Within any society, there is an array of different groups with unique values and cultures that interact in varying capacities. Communication between these groups is known as co-cultural communication. How the interactions between the different cultures manifest are directly related to the formal and informal institutions of that society as they shape the abilities of the different groups to negotiate power and relevance. During the negotiation processes, some groups gain more power and become the dominant groups in society, while other groups remain underrepresented.
Studying and understanding these interactions and the processes that support them can be accomplished using the framework presented by co-cultural theory. In this respect, ORBE (1998) describes co-cultural theory as a tool for exploring the intersections of culture, power, and communication. Having the tools to understand these processes is essential due to the increasingly diverse world full of people and groups with values and beliefs divergent from those of the majority, or at least those with the most power. In the past, these groups may have striven to assimilate, but there are new ideals and new interactions between ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. Due to this fact, a clear majority of research focuses on the perspectives and experiences of the dominant group, which is often not representative of other groups within a society. Such a bias in research further highlights the need for a different approach to research that supports the dissemination of alternative viewpoints.
Co-cultural theory first entered the research world in the mid-1990s as a framework to help provide a voice for non-dominant populations through the development of a core set of concepts that could be used to classify families of behavior. To accomplish this goal, co-cultural theory incorporated concepts from standpoint and muted group theory, as well as cultural phenomenology.
Standpoint theory served as the basis as it implied that research would be based on concrete lived experiences, which according to COLLINS (1990), enables focus on “privilege and penalty” within and among different groups and individuals. Muted group theory was incorporated due to its explanation of the loss of voice and subsequently representation of a non-dominant group within a society, which is only catalyzed as the dominant group becomes more powerful. Cultural phenomenology was incorporated because it encouraged research that is not strictly based on hypothesis testing.
Building on the aforementioned theoretical concepts, ORBE (1998) designed co-cultural theory to help identify behavioral patterns that could explain the interactions and subsequent negotiations between of “cultural differences” between non-dominant and dominant groups. There are five main principles related to co-cultural theory, as posited by ORBE:
- Every society has a social hierarchy that privileges some groups over others. Groups with more privilege tend to shape the structures that facilitate communication within a society.
- The dominant group protects and enforces its position within society.
- Dominant communication structures obstruct the advancement of non-dominant groups.
- Although different marginalized groups have diverse backgrounds, their position in society is akin to one another.
- Co-cultural theories must develop unique communication strategies to function within the confines of the dominant society.
There are five primary factors related to the influence the choice of strategies:
- Field of experience: the factor that shape and influence an individual’s or group’s life experience and realities, e.g. family, friends, social groups, etc.
- Situational context: the adaptive choices made in response to a specific occasion or set of circumstances
- Abilities: the physical and psychological factors that influence a culture’s ability to communicate
- Perceived costs and rewards: the advantages and disadvantages related to specific actions
- Communication approach: the manner by which an individual or group engages in discourse, i.e. aggressive, non-aggressive, and assertive
- Preferred outcome: the behavior that will produce the outcome they desire. There are three main categories, i.e. assimilation, separation, or accommodation. Assimilation means fitting in and eliminating any cultural differences. Accommodation refers to attempts to encourage and develop collaborative strengths that maintain both the dominant and non-dominant culture. Separation refers to instances where efforts are made to avoid the development of any meaningful relationships with the dominant culture, and in many cases, other co-cultural groups.
The preferred outcomes (assimilation, separation, and accommodation) cross with the communication approaches to create a matrix of various co-cultural communication strategies, a description of these various strategies, of which there are 26:
- Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, 138, 221-238.
- Orbe, M. (1998). Constructing co-cultural theory : an explication of culture, power, and communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.