This essay intends to reflect upon the ideas stipulated by Robert Park, on the topic of  acculturation presented in his work ; ‘The Crowd and the Public’, during the turn of the 20th century. In the 1960’s, a series of studies were conducted to understand how children of foreign diplomats and expatriates living in overseas countries respond to cultural differences of their home countries and those where their parents work. The concept of ‘the third culture’ was suggested in 1963 by a prominent anthropologist John Useem, to explain how children acculturate themselves as they interact between cultures. Since then, there have been numerous studies that suggested how the third culture could explain acculturation between individuals with different cultural backgrounds as they engage in intercultural communications. The author will carry out a comparative analysis between the ideas proposed by Park on acculturation and those that were suggested in the concept of the third culture. Exploring how these ideas converge, diverge and possible implications on education will allow us to extend our understanding of acculturation further. This in turn will aid the development of interventions that assist students from different cultural backgrounds to acculturate as they learn and communicate with each other.

1.1 Robert Park

Many important questions were raised by early scholars in conceptualizing and framing the current field of communication. The impact of culture on communication was one such question. Robert Park presented some interesting thoughts on communications in relation to the cultural process and saw communications to be beyond a mere inter stimulation. Park viewed communication as an interaction, a process that takes places between parties. He referred both to the referential and didactic functions of communication stating that ideas and sentiments are communicated partly through the use of conventional symbols and gestures. Park also expressed some interesting ideas showing how economic competition connects with communication and the social process. He saw diffusion and acculturation as two dimensions that explained the communication process within a cultural context.

1.2 Research Interests

The author is interested to investigate how cultural facets influence inter-personal communications when students engage in asynchronous online conversations. Studies (Barab, Young, and Wang, 1999; Hewitt, 2005; de Vally and Duffy, 2007) have shown different interaction profiles emerging as student engage in online discussions. Further, studies (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Rovai & Baker, 2005; Chyuang, 2007;  Xiaobin & Liu , 2008; Didiase & Kidwai, 2010)  indicate underlying differences as students of varying cultural backgrounds interact in online conversations. Very little has been done to tie these two areas attempting to explain whether there is a relationship between different interaction styles and cultural differences of students. Understanding this relationship is vital to augment the research agenda that would allow the development of interventions. Parks’ views on acculturation generate interesting ideas such as the concept of social distance, cultural conflicts and how they have an impact on acculturation. Similarly, the concept of third culture provides reasonable explanations on how different individuals find a common ground as they communicate together. A closer look at these ideas and a comparison between them will shed light in understanding how individuals negotiate meaning as they learn both in a face to face and in an online asynchronous environment. This will extend the research agenda of the author.  For reasons of manageability, this essay will focus on the interpersonal communication issues related to acculturation in an educational setting. Implications for learning and for asynchronous online discussions are further discussed. In taking this forward, there are terms that need to be defined to provide a better context to this discussion and demarcate boundaries for purposes of manageability. These terms include culture, inter-cultural communications, inter-personal communications, asynchronous online learning and third culture.

1.3 Definition of Key Terms

a)      Culture

Many definitions are found in literature that explains culture (Gunawardena, Wilson & Nola, 2003). Balwin, Faulkner, Hecht and Lindsley (2006), present evidence of over 300 definitions ranging across many disciplines. Each field attempts to emphasize facets of culture that help understand discipline specific issues. Thus culture is a complex and an elusive concept to define (Levy, 2007; Baldwin et al, 2006). The following is an attempt to dissect some definitions from the fields of psychology and anthropology that are widely cited in education literature pertaining to intercultural studies.

Hofstede (1991), a social psychologist and an anthropologist, is one of the widely cited authors on intercultural studies (Bing & Ping, 2008). He defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes members of one group from another” (p.6).  He explains that values, beliefs and patterns of behaviour of a cultural group are learned through experiences and the environment that they operate in. He asserts that the natural differences between environments in which individuals and groups are conditioned, will lead to cultural differences between them. Cultural variations are thus seen as given, leading to inevitable differences between individual and group behaviour. Matsumoto (1996), an educational psychologist, defines culture as “the set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next” (p. 754). He asserts the differences highlighted by Hofstede, but iterates how values are passed down from one generation to another. Definitions presented by these authors resonate with the essentialist paradigm, that project culture as given differences between individuals that are conditioned by their environments.  In bringing individuals together, the essentialists argue that their differences need to be understood carefully before creating any interventions to assimilate them.

