Cultural research styles

In developing culturally appropriate research styles for Southeast Asians, I have moved toward descriptive methodologies with relational and holistic epistemologies. Emphasizing cultural strengths has enabled students to achievement that is equal to or superior to that of Western students with similar educational backgrounds.

Students naturally tended to adapt western ethnographic methods to get better results. I found that the richness of the cultural milieu to be an ideal source of research problems and that data was fairly easy to get, if approached in the right way. I have every reason to believe that these principles are equally relevant to other non-European peoples with similar ethnocognitive styles.

This topic may be discussed as first, holistic and descriptive, second, relational, and third, in terms of oral versus written articulation.

Holistic and descriptive

Students wanted to portray rather than analyze. In literature review, students tended to describe the literature at great length, unfortunately repeating the already known rather than using it as an inquiry tool. Members of one ethnic group in particular also tended to synthesize opinions, being very cautions of writing a critique or finding contradictions between them in the belief that the book authors are recognized experts.

Their concept of research was to start with a general topic of interest, describe the literature, collect data (preferably statistical), and write it up, with a conclusion statement to the effect that the data was now in place. It was assumed that data alone would meet the requirements of research. Some often new ideas to them were problem definition, critique, analysis, qualitativity, and argument toward an original conclusion.

They did not want to give assumptions, except descriptively. That is, they summarized material rather than deduced assumptions linearly from it.

Students wanted to describe rather than to search linearly for research answers, and this suited ethnography best. By being holistic and broadly inclusive, they found it difficult to differentiate between what was relevant to the investigation problem and what should be omitted, and often needed help building a clear literary structure that progressed towards a conclusion. However, associative, non-linear epistemologies were useful in ethnography when they accurately picked up associations made by the subjects.


In this sense "relational" means aware of the interpersonal dynamics involved in the interaction and their use in determining appropriacy and in interpreting responses. It is epistemological in that it affects not only the interpretation of information but the nature of information itself; understanding of the relationship is a major component of the knowledge.

Students recognized the role of the relationship between researcher and subject, and liked talking to people rather than reading. Students took time to build trust, usually by researching a population whom they already knew, or by a series of personal visits before starting research. A firmer trust basis helped ensure that they got the real story, rather than what subjects might say to people they didn't trust. They were also very careful to give thorough consideration of contextual factors, such as social and personal repercussions and agendas.

Another relational factor was perceived expectations. If subjects thought that the information was to be used for a thesis, they felt under pressure to have an intellectual answer. Some would spontaneously manufacture credible information, while others would simply say they didn't know. When such pressures were removed, the answers improved; that is, they became less inhibited and more honest.

Oral versus written articulation

Many western methodologies tend to produce inaccurate results in that context. From a cultural viewpoint, oral and written information have different roles in those cultures, and most ethnographic information was appropriate only to a spoken form.

Subjects did not like writing answers in questionnaires and the only reliable way to get people to fill them in at all was to identify groups that met and make a part of the meeting a questionnaire time. Even then, a high percentage of results were not very useful. A high proportion of responses were unfinished, too brief to be useful, or too brief to be understood.

Of those that were finished, there was reason to believe that results could have been unduly influenced by others in the room or what they believe the researcher wanted. People gave "safe" written answers, on the assumption that another hostile party might read what they had written.

Much the same applies when subjects saw the researcher taking notes; subjects tended to give safe answers rather than say what they think.

In the end, student researchers were encouraged to hold interviews, often in informal home visits, and memorize responses, to be written down immediately after the interview. In those circumstances, subjects would explain at length and provide very good information. The problems were normally an excess of good information rather than a lack of it, and the need to monitor constantly the quality of student's interview notes.

Students tended to know their research matter quite adequately, could explain their rationale and information accurately and at length, and usually discussed intelligently their conclusions. Considering that for many this was their first original research, it was frequently clear that students had sufficient intelligence and research ability.

However, almost all had difficulty reducing their thought to writing, and especially the case for their original thoughts. One clear tendency was to write raw data but leave original analysis to be oral information only.

In many cases, they used imprecise language or missed important details and supporting evidence. This simply meant that thinking through those details and structural issues needed more guidance and was handled later in the process than would be the case for persons who naturally incorporated them into the writing process.