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date: 18 May 2021

Contextual Theory of Interethnic Communicationfree

  • Young Yun KimYoung Yun KimDepartment of Communication, The University of Oklahoma


The contextual theory of interethnic communication is an interdisciplinary theory that provides a comprehensive and interdisciplinary account of the associative and dissociative communication behaviors of individual communicators when interacting with ethnically dissimilar others. Integrating a wide range of salient issues, concepts, theories, and related research findings across disciplinary lines of inquiry across social sciences, the theory offers a multidimensional and multifaceted model explaining a full spectrum of interethnic decoding and encoding communication behaviors from highly dissociative to highly associative. Grounded in an open-systems perspective, the interethnic behavior and the context surrounding the behavior are conceived as co-constituting the basic interethnic communication system, operating simultaneously in a dynamic interplay. In varying degrees of salience and significance, all contextual forces are regarded in Kim’s theory to operate in any given interethnic communication event, potentially influencing, and being influenced by the nature of individual communication behaviors of association and dissociation. The theory identifies eight key contextual factors of the communicator (identity inclusivity/exclusivity and identity security/insecurity), the situation (ethnic proximity/distance, shared/separate goal structure, and personal network integration), and the environment (institutional equity/inequity, relative ingroup strength, and environmental stress). Eight theorems are proposed for empirical tests, linking each contextual factor with associative/dissociative behavior. Together, the eight theorems explain the dynamic and reciprocal behavior-context interface in interethnic communication. The theory also provides a conceptual blueprint for conducting case studies on specific interethnic communication events, and suggests pragmatic insights into ways to strengthen the social fabric of an ethnically diverse society from the ground up.


“Tribal instinct” is a basic human condition (Van Vugt & Park, 2010). Powered by this psychological force, people are naturally prone to define themselves and others into separate categories within and across societies. Even as the forces of globalization diminish traditional group boundaries, the desire for ethnic rootedness and belonging continues to render a deeply unsettling social landscape around the world. “Diversity” or “multiculturalism” embraced in many societies has become as much a point of tension and contention, as it is a cause célèbre. Hardly any day passes without incidents of interethnic conflict headlining media reports. There is an increasing recognition in the United States and in many European countries of the failure of diversity policies and programs, as they have not necessarily brought about inclusion of ethnically diverse individuals in cooperative and meaningful social relationships (Eligon, 2016).

Amidst the contentious ethnic polemics, one can easily overlook the larger reality that is obscured by the loud and acrimonious news headlines: that is, the everyday associations among ordinary people of differing ethnicities in neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and college campuses, and within families of intermarriages. Yet, it is precisely the widespread public fracturing of interethnic relations that calls for an increased academic attention to be given to the ongoing private interactions between individuals of differing ethnicities at the grassroots level. Cumulatively, and over time, these daily voluntary associations are the very activities that are necessary to foster peace, vibrancy, and integrity of any given ethnically diverse society.

Young Yun Kim’s (2005a, 2009a) contextual theory of interethnic communication (CTIEC) illuminates this grassroots-level reality of direct contact and communication activities involving ethnically dissimilar individuals. Interconnecting many of the salient issues, concepts, theories, and related research studies across social science disciplines, this theory brings together the largely separate disciplinary lines of inquiry, thereby offering a comprehensive and interdisciplinary way of understanding how individuals of dissimilar ethnic backgrounds communicate with each other. Given the theoretical focus trained on individual communication behaviors, Kim employs a psychological perspective to define interethnic communication as an event or a series of events that occurs when at least one of the communicators orients himself or herself toward the interacting partner(s) in terms of ethnicity, ethnic group membership, or ethnic ingroup/outgroup categorization.

Interethnic Communication as a Dynamic System

The CTIEC is grounded in the general systems theory, specifically of “open systems” (Bertalanffy, 1975). This metatheoretical perspective emphasizes the structural-functional interdependence of various elements of a given entity or event and the surrounding environment. The holistic and integrative logic allows a conception of human communication as an organic system that is co-constituted by the individual and the social, or the behavior enacted and the context that “surrounds” it. As such, the CTIEC emphasizes that all communication practices, including the practices of interethnic communication, point beyond themselves to (and derive their meaning from) contextual conditions, or “covert factors” (Von Raffler-Engel, 1988). Echoing the “social matrix” perspective of Ruesch and Bateson (1968, pp. 5–6), communication is conceived broadly as the very substance of all things social, including not only the verbal, explicit, and intentional transmission of messages but also all those contextual processes influencing the individual’s communicative acts, actions, and events.

The Behavior-Context Interface

The basic interethnic communication phenomenon conceived in the CTIEC as an open system is depicted in Figure 1. The model highlights the interface of the contextual forces surrounding a particular enactment of interethnic behavior. Organized as a hierarchical arrangement founded on a progression of multiple levels of context, the model offers an integrative matrix of a basic interethnic communication system.

At the core of the matrix is the communicator’s encoding and decoding behaviors or activities. These activities constitute the “stuff” of the communication event or the what and how of the messages sent and received. Surrounding this focal phenomenon of communication behavior are the conditions of the communication context, which shape and are shaped by the behaviors. The first layer of the context is the characteristics of the communicator himself or herself pertaining to what is traditionally called the mind that organizes and processes incoming verbal and nonverbal information into forms of meaningful messages. Next comes the situational layer: that is, the immediate social milieu created when the communicator interacts with one or more persons, either face-to-face or through various mediating channels ranging from point-to-point channels such as computer, fax, telephone, and letter, to other more public channels including radio, television, newspapers, and their Internet-based websites. Beyond the situational level is the larger environment, a layer comprising many levels of social organization, from the suborganizational, organizational, and community levels to a society at large.