Social constructivists present another paradigm, where they view culture as a negotiated process between individuals. Scollon and Wang (1995), who embrace this view, define culture as “Shared ways of symbolic meaning making among members of a social community” (in Reeder et al., 2004, p. 2). This view down plays pre-existing differences between individuals that may cause cultural tensions. It asserts that individuals and groups can negotiate meaning creating a common set of values as they engage with each other on a regular basis. This distinction is important since these philosophical differences are deeply rooted in prescriptions suggested by each camp as they attempt to acculturate individuals from diverse backgrounds.

b)      Inter-Cultural versus Inter-Personal Communications

Ting-Toomey (1999) makes a distinction between inter-cultural and inter-group communications. Inter-cultural communication is identified as “communication processes between members of different cultural communities” (p.16).   Differences in communication have been attributed to “variations that exist between cultural group membership factors such as beliefs, values, norms and interaction scripts” (p.16) that are distinct to a given national culture. Inter-cultural communication in this context is referred to those interactions that take place between different national cultural groups. In contrast, inter-group communication refers to “the degree of differences stemming from general group membership factors such as ethnicity, gender, social class” (p.16) within a given country.  Therefore inter-group communication is identified as communications taking place between groups living within a given national boundary.

In this essay, the intention is to highlight communication issues that relate to acculturation from an inter-personal communications perspective between culturally diverse individuals and groups that live within a nation.  This may raise a question as to why the term ‘culture’ is used since many tend to refer “cultural differences”, to denote differences that exists between national borders. An interpersonal difference within a nation usually is not referred to as cultural differences. The author is of the view that the differences of values, beliefs between ethnic groups, gender groups etc. that exist within a nation still represents cultural differences. Traindis (1995) states that there are thousands of cultures that exists across 186 countries around the world. The main argument emphasized here is the fact that cultures are not bound by political and national boundaries. Therefore many cultures exist within a country. Seufert (2002) presents culture as levels that exist at societal, organizational, group, individual and at subject disciplines. This perspective on cultural levels further affirms that cultural differences are not limited to geographical boundaries. Thus, the term culture is used to indicate differences in values, beliefs of individuals and groups that engage in inter-personal communications within a nation’s border.

c)      Asynchronous Online Discussions

Asynchronous online discussions supported through computer mediated environments, allow students to interact with their instructor, colleagues outside the classroom providing locational, time based conveniences and flexibilities. The ability to read, reflect, participate in an educational conversation asynchronously provides many advantages that are not available to students who engage in synchronous discussions in a face to face context.  Jaffee (1997) affirms that asynchronous conversations provide time for reflection before students make comments on their class work that provide opportunities for deeper reflection. Further, asynchronous discussions provide opportunities for shy students to participate in discussions interacting with the instructor and other students, encouraging collaboration (Hewitt, 2003).  Given that there is no physical face to face contact, when students from different cultural groups engage in an online context, they “encounter each other as strangers” (Reeder et al., 2004, p.6) leading up to possible miscommunications between them. Understanding cultural differences between individuals and groups and how they acculturate in an online environment therefore provides additional challenges to both students and educators.

d)      The Third Culture

A term coined by Useem,  defines third culture as “when persons associate across societies engage in common enterprise, they create a common culture” (p.31). He further asserts that the third culture transcends the culture of the society in which the association takes place and the cultures of the participants therein. The third culture becomes a bridge between the culture of the host nation and cultures of the participants. Membership is not restricted to two cultures but could be made up of several (Hussein, 1981). These authors identified that the presence of a third culture is experienced only when people from different cultures engage in joint endeavours for a prolong period of time. Short term engagements such as that of tourists does not become a part of a third culture.

It needs to be highlighted that the concept of the third culture is mainly identified with studies that relate to inter-cultural communications. It is the view of the author that a third culture will be in effect even among diverse ethnic, age, gender based groups that live within a country as they engage in inter-personal communications. There is no evidence to suggest that a third culture can only exist when individuals belong to cultures across national boundaries interact with each other. The conditions to create a third culture include individuals with diverse backgrounds, who are mutually dependent on each other to achieve a common goal and who interact with each other for a prolong period. Therefore a third culture can transcend national boarders and be seen within a smaller geographic unit within a country.


