Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  8, Issue  1

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Intergroup Perception of International Students


Jóse Saura Sánchez, Murcia University,  Spain


José Saura is English teacher in the International Relations Service of Murcia University (Spain) and member of the research group “Cultural Studies in English and German Speaking Countries” of the Department of English Philology.



Intercultural Relations Studies are concerned with the analysis of intergroup behaviour within contexts of cultural diversity. Scholars agree that intercultural contact is an emotionally intense experience for the participants and challenging for researchers and educators (Paige, 2002). This exploratory study examined Spanish students’ perception of international students within the university context. We examined a sample of seventy-four Spanish students attending an English course at a university in the South of Spain. Perception of the foreign presence was found to be determinant on respondents’ behaviour when the possibility of intergroup contact emerges. Moreover, contrary to optimistic theories about the effects of intercultural contact, results indicated that even positive contact does not create favourable perception of cultural differences.


Theoretical foundations

During the last ten years, the emphasis on intercultural communication has shifted from cultural-specific issues towards the mutual understanding of host country and guest populations. Similarly, approaches to cultural diversity are assuming an intercultural perspective (i.e., intergroup contact and communication) rather than a multicultural posture (i.e., the presence and consideration of other cultures). Numerous studies on intercultural relations have dealt with the problems arising from the inherent influence our cultural background has on intercultural interaction. The Contact Hypothesis put forward by Allport (1954) proposed that, under certain circumstances, contact with members of a “disliked” group may lead to the growth of respect and liking, or, at least, the decrease of negative attitudes towards that group.


The present study focused on a multicultural educational context that in advance -after a previous phase of research-setting observation and participation- seemed to be characterized by intergroup distance between Spanish university students and foreign university students. Contact between members of different groups has been often considered as an affective way to reduce intergroup conflict. However, Piontkowski (2000) criticizes this view explaining that contact without cooperation and a common goal does not reduce hostility, but may rather increase it. Berry et al (1992) refers to the assumption that social contact, under certain conditions, can have positive influence on attitudes towards outgroups. But he warns that awareness of cultural differences in relation to the outgroup may turn into the perception of a “threat” to the cultural identity of the dominant group. In that case, outgroup discrimination may increase and impermeable group boundaries appear. Corson (1995) posits that it is inevitable that some cultural realities are incompatible. Referring to the same point, Corson argues that this is so because unfavourable attitudes inevitably appear when different cultural values and worldviews get into contact. Fox (1997) notes that negative attitudes towards the “other” stems from assumptions based on stereotyping and attitudes of superiority over other ethnic groups. Moreover, Giles and Robinson (1980) demonstrated that the factor of intercultural contact is not enough to dispel intergroup prejudice and xenophobic attitudes, and, as a consequence, to improve intercultural relations.


Within the vast amount of research on factors constraining intercultural relations, many authors emphasize the importance of intercultural perception for its impact on inter-group and intra-group cognition, attitudes and behaviour. In this study, the factor perception of the ethnic ingroup and other groups as well as the social contact setting is a major intercultural determinant. Some of the publications we have reviewed put forward the theory that, in multicultural contexts, the mere presence of a foreign group may give rise to negative attitudes on the part of the national group towards the guest community and, as a result, create unfavourable intergroup behaviours (Brown, 1988; Stephan & Stephan, 1996; Barna, 1998; Spencer-Rodger & McGovern, 2002).


Scholars dealing with intercultural experience in contexts of cultural diversity agree that intercultural experiences are emotionally intense for the participants and challenging for intercultural educators and trainers (Paige, 2002). From Bennett's theory on perception and intercultural sensitivity (1986), it can be stated that intercultural perception organize intergroup orientations (attitudes) towards the outgroup. Dominant ethnic groups members tend to perceive and emphasize difference in those situations in which a foreign ethnic group is present. When cultural difference is not understood, unfavourable attitudes to intergroup contact usually emerge (Donald & Rattansi, 2000). Tajfel (1981) suggests that foreign ethnic group members may be stereotyped by national dominant groups without, in many cases, any previous contact experience or just with a superficial contact.


Finally, it is also relevant to notice that increasing number of the world’s people international movements and migration make contact with cultural difference inevitable. Within the microcontext of university, local student community face domestic multicultural issues than can be normally experienced in the larger social macrocontext. There exists the popular assumption that students in international educational institutions have a higher degree of intercultural sensitivity due to increased mobility and contact with other cultures (Willis & Enloe, 1990; Straffon, 2003). In contrast, other theories assume that the confrontation with the complexity and diversity of a new culture reinforces people’s natural tendency to adhere to what is known and familiar. Such orientation to culture difference may result in, for example, social distance and defense or separatist attitudes (Bennett, 1986; Nesdale & Mak, 2003: 25).




