Intercultural communication (IC) is gaining credibility as an established field among the older social sciences. Researchers in the field rely on the accepted scientific approaches of formulating problems, making observations and measurements, and analyzing quantified results, all to distill essential truths from the highly complex field of cultural studies. Yet despite their efforts at objectivity, many IC researchers fail to squarely face the field’s most stubborn irony: how can the majority of interculturalists―with their Western-derived scientific tools―explain foreign cultures objectively?
To explain this cultural conundrum, it may be helpful to trace the roots of linear reasoning or reductionism. The “real world”according to Plate was not the world as we know it, the complexities of which cloud a simpler, more perfect reality. Newton continued this approach, applying the logic of deduction and induction in an effort to create a better model of the universe―one of clarity, measurement, and law. “The material world was seen as a multitude of elementary parts assembled into a huge machine,” explains physicist Fritjof Capra, regarding Newton's scientific view. “Consequently, it was believed that complex phenomena could always be understood by reducing them to their basic building blocks.”
Linear logic and the reductionist approach have become the accepted modes for the development of modern hypotheses and theories. However, advances in linear science have brought us to a point where we can see that most of the world around us is anything but linear, and the complexities that cloud a simpler world are actually highly worthy of study. With the discoveries of relativity and, more recently, quantum physics, a new vision of reality is unfolding that transcends the classical models of science. An increasing number of scientists now readily admit that complex wholes―whether ecosystems, economic systems, or cultures―are quite valid as subjects for research.
As a result, scientists have adopted a more holistic framework that takes into account, as Capra puts it, the “essential interrelatedness and interdependence of all phenomena―physical, biological, psychological, social, and cultural. “The holistic perspective underscores the notion that, Newton notwithstanding, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Newer approaches, such as complexity theory, turn the tables on the Newtonian approach of dissecting things into smaller and smaller units. Instead of searching for the ultimate micro building block, scientists are turning their attention to flux, change, and the formation and dissolution of systems. Moreover, they are looking at how systems interact with each other in dynamic, interlocking wholes.
By failing to take the big picture fully into account, IC researchers get lost in the details, and by focusing on the details, they fail to gain an accurate overall understanding of cultures and the interplay among them. To make sense of this complexity, one must set aside simple, neat theories that describe how the world ought to be and prepare to wade into the messy world of everyday life. Rather than viewing cultures as static systems, it may be useful to see them as dynamic, interdependent, fluid systems without clear borders.