By Alvin Hoi-Chun Hung, Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies

Developing cultural sensitivity remains a challenging task for socio-legal scholars conducting research in a foreign culture. Most of us want to believe ourselves to be open-minded individuals. However, different people understand the world in such variant ways that it is sometimes hard to reconsider our deeply held views to truly understand the perspective of others. Our theoretical perspective may not be nuanced enough. Our research practice may create barriers to accessing our participants. When the fieldwork site is a multicultural environment where different cultural perspectives meet, this presents an even bigger challenge. Cultural stereotypes — those existing in our minds and brought to the site, and those in the site but brought to our minds — are pervasive that our engagement in cross-cultural interactions demands continuous reflection on our research approach.

My project started off as an effort to explore labour disputes emerging from cultural differences. I conducted fieldwork in a Chinese-invested garment factory in Myanmar to explore the workplace dynamics between Chinese expatriate managers and local Myanmar workers. To gain a deeper understanding of the many facets of human behaviour, I resided in the factory for six months, interviewing the members and observing daily operation. Fieldwork was completed in March 2020 before the global outbreak of Covid-19. As I was returned with detailed and reflexive account of this multicultural workplace, I became aware of the culturally specific issues and developed strategies to address them.

When I interviewed the workers, it came to my attention that ‘anade’, a social convention of the Myanmar people, was an important influence in my research process. ‘Anade’ is felt as sensitivity to other’s needs and restraint on self-assertive behaviour. Rather than rejecting outright more difficult questions, thus risking perceived embarrassment to themselves or to the researcher, Myanmar respondents are more likely to use indirect means to withdraw and avoid the situation. Some of my respondents gave irrelevant answers and kept on repeating the same, despite my clarification. They said they had no knowledge or memory of any workplace disputes. A few even stayed silent, waiting for me to change the topic. While foreign researchers unfamiliar with ‘anade’ may continue to probe for information, causing distress to the Myanmar respondents, I considered the implication of ‘anade’ and refrained from collecting information in an intrusive manner. I reduced indirect questions, and instead, invited respondents to share their memorable work experience. Prolonged observation of interactions followed by hypothetical questions to verify the findings was a better way to understand people’s feelings and detect context-sensitive phenomena.

Given Myanmar had been identified as a ‘law-of-status society’ with rigid social structure and tendency to judge people based on perceived status, I realised as a foreign researcher, I had to be aware of my identity and narrow my distance with respondents. I avoided symbols related to a dominant discourse, like dressing up and using academic jargons. I replaced written consent forms, often considered obtrusive and intimidating, with more casual and flexible oral consent process. During my stay, I tried to understand the background of respondents and develop interest in the practical issues permeating their daily lives. To some extent, I was able to gradually transform from an ‘outsider’ to more of an ‘insider’ whom respondents were comfortable to initiate small talks with.

Although I have gained elementary proficiency of the Myanmar language after learning it for a few months, I realised that researching culture demands high level of linguistic proficiency and understanding of cultural subtleties in locally-situated contexts. Therefore, I invited a Myanmar local, Nay, to participate in my research as interpreter. In addition to providing translation, Nay was able to rely on cultural knowledge and awareness of communicative context to recognise the more subtle messages respondents were trying to convey. For example, Myanmar respondents often expressed themselves with words conveying implied meanings. The phrase hote-kai means ‘yes’, but people saying it may be displaying politeness and obedience, rather than actually meaning ‘yes’. The phrase ma-lote-bu means ‘I don’t want it’, but Myanmar people seldom use such explicit words to reject others, in particular foreigners. With such cultural knowledge, Nay was able to read between the lines and identify from nonverbal communication that respondents were hesitant about answering or were not being genuine.

In the multicultural workplace, I also observed abundant stereotypes among factory members. Chinese expatriate managers complained that Myanmar workers were ‘irresponsible’ to request leave despite the busy production schedule, and they said they could never understand why Myanmar people could be so religious to the point of ‘living in poverty while spending a fortune on building fancy temples.’ To the Myanmar workers, this was about their deep devotion to their religion, and they hoped the Chinese managers could understand their culture and grant permission for them to attend religious festivals. On the other hand, Myanmar workers perceived Chinese people to be overly work-oriented, strict, and indifferent to the feelings and situation of workers, while to the Chinese managers, it was about prioritising responsibilities to the boss, and they had expectation for Myanmar workers to be committed to work and ‘treat the factory like a home.’ This multicultural environment gave me the opportunity to understand phenomena from different sides and discover key layers of explanation beyond superficial stereotypes.

The ability to communicate well and conduct research in a foreign culture is a set of learnable skills. Although scholarship was available concerning cultural sensitivity in cross-cultural qualitative research, in practice things were much more challenging when it was up to me (and every individual researcher) to experience the realities in a foreign culture and seek to cultivate cultural sensitivity in my own ways.

This blog post is based on an article published in Qualitative Research Journal.