Bottom of Form 0

The main issues addressed in the present research concerned (1) the way perception of cultural difference affects interethnic attitudes of Spanish students within the university context. Accordingly, the specific objectives were (2) to explore how Spanish university students perceive foreign students within the domestic university setting; (3) to determine which attitudes are expressed towards international students’ presence; and, more specifically, (4) which attitudes they show towards cultural differences they observe in the international student community. 



According to the research project, the focus population consisted of Spanish university students. Participants were conveniently selected from seven groups of students attending quarterly English courses at a university in southern Spain. Regarding group cohesion, sample homogeneity was achieved in terms of nationality, ethnic identity, social status and multicultural setting participation. Their participation was voluntary and anonymous. A group of seventy-four subjects were selected and willingly accepted to participate in the study.



Data comprised the information gathered from the administration of a research questionnaire. Statements that the respondents expressed must be understood from the point of view of Spanish students, as dominant/majority cultural group and part of the host university community. Therefore, the information we obtained corresponded to personal opinions and evaluations referring to the multicultural situation of their international university context and the kind of attitudes and behaviour they observe between Spanish students and international students.


Data collection

Data was collected through the research questionnaire, previously validated in a study on ethnic attitudes and intercultural assumptions (Saura & Barón, 2001). It was designed in Spanish, and consisted of two parts. Part I comprised a test of three demographical items and five questions on contact experience. Such questions cantered on the categories of "contact experience with foreign people”, “contact experience in a foreign university", and “quantity of contact”. On the other hand, Part II comprised an open-ended survey of nine questions on "type of intergroup relations inside the university", "interethnic attitudes", "intercultural problems and conflict", "stereotypes", "prejudices", and "intercultural assumptions and expectations". The study was carried out in a state university in the south of Spain. The questionnaire was administered in the classroom where English courses used to be given. One of the teachers of the courses presented and supervised the questionnaire session. To avoid co-ethnic bias, participation was anonymous. The time to complete the survey was not pre-defined. The mean time for completion of the questionnaires was fifty-seven minutes. All the questionnaires were handed over and completed. Only two were partially filled in. We finally collected a sample seventy-four questionnaires.


Data analysis

Once data were gathered and computerized in a linguistic corpus, the Ethnographic Content Analysis Model was applied. The ECAM is based on the content analysis procedure proposed by Ghillam (2000). The model was developed as an analytical tool designed for the study of semantic content expressed in text form. The ECAM was applied to information obtained in the open-ended survey. The analysis comprised three phases: Stage I, variables codification, ideas contained in respondents’ statements are identified and then codified into variables which are then included in general categories; Stage II, Variable quantification, categories are filed in a database and then perceptually quantified; and Stage III, discussion, is the phase of the explanation and interpretation of results. 


Discussion of results

Opinions on the focus contact situation indicated that there are almost no relations between the Spanish students and the international students. Results showed that 87% acknowledged not relating with the foreign group. Reports on the type of contact situation they observe inside the university evidenced that relations are sporadic and mainly superficial (52.7%). Some surveyed students consider the lack intergroup contact as a normal situation. However, a high percentage (70.1%) considers that such lack of interaction is unfavourable. This information revealed that we were dealing with what Isenberg (1986) calls “group polarization”. Accordingly, 94% stated that international students isolate themselves into culturally homogeneous groups. Their explanations for group polarization look for justification in the idea that they seek for “co-ethnic support”. Their reports maintain that the criterion for “group-membership” is to share the circumstance of being “foreign” students. Furthermore, 62.9% think that the foreign group is separatist and unwilling to start any social contact.


On the other hand, there exists a contrasting view in which Spanish students show indifference towards the foreign presence (62.9%). Similarly, a low percentage of our respondents (17.4%) thinks that other Spanish students are willing to be in contact with foreign students. Consensus was achieved in the statement that there are not hostile behaviours among cultural groups. Even answers reporting communication problems (36.4%) such as misunderstandings or cultural shock observe that those problems never lead to conflict. All opinions complaining of the lack of contact evidenced that these respondents want the situation to be improved. Nevertheless, 78.8% claimed that the university should deal with the improvement of intergroup relations. Even more revealing was to find that 94.7% think that such a situation should be managed by means of intercultural programs.