Casrnir (1999) presented a model that highlights different phases in the formation of a third culture when individuals across different cultures communicate with each other. Park conceptualized the process of acculturation as people that belong to different races, diverse cultures living within the limits of a local economy. The following table will present a comparison between these processes in analyzing their differences and similarities further.

Park’s   views of Acculturation

Casnir   (1999) – The building of a third culture

People that belong to divergent   cultures live together within the limits of a common local geography.  The relations between these groups will be   symbiotic than social in nature. They live more or less in a state of moral   isolation. This is attributed to social distance. Initial contact between culturally   diverse groups takes place due to a common endeavour. They encounter each   other as outsiders due to differences in skills, and other value based   differences.
As some attempt to escape this social isolation   and try to participate more actively, they tend to become aware of the degree   of their social distance. Minority groups are said to struggle to gain status   among the dominant cultural group. This amounts to a form of cultural   conflict. Prolong contact between these two   diverse groups; individuals due to their common endeavour may be cognisant of   the differences of their values. In order to carry out the common endeavour,   they will hinge on values that they seem to agree on initially.
Cultural conflicts allow divergent   parties to be aware of their differences that would otherwise be unconscious.   This allows understanding themselves as well as the attitudes and sentiments   of others that will eventually appreciate their minds. Ongoing process will suggest a sense   of dependence between different parties and they identify the need to   accommodate each other’s ideas as their relationships emerge.
Acculturation is seen as the mutual   interpretation of minds and cultures between different groups. The minority   parties seem to be acculturating themselves with the dominant group through   the understanding of their main values and their quest to seek social status   becomes a primary motivator. The eventual development and   maintenance of these relationships will allow them to negotiate mutually   acceptable outcomes that will become independent of their own first and   second cultures. The formation of a set of values that would be common as   they interact with each other will lead to the development of an independent   third culture between these parties.

In comparing the above ideas, both models converge as culturally diverse groups come into contact as they engage in a common endeavour. Park saw this common endeavour mainly from the minority groups’ point of view. Initially, culturally diverse groups came into contact with each other as they live within the limits of a common local geographical space. Although these groups live separate lives, (socially distant), minorities who break traditions and aspire to seek similar status within dominant groups, interact with each other identifying their differences further. In the third culture model, Casnir sees both parties coming together as they engage in a common enterprise such as working together for the same organization, carrying out a joint project in the community etc.

Another point of convergence would be the amount of time that parties need to engage with each other for acculturation to take place. Park does not allude to a specific time frame but given the nature of the process that he iterates, it is evident that assimilation of values does not take place as these groups engage in short term interactions. The third culture model highlights the impact of long term interactions specifically. The continuous dialogical communications between parties contributes to the creation of mutually acceptable values. This process can only take place when parties interact with each other for a period of time.

However, Park’s ideas as to how different groups acculturate seem to diverge to that of the third culture model in many ways. Park sees the creation of cultural conflicts as minorities identify their differences attempting to reduce the social distance between them and the dominant group. He highlights the motivation of minority groups to seek similar status among dominant groups as a main trigger of this reduction of social distance. He sees this rather radical approach of cultural conflicts as a positive process where the differences between groups are brought to light that otherwise could be dormant. Park identified that the intimate association between parties as a cause for acculturation but does not offer an explanation as to how divergent values assimilate eventually. The third culture model departs from Parks view since diverse parties attempt to find common values between them from the beginning to assimilate their different viewpoints as they recognize their mutual dependence as a key for their survival. It is through this process they find a common ground that leads to eventual acculturation.  The author sees Park’s ideas on acculturation to be revolutionary whereas the ideas proposed by the third culture model tend to advocate more of an evolutionary ideology towards acculturation.

