
provides a blueprint for future behavior, that history indicates the
reality of human nature, that to the victor always have gone and
always will go the spoils. So opposing sides grit their teeth as they
face off in compromise, and both leave the table wondering if the
other side gave up as much. Such a view provides little hope for
actual and sustained peace among diverse groups. Might a new paradigm
manifest itself, deposing those that went before, and providing a
means for resolving conflicts that, rather than enervating both
sides, enriches them?
communication research focuses on ingroup-outgroup perceptions and
how these contribute to differences (Brown, 1985; Gudykunst &
Hammer, 1988; Gurevich, 1989; Hecht, Collier & Ribeau, 1993;
Nakayama & Krizek, 1995; Omi & Winant, 1989; Wright, 1994;
Yang, 1992). Ingroup-outgroup conflicts range along a continuum, from
interpersonal arguments to battles to genocide, gathering bitterness
and bad history, growing such that children inherit the disputes of
their forbears. Humans are born or opt into family, cultural, ethnic,
religious, and national groups, any or all of which impact on their
individual identity. Indeed, human beings reify the groups with which
they identify. Social psychological research (e.g., Aronson, 1995)
reports that individuals see outgroups not only as different but also
as inimical; thus, research indicates that one should not expect
another’s group to be viewed as positively as one’s own
(Tajfel, 1981). For example, individuals in organizations must seek
out and band with others of the same race or ethnicity to counteract
the negative behaviors directed toward them from the dominant group
(Nkomo & Cox, 1990). Some of this research (Cox, Loebel &
McLeod, 1991; Gurevich, 1989) hopes to pinpoint ways to resolve
conflicts, transcending the differences in order to reach agreement;
only time will tell how many of these can be resolved by tackling
them on an interpersonal level. None of this research problematizes
the necessity of the existence of groups, only their meaning.
fundamental issue related to intergroup tension surrounds perceived
similarity, especially as individuals forge identities from groups to
which they feel an allegiance (Berger & Calabrese, 1975;
Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988). Group identity feeds self-perception
inasmuch as individuals negotiate cultural- or group- sanctioned ways
of speaking, acting, thinking and believing (Wright, 1994). Indeed,
people simultaneously draw identities from multiple groups, such as
religious, political, national, ethnic and racial, which become more
or less salient at different times, and which may pull them in
opposing directions (Collier, 1994).
Among the sources of group identity most often blamed for conflict
ranks religious affiliation, inasmuch as one's identification with a
religion often carries a highly emotional dimension that can seem
impervious to reason. The 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade
Center and the Pentagon by purported Islamic zealots offer concrete
examples of acts that resist understanding by those outside of that
identity group. Moreover, because of its involvement with fundamental
cognitive structures and beliefs, religious affiliation also can
obstruct agreement, for how can one easily accept the validity of
opposing theologies? Most religions contain universal principles that
explain the mysteries of human creation to their adherents. They also
comprise cultural dimensions that reflect the lives of a particular
group of believers such that, for example, a Roman Catholic in Peru
and another in Chicago may perceive a deeper bond with one another
than with a Protestant or Jewish conational.
and Starosta (1998) state that because multiculturalism will provide
the norm in the future, intercultural communication scholars should
address issues that show how diverse peoples can peacefully co-exist.
Zhong (2000) points out that the global trend is toward diversity and
that there is a tension between identity and diversity. The present
study takes a few steps back from intergroup conflict to examine what
happens when individuals move from a primary group identification and
enter into a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural group. It seems
to affirm the suggestions of Collier (2000) and Zhong (2000) that
individuals form multiple and multicultural identities. It also
suggests the fluidity and negotiability of cultural identity.
Moreover, it explores how core beliefs can effect identity formation.
Unity in Diversity
unity in diversity holds a prominent role in the teachings of the
Bahá’í religion renders this community a worthy
target of study. Bahá’í doctrine maintains that a
primary function of religion consists of promoting unity, and that
individuals of diverse cultures who enter the Faith must put aside
racial, ethnic, and national antipathies to create this unity.
Bahá’ís point to successes in their ability to
unite diverse people into friendships and families and may provide a
working model of multicultural communication. An independent religion
established in 1844 and with some 5 million adherents worldwide, the
Bahá’í Faith represents more than 2,100 different
racial and tribal groups, 182 nationalities, as well as individuals
from “virtually every nationality, religious background, and
social class” (Bahá’í International
Community, 2001). In its 150-year history, it remains largely
untroubled by schisms.
This study asks how members of the Bahá’í Faith
perceive unity, inquiring into how they seek common ground with
fellow group members, as well as with non-Bahá’ís.
It examines the reported interpretations of individuals of diverse
cultural and ethnic backgrounds as they try to forge a group
identity, specifically as members of a Bahá’í
community, and searches the lived experiences of individual Bahá’ís
for a collective experience. Research questions include: How do
Bahá’ís interpret their doctrine as it applies to
creating unity?; and how do they apply their interpretations to
bridging cultural differences among their members?