There were different orientations towards the foreign group's presence and, mostly, to the possibility of contact. We found more opinions standing for interethnic attitudes that can be considered unfavourable (65.7%) than favourable (34.7%). The percentage of respondents who made explicit their favourable attitudes through statements such as "desire to contact" (36.4%), "expectation of intercultural relations" (36.5%), and "empathy and sympathetic attitudes to the foreign group’s situation " (22%) resulted to be quite low. Only 3.8% got their expectations of intercultural experience fulfilled. From this low percentage, a sense of disappointment can be felt regarding their willingness and expectations of contact.


Regarding unfavourable attitudes, an important percentage (81.2%) is open to contact, but international students must be first to decide to get into contact. The surveyed students also explained how Spanish students always help foreign students “when they ask for some help”. This attitude is linked to the assumption that Spanish students, as the dominant group, take the “correct role”. This seems to be a shared ideological position that is connected to the idea that it is the foreign community that should integrate themselves into the Spanish community, and, as a result, take the initiative to establish any intercultural contact (62.9%).


There is no piece of information that uncovers any negative attitude regarding the fact that the other group is foreign. In fact, 90.1% stated that international students are as accepted as any other university student. However, negative attitudes are implicit when domestic students referred to anxiety they feel when they have to interact with a foreign student, mainly because they are “people who have a different culture, worldview and language” and who “behave in a different way”. In the same sense, 86% think there exists fear of intergroup encounters since cultural differences prevent satisfactory intergroup relations.


According to theories in the line of argument of Brown (1988), Stephan & Stephan (1996), Barna (1998) or Spencer-Rodger & McGovern (2002), findings indicated that the “foreign presence” creates more unfavourable interethnic attitudes than positive ones in those respondents who think that the contact with international students will have negative consequences. In contrast, only 12% of the participants expressed their desire for intergroup relations and 8.4% had expectation of intercultural contact. However, the foreign presence creates more fears and unfavourable attitudes in those respondents who argued that the intergroup contact is going to be a negative experience (81.2%). As a justification for this argument, 91.3% of these respondents explained that Spanish students do not try to get into contact because this is not the role of the host community group and because international students isolate forming culturally homogeneous groups.


This study also demonstrates that the foreign presence gives rises to a higher percentage of negative attitudes in those respondents who perceive differences as unfavourable for intercultural relations (86%). The British presence creates more fears and negative attitudes both in those respondents who expect a negative experience and in those who consider cultural difference as a constraining factor for positive favourable relations.


As predicted in the reviewed literature, after positive intergroup contact, perceptions and feelings about both the outgroup and the intercultural contact situation change. The analysis revealed that contact favours positive perceptions of linguistic differences. In fact, only 1.66% of the surveyed subjects who had experienced a positive intercultural contact inside the university fear the consequences of a possible contact experience. However, contrary to more optimistic theories about the effects of contact, an unexpected outcome indicated that intercultural contact experience, even though it had been positive, does not make unfavourable perceptions of cultural differences disappear. Most of the respondents who had lived an intergroup contact experience understand that difference makes difficult that successful relations may be established (99.1%). Thus, difference is perceived as a “stumbling block” for intergroup relations. Overall, content analysis suggested that when a possible encounter is regarded, a fear of what is different to the Spanish group’s culture, lifestyle, and worldview appears. Moreover, such a significant finding goes further hinting at the idea that intercultural contact makes individuals even more conscious of  difference” and its possible effects on intergroup communication.


Conclusions and further research

These findings demonstrated that, at first, the mere presence of international students does not represent a negative factor for the host student community. However, the foreign group is negatively perceived when a potential communicative interaction is considered. Consequently, unfavourable attitudes towards international students are directly related to such perception when the other group’s presence implies a social encounter. In multicultural settings, differences must be explained in order to achieve understanding and intergroup harmony from first contact experience to interaction and communication.


In order to confirm possible generalization for our findings, further research experiences must be carried out in comparable samples and settings. The university context can be used as a research site for exploring issues around cultural diversity and contact situation between guest foreign groups and host national communities. Due to the kind of experience these students have in the multicultural situation they are immersed in, they are a compelling research population. Studies on this line of research can provide insights for educators, trainers and researchers concerned with intercultural matters and inform curriculum and policy decisions in school and colleges (Straffon, 2003). Ethnographies on group attitudes and perceptions must continue developing qualitative as well as quantitative, rigorous studies for further generalizations. The analysis of specific groups’ perceptions of cultural diversity is currently a very demanding task.



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