#14 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 4          November 1992

Harvesting the Advantages of Cultural Diversity
by Rudolph J. Marcus, Ph.D.

Dr. Marcus, a technology transfer consultant, was scientific director of the Office of Naval Research Far East in Tokyo.

Science is generally considered to be a field that transcends national, religious, racial, gender and language boundaries.  So what if some team members come from different cultural backgrounds?  Don't we all play by the same rules? 

Yes and no.  While scientists can transcend the more obvious boundaries, their work is often circumscribed by cultural boundaries in subtle ways.  These boundaries can cause problems, or they can be turned into advantages. 

New entrants have always been a source of vitality and resiliency for research systems.  European immigrant researchers certainly were a big boost to U.S. science and technology earlier in the century.  During today's overall transformation of national and global systems, new entrants represent an important opportunity.

Traditional Western and Japanese Science

Take Western and Japanese science.  Western science is based on principles such as causality and divisibility of a problem into constituent sub-problems.  Japanese science, by contrast, is holistic—problems are viewed as single entities.  As a consequence, there's much more tolerance of seemingly non-causal connections between data points.  For example, if one function in a 120-function integrated circuit failed in an American chip factory, chances are the assembly line would be halted and everybody would focus attention on the problematic function.  But in Japan, workers would dismantle the entire line and start fresh.  They would look at the entire system as a unit.

I have traced differences in Western and Japanese science to the different cultural and behavioral patterns in Japan, and those in turn are reactions to Japan's population density and its distribution of natural resources (Marcus, Chemtech 20: 212, 1990).

For example, the Japanese art of brush painting, sumi-e, uses a limited number of subjects.  What may seem in Western eyes to be a copy, practically a print, rather than an original, is to the Japanese an original of an approved subject that has been painted by hundreds of artists over the centuries.  The Japanese themselves refer to this as a template mentality, a preference for following a pattern rather than breaking new ground.  To me, this helps explain why Japanese science admires quality above originality. 

Science in the Western manner is goal-oriented, emphasizes the short term, uses thought experiments and can be expressed alphabetically.  Its language is single-valued (each term has exactly one meaning).

Science in a holistic Japanese manner is multi-valued and process-oriented, emphasizes the long term, executes experiments only physically and can be expressed in ideograms.

I can best distinguish the impact of using alphabets rather than ideograms by asking you to imagine a sunset.  Now imagine poetic images of a sunset. The former represents the alphabetic representation, the latter the ideogrammatic one.

Table I

Two R&D Paradigms

Cartesian (Western)                                                           Holistic (Japan)
Causal                                                                              Acausal and causal
Divisible into small parts                                                     Entire system is the unit
Single-valued                                                                     Multi-valued
Mainly goal-oriented                                                           Mainly process-oriented
Often short term                                                                 Often long term
Uses thought experiments                                                   Prefers physical experiments
Alphabetic expression                                                         Ideogrammatic expression
Individual creativity                                                              Group creativity

What happens when research team members grounded in the two paradigms described in Table I try to collaborate?  They may seem uncooperative or unproductive to each other, and thus be unable to work together.  Likewise, competitors who fail to understand each other's modus operandi may cry "foul play."

Nonetheless, working together across paradigms can be fruitful.  Some behaviors and practices on both sides help this process, while others are a hindrance.  It takes a concerted effort to appreciate—and take advantage of—team members brought up in different cultures.  Good communication and a positive learning attitude are required.  If you are quickly turned off by attitudes different from yours, you stop communicating and thus deprive your team of potential benefits.

Benefits from cross-cultural Interactions

The following are examples of "contact problems" between different cultures, and rewards for people who are open to other paradigms.

Box 1.  Cultural Diversity....Maori

(Adapted from Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth, p. 21, Spring Publications, Dallas, 1991)

In the mid-19th century, Sir George Grey, governor general of New Zealand, learned the language of the native Maoris.  Surprisingly, this knowledge helped him little, and he found grotesque misunderstandings while negotiating with the chiefs.  Finding himself helpless to understand the images, allusions and proverbs of the Maori, he began studying their mythology and soon found that he could communicate effortlessly with them.

Box 2.  Cultural Diversity....Native American

(Condensed from The Scientist  (March 16, 1992)

Shawn Sigstedt, an ethnobotanist, has been studying a medicinal plant, bear root, which the Navajo people use as a headache remedy, fungicide, insecticide and for numerous other purposes.  Sigstedt lived for years with a Navajo family, where he learned the legend of the bear, the generous, divine being who gave Navajos the bear root.  Sigstedt decided to check whether the legend had a biological basis, and was astonished to find that when he gave the plant to bears in a zoo, they immediately began chewing it and rubbing it over their bodies--precisely as the Navajo legends say the bear taught humans to do.  More than a dozen compounds with known pharmacological activity have been identified in bear root.

While these are examples of individuals working in locales that are culturally and geographically quite different from their own, the principle of learning from other cultures should also apply closer to home, and to differences between the genders.

Radcliffe College president Linda Wilson puts it this way:
"The new 'immigrants' to the science and engineering workforce, women and minorities, bring some differences in expectations....  Mutual adaptation and respect are needed. It is a matter of cross-cultural communication, reconsideration of assumptions, learning new skills and habits and adjusting priorities.

In this 'Age of Knowledge,'...we will develop not just more knowledge, but also better and broader knowledge, more connections among knowledge areas, and much better assimilation and accommodation of knowledge...."

Given the dearth of minorities and women in the scientific enterprise, I think their inclusion can significantly strengthen the research effort by bringing new perspectives and attitudes to the work.

I have other suggestions for increasing knowledge flow among people who work under different paradigms.  Among the behaviors I consider helpful are:

           Keep talking, communicating.
           Ask how questions, to acknowlege all possibilities, even those that are acausal or improbable according to your paradigm.
           Recognize that why not questions are as valid as why questions.
           Establish concrete, whole project goals and let the entire team know them.
           Get the whole team to work together toward those goals.
           Identify and support group originality.
           Tolerate similarities and differences.
           Encourage job rotation (within the group and occasionally farther afield).
           Discuss everything in context so the right brain can contribute.

Why don't I conclude this article by listing other paradigms?  Because if you knew what other paradigms might bear on your R&D work at a particular time, if paradigms could just be listed and used, they would shrink to become one more item in the toolbox of your own paradigm, to be used when needed in the familiar, linear manner.

It would be far better if other scientific paradigms were represented in your research group by workers who are comfortable with those paradigms.  Only then can you reap the harvest of many forms of cultural knowledge and inquiry.

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