The literature reviewed relates to racial and ethnic identity
formation, intergroup prejudice and intergroup power, anticipating a
need for this groundwork when analyzing and describing the
intercultural dynamics that occur among the diverse Bahá’í
respondents as they pursue unity. Because individuals of various
religious, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds bring with
them the perspectives afforded by their cultures when they enter the
Bahá’í Faith, the interview questions involve
cultural identity and whether individuals override their cultural
differences in communicating, worshipping, organizing themselves,
educating their children and interrelating. The researcher, herself a
Bahá’í, employs in-depth interviews in a grounded
theory procedure to uncover the lived experiences of the respondents
who describe the process.
into how individuals form their identities, how these identities
connect with cultural groups, how cultural groups incorporate change,
how cultural groups relate to other groups and how they interrelate
within larger organizations should all provide a solid theoretical
foundation for this study. Inasmuch as these research areas build on
each other, the literature reviewed here concentrates on the latter
stages, that is, of how cultural groups interrelate.
relies to some degree on group membership. Two group processes –
perceived similarity and association – work to reinforce one's
identity as a group member (Wright, 1994). Besides the shared group
elements, an ethnic identity assumes an out-group against which its
members define themselves; what the group is contributes to its
definition (Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988; Volkan, 1992; Eriksen,
1993). Ingroup members tend to treat and to assess each other more
favorably than they do members of a perceived outgroup (Hecht,
Collier, & Ribeau, 1993). Gudykunst and Hammer (1988) focus on
how intergroup comparisons precede perceived group memberships,
asserting that saliency of group membership depends on the extent of
uncertainty reduction. In dialogue, the mere existence of one
viewpoint may negate another's position.
identity comprises a collection of identifications that individuals
have with their ethnic groups (Hecht & Ribeau, 1991). Ethnicity
requires that two groups perceive each other as being culturally
different from themselves. Serbs and Croats, Sami and Norwegians, the
Lue and Thais seem culturally similar to an outsider but perceive
each other as distinctive. Discrimination on ethnic grounds can be
called racism in Trinidad or communalism in Mauritius or India,
though the events surrounding both can be analogous (Eriksen, 1993).
As an individual evaluates her group membership, sometimes comparing
it to a dominant culture, the importance of her ethnic identity may
fluctuate, but gains saliency during threats to group identity or
upon comparison with another ethnic group (Hecht, Collier, &
Individuals tend to perceive members of outgroups as more similar to
each other than are members of their own ingroups, and perceive the
ingroup more favorably (Tajfel, 1978). Further, ingroup members treat
each other differently from members of a perceived outgroup. For one
thing, members of outgroups are treated as stereotypes (Hecht,
Collier, & Ribeau, 1993). Sometimes ingroup members are
incredulous that outgroup members hold particular beliefs, to the
point where they do not even perceive that values and beliefs
contrary to theirs can actually exist (Gurevitch, 1989).
identity formation is central to social relations, as it contributes
to identity formation and comprises group dynamics; it should be
viewed as fluid, unstable and decentered (Omi & Winant, 1989).
Social pressures reinforce one’s membership in a group or
category, and in order for a group to persist it develops customs as
well as an awareness of its nature. Those outside the group may
identify with group attributes if they possess similar attributes but
cannot identify with other group members unless they also bond with
the group's leader or central tenets, identifications which provide
group stability (Wright, 1994). An individual’s behavior
influences that of fellow group members who identify in greater and
lesser degrees with the group and its values which, when
internalized, provide a rather stable identity, influencing the
individual’s own behavior as they contribute to her sense of
self (Aronson, 1995).
and ethnic groups often arrange themselves in a hierarchy within
societies, may hold conflicting interests, and may behave as though
giving up some of these interests threatens their group’s very
existence. Thus mainstream white culture in the United States can be
viewed as the dominant culture against whose norms and values other
groups are measured. In comparing minority groups to dominant
cultural values, minority groups are often perceived as wrong or
inferior. Research on whiteness (Jackson, 1999; Nakayama &
Krizek, 1995) demonstrates an increasing awareness among whites of
their privilege. Whiteness is perceived as a construct that serves to
prevent social cohesion (Jackson, 1999). Political and social
relations among different ethnic groups seldom achieve an egalitarian
state. Orbe struggles with the question of how co-cultures might
mediate their power disparities embedded in communication, and how
they might understand their similarities without negating their
differences (Orbe, 1998).
politics involves conveying a set of informal rules to certain
privileged groups while closing others out. Cultural biases reinforce
the dominant group's hegemony. The behavior of group leaders and
members representing a group reflects the power differences,
affective patterns, and cognitive formations of their group in
relation to other groups. In the United States, communication
patterns are measured against a standard based on whites (Nakayama &
Krizek, 1995), particularly males. Providing co-group members with
egalitarian status in a common ingroup can reduce intergroup bias
(Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000).
relations are usually hierarchical, racism is institutionalized and
forms part of the structural fabric of groups, and racial and ethnic
groups continue to promote a we-they dynamic. With this as
background, this study looks at selected members of the Bahá’í
Faith, a religion comprised of individuals from many diverse cultures
that professes unity, to see what happens to these intergroup
In an attempt to find a meaning for unity that is held in common
across the group, this study uses a grounded theory procedure coupled
with participant observation and in-depth interviewing. Participant
inquiry, interviewing and grounded theory form a strong procedural
triad, sharing a common ontological perspective. The qualitative
researcher focuses on description and explanation that result from
conceptually specified analytic categories (Huberman & Miles,
1994; Janesick, 1994).
