Cultural Frames and Differences

Sanda Kaufman

Professor of Planning and Public Administration at the Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I have two things that come to my mind that are related to my having lived in different cultures. One is the need for humility, and the reason I say this is that having been part of these three very, very different cultures, one European, one Middle Eastern, and one American, I find myself still not completely understanding any culture except for the one that I was born in. I really do not get the others to the extent that would make me feel comfortable that I am part of that culture. Even though I can function and I speak the languages and I am fully taking part, I do not really get it and I think that people experience me as not being part of that culture. In other words, people experience in relationship to me, a sense of difference. So in the face of having tried and having had the opportunity to become part of a different culture and having had so much difficulty, I am thinking that as interveners, we need to keep this in mind and never feel like we've ever gotten it right. We should constantly question whether we're really understanding.. We should always privilege the take that people offer, rather than imposing on it a frame or a take of our own that says, "Oh, I know what's going on here." I think we should be constantly in a questioning mode.

Q: We are always going to see things through our own lenses. How can we keep the impact of our own lenses to a minimum in situations where we're in a foreign culture?

A: I'm not very hopeful in that respect because indeed as you say, it's very hard to keep from using our own lenses. All I can say is be humble at all times, and at all times try to have some reality check, and try to even understand that this is a lens rather than the reality. So when we go and assess conflicts, we should be very, very careful about the underlying assumptions that we make about even the extent to which we know what's going on. For instance, we can confuse familiarity with knowledge, and that's a well-known cognitive bias that makes us confuse frequency of encounter with knowledge. So the more you hear about something, the more you think you know, and actually that's not true. I'm going to venture to say something that may be quite controversial and that people may challenge, but I would say that many people who feel they know a lot about the Middle East conflict between Israelis and Palestinians actually do not know a lot more about that conflict than about, say, what happens in Tibet or Kashmir, except that those conflicts are far less in the news and the people from those regions are far less in contact with us, so we have this false sense of familiarity with that particular conflict, which then leads us to have opinions and ideas. We have lost the humility in that situation, is what I'm trying to say.

Q: So if we read it in the newspaper and we have contact with people from Israel and from the occupied territories, we still shouldn't presume to know what the situation is about?

A: I think we should constantly double-check that we actually know that these are not conclusions that we have drawn based on just the sheer frequency with which we have news from that area. I find, for instance, that people are very surprised to hear how many people live there and how many victims of the conflict there are. This is simply because they have heard so much about it that they will exaggerate by several orders of magnitude. They expect to have a lot of people and a lot of victims because we just keep hearing about it so much.

Q: So, give me an example. You think people in general think there are millions and millions of people and that there have been thousands of wounded?

A: That's right. If one measure of where to turn our attention and where to intervene is the severity of the conflict in terms of life and limb, how many people are dying in that conflict, that is actually one of the milder conflicts on the face of this Earth, compared to places where millions are victimized or die. But I think if you polled people or asked them, even, whether they knew the hard numbers, I don't think many people would be able to tell you that. I find it actually quite amusing that people who come from very large countries can't even picture how small the Middle Eastern conflict is. So if you ask a person from India how many people live in Israel, they'll start at 20 million, just as a modest guess, when the number is in fact six million.