Figure 1. The Contextual Model of Interethnic Communication. From “Association and Dissociation: A Contextual Theory of Interethnic Communication” by Young Yun Kim, 2005a, in W. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing about Intercultural Communication, p. 329. Copyright 2005 by Young Yun Kim.

Because one level acts as the meta-level and/or the sub-level, the above-described contextual scheme is employed in the CTIEC as one of “mapping” or a “rigorous metaphor” (Bateson, 1972, p. 404), that is, a simplified, but holistic, approximation of the dynamic behavior-context interface in interethnic communication from a single communicator’s perspective.

This organic conception of interethnic communication counters the linear-reductionist assumptions commonly underlying the existing theories that identify a set of “independent” and “dependent” factors linked together in one-directional, cause-and-effect relationships. The picture resulting from such variable-analytic models are fragmented and often contradictory chains of causation. For instance, a key variable (such as ingroup loyalty) is examined by some researchers as an independent variable causing a dependent variable (such as outgroup prejudice), while the reversed causal direction is argued by others. In contrast, the CTIEC identified predictability in a communication event in terms of the “redundant patterns,” a kind of reciprocal “stimulus-and-response” relationships in the interface of the behavior and the context (Bateson, 1972, p. 399).

The Behavior

The behavior, the focus of the CTIEC, consists of various actions and reactions of a communicator involved in interethnic interactions. Communication behavior is defined broadly to include a full spectrum of interethnic communication behaviors and actions that are not only overtly observable verbal and nonverbal encoding activities but also decoding activities taking place within the person hidden from other communicators.

The Association-Dissociation Continuum

A wide array of interethnic communication behaviors has been investigated in psychological and communication studies, mostly focusing on either associative or dissociative behavior. In the CTIEC, the full spectrum of encoding and decoding behaviors are integrated into a bipolar continuum of association and dissociation. At one associative end of the continuum are the behaviors fostering mutual understanding, cooperation, and convergence. At the dissociative end of the continuum are the behaviors associated with misunderstanding, competition, and divergence. Specific communication behaviors, then, are considered not as exclusively associative or dissociative but as being more or less associative or dissociative.

Concepts Incorporated into Associative/Dissociative Behavior

Among the most prominent concepts in the literature indicating associative decoding behavior are cognitive differentiation (Brewer & Miller, 1988), multiple categorization (Prati, Crisp, Meleady, & Rubini, 2016), particularization (Billig, 1992), decategorization (e.g., Billig, 1987), recategorization (Dovidio, Gaertner, Shnabel, Saguy, & Johnson, 2010), and wide categorization (Detweiler, 1986). Others have employed more general concepts such as openness (Broome, 2015; Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005b, 2006, 2009b, 2012), and mindfulness (Langer, 1989) to describe the patterns of perception and thought that foster dialogue with a finer cognitive discrimination and more accurate and thoughtful ways of interpreting messages about and from out-group members.

Associative encoding behavior is indicated in self-disclosure (Duck & Usera, 2014) and message complexity and person-centered messages (Applegate & Sypher, 1988), as well as adaptive nonverbal and verbal behaviors fostering synchrony (Kim, 2015a), joint activities (Clark & Henetz, 2012), alignment talk (Hopper, 1986), and interactive alignment (Pickering & Garrod, 2014). All of these concepts signify interactional cohesion, mutuality, and the coming-together of the involved persons (association).

In addition to these concepts pertaining to associative decoding and encoding behaviors, there is an abundance of concepts indicating the coming-apart of the relationship between communicators (dissociation). One of the most salient concepts indicating dissociative decoding behaviors is categorization, the strong human tendency to simplify cognitive representations of the social world by dividing persons into discrete social categories. In interethnic communication situations, categorization underlies the tendency to perceive outgroup members not as individuals, but as “undifferentiated items in a unified social category” (Turner, 1982, p. 28). Once such categories have been defined and labeled, processes of stereotyping and category accentuation are set into motion (Detweiler, 1986). Distinction is made between ingroups (“us”) and outgroups (“them”), thereby invoking such tendencies as accentuation of differences, de-accentuation of similarities (Oddou & Mendenhall, 1984), and depersonalization (Tajfel, 1970). Such categorical decoding constrains interethnic communication as they create self-fulfilling prophecies of seeing behavior that confirms our expectations even when it is absent (Hamilton, Sherman, & Ruvolo, 1990), which then serves as the cognitive basis for ethnic prejudice (Stephan & Stephan, 2000).

Also included in dissociative decoding behaviors are inaccurate attributions. Research has shown the common tendency to underestimate the importance of situational causes in making inferences about others’ negative behavior, an effect labeled the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977). The fundamental attribution error becomes the ultimate attribution error (Pettigrew, 1979) when it involves a positive bias toward one’s ingroup members and a negative bias toward outgroup members. Relatedly, Hopper (1986) employs the term “Shibboleth schema” based on a biblical tale to illustrate prejudicial listening, a tendency to interpret dialectic differences as being defective and an object of hostility and discrimination. Volkan (1992) introduces yet another concept of dissociative decoding, projection: this refers to a psychological response that leads to ego-defensive reactions such as feelings of inferiority or superiority, avoidance, suspicion, and paranoia.