Grounded theory is the best choice to try to understand processes
(Morse, 1994) such as those that lead to perceptions of unity among
Bahá’ís, as it affords a method of analytic
induction that helps to locate and describe relationship patterns.
Based on the premise that truth is enacted and not external, grounded
theory supposes that the researcher interacts with her data in
developing a theory that emerges from the data. As an interpretive
work, the study should include perspectives and voices of the
respondents who perceive and interpret their own and others’
behaviors which the researcher then incorporates into her own
conceptualizations (Strauss & Corbin, 1994).
The cooperative inquiry perspective holds that research is always
personal, that a researcher participates in what she describes.
Concrete reality is the connection between subjectivity and
objectivity, never the latter in isolation (Reason, 1994). The
researcher in this study partakes in a complete membership role in
the community. Forming a long-term trusting relationship between the
observer and the observed, such as that which occurs in participant
inquiry, has been inspired by a feminist ethic of caring and
commitment that distinguishes it from a pure observational project
(Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Collective secrets are “known but
suppressed aspects of group life that would be controversial if
revealed outside the group;” participant observation is a way
around this (Lindlof, 1995, p. 193). An “insider’s
perspective is vital to forming an accurate appraisal of group life”
(Adler & Adler, 1994, p. 380).
A researcher looks for an interviewee who can speak cogently and
amply about his or her experiences. As she moves through the process
of interviewing, the interviewer should actively listen in order to
hear the significance of remarks. Moreover, she should feel free to
ask new questions, skip others, and reshuffle the order. The accounts
of individuals represent their particular views on reality as they
interpret it. In gathering accounts, a researcher interprets the
representations and forms her own representation (Lindlof, 1995).
The 17 respondents were located by a snowball sample, in which an
initial contact suggested several others as possible respondents, and
they recommended others still (Lindlof, 1995). All currently reside
in the mid-Atlantic region, in several different Bahá’í
jurisdictions. As called for in grounded theory, as wide a range as
possible of respondents was sought. Table 1 lists the 17 respondents,
comprising 7 men and 10 women. Their racial and ethnic breakdown
consists of 6 African Americans, 6 Anglo-Americans, a
first-generation Persian immigrant and a first generation
Persian-American, 2 Asians and 1 Hispanic. Their ages range from 20
to 63, and their years in the Bahá’í Faith range
from 1 to 38. The respondents include those getting by on low wages
and a fixed income, who rely on public transportation, to those in
management positions living comfortably; they represent the technical
and science-minded as well as the artistic and humanistic thinkers.
Bg Sex Age Bahá’í Since Occupation
Donald B M 49 1971 Clerk
Feridoun P M 27 1989 Computer
Gloria B F 42 1973 Small
Holly W F 30 2000 Artist
Judy W F 55 1988 Consultant
Karen W M 41 1980 Housewife
Lena B F 63 1965 Retiree
Min A F 40 1983 Statistician
Natasha A F 40 1975 Housewife
Olivia B F 50 1968 Art
Roger W M 53 1962 U.S.
Sam H M 53 1968 Supervisor
Shawn B M 46 1980 Chemistry
Sholeh P F 20 1995 Undergraduate
Susan W F 53 1970 Neonatal
Tom W M 45 1972 Marine
Tanya B F 40 1983 Nurse
H=Hispanic; B=Black; P=Persian; A= Asian; M=Male; F=Female
This study examines the reported interpretations of individuals of
diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds as they try to forge a group
identity, specifically as members of a Bahá'í
community. As a member of the Bahá’í Faith, I am
a participant observer and have derived my research questions based
on my tacit knowledge of the Bahá’í community.
Moreover, the respondents understand that I share their fundamental
beliefs and know their stories, thus they must be probed to elaborate
their responses. This affects the way they relate information to me,
as well as the way I understand this information. Identifying the
categories that emerge from the data requires an understanding and
analysis of the meanings conveyed by the respondents: looking for
common themes and putting them into categories requires a filtering
through the mind and experience of the researcher.
Research questions include: By what process can individuals from
separate cultural groups form a unified community? Do community
members profess a group identity that overrides their cultural
distinctiveness? In order to obtain information on beliefs and
affiliations, the researcher of this study interviewed individuals,
inviting them to describe their understandings so that the researcher
might uncover their expectations, focusing on how Bahá'ís
interpret their doctrine as it applies to creating unity; and how
they apply their interpretations to bridging cultural differences
among their members.