Another important element that sets these two ideas apart is the final outcome of acculturation. Park seems to advocate that minority groups will eventually assimilate the values of the dominant group. When culturally diverse groups interact with each other, the dominant culture makes the most influence on minorities that will eventually lead to the demise of unique values of those groups as they acculturate with the dominant group. History informs us various resistance movements against this trend.  The Quiet Revolution that took place in Quebec among some French speaking Canadians in the 1960s and the eventual referendums to seek independence from English Canada is an example of this resistance. Although the author does not wish to radicalize this point through the use of political examples, this is an important idea that is espoused by cultural theorist as they relate to acculturation as suggested by Park. It is often seen as a radical movement. The ideas presented by the third culture concept depart from this ideology significantly. The third culture model does not suggest that one cultural group will assimilate or align their values with another as they interact with each other. It advocates the creation of the separate third culture with mutually dependent values that is unique to that group when they interact with each other. The third culture transcends the values of the host nation (first culture) and those of the second culture as individuals interact in a common enterprise. The fact that individuals may opt for membership in different third cultures from their own cultures is a unique idea. It is a less radical agenda and seems to be a more progressive approach to acculturation.

Finally there is yet another important point that dissects these two ideas apart. These two ideologies seem to resonate with different paradigms in which culture is embraced.  Park seems to embrace the essentialist views on culture that identifies cultural groups to fundamentally be different from each other. He sees different cultures assimilating as one embracing the values of the other. Park argues that cultural values, language cannot be transported like bricks between different environments since they have meaning embedded in a given context. Thus parties could embrace another culture only if they situate themselves within that environment. The concept of third culture is based on the notion that diverse values between parties could be negotiated and individuals can create their own meaning as they interact with each other. Values and meanings can be transported and a new understanding is created within the new environment created by that group as they communicate with each other.  This view embraces the social constructivists’ paradigm on culture.


 The differences highlighted above will have important implications as students with different cultural backgrounds interact with each other in a learning environment. It was highlighted earlier that differences in values between groups such as age, gender and ethnic cohorts who live within a given national boundary could be seen as cultural differences. As a nation we welcome people from different parts of the world to support our economy and population growth. Immigrants eventually become part of different ethnic compositions that live within our country. Our political, commercial and educational institutions expect them to assimilate their values with ours and those who are capable of doing so tend to integrate successfully with our system.  These distinctions could be extended to gender groups as well.  Half of our students in the post-secondary institutions represent women. Statistics indicate that women still earn a lower wage than men working in similar positions. While this discussion could be made covering a wide array of social issues, the intention of the author is to highlight how our views of acculturation could affect students that represent different cultural backgrounds as they engage in their education.

One important point is language. It is a known fact that many ethnic groups that emigrate from non-English speaking nations completing their secondary education in their respective countries and now pursuing post-secondary education in Canada tend to have difficulties with language. While these difficulties are genuine and legitimate, there are instances where educators in countries like ours tend to be less tolerant towards communication style differences that deviate from our own. Hofstede (1991), measured cultural differences between nations using dimensions such as collectivist, individualistic, masculinity and feminine values, tendencies to avoid uncertainty and acceptance of power distance among individuals. On the issue of power distance, Hofstede found that some individuals are willing to accept power differences between people of authority more than others. Studies (Bing & Ping, 2008: Warden et al. 2005) report that students who are part of such  communities hesitate to contribute towards class discussions especially in a face to face context in comparison those from societies like ours who are less tolerant to power distance. Students are taught to avoid confrontation, especially with teachers due to their acceptance of power distance.  In communities where people tend to accept values such as co-operation, security, and relationships (which are considered to espouse feminine values), tend to use more indirect forms of sentence construction, less confrontational vocabulary delaying presenting their argument as they write essays, papers for their course work. Societies like ours in Canada who embrace more masculine cultures (Hofstede, 1991) appreciate more direct forms of writing that attempt to get to the point in an efficient manner. Our assessments are designed to encourage students to highlight their thesis first and provide evidence to support it. In Asian cultures, students are often taught to present the thesis at the end of their essay after presenting ideas that would lead up to their point of view. Nisbett, (2003) highlights that debate as a central make up of Western societies going back to the days of the Greeks. He also points out that Asian cultures did not have any such history of debate. Thus some Asian students may tend to depend on the ideas of their teachers, peers in shaping their own views, while students in this part of the world are taught to develop their own voice from their childhood. When students representing different value systems engage in a classroom, some of these differences are treated as weakness rather than differences.