Regarding overt dissociative encoding behaviors, prejudiced talk (Van Dijk, 1987) has been examined in terms of varying degrees of emotional intensity and explicitness, from the subtle expressions such as “you people” to more blatant uses of ethnophaulism (Ehrlich, 1973) and hate speech (Waltman & Haas, 2011; Whillock & Slayden, 1995). Similar observations have been made regarding a wide range of nonverbal expressions of communicative distance (Lukens, 1979), from tense voice tone, physical distance, avoidance of eye contact, and frozen facial expressions, to more explicit nonverbal expressions and actions of anger, hatred, and aggression such as spitting, cross-burning, flag burning, rioting, to extreme acts of violence. More global terms such as “racism” have been used widely to characterize a person, a group, a policy, an institution, and a nation in terms of some or all of the characteristics identified above (Whitehead & Stokoe, 2015).

Two Main Themes of the Association-Dissociation Continuum

Emerging from the many different terms described above are two main themes of the associative-dissociative continuum identified in the CTIEC. The first theme, individuation-categorization, refers to the degree to which the communicator acts or reacts relying on information on the particular interacting partner(s) involved in a particular event (individuation) versus relying on information on the ethnicity or ethnic identity of the interacting partner(s) (categorization). The second theme, consonance-dissonance, in which the communicator makes adjustments in his or her habitual encoding and decoding behavior so as to facilitate relational cohesion (consonance) or engages in acts that impede or disrupt such cohesion (dissonance).

With these two underlying themes, Kim (2005a) explains that communicators in interethnic encounters act associatively when they perceive and respond to others as unique individuals, rather than as representatives of an outgroup category, while displaying friendly facial expressions, complementary or mirroring bodily movements, and personalized (rather than impersonal) speech patterns. In contrast, a communication behavior is identified as dissociative when it is based on a categorical, stereotypical, and depersonalized perception that accentuates differences. This behavior is also dissociative when it is accompanied by one or more forms of divergent verbal and nonverbal behaviors: from the subtle facial, vocal, and bodily expressions of lack of interest, disrespect, arrogance, and anger, to intense expressions of hatred, aggression, and even violence.

These two themes of encoding and decoding behavior and their associative and dissociative relational functions are summarized in the following three axioms. Based on these axioms, the CTIEC explicates eight theorems explaining the dynamic interface of the behavior and the three layers of contextual factors identified in each of the following sections.

Axiom 1. Individuating and congruent behaviors serve associative relational functions.

Axiom 2. Categorical and incongruent behaviors serve dissociative relational functions.

Axiom 3. Association and dissociation constitute two opposite ends of a continuum of relational functions in interethnic communication.

The Communicator

The first layer of the context, the communicator, is the most immediate context within which specific encoding and decoding behaviors are enacted. Associative/dissociative interethnic communication behaviors are reciprocally linked to a variety of internal characteristics of the communicator. In the CTIEC, many of the existing psychological concepts are integrated into two broad bipolar themes of the communicator: (1) inclusivity (or exclusivity) and (2) security (or insecurity). These identity themes correspond to the routinized ways, or “personal schema” (Horowitz, 1991), with which individuals respond to external stimuli. As such, they are regarded here as the more or less enduring core constitutions of personhood that influence (and are influenced by) a given communicator’s associative or dissociative interethnic behavior.

Identity Inclusivity/Exclusivity

Identity inclusivity/exclusivity refers to the tendency of individuals to categorize themselves and others as ingroup or outgroup members. Inclusive identity orientation serves as a cognitive and motivational basis of associative behavior, whereas exclusive identity orientation is closely linked to a more rigid differentiation of oneself from ethnically dissimilar others.

In social psychological studies, this concept has been investigated extensively in relation to prejudicial talk (Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 1982), language attitudes (e.g., Ross, 1979), and maintenance of minority languages (Lambert, 1979), and convergent behavior (Gallois, Ogay, & Giles, 2005). The social identity theory (Tajfel, 1974; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) has guided these studies by pointing out that: (a) membership in the social group is an important, emotionally significant aspect of the individual’s self-concept; (b) collective interests are of concern to the individual, above and beyond their implications for personal self-interest; (c) individuals identify with a group such that a positive self-identity is maintained; and (d) this motivational tendency is enacted in such interrelated forms as ingroup bias, ethnic commitment, ingroup loyalty, and outgroup discrimination.

Building on this theory, collective ethnic identity has been explained as a main source of interethnic dissociation in a number of related social psychological theories. Among such theories are the self-categorization theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), the integrative theory of intergroup conflict (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and the communication accommodation theory (Gallois, Ogay, & Giles, 2005). Each of these theories accounts for individual differences in degrees of subjective ingroup identification as the pivotal factor leading to interethnic dissociation, particularly under the condition of a real or perceived competition or threat to one’s ingroup.

These theoretical accounts, in turn, have generated numerous studies that provide a substantial amount of empirical evidence for the significant relationship between strong or exclusive ethnic identity and various forms of dissociative interethnic behavior including: stereotyping (Francis, 1976), hostility and aggression (Berkowitz, 1962), ethnic nepotism (Vanhanen, 2014), and outgroup discrimination (Brewer & Miller, 1988). All of these identity-related psychological attributes have been found to facilitate dissociative decoding behaviors such as biased attribution, psychological distance, and linguistic divergence (Giles & Johnson, 1986), and even the willingness to use a violent ingroup defense (Van Bergen, Feddes, Doosje, & Pels, 2016).

On the other hand, inclusive identity orientation has been linked to associative interethnic behaviors. In her integrative theory of cross-cultural adaptation, Kim (1988, 2001, 2006, 2009b, 2012, 2015b) provides a model of intercultural identity development, emphasizing the adaptive and dynamic nature of identity. The model explains that through extensive, intensive, and prolonged experiences of adapting to a new culture, an individual’s original cultural identity gradually undergoes a transformation in the direction of greater individuation and universalization in self-other orientation. In this process, the individual’s identity becomes increasingly inclusive with a greater capacity to make deliberate choices of actions in specific situations rather than simply being dictated by the prevailing norms of the culture of childhood.