Derived from these research questions, interview questions probe
individuals’ thinking about any unity they may have
experienced. Each was asked a series of questions relating to unity,
but the researcher also pursued trains of the respondents’
thinking when such opportunities arose. The questions, based on the
researcher’s tacit knowledge of the Bahá’í
community, probe how Bahá’ís perceive unity,
investigate how they incorporate the diverse cultures of its members,
explore various states of mind and emotion, examine the thought
processes of the respondents, address aspects of interethnic and
intercultural relations that appear in Bahá’í
localities, and promote a dialogue.
Such a dialogue between interviewer and respondent can elicit change
in both parties, as the act of performing research, like other human
acts, does not leave the world the same as before. The questions
included: Can you describe a time where you experienced unity? What
does it mean to be united? Do you live in or have you lived in a
community that is or was united? Does your community have diversity?
In what way are your community members diverse? What are obstacles to
unity? How do you know when you have achieved unity? What is the
significance of unity in the Bahá'í Faith? What does a
person have to do or how does s/he have to live to achieve unity? Is
unity something one person can promote, or does it take an active
effort on the part of both parties? How can, if at all, third
parties, such as institutions, produce unity among the believers?
Have you ever done anything to increase unity among others? How do
you perceive your ethnicity (race, nationality, religious background)
within the context of the Bahá’í Faith? Do you
give up aspects of your culture to be a Bahá’í?
Does becoming a Bahá’í add onto your culture of
origin? Do any members retain a position of superiority and
authority or inferiority and submission within your community? Do
some members expect others to adapt to their way of doing things? If
so, are they aware of their expectations? Do you see yourself as the
same as or different from Bahá’ís of different
Such in-depth, open-ended but topic-focused interviews should reveal
descriptions of lived experiences of selected Bahá'ís
as they relate events or situations they see as addressing the
concept of unity. Rather than highlighting any single event held in
common across communities, questions concentrate on respondents’
perceptions of unity within their Bahá'í communities
and their lives. The tape-recorded interviews, each lasting between
one and two hours, occurred in a location convenient to the
respondent such as a home, office, or even a public park. While the
same basic set of questions were used for each respondent, it was
sometimes desirable to follow a respondent’s lead down a side
path in order to fully understand the concept he or she was trying to
In an interpretivist study such as this, the researcher acts as a
research instrument and plays an active part in interpreting the
data. Written transcripts developed from recorded interviews were
reviewed in order to locate recurring themes. A schema analysis was
used to find a system of key beliefs and values, and felt or derived
ideology in two-hour tape-recorded interviews. Phrases that represent
salient ideas and themes that best express the intended meanings were
picked out and coded in a constant comparison method (Glaser, 1968)
in pursuit of a system of categorization that adequately describes
the universe of discourse and indicates a theory about respondents’
framework of reality.
data are organized into eleven structural and dynamic conditions that
provide one way to understand what comprises the respondents’
thought processes about unity. The resulting categories build on each
other in a logical sequence, leading from an internal individual
belief through a speech process and toward a sense of group identity.
In other words, they are conceived as building blocks, each
constructed on the one preceding, and revealing a discourse that
defines the community to its members and holds them together. Lacking
any of these categories may detract from a perception of unity. The
themes that emerge are Oneness of religion; Spiritual nature of
humans; Writings as law; Cultural traits; Personal states;
Consulting; Taking action; Eliminating prejudice; Embracing
diversity; Transforming; and Forging a group identity.
Constructing and arranging these categories is the researcher’s
representation of the respondents’ interpretations of their
perceptions. The categorization uses respondents’ words as
data, with all the caveats that pertain to the words of any
individuals who present their thoughts and perceptions. This study
limits itself to examining the experience that interviewees were
willing to convey to a fellow community member; they may have
responded in some other way to persons who were less familiar with
their faith. There was no member check for these categories.
its examination of ways in which culture impacts on individual
identity, intercultural communication theory has been strong in
dissecting how different cultural identities can serve as barriers to
understanding. However, the literature rarely, if ever, discusses how
individuals can overcome these intergroup boundaries while allowing
them to exist. This study looks at a multicultural, multiethnic group
that, although it views humans as metaphysically the same, does not
dismiss cultural differences. Indeed, individuals comprise groups and
cultures, and individuals take action, not groups and cultures, and
when those diverse individuals come together to decide on a plan of
action, they bring with them their cultures. The data suggest that
some behaviors effect affinity more than others.
