Semiotic Phenomenology and Intercultural Communication Scholarship: Meeting the Challenge of Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Difference [1]

Article excerpt

During the past few years, intercultural communication scholarship has directed increasing attention to the limits of traditional social science research in the study of race and ethnicity (Martin & Davis, 2000). Much of this attention has focused on different methodological approaches and their capacity to adequately capture the complexities of racial and ethnic difference while providing a consistent foundation upon which knowledge can be developed. In some sectors of intercultural communication scholarship, scholars feel an urgency in the effort to develop research approaches that allow for full engagement with the complexities of racial and ethnic signification in geopolitical contexts and the histories of colonialism and imperialism entailed within them. I share this sense of urgency.

In intercultural communication scholarship, phenomenology has been nominated as a qualitative research methodology that can meet the challenges of fully engaging the complexities of racial and ethnic difference (Kanata, 2003; Kristjansdottir, 2003; Martinez, 2000, 2003; Orbe, 1998, 2000), although one not generally seen as capable of engaging questions of historical context and the trajectories of power that define them. Questions concerning the contemporary geopolitical landscape (as in West-East, North-South relations), including examinations of history (colonialism), economics (capitalism, distribution of wealth), demography, and foreign policy (intercultural relations formalized between nations), are generally considered outside the scope of phenomenological research. [2] I do not share this point of view.

My purpose in the present work is to show how semiotic phenomenology can meet these urgent challenges by fully engaging the complexities of racial, ethnic, and cross-cultural difference. [3] To meet the challenges, semiotic phenomenology must have the capacity to engage a critical effort in exposing the balance of power whereby the "mainstream" of Western cultures continues to set the terms and conditions in which cultural and racialized Others are understood. In this sense, semiotic phenomenology should be understood as an interdisciplinary practice that is as useful for the critical purpose of interrogating the trajectories of power through which systems of domination and oppression among groups of persons are sustained as it is for exploring the complexities of lived experience, voice, and consciousness.

In making these arguments, I focus specifically on Martin and Nakayama's (1999) effort to develop a dialectical perspective in intercultural communication scholarship--a perspective whose potential, I believe, has yet to be fully realized. One reason the dialectical perspective has not realized its full potential lies in the fact that the theoretical and practical terms necessary for its successful implementation have yet to be adequately specified. Absent this specification, the deeply entrenched Western cultural preference for a liberal pluralist approach remains tacitly at work. [4] For the full potential of Martin and Nakayama's dialectical perspective to be realized, this deeply embedded Western cultural sense of liberal pluralism must be overcome. Semiotic phenomenology, particularly as it is informed by the work of C. S. Peirce (1958), specifies the theoretical and practical terms in which the dialectical perspective can be successfully implemented and thus realized in the actual conduct of our scholarly and research efforts. In short, semiotic phenomenology can be shown to provide the technical specifications that allow the dialectical perspective to be fully embodied as practice and therefore make urgently needed contributions to the study of race, ethnicity, and cross-cultural understanding.

Dialectical Perspectives in Intercultural Communication Scholarship

Interrogating the trajectories of power whereby systems of domination and oppression among groups of persons are sustained has been approached largely through work in the humanities, both inside and outside of communication. …