Cultural Differences and Positionality: Reflecting on Cultural Differences through a Roleplay

Sandy Wenger

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I discovered the blueprint for this roleplay years ago when teaching a seminar on cultural difference. As I am unable to trace the original source, I am sharing my own version of it here. The roleplay works best in smaller classes with both men and women present but can be adjusted for bigger groups, and any differences within a culture can fall along lines other than gender. However, gender has worked very well for me in the past because it is often perceived as an obvious, inherent, and fixed human trait. Thus, twisting ideas about gender is something that students tend to pick up on quickly, and it allows them to recognize that both gender and culture are fluid social categories that shape each other. This, in turn, opens the door to discussing and complicating students’ understanding of other social categories that are often seen as stable and universal.

Learning Objectives: I have used this roleplay in introductory social anthropology classes, courses on fundamentals of modern culture, and seminars about anthropological perspectives on issues of power and culture. Participating in the roleplay will enable students to identify and evaluate concepts such as culture, stereotype/stereotyping, the Other/othering, and cultural socialization. By reflecting on the roleplay experience and discussing their observations, students will be able to realize and analyze the ways in which their own positionality shapes interactions with people accustomed to different sociocultural expectations. It also allows them to think critically about social categories such as gender or ethnicity.

How to: One can easily spend 30 to 45 minutes on this roleplay, so it is not the kind of activity that lends itself to shorter classes. To get started, I divide the class into two groups, each of which is given a sheet outlining behaviors characteristic of the cultural group they represent. Each group will only know about their own traits. Here is a list of some of the traits that I have used in the past that has worked well:

The DurianiansThe Mangosteenians
All people like to chat and laugh a lot. Men may only speak when spoken to and never initiate conversations.
Eye contact is important as it is a sign of interest and respect for people.Men cannot look directly into a woman’s eyes.
People greet each other by hugging. Men must always be accompanied by a woman when going out- men should not go out alone.
In order to show interest, enthusiasm, assurance, or respect, people touch each other’s arms or hands. Physical contact of any kind is considered inappropriate and rude, especially when initiated by men.

Once the students know how they are supposed to behave, I tell them that both groups are abroad and meet at a party. Their task is to get to know one another in this party setting and act according to their assigned cultural norms. I ask them to pay attention to what people in the other group are doing, how members of the other group respond, and how these interactions make them feel. I let them know that after the party, each group will have to come up with a list of cultural traits they believe are important for the other group.

I usually give them about five to seven minutes to play out the party, after which I give them an additional three to five minutes to discuss what they have observed in their respective groups. Then, we spend about five minutes as a class to compile two lists of behaviors that the groups have observed about one another, which I write down on the whiteboard. It is important to record the precise language used to describe the groups, because that is often very revealing when discussing perceptions. Once this is done, the groups get to share the list of traits that was given to them at the beginning of the session. I usually add the information to what is already on the whiteboard to make it easier to compare what is known to what has been observed.

We then discuss their experience and analyze how and why perceptions of other people’s behavior can differ so much from their intentions—what does that tell us about understandings of cultural differences and how we should approach them? I also use the discussion to introduce and discuss different concepts (e.g. the Other) that are associated with cultural differences. One of the things that tend to happen is that the perceived traits are viewed negatively, and students are often surprised when they compare their own perception to the list that the others have been given. This allows the class to reflect on notions of prejudice and stereotyping. During the discussion, I encourage students to reflect on moments in their lives when they have felt misunderstood or experienced a cultural clash. Usually, a few of the students are happy to share some of their experiences, which can help bridge the gap between the roleplay and real-life experience.

Sandy Wenger is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines how queer men in Malaysia navigate competing societal ideas about masculinity, sexuality, and the body, and how this is negotiated in understandings of love and through different types of relationships. Before moving to UCI, Sandy spent several years working as an assistant professor at KDU University College in Malaysia where she taught courses on modern culture, food and culture, media policies, and personal development planning. She also has extensive experience teaching German and English as foreign languages at universities and in language schools.