categories, reconceptualized here into a model, indicate necessary
elements whose presence could lead another researcher to a similar
finding in a multifaceted group that seeks a unified identity. The
data provide an articulation of what it takes to attain the unity
described by the respondents and is presented here as comprised of
four levels. The following model describes each level:
Model of Intergroup Unity
Social Structures – Constants Outside One’s Control
1.1 Oneness of Religion
Spiritual Nature of Humans
The Writings as Law
Internal States – The Make-up of Humans
. External Bridges – Processes of Decentering
3.2 Taking Action
3.2.1 Eliminating Prejudice
3.2.2 Embracing Diversity
Growing into Unity – Multicultural Communication
Transforming and Growing
Forming a Group Identity
organic, linear sequence exists in the internal and external changes
represented by these categories: The categories indicate that the
processes involved in the quest for unity are not all under the
control of individuals. The first group of categories in 1.0 comprise
social structures (1.1 Oneness of Religion; 1.2 Spiritual Nature of
Humans; and 1.3. The Writings) that represent foundational beliefs
which serve as points of departure for the group and can perhaps find
parallels in secular groups, such as doctrines, procedures and those
beliefs that group members recognize hold them together and which
each member agrees above all else to accept. They are profound enough
to provide the Bahá’ís an unquestioned authority,
paramount to the group’s cohesion. The intergroup literature
notes that sharing central tenets and bonding with the group’s
leader comprise identifications which enable group stability (Wright,
1994). An important step in the model is one’s awareness of the
constants that comprise this foundation.
ethnic and cultural categories provide flavor, they also are seen as
secondary to human spirituality. Bahá’í doctrine
teaches that these differences can be overcome because of the beliefs
that humanity is united spiritually and that the reality of this
unity can be made conscious. A core concept – unity in
diversity – may challenge existing communication literature on
identity formation and challenge Bahá’ís who try
to apply it in practical terms, as it has no other model to which
they can refer. For example, in the Bahá’í Faith,
blacks and whites join in a covenant to resolve the race problem
out of the first category, categories 2.1 Cultural Traits, and 2.2
Personal States comprise beliefs about the makeup of human beings.
Cultural differences, seen as deeply engrained, are acceptable and
even desirable as they may provide necessary perspectives. Roger
Since they’re black and you’re white, they might have a
different perspective on the same reality. It’s like you both
could be looking at the same thing and seeing something different and
the reason they see it differently from you is based on their
different experiences and perceptions of reality.
states, however, comprise an area that also includes those hindrances
which are perceived to be under an individual’s control –
such as greed, illness, ignorance as well as pursuit of power,
influence or personal gain – that prevent her from attaining
unity. In this step, group members center themselves in an awareness
of what about them is cultural as distinct from what are personal
describe the Bahá’í Faith as something that
individuals enter into and in doing so bring cultural teachings with
them. Bahá’í communities reflect the culture in
which their members live as well as the cultures from which they
derive. Bahá’í communities bring together in
consultation on assemblies and committees and at the Feast,
individuals like the respondents, who, like Lena, may at one time
have associated with Black nationalists; or like Heather, a white
woman from the suburbs, and Donald, a black man from the city, who
never encountered people from different races while growing up; Tanya
who was regularly harassed for being black while growing up; Gloria
who, as an African American woman, was tailed by security police
while shopping for an engagement ring in a jewelry store; Tom who
used to leave public pools when blacks showed up; Sholeh and Feridoun
whose families fled Iran because of Muslim persecution against
Bahá’ís; Olivia, an African American woman
married to an Eastern European; Judy, a former Catholic white woman
married to a Persian; Min and Natasha, women from Taiwan and India;
Susan, a former marijuana-smoking hippie; Sam, son of a Mexican
woman, who grew up in a small town; Roger, a white man who served in
the armed forces – all bringing their perspectives, experiences
and educations into their Bahá’í community. Tom
describes the bigoted family into which he was born and his
continuing to struggle to overcome his indoctrination. Holly also
recognizes her programming. Others describe how cultural baggage
includes notions of superiority which sometimes inspire friction from
cultural practices, and not only from the hegemonic white culture.
Min says the Chinese see themselves as superior, and Sholeh and
Feridoun, both first generation young Persian-Americans – see
their parents’ generation as believing themselves superior
within the Bahá’í Faith. Lena laments the
behavior of urban blacks who leave the city when they can afford to,
and look down on those they left behind.
Thus although humans are spiritual and refer to the Writings that are
seen as truth, they also hold cultural assumptions through which they
filter their understanding of the Writings and, consequently, of the
truth. Moreover, because the Writings extol human diversity, members
do not always know when a cultural view may be conflicting with the
teachings. The additive strategy described by Hall (1976) suggests
that individuals first must become aware of their own culture, then
become aware that others have a culture, decide whether there are
parts of their own and of the other culture they like, and choose
among them, thus building a repertoire of conscious strategies. That
individuals can behave this way indicates that they have control over
the amount of cooperation they wish to extend, and they are not bound
by their culture.