Among other existing concepts that are linked to associative interethnic behavior are: multiple group identity (Phinney, 1993), multicultural identity (Adler, 1982), and double-swing (Yoshikawa, 1986). Each of these concepts is grounded in the premise that an individual’s identity can be achieved over time, as much as it is ascribed by birth or by society. Unlike the identity of exclusivity, then, these concepts of inclusive identity orientation suggest a level of intellectual and emotional openness and flexibility--the personal qualities that engender associative interethnic behavior.

Identity Security/Insecurity

The second communicator factor, identity security/insecurity, refers to the overall “ego-strength” (Lazarus, 1966) or “character strength” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004): that is, the inner resource (or lack of it) that one reacts to a stressful situation with composure and clear and rational thinking, thereby allowing for qualities of flexibility and relaxedness in one’s behavior. Identity security thus indicates an individual’s overall sense of self-confidence (van den Broucke, de Soete, & Bohrer, 1989) or self-esteem (Das, Bushman, Bezemer, Kerkhof, & Vermeulen, 2009), whereas identity insecurity manifests itself in feelings of inferiority or defensiveness when interacting with others, including those who are ethnically dissimilar. Worchel (1986) suggests identity security is likely to help alleviate unwarranted fear and perceived threat.

Most of the social psychological studies of intergroup relations addressing identity have been focused on the insecurity (rather than security) members of an ethnic group feel about their group’ s status in relation to that of an outgroup. The Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966) and the Group Threat Theory (Blalock, 1976), for example, explain that actual intergroup competition over scarce resource drives subjectively real or perceived threats to the ingroup interests, which, in turn, motivate ingroup members to express anti-outgroup attitudes. Other concepts pertaining to identity insecurity include status anxiety (De Vos, 1990), perceived threat (Giles & Johnson, 1986; Prati, Crisp, Meleady, & Rubini, 2016; Stephan & Stephan, 2000), marginality (Stonequist, 1937; Taft, 1977), and identity uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). A number of socio-biographic case studies have revealed that dominant group members are also vulnerable to identity exclusivity and identity insecurity. Pfafman, Christopher, and Tang (2015), for example, examine the politics of Chinese citizens’ racism toward African immigrants on the website, ChinaSMACK, showing that racism on this website is triggered by perceived threats to Chinese identity in a paradoxical relationship with globalization.

The Situation

Next to the contextual layer of the communicator is the situation in which an interethnic encounter takes place. An extensive amount of research attention has been given in social- psychological and communication studies to various situational variables, many of which are represented in the CTIEC by three broad constructs: ethnic proximity/distance, shared/separate goal structure, and personal network integration/segregation.

Ethnic Proximity/Distance

Individuals come to an interethnic communication situation with differing ethnic characteristics. Each communicator’s ethnicity manifests itself in individuals at two levels: (1) extrinsic ethnic markers related to physical features (e.g., skin color, physique, hair, facial features), material artifacts (e.g., food, dress, decorative objects, and religious practices), and certain noticeable behaviors such as unique gestures and paralinguistic patterns (e.g., distinct accents, tempos of utterance, intonations, and pitch levels; and (2) intrinsic ethnic markers including internalized beliefs, norms, and value orientations closely associated with a particular ethnic group. As such, each interethnic communication event presents a level of ethnic proximity (similarity and compatibility) or distance (difference and incompatibility) between the involved parties. Ethnic proximity (or distance) is, thus, a situational concept comparing a given communicator’s ethnicity with that of the other(s) involved in a particular interethnic communication event.

The CTIEC explains that an individual’s interethnic behavior is likely to be more associative when he or she sees in the other(s) a higher degree of similarities in extrinsic ethnic markers and/or a higher degree of compatibility in intrinsic ethnic markers. A significant amount of differences and incompatibility, on the other hand, tends to accentuate category salience and the accompanying psychological distance, inhibiting the communicator’s motivation to engage in the communication encounter and seek a cooperative relationship. Research evidence shows a clear link between ethnic proximity/distance to dissociative behaviors. In a classic conversational analysis study, Gumperz (1978) demonstrates how dissociative and associative interethnic behaviors arise from differences and similarities between interactants’ culturally based speech patterns. Employing conversational analysis, Gumperz contrasts a heated and often disjointed exchange between a British young female staff member and a middle-aged male Indian immigrant and a more cohesive and cooperative exchange between the same Indian man and a female social worker who is also an immigrant from India. Various forms of ethnic distance such as heavier accents have been shown to increase intergroup anxiety (Stephan & Stephan, 1985) and interethnic bias (Dovidio & Gluszek, 2012), whereas greater perceived similarities (“I-sharing”) lead to greater “selflessness” toward outgroup members (Huneke & Pinel, 2016).

Shared/Separate Goal Structure

The second situational factor identified in the CTIEC is the shared or separate goal structure underlying interethnic interactions. Shared/separate goal structure refers to the extent to which the communicators interact with or without the mutuality of purpose or interests. Shared goals foster, and are fostered by, associative behaviors and cooperative relationships between the involved parties. Common expressions such as “we,” “our company,” “our football team,” “our neighborhood,” and “our country” reflect such mutuality, reveal associative behaviors, and promote a cooperative relationship between the involved parties. At times, interethnic coalitions may be formed as a means to pursue a common goal together only temporarily until it is met (Chesler, 1988). In contrast, communicators interacting without any common purpose or interests are likely to display disassociative behaviors.

