Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

identity and “selves”

January 16th, 2007

According to Diane M. Hoffman (working for the American Institutes for Research, Iranians conceive of an “inner self” and an “outer self” which “does not presuppose any necessary conformity between inside and outside; the two can, and in fact often do, coexist in mutually contradictory fashion, without leading to what many Westerners might experience as an uncomfortable dissonance” (1989, p. 36, Ethos).
The article, “Self and Culture Revisited: Culture Acquisition among Iranians in the United States,” piqued my imagination regarding the “culture acquisition” of delegates, staff, and interpreters at the European Parliament (EP). Hoffman describes “a dual learning process, involving, on the one hand, knowledge acquisition – a learning about culture – and, on the other, a ‘deeper’ sort of learning that involves the internalization of another cultural set of values and meanings. This second form of learning involves the inner self and affects the individual’s sense of cultural being; it is identity-impacting” (38-39).

It got me wondering if the discourse of EP interpreters shows any of these tensions? Hoffman distinguishes between “acquisition strategy – the patterning, conscious or unconscious, of choices and reaction an individual makes in response to life … – and actual processes or outcomes of acquisition in terms of cultural identity” (38).
In the sample of Iranian immigrants to the US that Hoffman interviewed, she identifies three acquisition strategies: culture-as-being, and two forms of culture-as-action.
Culture-as-being, (cultural eclecticism) is an eclectic, adaptive strategy that relies on the separation between inner and outer selves. The outer self consciously chooses to be flexible and conform to the values and behaviors of the other culture, because what one is and does has not correspondence to who one is. (42)
Culture-as-action strives for more consistency between inner and outer selves. Its “costs” appear to be higher than those who adopt the culture-as-being strategy, because “self-identity is experienced as so much more permeable to experience” (45).
An extreme form of the culture-as-action adaptive strategy locates self in the ability to overcome and disengage from the culture of origin by adapting completely to the new environment: “the inner self ‘becomes’ the mirror of changes experienced by the ‘outer’ self” (46).
Hoffman observes that the eclectic mode is most common among Iranian immigrants to the US, adding “This response is based upon a mode of relation to self to culture in which the inner self remains relatively autonomous and impermeable to changes occurring in the social self. Thus cultural acquisition is largely instrumental, leading to successful and flexible situational adaptation, without deeper identity impacting learning” (emphasis added, 47). I wonder about this division between situational adaptation at the social level – interaction with people from another culture – and an intra-self where “home” culture and identity reside as a question to apply to the discourse of interpreters at the EP.
The asking of this question is possible in Hoffman’s work because of the already-constituted dual-conception-of-self that is a cultural characteristic of Iranians. This double-ness comes more clearly into view through the experience of Iranians encountering another culture in the US which asks of them different behaviors than those to which they are accustomed. What Hoffman highlights, however, is not the doubleness per se: it is not the interplay of inner and outer selves that is of most interest in her view, rather, it is the way this interplay highlights “a notion of culture that, rather than locking individuals into fixed patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, allows some freedom of choice, some freedom to learn, and some potential for self-transformation through culture acquistion process” (47).
Culture, says Hoffman, could be considered “a template…for learning itself” (47). [She poses this idea directly and overtly against Rosaldo (1984:140), that culture is a “template for all action, growth, and understanding” (47). In other words, she proposes learning as an activity of change, an action that exceeds the (deterministic?) boundaries implied by Rosaldo’s conception.]

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