actual work of unity gets done in 3.1 Consulting and 3.2 Taking
Action, comprising communication processes and strategies that
Bahá’ís use as bridges to unite among themselves
and with the world. Subcategories 3.2.1 Eliminating Prejudice, 3.2.2
Embracing Diversity and 3.2.3 Transforming and Growing, include
specific requirements and goals of consultation and action; these are
conscious processes and under one’s control. These
sub-categories especially, along with 2.2 Personal States, provide
areas where intercultural trainers may focus their efforts in finding
ways to recreate in other groups some of the successes Bahá’ís
have experienced in becoming unified. Growing into Unity –
Multicultural Communication, 4.0, with 4.1 Transforming and Growing
and 4.2 Forming a Group Identity, include appreciating and enjoying
each other’s choices, as well as learning from each other’s
cultures, which involve decentering – extending outside one’s
own culture to apprehend the others’ viewpoints (Chen &
Starosta, 1998). The unity in the Bahá’í
community does not rely on changing cultures wholesale, but on
appreciating the perspectives they provide as well as aligning
behavior to focus on the good of the whole. Respondents preface any
discussion about cultural difference with one about spiritual unity,
seeing cultural diversity from that angle. Gloria, a 42-year-old
African American small business owner puts it, “Humanity is the
same yet different. I don’t have a problem with this ‘same
thing yet different.’”
emphasize that the community has slowly grown more able to recognize
any sort of cultural dominance. Further, the Writings encourage them
to reexamine their own cultures and traditions, which means that
Bahá’ís often find themselves not participating
in cultural celebrations with their families and neighbors. While
several respondents describe their ethnic origins which seem to
present barriers to unity by establishing feelings of exclusivity,
other USAmerican Bahá’ís have struggled to give
up their cultural expectations of religion deriving from their
exposure to Judaism and Christianity, and to view as culturally
relative things like expressions of piety and musical expression of
spiritual feelings. As with third-culture building (Chen &
Starosta, 1998), individuals can increase their repertoire of
behaviors, adding strategies and possibilities to what they already
know cognitively and affectively. Perhaps they start to find it
comfortable to form new behaviors by becoming involved with contrast
cultures, which happens in many local Bahá’í
communities where members come from various backgrounds. However,
second generation Persians among the respondents complain that their
parents have difficulty perceiving the Bahá’í
Faith as separate from their culture of origin, which may be a
hindrance in their ability to achieve feelings of unity with
individuals from other cultures.
begins with consultation but needs to result in action, such as
relationship formation. Indeed, respondents deem working in groups
toward a common goal as an activity conducive to unity. In the
community depicted by respondents, everyone must participate because
truth lies among the group, not in any one individual.
generally view entering the Bahá’í Faith as an
additive process that they need not relinquish their cultural
heritage. As Donald says
Being a Bahá’í of black…background…rather
than losing anything… we have gained a greater appreciation
and understanding and...a greater understanding of our value as
individuals and as a people, by being Bahá’ís…we’ve
also gained a greater understanding of and been able to contribute
more to a greater understanding of ourselves as human beings and the
rest of the races and ethnic groups.
that a goal of consultation is to seek the truth which is
multifaceted, different cultural viewpoint are often sought out and
People understand that their worldview is not necessarily the
worldview, and that they’re open to everyone’s
viewpoint, so when you have that going on, then people are able to
celebrate diversity because, number one, they can see it as opposed
to only seeing right or wrong. (Gloria, 4)
limitations exist in the self that cannot be fulfilled without input
from the whole. Because consensus is the preferred mode of
decision-making, group decisions should be embraced by all. Solutions
are never seen as absolute but more as working theories, responses to
temporary needs or problems, right for the present. What respondents
describe resembles decentering, where communicants detach themselves
from familiar cultural ways in order to find a common place with
others (Chen & Starosta, 1998). This common place becomes known
through communication, as interactants exchange feelings and ideas in
search of solutions to problems affecting all.
Because respondents perceive individuals as undergoing a
transformation process, they account for the possibility that an
individual may be immature or ignorant of some of the teachings,
believing that as the individual learns and grows, she will exhibit
behavior that is more cooperative and more in line with Bahá’í
teachings. Thus, if individuals gain more familiarity with the
teachings, they should be able to experience unity; yet some
respondents acknowledge that particular individuals, because of
personal issues, may be unable or unwilling to do this. Usually
respondents see this as under someone’s control as Tom, who
calls ego an obstacle to unity; Tanya who posits that prejudice
derives from an individual’s upbringing; Feridoun who believes
that feelings of superiority or inferiority are personal faults, and
Judy who says that some personality issues prevent unity and that
strong personalities sometimes dominate consultation.
they tend to see their cultures of origin – all cultures,
perhaps – as changing and transitory in nature. Because Bahá’ís
see the world and its individuals in a state of constant change, a
fluid world where it is the nature of things to be redone, today’s
unity may be different than tomorrow’s; differences are
temporary and incidental, and should not be taken as being real and
final. Shawn, contrasts the idea of growth and change with the
perception in the non-Bahá’í world where:
A lot of people who haven’t accepted something like Bahá’í
will say, “Well, this is where I am and that’s where I’ve
been, and I’m always going to be this way, and that’s the
way things are. And they don’t have any hope of change or see
any need to go beyond where they are.
muses that individuals accept that children will grow and develop but
tend to perceive “adults as fixed and permanent, when in
reality they’re not.”
prejudice (3.2.1) may be the hardest task because prejudices
intersect with one’s sense of identity. Indeed, much of the
intergroup literature seems concerned with blockages that arise from
prejudices – constructs leading to and comprising
ethnocentrism, sexism, racism, snobbery and elitism, intimately
connected with cultural identity. Individuals may cling to these
areas because of personal states (2.2) such as egoism or greed,
hindrances deemed by respondents as the greatest obstacles to unity.