A number of social psychological theories have addressed the relationship between shared goal structure and interethnic association. Brewer and Miller (1988), for example, have explained that associative behavior (such as individuated decoding rather than stereotypical categorization) are more likely when the interaction is structured to promote an interpersonal and cooperative orientation rather than a task-oriented and competitive orientation. Cooperative work teams are often composed and structured in such a way that roles or functions within the team are correlated with subgroup category identities (such as ethnic categories). Brewer (1996) further posits that criss-crossing identities by drawing one or two individuals from a particular identity category into a team, diminishing categorical distinctions between individuals of differing subgroup identities.

In addition, Gaertner, Dovidio, Anastasio, Bachman, and Rust (1993) espouse the Common Ingroup Identity Model as a means to reduce intergroup bias in contact situations. Based on a series of experimental studies, Gaertner and associates claim that conditions that enhance the salience of the team identity and reduce the salience of subcategory tend to diminish or eliminate ingroup bias in evaluation of fellow team members. To the extent that participants perceive the combined team as a single entity with a shared goal structure, rather than an aggregate of two separate groups, evaluations of former outgroup members become more positive.

The theoretical relationship between shared goal structure and interethnic association has been demonstrated in empirical studies (e.g., Worchel, 1986; (Clark & Henetz, 2012). Based on an extensive review of early studies, Johnson, Johnson, and Maruyama (1984) conclude that goal interdependence and cooperative relationship in producing change in key psychological orientations of individual communicators (such as positive or negative attitudes, liking, and attraction). Likewise, Brewer and Schneider (1990) report that when the group members are made aware of the goals they share as members of the superordinate organization, cooperative choices are significantly increased.

Personal Network Integration

The degree to which a communicator’s relational network is ethnically integrated is the third situational factor identified in the CTIEC as influencing, and being influenced by, interethnic behavior. The ethnic composition of a given communicator’s personal network is indicative of the extent to which he or she has or has not already participated in associative activities with ethnically dissimilar others. Conversely, an individual whose interethnic behavior is generally associative is likely to form a more heterogeneous network of relationships.

A number of social psychological theories of intergroup relations provide further insights into the ethnic integration of an individual’s personal network and its relationship to his or her engagement in interethnic communication activities. Among the most notable theories are the contact hypothesis (Amir, 1969) and the intergroup contact theory (Pettigrew, 1998). These theories have generated numerous empirical studies providing empirical evidence for the psychological effects interethnic communication experiences are likely to have in decreasing intergroup prejudice and increasing more positive attitudes toward outgroups and more mixed interethnic social contacts (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011). Persons who share a friend are more likely to become friends themselves generating an effect called “transitivity” in network studies (Wasserman & Faust, 1994), studies have shown that multiethnic persons tend to foster cross-ethnic friendships in their personal network (Vonofakou et al., 2008), thereby serving as “bridges” between ethnic groups (Quillian & Redd, 2009). Of special interest is the related phenomenon of secondary transfer effect of contact (Pettigrew, 2009)—that is, the effect of interethnic contact spreading to non-contacted outgroups.

A sizable pool of research findings exists to support the role of personal network integration and associative interethnic behavior (e.g., Morela, Hatzilgeorgiadis, Kouli, Elbe, & Sanchez, 2013; Shelton, Douglass, Garcia, Yip, & Trail, 2014). A study of American Indians (Kim, Lujan, & Dixon, 1998), for example, reports that those with higher levels of network heterogeneity and more friends of dissimilar ethnic backgrounds are significantly more positive in their attitudes and feel less misunderstood by non-Indians. In studies of immigrants, the level of interethnic contact and integration in personal network structure has been found to be positively associated with their adaptation to the mainstream host culture (e.g., Kim & McKay-Semmler, 2013; Yum, 1988). Relatedly, Chen and Magazine (2012) report that American Internet use among Chinese international students in the United States directly and positively influences their sociocultural and psychological adaptation to the host society.

The Environment

Surrounding the situational context is the environment, a larger social milieu, in which interethnic communication takes place. The environment comprises multiple sublevels of social entities ranging from a small work unit (e.g., academic departments within a university), a neighborhood, an organization, and a local community, to a city, a state, a region, and a society as a whole. Three major constructs of the environmental context are identified in the CTIEC as influencing, and being influenced by, the associative/dissociative interethnic behaviors of individual communicators: (1) institutional equity/inequity; (2) ingroup strength; and (3) environmental stress.

Institutional Equity/Inequity

Institutional equity/inequity addresses issues of fairness and justice with respect to ethnic groups. Whether an organization, a community, or a government at any other level constituting the environment of an interethnic communication event, the institutionalized organizing principles (such as laws, policies, rules, or normative practices) shape the normative beliefs guiding and reinforcing the judgments and behaviors of individuals within that system. Through acts of social comparison, individuals are likely to act dissociatively if the institutions relevant to their life activities are, or are at least perceived to be, discriminatory against them because of their ethnicity (Turner, 1975).

Institutional inequity has been linked to dissociative interethnic behavior in studies that investigated within organizations in terms of objectively recognized systemic status differential along ethnic lines—the convergence of ethnic category and functional roles within the organization reflecting the historical interethnic power inequality in the society at large. To the extent that inequity exists, members of subordinate ethnic groups’ actions express their comparative feelings of dissatisfaction, or what is referred to as fraternalistic relative deprivation (Walker & Heather, 2002). In the social identity theory, rigid socioeconomic stratification along ethnic lines are explained as a factor increasing ethnic category salience in intergroup interaction, leading to structural conflicts of interest between ethnic groups (Tajfel, 1974; Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Institutional inequity has been of particular interest to scholars of the critical school. Built on the basic aim of exposing the existence of power inequality between dominant and nondominant ethnic groups, critical scholars have addressed issues of institutional inequity employing a range of concepts such as internal colonization (Etkind, 2011) and institutional racism (Hayes, 2015) and structural privilege of white Americans as the dominant group (Nakayama & Martin, 1998), rendering power inequality in interethnic encounters between dominant and nondominant group members.

