Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

‘Affective Meaning’ in Arabic

Published in the Fall 2011 Gist From the Mill (Duke University Social Sciences Research Institute)

By Whitney L.J. Howell

Stop for a moment, and think about mothers. What image pops to mind? What emotions does that word evoke?

Now consider whether someone from another country and culture would respond the same way. There’s a chance they won’t – but why?

It’s this question that fuels Lynn Smith-Lovin’s research. Her previous work has decoded the answers for societies in China, Japan, Korea, and Germany. Now, with one to five years of funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), she’s turned her focus to providing the same clarity for Arabic-speaking cultures.

Smith-Lovin began applying Charles Osgood’s affective control theory — developed in the 1950s to determine how individuals respond cognitively to outside actors and stimuli — to Arabic-speaking populations in October 2010. With faculty and doctoral student collaborators from the sociology department, as well as researchers from Indiana University and the University of Georgia, she developed a survey to collect data from this group.

“We’re using the affective control theory to look at how ethnic groups perceive various social situations. From prior research, we know cultural knowledge is acquired and imprinted through a lifetime of experiences,” said Smith-Lovin, a sociology professor in Duke’s Women’s Studies Program, describing her basic research that will be unclassified and available to all future investigators. “Cultural meaning is a stable feature, and it tells us a lot about social interactions in a society.”

The study population had varying levels of education, ranging from Iraqi refugees to Egyptian professionals who worked in Research Triangle Park. Overall, 33 native Arabic speakers from the Triangle area participated in the eight-part, 200-scenario pre-test, and they offered initial reactions to various situations, such as a mother comforting or striking a child.

For even greater detail, participants rated the interactions based on three additional dimensions: evaluation (how good or bad a scenario or its actors are), potency (strength or weakness), and activity (liveliness or passivity).  To date, very little research like this exists around the Arabic language.

“If we were to find in the pre-test that Arabic speakers tended to see good actors as powerful and bad actors as weak, that would a cultural feature of real importance,” Smith-Lovin said. “We’re aware much military work involves interacting directly with local populations, and having knowledge like that could help soldiers determine who is and isn’t a friend.”

The results and analysis will enhance the military’s cultural training methods, according to Kim Rogers, a sociology doctoral student working with Smith-Lovin. Soldiers in any Middle East combat theater could use the survey’s details to improve interactions with local populations and augment cultural sensitivity to avoid any potential problems from cultural misunderstandings.

In additional to the impact on military activities, studying social interaction and implications in Arabic-speaking societies is valuable because the language has ranked among the top 10 most widely spoken tongues globally for the past 15 years, according to the Summer Institute for Linguistics Ethnologue Survey. There are four distinct dialects within Arabic, and Smith-Lovin’s team has tried to address them all.

Jen’nan Read, one of Smith-Lovin’s sociology faculty partners, agreed studying the Arabic language and how its native speakers respond to social situations will bolster the safety of U.S. military personnel abroad.

“Anything we can do to ease the tasks of the military will be a benefit. We’re giving them a tool they can use so they won’t feel so vulnerable in what is clearly a hard role,” Read said. “By helping them understand these affective meanings, we’re making their work with another culture less of a leap.”

As an expert on American Muslims, Read leveraged her strong ties with this community in the Triangle to explain both the importance and the legitimacy of the research. Many Muslim and Arab-speaking groups often fear outside requests are facades engineered to extract and abuse private information. So, her involvement was imperative because these groups trust her.

“The Arabic speakers who participated in the pre-test were happy to do it because they often feel overlooked since most people don’t know who or where they are,” she said. “It’s important to understand how perceived meanings and culture can help identify if there are differences between groups.”

Despite all Smith-Lovin and her colleagues have gleaned so far, the survey still isn’t in its final form – plans exist not only to perfect it for Arabic-speakers in the United States, but to also design a survey for international use. The process to create a questionnaire that provides accurate, clear feedback hasn’t been simple, said Mary Hovespian, assistant professor of sociology and native Arabic speaker.

The Arabic language has many dialects, and the survey team wasn’t able to query speakers of each dialect, such as Palestinian territory residents, before designing and writing the survey. This is where Hovespian’s expertise came in.

“We had to make sure what was said in the survey was really what was understood by generic Arabic speakers,” Hovespian said. “We had to back-test how the scenarios were written. I met with [Smith-Lovin], who wrote the scenarios in English, to determine if what they were trying to test was actually what was coming through to the participants. And, in some cases, we did have miscommunication.”

Hovespian spent nearly a week translating and checking the survey. During this time, she identified many unclear or incorrect terms that have since been modified to convey the proper meaning.

As the team looks to expand its research to other Arab-speaking countries, such as Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, they are revamping the survey scenarios to ensure they have a good measurement instrument.

“We are hoping our collaborators in the Arab-speaking countries will help us navigate the dialect issues,” Smith-Lovin said. “We are looking for a better sense of the degree to which shared reactions are the same across the Arabic language and whether they change over time.”

To read the article in the original publication: http://issuu.com/ssriduke/docs/fall2011/15


November 7, 2011 - Posted by | Education, Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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