A basic tenet of critical race theory involves an ability to adopt
the other’s reference point, something that the respondents
also describe when relaying their experiences with race relations
(Delgado & Stefancic, 2001). Respondents regard eliminating
prejudice as a process of transformation and growth.
Respondents mention the elimination of racial prejudice as a specific
action important to the group’s success. The Writings offer a
model against which Bahá’ís measure their
communities, including the exhortation to believers to rid themselves
of all types of prejudice. Some caution that Bahá’ís
need to understand history to be able to know the origins of the
“disease” of racism. Respondents point to the effects of
cultural teachings regarding racial prejudice and mention how their
co-religionists mostly strive to eradicate these things. Yet some
describe racist incidents within some Bahá’í
communities, including incidents of institutionalized racism, which
are seen in the context of personal struggles with transformation,
self education, maturation, self awareness, and sincerity.
People who have prejudices usually have pretty much what they want,
even if it’s on a lesser scale…but they feel they’re
pretty much better than somebody else and so the fear comes in…Then
they feel they have to give that up. Then they feel that the person
they have to give it up to or the group or whatever is less worthy.
Do they work for it? Were they born in America? And all these kind of
things, you know. It’s a fear thing, you know.
describe a need to increase awareness of their own cultural
assumptions. Yet they also point out that some cultural ways do not
seem consistent with the Writings.
example, as Gloria says,
There’s some things that I think I have to change about my
culture, but again, look at how black people beat their kids. We’re
not allowed to strike our children. Lots of black Bahá’ís
I know aren’t quite sure what to do with that and still hit
I’m married to a Persian so I see a lot of the cultural issues
that arise within the Persian community…I think it is going to
take maybe a generation, two generations for this whole issue of
gender equality to settle into the Persian community…it’s
very difficult often to just – suddenly – arranged
marriages, there are still arranged marriages in the Bahá’í
As previously stated, this analysis provides a Bahá’í
articulation of how interpersonal and intergroup unity may be
attained. The model is meant to apply to all sorts of problems, but
the first steps are the biggest; that is, unless and until one holds
a certain amount of belief in spirit, as spelled out in the first
category, or elimination of prejudice as described in the third,
resolving intergroup conflict will most probably take awhile.
A noteworthy aspect of this study is that the respondents seem to
persevere, first of all because of their belief that overriding
cultural, racial and gender differences is not only possible but
inevitable. Intercultural theorists do not adequately examine the
role in communication of such an active belief system. The study
suggests that communicants can subordinate cultural differences if
they want to do so, and that a firm belief provides a compelling
reason to do so, especially at times when empirical evidence would
indicate that reality is otherwise.
All training requires postulations about how growth and change occur:
This project describes an approach based on the experiences of Bahá’í
respondents. Even though this group of respondents expects to witness
growth and change in interpersonal dealings among races, ethnicities,
genders and nationalities around them – such as those which
they have already experienced – they present their hopes with
the caveat that such change will take years, perhaps generations.
Although looking toward a common authority believed to have revealed
God’s word provides a very compelling rallying point for the
group members, the respondents point out that it is only a beginning;
they still must read and understand the Writings, consult on their
meaning and attempt to actualize them.
Starosta (1988) cautions researchers not to overlook culture; this
study examines how individuals use the tools of their religion to
confront cultural differences. The approach described by the
respondents resembles more a multicultural building than the
third-culture building addressed in the literature. Individuals of
diverse cultures encounter each other in different localities and
abide by the same consultative principles within the Bahá’í
Faith. Though part of one group, they use different languages, music
and approaches in their cultural expressions. Individuals, with their
various cultural backgrounds come together in different localities,
creating regional or national flavors that exist within a
supra-cultural framework underneath which all individuals agree on
certain principles. Thus the model describes how individuals expand
the cultural boundaries they inhabit to allow others to fit in with
them, or allow themselves to fit within the boundaries of others.
the Model in Other Settings
Interview questions include whether Bahá’ís feel
obligated to unite with non-Bahá’ís, whether they
feel able to unite with them, whether they perceive themselves as the
same as or different from individuals who are not of the same
culture, whether they relinquish anything in or add anything to their
culture of origin when they become Bahá’í.