Relative Ingroup Strength

The second environmental factor identified in the CTIEC is the collective strength of the communicator’s ethnic group in comparison to that of an interaction partner. The overall strength of an ethnic group is closely tied to the objective properties and positions of political and economic resources associated with that group, bringing status and prestige to members of that group. Stronger ingroup status thus serves as a social advantage in interethnic communication that helps to draw interest, if not acceptance, from outgroup members.

A number of sociological theories addressing the evolution of ethnic groups further suggest the linkage between the relative ingroup strength and dissociative interethnic behavior of an individual communicator. Clarke and Obler (1976) argue that an ethnic group’s institutional completeness reflects its growth from its initial, economic adjustment stage to the later stages of development with which the group shows its collective strength to manipulate its ethnic identity for political self-assertion for the benefit of the group’s interests. Likewise, Breton (1964) and Keyes (1981) provide their respective views on the developmental stages of an ethnic group and its increased political mobilization. A crucial force in this process is a strong communication system including ethnic media and community organizations such as churches and social clubs. The theoretical relationship between relative ingroup strength and dissociative interethnic behavior is supported by the observations of Brewer and Miller (1984) that interethnic relationships tend to be more acrimonious in larger groups with several equal size ethnic subgroups. Hoffman (1985) argues further that as the size of an ingroup increases, the likelihood of contact with outgroup members decreases and the ingroup members become more likely to interact with other ingroup members.

These observations suggest that ethnic minorities living in communities where they constitute only a small proportion of the overall population and enjoy a low level of institutional completeness are likely to engage in more associative interethnic behaviors. Such is the conclusion drawn from a study of Greek and Italian ethnic groups in Australia by Gallois and Pittam (1991). In this study, adolescents in the well-organized Greek community are found to place more emphasis on their ethnic identity and maintaining their heritage than their Italian counterparts whose community is less cohesive. The study also reveals that Greek-Australian adolescents place less emphasis on adapting to the dominant Australian culture at large.

Environmental Stress

The third environmental factor, environmental stress, pertains to the tension in an organization, community, or society at large. Interethnic dissociation is likely to increase when the environment is under duress due to events that are linked to one or more outgroups. Dissociative behaviors also tend to increase when the society undergoes certain challenging circumstances caused by economic hardship, shortage of resources, or involvement in an international crisis. Interethnic tension may also stem from such nonethnic factors as limited resources and economic hard times—conditions that are likely to intensify competition throughout a given social system—be it a society at large, a region, a town, or a small organization. The Group Threat Theory of Intergroup Relations (Blumer, 1958) identifies a causal link between environmental stress and interethnic dissociation. According to this theory, social distance results when a group with less power threatens to consume resources that are perceived to more rightfully belong to the group in power.

Although group threat has been applied most frequently to exploring relations between a dominant group and a minority group, it may also be applied to relations between minority groups that may have relative power in relation to one another with respect to specific aspects of power and privilege. The Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966) further explains that the actual or perceived competition for scarce resources leads to bias against outgroups in the absence of existing common or complementary goals. Extending this theory, Esses, Jackson, and Armstrong (1998) has proposed the Instrumental Model of Group Conflict, highlighting the role of the perception of intergroup competition and zero-sum beliefs (if one group gains, the other loses) that are accompanied by anxiety and fear.

Environmental stress has been investigated as a factor that intensifies intergroup dissociation in a substantial number of social psychological studies. Intergroup conflicts have been linked to certain challenging circumstances in a society caused by economic hardship or resource competition (e.g., Butz & Yogeeswaran, 2011; Tawa, Negron, Suyemoto, & Carter, 2015). More recently, terrorism-related events have been identified as causing anti-outgroup attitudes (e.g., Das, Bushman, Bezemer, Kerkhof, &Vermeulen, 2009) and the rapidly increasing size of immigrants and refugees (e.g., Schlueter & Scheepers, 2010) brought about as events producing environmental stress for the native-born majority population.


Based on the above-described theoretical arguments and empirical research findings, the CTIEC explicates the following eight theorems, or knowledge claims, linking each of the eight contextual factors to associative/dissociative interethnic communication behavior in a reciprocal functional relationship.

Theorem 1. The more inclusive (exclusive) the communicator’s identity orientation, the more associative (dissociative) his/her interethnic communication behavior.

Theorem 2. The more secure (insecure) the communicator’s identity orientation, the more associative (dissociative) his/her interethnic communication behavior

Theorem 3. The greater the ethnic proximity (distance) between the communicator and the other(s) involved in interethnic communication, the more associative (dissociative) the communicator’s interethnic behavior.

Theorem 4. The greater the shared (separate) goal structure between the communicator and the other(s) involved in interethnic communication, the more associative (dissociative) the communicator’s interethnic behavior.

Theorem 5. The more (less) ethnically integrated the communicator’s personal network structure, the more associative (dissociative) the communicator’s interethnic behavior.

Theorem 6. The greater the institutional equity (inequity) across ethnic groups in the environment, the more associative (dissociative) the communicator’s interethnic behavior.