Conceptual Outline Template for Constructing an Argument

Georgia Hartman

Image courtesy of Pexels.

“Since the dawn of humankind …” how many times have you read a student paper that started like this? Or perhaps simply a paper with an argument WAY beyond the scope of the evidence presented to back it up? I have certainly found these to be common tendencies among students at the various public and private institutions where I’ve taught. Many students arrive at college believing that a good argument is a powerful argument and that a powerful argument is one that makes a big claim (i.e. people are like this, society does that). What they don’t understand of course is that making a big, unsupported claim also sacrifices the quality of an argument.

This conceptual outline exercise is aimed at helping students to: a) construct an argument that is supported by the evidence they have collected, b) similarly, to construct an argument that is derived from an analysis of the evidence—as opposed to an argument imposed upon their evidence, and c) how to use evidence to effectively support their argument.

When I was in college, these skills did not come easily to me. I, like my students arrived at college with an idea of how to structure a paper (e.g. intro + thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, bam!), but I had little idea of how to structure an argument or how to use evidence to effectively support it. I would mic drop quotes into essays, assuming the evidence stood for itself. I was simultaneously afraid to be too explicit about what my evidence meant, and overconfident about making grand generalizations.

After years of running into this with my students, I finally decided to break the mechanics of argument construction down into a simplified template. This template for a conceptual outline is best employed as a sub-assignment of a larger scaffolded project. I typically require its completion within 2-3 weeks before the deadline for the paper of which it is a part. This lead time ensures that students are thinking concretely about their project sufficiently in advance of the deadline. It also allows sufficient time for conceptual adjustments and/or additional data collection.

I encourage students to approach the exercise as a draft. It is important for them to feel comfortable to take risks in their argument and analysis and not to feel judged in doing so. I suggest that they experiment by proposing more than one possible argument. The idea is for them to try things out. While I do not grade the assignment, I do give feedback. Thus, this can be a bit of work intensive exercise for the professor. That said, I’ve found that the work put in at this stage yields vastly improved final papers, which are ultimately much less work to evaluate.

The template for the outline is really very simple (see link to template below). It asks for the following:

  1. Proposed thesis/argument.
  2. One piece of evidence/data you plan to use to support your thesis.
  3. What is the significance of this evidence?
  4. How does this evidence support your argument?

It requires that they provide and analyze 3 pieces of evidence, though they are welcome to include more if they would like. Similarly, I indicate that while this exercise only requires 3 pieces of evidence, their final paper will inevitably require far more.

For many students, completing this outline template is a completely new experience and can be a bit of a struggle. Though I take pains to detail what exactly constitutes evidence/data (i.e.  a direct quote, an observation, something specific), some students nonetheless include unrevealing “data” such as, “interview with interlocutor,” or they place their analysis of the evidence in the place of the evidence itself. I also find that students still want to make arguments that are beyond the scope of the evidence they present. Indeed, they struggle to figure out what is an appropriate scope. Many express concern that an argument about a small group of people or about a single text is not sufficiently powerful to constitute a strong thesis statement. But this is precisely why this exercise is so helpful! Together we are able to narrow down a compelling, evidence-driven argument.

Note, this exercise is particularly helpful with projects based on independent ethnographic research, though it has also been helpful with assignments where the data is drawn from text or other media. For students doing their first ethnographic projects, it can be challenging to understand that the interviews they conducted and observations they made are data. This exercise helps to make that clear.

The exercise, along with feedback from the professor, helps them to recognize what exactly is evidence, to analyze its significance, and to use it to support a compelling argument based upon it.

Georgia Hartman is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UCMEXUS). She is currently conducting research at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She previously taught for two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pitzer College and variously as Instructor of Record and Teaching Assistant at UC Irvine and UC San Diego.