Several respondents describe their attempts at and experiences with
breaking down racial barriers in their workplaces and in their
neighborhoods as they attempt to apply their consultative methods in
dealings with those who are not Bahá’í. A few say
that had they not been Bahá’ís, there are certain
groups with whom they would never have associated. Some struggle with
the notion that particular cultural elements not consonant with the
Writings will eventually have to change. Others grapple with the idea
of how their relations with people outside the Faith compare with
those inside, wondering with whom do they feel a closer connection.
Still others say that Bahá’ís as a group should
embrace the contributions made by various cultures, especially
the efforts of selected Bahá’ís to make changes
within non-Bahá’í contexts does not itself prove
the universal applicability of Bahá’í precepts on
unity, the model that has been extracted from the interviews allows
that anyone who starts from a belief in human spirituality may move
in the direction of unity in diversity. To this extent, the model
proposes a means to transfer its findings beyond the Bahá’í
literature on corporate cultures also suggests the possibility of a
secular counterpart to spirituality. With regard to training, the
mission statements of companies provide similar doctrines, consistent
with the respondents’ claim that referring back to their
Writings provides a necessary focal point. Intercultural and
organizational trainers can adapt some of the insights provided by
the Bahá’ís inasmuch as corporations and groups
acquire a corporate culture and ask workers to transform themselves
to keep with company ideals, and group members to act according to a
different world view and behave towards others according to this
view. Perhaps the closest that corporations have come to a model of
inclusiveness, Theory Z sets out an organizational model that employs
consultation, but it is used to inform workers of changes in company
policy and invite them to voice their views. In this model,
management does not share power to include employees in decision
making. Moreover, it includes screening to find new employees who fit
the corporate ideal, hold moderate views and a harmonious
personality, and will likely endorse company philosophy and values
(Robbins, 1983). Thus Theory Z primarily concerns itself with human
relations, not with the exchange of many voices.
and such municipal organizations as the police department have called
on Bahá’ís in their localities for assistance in
interracial training and conflict resolution in Chicago, Baltimore
and Los Angeles, to name only a few. Bahá’ís
themselves do not follow any prescribed formula for the training in
which they engage. This model can help them gain insight into the
groups with whom they consult. However, it needs testing to see which
questions can be addressed and how soon it can address them.
Intercultural conflicts differ in magnitude and severity and some may
be more amenable than others to using such a model.
model presented here suggests that successful communication across
cultures might benefit from multilateral protocols, where none can
presume to be the culture that establishes the rules, that
communication succeeds when group members methodically follow certain
steps, and that participants must become consciously aware of their
cultural practices and view them as choices. It also suggests that
working out differences may begin with some sort of covenant, an
agreement to which all parties voluntarily hold. It remains to be
tested whether other groups, secular or religious, whose members
share similar core beliefs as this model (1.0 and 2.0) can enact
steps 3.0 and 4.0 toward a similar unity in diversity among their
members. It may be that some groups already follow these steps but
are unaware of their process. These are areas where trainers and
practitioners may focus their efforts.
This model of multicultural communication presents a process by which
Bahá’í individuals form a unified community of
individuals from diverse cultures. Although conscious of cultural
differences, community members attempt to perceive as assets that
exist on the same footing. In this respect the model differs from
third-culture building that requires a relinquishing of cultural
differences in order to create a third culture. Moreover, this study
incorporates foundational beliefs among group members, an area that
researchers often ignore, but one that bears further scrutiny.
All cultures contain individuals whose choices can impede and even
disrupt the uniting of members from diverse cultures; the model asks
that individuals be able to discern cultural traits which are
fundamental but undergo glacial changes, from personal states which
are transitory and can be changed at will, though perhaps with
difficulty. As respondents point out, domination in their community
derives from individual personality problems rather than from
intrinsically cultural elements. Indeed, conflict itself may arise
more from personality issues than cultural ones.
awareness of one’s own culture comprises a fundamental step in
the model, an implication of this study is that individuals across
cultures must begin to understand their own internalization processes
of cultural modes of communication; knowing the connection between
communication and culture provides a necessary tool in an
increasingly multicultural world, and its study should permeate
school curricula at all levels. This is a step that can be applied to
intercultural discussions anywhere.
Further, the study indicates that individuals need to recognize that
intercultural communication is a skill that must be consciously
learned. Such a perspective can go a long way toward helping
communicants rid themselves of prejudices, as they realize that there
exists no precedent and no perfect model for intercultural
communication: History mostly tells of groups forming to overpower
other groups. The effort to change their behavior poses diverse
challenges for individuals from different cultures, but all are
challenged in some way. When all agree to admit that some of what
divides them may be dispensable, they can begin to resolve their
conflicts. In perceiving their mutual struggle to find points of
contact, individuals can recognize that they share with those from
different backgrounds the process of transforming themselves. As they
negotiate a new group identity, they may find a myriad points –
of contact and difference – with each other and may realize
that they can as easily unite as divide themselves.
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