There are many other examples that could be provided how cultural differences between individuals can create tension in the classroom. The point being, we tend to view acculturation and assimilation of students from different backgrounds to our education system as to how Park saw in his grand scheme of ideas where minority groups align themselves with the dominant. There is a debate as to whether a third culture could be created in a classroom as students from different backgrounds interact with each other. Studies (Lervold, 1994; Selmer & Lam, 2003) present evidence of the emergence of a third culture in classrooms where students are expected to engage in group work as part of their learning activities. They report students who are part of a cohort program develop a unique third culture as they engage with each other for a period of time. The author is of the view that the practice of concepts associated with the third culture will provide some valuable insights in acculturating students from different backgrounds being more inclusive. Teachers can start by identifying commonalities that students’ depict between the two cultures and then allowing the creation of unique environment as these groups engage with each other. One may question the practical nature of allowing third cultures to be formed given the volumes that pass through our undergraduate courses. The advent of technology and the use of computer mediated communications through asynchronous discussions have provided unique opportunities for the creation of third cultures in an online space. The next section will provide more insights on this.



 Ess (1998) reflects on past studies that concluded the internet to be a culturally neutral medium or a culture free zone. In a series of longitudinal studies, Chase, Macfadyen, Reeder, and Roche (2002), dismiss this claim with empirical evidence highlighting the presence of cultural gaps as students engage in online discussions. While online asynchronous discussions could be used in blended learning environments, for purposes of simplicity, discussions that take place in purely online classrooms are considered for this discussion. Research carried out by Ess (2009) highlights how a third culture is created in online classrooms as students collaborate and negotiate meaning of various concepts. The lack of face time between participants forces students to see each other as strangers (Reeder et, al, 2005). When individuals from different backgrounds are part of this group, the anxiety becomes even greater (Gudykunst, 1995). Further, asynchronicity reduces the pressure of not making immediate remarks that usually leads to superficial comments to questions raised in a typical face to face discussion. This control of pace provides students the ability to make more reflective and in-depth remarks (Jonassen and Know, 2001).  This in turn provides students the opportunity to debate with each other compelling them to  negotiate meaning leading up to the formation of a third culture as they engage in an online discussion Ess (2009).

Parks views on acculturation such as the creation of cultural conflicts as individuals interact with each other is also prevent in online spaces. The lack of face time and immediate response provides plenty of opportunities for students to take opposing positions as they interact with each other. These differences of opinions will create camps where less dominant students eventually rallying around the dominant assimilating their ideas. This is called the bandwagon effort as seen in most group discussions. In terms of diffusion, students get the opportunity to provide more context to their comments as they take a stand in an online space. While studies find students who make longer posts tend to get fewer responses, it still provides the interested reader an opportunity to explore.

Online asynchronous discussions as a field have received significant attention in the recent past. The research group headed by Dr. Wise at the Simon Fraser University embarks on a series of studies using micro analytic methodologies reconstructing student actions understanding their online interaction patterns. Ideas stipulated by Robert Park and the third cultural model provides valuable insights in this reconstruction process understanding how students of varying backgrounds assimilate different ideas. These insights will allow researchers to create interventions to make online learning more productive and effective.


The objective of this essay is to reflect on the ideas on acculturation as presented by Robert Park and of those of the third culture model. Interpersonal cultural communications were presented as differences that exist between different ethnicities, age cohorts and gender groups that live within the same national geography. Several points were highlighted as to how these models converge and diverge. These models departed significantly the way they interpreted the final product of acculturation and the paradigms they represented understanding cultural differences in communication. Relating to these differences on learning, the author is of the view that in our classrooms, the general ideas stipulated by Park are adopted to be suitable methods to acculturate students from different backgrounds. In this process, it was revealed that behaviour that generated due to cultural differences was at times seen as weakness and the author saw this to be problematic. The need to allow the formation of a third culture was emphasized to assimilate students in a more inclusive manner. The use of asynchronous discussions based computer mediated technologies were cited as a gateway to the support this. In relating how these two models apply to the asynchronous learning environments, it was argued that the prevalence of a third culture in the online space was a natural occurrence due to the nature of the medium. It was also highlighted that the views of acculturation as presented by Park could also be seen in online discussions as students develop intimate understandings of themselves as they collide with different ideas and values. Understanding these two varying viewpoints of acculturation as seen by Park and the third culture model, allows us to see two sides of the coin providing more insights and opportunities to explore different alternatives. This understanding is pivotal as we move ahead with our research agendas in developing interventions to create a better environment for students of varying backgrounds, to learn, to communicate and make meaning in an efficient way.


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