Theorem 7. The greater the relative strength (weakness) of the communicator’s ethnic ingroup in the environment, the more dissociative (associative) the communicator’s interethnic behavior.

Theorem 8. The greater the competition-intensifying environmental stress, the more dissociative the communicator’s interethnic behavior.

The Theory and the Reality

Focusing on the associative/dissociative communication behavior of an individual and identifying its reciprocal relationships with the three-layers of contextual factors, the CTIEC presents a multidimensional and multifaceted model of interethnic communication. By explicating eight empirically testable theorems, the theory presents opportunities for researchers to test the predicted interrelationships between variables of communication behavior with those of one or more contextual levels.

Along with the eight theorems, the CTIEC provides a broad conceptual roadmap for case studies of specific interethnic communication events. Ethnographic researchers or practitioners (e.g., trainers, consultants, and interested non-professionals) may apply the overall theoretical framework for in-depth case studies to examine the particularities that entail in specific interethnic communication events. Employing the theoretical model (Figure 1) as an analytic framework, an investigator can survey the entire “field” of a given interethnic encounter systematically and comprehensively. The dimensions and factors identified in the theory help to illuminate, and direct our attention to, specific behavioral and contextual factors that potentially influence (and are influenced by) the associative or dissociative communication behavior.

Once all the constituent dimensions and factors have been examined, the analyst may zero in on those factors that are most salient and significant to understanding and explaining that event. Even a single factor may be so powerful as to overshadow every other force operating in a given encounter. Such would be the case when two individuals respond to an identical set of situational and environmental conditions in vastly different manners, or commitment to a shared goal (a situational factor) is so strong that they are able to overcome many of the adversarial environmental factors and manage to engage in associative behaviors and activities.

The CTIEC further serves as an intellectual grounding for pragmatic action. For everyday practitioners of interethnic communication, the systemic conception of interethnic communication depicted in this theory suggests that change in the status quo in interethnic relations can be initiated at any level of the context, from the personal and situational, to environmental. Conversely, by facilitating associative behaviors, one can expect to improve the conditions of interethnic relations in an organization, community, and ultimately society at large.

One may expect, for example, that, when a situation is such that all involved parties aspire to a common goal, they are likely to engage in more associative behaviors. At the macro-environmental level, the theory suggests the likelihood of greater interethnic association when the larger environment offers the individual a system of law, rules, policies, and/or practices that are perceived to be more equitable, when the communicator’s own ethnic group is smaller in size and weaker in collective strength, and when the relevant environment is calmer and more prosperous. The theory further points to the importance of creating situations in which all involved parties see the mutuality of their respective interests and aspirations and work to move beyond ethnic categories in seeking a common goal while engendering inclusive and secure identity experiences between and among them.

In the end, the theory speaks to the real possibility that a single communicator can make a difference for all others involved in an interethnic communication event. It is this grass-roots-level reality of individual communicators that the theory illuminates in its full complexity. Those who desire change may begin by looking inwardly and reflecting on the extent of inclusiveness and security in their own sense of who they are and how they orient themselves to ethnically dissimilar others. By practicing associative behaviors at the individual level, one may work to improve the quality of daily interethnic relations in organizations and communities around us. Through voluntary associations across ethnic boundaries, each individual takes part in the task of weaving the social fabric and, thereby, taking part in the project of building a cohesive and vibrant community and, ultimately, a society at large.

Discussion of the Literature

Reflecting the history of immigration and ethnic diversity, issues of ethnicity and interethnic relations have been of a particular research interest to researchers across social science disciplines in the United States since the early 20th century (e.g., Simmel, 1950; Schuetz, 1944; Stonequist, 1937), and, more recently, in various European countries and beyond (e.g., Asal, Findley, Piazza, & Walsh, 2016; Clark & Henetz, 2012; Guelke, 2012; Koichi, 2015).

In sociology and political science, ethnicity has been addressed primarily as a demographic classification in a domestic context and to distinguish groups based on such “objective” indicators as race, religion, heritage language, national origin, or combinations thereof (Yinger, 1986). This is the way, for instance, political scientists (e.g., Asal, Findley, Piazza, & Walsh, 2016; Guelke, 2012) examine deep and often violent conflicts across societies along ethnic lines. Similarly, many sociologists have investigated ethnic “stratification” in the United States based on group-level statistics on various socioeconomic indicators such as education, occupations, earnings, and housing (e.g., Glazer & Moynihan, 1963, 1975; Hacker, 1992; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1999).

Cultural-anthropological research, likewise, has researched ethnicity as a group-level phenomenon but with the main emphasis placed on the subjective or experiential realm of a cultural tradition (e.g., Hsu, 1971; Nash, 1989). At its core, ethnicity is conceived as the collective life patterns by including language, behavior, norms, beliefs, myths, values, and the forms and practices of social institutions. These core elements of ethnicity are manifested in, or associated with, various “ethnic markers” (Nash, 1989) that are physical/material (e.g., skin color, dress, and food) as well as symbolic (e.g., emblems such as flags, crosses, anthems, folk songs, folk gestures and movements, folk dances, and decorative objects).

Social psychologists, on the other hand, have focused on the internal psychological patterns and external behavioral patterns of individuals in the context of interethnic interactions involving members of an ethnic outgroup. In this micro-level perspective, ethnicity is investigated mainly in terms of “the subjective orientation of an individual toward his or her ethnic origins” (Alba, 1990, p. 25). As such, in social psychological studies of intergroup behavior, terms such as ethnic identity, ethnolinguistic identity, or ethnic identification are interchangeably used to replace ethnicity per se. Sherif’s (1966) Realistic Conflict Theory, for example, postulates that intergroup behavior occurs “whenever individuals belonging to one group interact, collectively or individually, with another group or its members in terms of their group identification” (p. 12).

