Culture is one of the most complex words in the English language (Williams, 1983), one that can be of more or less use to us according to how we understand it (Barker, 2000, p. 35). If “essentialist” views, i.e., those that equate culture with a set of pre-existing attributes, are of limited use in examining the intercultural interaction of groups of learners online, how can culture in the globalized classroom be understood and explored?
A “Third” culture?1
In the process of designing an interface for interaction within a workplace setting, Raybourn et al. (2003) see their role as guiding “culture to emerge from the users’ co-creation of narratives and the subsequent communication events transpiring in the virtual space” (p. 106). As a result of interaction among all the parties in class, whose contributions will be derived from their personal (varying) frames of reference, they posit that a new “third” culture will emerge. This will then provide a shared context of understanding in which the members of the group will be both participants and co-owners. This context will emerge “in direction and rate” (p. 106), they suggest, according to “the quality and nature of the interactions” (p. 106) in which participants engage.
In helping to clarify culture in the online classroom, this idea is both attractive and problematic. It is attractive in that it implies a collaboratively constructed location for the class, one which is both inclusive of all class members, and allows for validation of their multiple viewpoints. However, this also assumes that every member of the class is engaging in interaction since the location, the “third” culture, only exists for those who participate actively. There are many studies that show that, in fact, online interaction is usually the product of a minority of participants (e.g., Cook & Jacobs, 2004; Howard, 2002; Lobry de Bruyen, 2004). Problematic too is the implication that there is a finished state to the negotiation process that is to be seen in the form of a distinct third culture. If it is actually the product of the interaction of only a few, it will provide only a restricted view of the class. This is because, like the essentialist views, by not being constructed, i.e., not acknowledged, by all members of the class, it will focus on difference. The idea of the “third” culture as a finished product also implies that it will have a continuing function and validity once complete. This is in contrast to experience that shows that students do not always experience the same class, let alone successive courses, as having the same “feel.” This begs the question as to whether any “third” culture is not, in fact, a series of third cultures to be created by each class in its own turn. Thus, while the “third culture” as described by Raybourn et al. (2003) potentially incorporates members from cultures that are deemed different in essentialist terms, the third culture is itself, in some senses, also “essentialist,” since it defines a culture existing only among a particular combination of individuals in a particular space and time context.
Culture as “Doing”
The idea of culture as an ongoing iterative process is another alternative to essentialist views. Street (1993) stresses a view of culture as activity, of doing: “as [a] signifying process—the active construction of meaning” (p. 23). Studying culture, he believes, is not about finding definitions but, rather, a matter of seeing how, when, and why definitions are made, “Culture is an active process of meaning making and contest over definition, including its own definition (p. 25).” Thus, culture evolves over time, not in the sense of reaching an ultimate definition or conclusion, but as an ongoing process of sense-making at any particular point in time, within a particular context and from a particular viewpoint (Gee, 2000, pp. 188-189).
From this perspective, the online classroom as a context within the social world is a space where many elements, e.g., people, places, things, ideas, beliefs, hopes, aspirations etc., come together as a context or “configuration” (Gee, p. 188) where work is undertaken by and on behalf of those elements so as to position and organize them into meaning. Interpretation of those elements within any particular configuration is done by means of “enactive” and “recognition” work (Gee, 2000, p. 188). According to Gee, enactive work is our attempts to organize these elements and accord them value and meaning, while recognition is the work done by others to agree or disagree, or to try to change our organization of the elements. Elements only have meaning within a particular configuration or context, thus what Gee calls our “real” enactive work is “in creating and sustaining the configurations” (p.189). These meanings then feed forward into our understandings of future configurations and present options for further negotiation.
Enactive work may take place from within a configuration, i.e., we position ourselves and other elements within the context of the online classroom by what we do with, and say to and about, other elements within that particular context. For example, by posting a message to a discussion board we are doing work to sustain the context that is the online classroom where communication is conducted by posting messages to discussion boards. Simultaneously, as course leader, for example, we may also be doing enactive work from the outside, in order to make that posting look a certain way so that it is recognized by fellow tutors (in the configuration that is the online classroom), as being composed and posted in keeping with another configuration that is “the team leader.” Of course, the significance and potential impact on the stability of the configuration (i.e., on the class), of such enactive work will also depend not only on how the configuration is viewed by the other elements at work in it but also whether or not the person doing the work, i.e., the posting of that message, is acknowledged by other elements as being either a tutor or a team leader.
Viewing the online classroom as an evolving site of cultural creation allows for understanding the cultural process that is that classroom, and the “doing” of being within it, where not all elements are active all of the time. This view also allows that there are multiple realities at any one point in time for any, and all, of the elements involved. This may seem to offer so many potential interpretations of what is going on in the online class as to render any exploration impractically complex. How then can we examine what this approach to culture offers without becoming overwhelmed; how can we find the essence of the context in order to learn from it? It is necessary to ask ourselves which are the critical points in the intercultural interaction, likewise the potential of treating these as “moment[s] of cultural production” (Scollon, 2003). For Reeder, Macfadyen, Roche, and Chase (2004), this key location is “the online discussions amongst participants in an emerging online community” since these are the manifestation of intercultural discourse and thus the “nexus of cultural production” (p. 89). In this article I suggest that the discussions, in terms of messages posted to class discussion boards, should not only be regarded as interactions among participants but also as the visible manifestation of interactions among other elements such as the institution and the course materials. In this way, examining messages will reveal negotiation and cultural production in the online classroom and may offer insights into not only the intercultural activity among the people within that online classroom, but also how they interact culturally with the delivery platform, the course content, and the institutional culture.