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Levelling vagueness

- interaction in multicultural groups

Imagine three Swedes, two Brits, one Spaniard, one Dutchman and two North Americans setting up a joint research project. How, despite cultural differences, are they successful in organising the project? Culture, it is often argued, explains how we feel, think and act (or react). It is the lens through which we understand the world, with each culture using a different lens. In order to work together, however, a shared perception of what is to be done is needed – what is the project about, what steps need to be taken and how is the job best done are some key matters that need to be dealt with. What happens in the group when the perceptions of realities of the members disagree? How does interaction proceed when the interacting cultures differ? Such are the questions underlying this thesis.

Feyerabend talks about the “abundance of reality”. He refers to the immense amount of banalities, trivialities, small details, and practicalities that inundate our days and overflow the course of any project. Unexpected and time-consuming as they often are, these factors influence group interaction and the workflow of the collaboration. “Sense-making devices”, “models”, “frames of reference”, “systems of meaning” – each of these expressions denotes our efforts to cope with that richness. We strive for simple and precise “models” that ease the overflow. To survive the unexpected, to accommodate abundance, however, our models (mental and theoretical) are bound to be vague because, to paraphrase Feyerabend, vagueness “makes room” for the particulars of each situation.

The lack of studies in real-life situations leads dominant research in the field of cultural diversity to neglect vagueness and abundance. To the question “How does interaction proceed when cultures differ?” they give a standard unanimous reply: “Culture”. Most research is carried out in laboratory settings, with groups of students gathered for the purpose. Everyday constraints and practicalities are thus ignored. As soon as the group moves to real-life circumstances, however, an overwhelming amount of practical matters overtake the group, affecting interaction among its members. Concerns for time and resources, the choice of partners, the management of the process, the design of a project plan and many other technological and contextual factors occupy most of the time and energy of the group. Managers that had participated in an intercultural communication training, when interviewed, did not recognise any parallel between the problems occurring during real meetings and the solutions discussed in the training. The ignorance, by dominant research, of situation-specific and contextual aspects may explain managers' dissatisfaction. Much more than the issue of culture is needed to understand what goes on.

From this perspective, the story of the interacting process of a multicultural group is the story of the group's strategies in levelling vagueness. In this thesis, empirical data from the first one-and-a-half-year of cooperation in the above mentioned group is analysed. Their strategies in coping with abundance and levelling the insistent vagueness are explored and described.

Project leader:
Ester Barinaga (CBS)


Barinaga, E. (2002) Levelling vagueness : a study of cultural diversity in an international project group. Stockholm: Economic Research Institute (EFI), Stockholm School of Economics. »

Barinaga, E. (2002) Tell me how you look at language and I'll tell you how you see culture - Methodological considerations of assuming a performative view of language. Paper presented at the 2nd European Academy of Management. Stockholm, May 9-11

Barinaga, E. (2002) Levelling Vagueness - The Organising Process of an International Researcher Team. In Leijon, S., Lillhannus, R. & Widell, G. (Eds.) Reflecting Diversity - Viewpoints from Scandinavia, Göteborg: BAS.

Barinaga, E. (2002) Vaghet som möjlighet - samspel i ett internationellt project. Ledmotiv - idéskrift om ledarskap. 4 (3): pp. 69-80. »

Barinaga, E. (2001) Gazpacho with surströmming : identity in culturally diverse groups. Research Paper Series 1/2001. Stockholm: Centre for Advanced Studies in Leadership at Stockholm School of Economics. »

Barinaga, E. (2001) Understanding interaction in multicultural groups using a performative view of language. Paper presented at the 17th EGOS Colloquium: The Odyssey of Organizing. Lyon, France, July 5-7.

Barinaga, E. (2001) Levelling Vagueness - Interaction in multicultural researcher groups. Paper presented at the 16:e Nordiska Företagsekonomiska Ämneskonferensen. Uppsala, August 16-18.

Barinaga, E. (2001) Wrestling Vagueness - Interaction in International Projects. Paper presented at the 16:e Nordiska Företagsekonomiska Ämneskonferensen. Uppsala, August 16-18.

Barinaga, E. & Sandberg, Å. (2001) The construction of knowledge in multicultural reseracher groups. Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Critical Management Studies. Manchester, United Kingdom, July 11-13.

Barinaga, E. (2000) When Cultures Meet - Positioning the Self in an Culturally Diverse Group. Paper presented at the Organised Discourse: Word-views, Work-views and World-views. King's College, London, United Kingdom, July 26-28.

Barinaga, E. (1999) Swedishness through lagom : can words tell us anything about a culture. Research Paper Series 6/1999. Stockholm: Centre for Advanced Studies in Leadership at Stockholm School of Economics. »

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