Among the most salient concepts investigated by social psychologists are cognitive factors such as ingroup/outgroup perceptions, beliefs, knowledge/ignorance, stereotyping, and attribution errors (Detweiler, 1986), affective-motivational-attitudinal tendencies such as collective ingroup identity (Van Bergen, Feddes, Doosje, & Pels, 2016), ethnic tolerance, prejudice, ethnocentrism, and racism (Stephan & Stephan, 2000), and related external behaviors such as the use of derogatory ethnic labels and other forms of discriminatory discourse (Smitherman-Donaldson & Van DijK, 1988). Beyond such individual-level research foci are interpersonal relationship factors and their influences on one or more psychological tendencies. Prominent among them are goal interdependence (Johnson, Johnson, & Maruyama, 1984), cooperative or competitive relationship (Worchel, 1986), and prejudice (Wagner, Tropp, Finchilescu, & Tredoux, 2008).

Interethnic communication is a relatively new area of study within the discipline of communication. It emerged in the 1980s as a subdomain of intercultural communication study, with the first anthology featuring some of its early works published (Kim, 1986). Closely paralleling cognitive and social psychological studies, communication studies have addressed intrapersonal-psychological patterns such as ethnic stereotypes (e.g., McNabb, 1986) and prejudice (e.g., Hecht, 1998), ethnic conflict communication style (e.g., Kochman, 1986), conflict identity management (Ting-Toomey, 2005), and interethnic uncertainty reduction (Gudykunst, 2005), and communication strategies employed by non-dominant group members in their interactions with dominant group members (Orbe, 1998; Orbe & Spellers, 2005). In addition, some of the ethnographic studies conducted by communication researchers have taken cultural-anthropological approaches, addressing mostly on core communication patterns associated with differing ethnic cultures such as American Indians (Wieder & Pratt, 1990) and African Americans (Daniel & Smitherman, 1990; Kochman, 1986).

Owing to the vast and varied approaches taken across social science disciplines, the literature presents a wide array of theoretical and empirical insights pertaining to interethnic communication. By and large, investigators have tended to limit their investigations to the particular research domain of their respective disciplines, resulting in a rich body of academic insights, but one that lacks cohesiveness and comprehensiveness. In developing the CTIEC, Kim (2005a, 2009a) has sought to address this issue by bringing together and consolidating many of the salient concepts across social sciences into broader concepts of higher-level abstraction and integrating them in a single, comprehensive framework, with the reciprocal influences between and among the previously separate disciplinary lines of inquiry identified and explained. As such, the CTIEC can be regarded as a way of “mapping” the domain of interethnic communication as an interdisciplinary field of study.

A deeper understanding of the interdisciplinary field of interethnic communication can be gained by reading about some of the discipline-specific approaches to ethnicity and interethnic relations. Books such as Intergroup Relations (Stephan & Stephan, 1996) and When Groups Meet: The Dynamics of Intergroup Contact (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011) provide a solid overview of the social psychological literature, along with article-length review essays such as Social Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication (Reid, 2012) and Intergroup Contact and Communication (Harwood & Joyce, 2012). Interested readers may also learn more about the focal concepts in the CTIEC, associative/dissociative interethnic communication behavior, in article-length works such as: Hate Speech and Stereotypic Talk (Haas, 2012), Accents, Nonverbal Behavior, and Intergroup Bias (Dovidio & Gluszek, 2012), Nonverbal Behavior and Intergroup Communication (Castelli & Galfano, 2016), and Achieving Synchrony (Kim, 2015a).

To learn more about macro-level or group-level approaches to interethnic communication, interested readers may read some of the sociological studies such as the one presented in One Nation, After All (Wolfe, 1998). In this book, Wolfe identifies “the new middle-class morality” as the key finding from 200 in-depth interviews conducted in four metropolitan areas in the United States, and describes this new morality as one of mutual tolerance, accommodation, and balance, as well as of a great deal of ambivalence and contradiction. For a better understanding of the group-level approaches in political science, Politics in Deeply Divided Societies (Guelke, 2012) provides an introductory text for anyone interested in the sources of divisions in pluralistic societies, as well as the successes and failures of the management of intercommunal differences.

Further Reading

  • Castelli, L., & Galfano, G. (2016). Nonverbal behavior and intergroup communication. In H. Giles & A. Maass (Eds.), Advances in intergroup communication (pp. 137–154). New York: Peter Lang.
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  • Gudykunst, W. (2005). Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Guelke, A. (2012). Politics in deeply divided societies. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
  • Haas, J. (2012). Hate speech and stereotypic talk. In H. Giles (Ed.), The handbook of intergroup communication (pp. 128–140). New York: Routledge.
  • Harwood, J., & Joyce, N. (2012). Intergroup contact and communication. In H. Giles (Ed.), The handbook of intergroup communication (pp. 167–180). New York: Routledge.
  • Kim, Y. Y. (Ed.). (1986). Interethnic communication. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.
  • Kim, Y. Y. (2015). Achieving synchrony: A foundational dimension of intercultural communication competence. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 48, 27–37.
  • Pettigrew, T., & Tropp, L. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Reid, S. (2012). Social psychological approaches to intergroup communication. In H. Giles (Ed.), The handbook of intergroup communication (pp. 19–43). New York: Routledge.
  • Stephan, W., & Stephan, C. (1985). Intergroup anxiety. Journal of Social Issues, 41. 157–175.
  • Wolfe, A. (1998). One nation, after all. New York: Viking.


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