We constantly interact with people from different social groups to our own: cultures, ethnic groups, genders, ages, occupations, organizations, even clubs. We may wish to affiliate with another person or group, or to distinguish ourselves from them. We express this motivation through language and communication, and through our interpretation of others’ communication. The main communication dimensions considered here are intergroup (versus interpersonal) and accommodation (versus nonaccommodation). The main theory describing and explaining them is Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT: Giles 1973; see Gallois et al. 2005, for a review).
Development Of Research Interest
Interest in intergroup processes originated in cross-cultural communication studies by linguists, sociologists, and psychologists. Most people in the world speak two or more languages, many using different languages for different purposes (diglossia). Even monolingual people change accent or communication style in different social contexts. Language and style change to signal important group memberships.
For example, a French–English bilingual in Canada may switch from English to French to signal the importance of being French Canadian, and may even refuse to speak English to an English Canadian. Other choices include changing accent, using more or less formal language, jargon or slang, or particular nonverbal behavior. Similarly, people making changes may be judged by members of their own group (ingroup) or another (outgroup) as friendly, ingratiating, hostile, arrogant, or stubborn, depending on the context.
Sociologists and sociolinguists have long been interested in the ways that people use language and communication to mark group memberships, and how these change depending on the situation: who, what topic, where, when (Fishman 1971). These scholars describe the subtle markers of group and social networks in language. The concept of accommodative intergroup processes, in contrast, derives from the social psychology of language, where there is a stronger emphasis on motivation and perception. Thus, instead of detailing actual language features, social psychologists of language explore the impact of identity, goals, interpersonal and intergroup history, and perceptions on communication. This work is linked to language attitudes.
Intergroup Processes And Identity
Intergroup processes include all aspects of social behavior, including communication, in interactions between members of different groups. They are contrasted with interpersonal processes, or social behavior between people where group membership is not salient or important. Intergroup processes – social judgments, decisions, attributions, and particularly communication – are closely tied to social identity, or a person’s sense of self as a group member, with the accompanying norms, values, and characteristics (Tajfel & Turner 1979). People differ in the strength of their social identifications; for one person, gender may be the most important identity, whereas for another gender may matter little but occupation be very important. Salience, or how close and influential an identity is to awareness and behavior, varies across situations. Social identity is salient whenever groups are in conflict or rivalry, whereas personal identity and interpersonal processes tend to be salient in friendly or ingroup contexts.
Social categories range from relatively fixed groups like culture, ethnicity, gender, social class, or age to relatively unstable ones like club or organization. Social identity is flexible depending on the intergroup history and its salience in a given context. For example, we may be very aware of cultural membership at the Olympics, but more aware of age in a discussion of retirement planning, and health in a discussion of disability. Likewise, we may be motivated to show identification with another group in one context (e.g., a potential employer during a job interview) and hostility toward that group in another (e.g., a dispute between union and management).
Accommodative processes refer to the ways we reflect our attitude and identity through language and communication. We may use expressive language and communication to show friendliness, identification, or solidarity, and thus to bring another person psychologically closer to us (accommodation). Alternatively, we may communicate hostility, disliking, or rivalry (counter-accommodation), reflect a (perhaps unintentional) patronizing or ingratiating attitude (over-accommodation), or mark our own social identity distinctly from another’s (under-accommodation). These three processes indicate nonaccommodation. Motivation and perception start the process. Nevertheless, the communication process from motivation through expression to perception and interpretation is not one-way or linear, as these psychological variables change with little conscious awareness. Indeed, social identities are negotiated through the course of intergroup interactions.
Originally (Giles 1973), CAT was called Speech Accommodation Theory (SAT). It described intergroup processes, particularly interethnic or interclass contexts, where people signaled liking for and identification with another by making aspects of speech (e.g., accent) more similar to the other person’s. This process is called convergence. On the other hand, to signal hostility, rivalry, or dislike, people can make their speech as different as possible from the other’s (divergence). One common form of divergence is to maintain key markers of one’s own group (maintenance).
SAT involved a model, related to similarity-attraction theory (Byrne 1971), where liking leads to convergence and disliking to divergence at an interpersonal or intergroup level. Experimental research showed that listeners judge the language and accents of their ingroups more positively than salient outgroups, and prefer members of outgroups who converge to ingroup language or accent. They are likely to diverge when outgroup members make derogatory or hostile remarks about their group. Norms are important, so that people appreciate convergence to the accent and style of a higher social class in job interviews but not in some other situations.
It soon became clear, however, that often communication as measured by outsiders did not reflect communicators’ perceptions. For example, in mixed-gender conversations, men and women may adopt exaggerated versions of their own gender’s behavior, but perceive themselves as converging to the other gender. Gender-based norms prescribe accommodation through behavior that is objectively divergent. In other cases, people believe they are converging, but lack the linguistic or communicative skills to do so. SAT (and later CAT) distinguished between objective (measurable) and subjective (perceived) accommodation, as well as between linguistic and psychological accommodation, positing that subjective and psychological accommodation are the better predictors of behavior (Giles et al. 1991).
As SAT took more account of contextual subtleties, norms, and perceived behavior, it also expanded beyond intercultural and interclass encounters to include other intergroup interactions. One of the first was gender. Later, communication in intergenerational encounters came under scrutiny, and age-related attitudes were found to be signaled by a wide array of linguistic, nonverbal, and discursive moves (Coupland et al. 1988). In this extension, accommodative strategies were expanded beyond convergence, divergence, and maintenance to nonapproximation strategies (see below). Contexts examined include health, disabled or able-bodied status, organization and occupation, and cross-institutional encounters. In 1987, to indicate its expansion to diverse intergroup contexts and behaviors, SAT was renamed CAT. CAT then underwent a process of expansion in comprehensiveness and complexity. In 2005, a new version of CAT aimed to retain comprehensiveness with a simpler explanatory framework and propositions (Gallois et al. 2005).
Accommodation In Intergroup Encounters
Communication accommodation in intergroup contexts is described as a dynamic process between interactants. It begins with socio-historical context, including intergroup and interpersonal history along with the larger society’s norms and values. Socio-historical context mainly characterizes long-term, relatively stable intergroup relations. At the individual level, it is reflected in initial orientation, both intergroup and interpersonal, including strength and salience of social identity. Initial orientation is short term and changes from one situation to another. These aspects lead to each person’s accommodative stance, or motivation to accommodate (or not) to the communicative needs and desires of the other person.
Accommodative stance is expressed in accommodative strategies, which each person plans and employs. These include approximation – changing communication to be more like the other person (convergence) or emphasizing one’s own group markers (divergence or maintenance; see above); interpretability – communicative behaviors intended to make the encounter easier or harder for the other person to participate in (e.g., simple language or technical jargon, familiar or unfamiliar topics for the other person); discourse management – whether each person communicates to share the conversation (e.g., equal talk or domination, formal or informal language); interpersonal control – whether each person treats the other as an individual of equal status (e.g., use of role-bound titles); and relational expression – intended to maintain or threaten the relationship or another’s status and face (e.g., reassuring language, attacks on face). Overall, stance is aimed toward a more or less intergroup interaction.
Strategies are translated into behavior and tactics, which change across the interaction. There is no one-to-one correspondence between strategies and tactics, or between them and specific behaviors (Jones et al. 1999). Indeed, the same behavior (e.g., smiling or gaze) can indicate accommodation or nonaccommodation, depending on what else is happening in the interaction. In interaction, behavior is perceived and labeled by other interactants, and people make attributions about each other’s motives and goals. Finally, these attributions result in intentions about whether and how to interact with the other person or the person’s group in the future.
In the twenty-first century, the study of accommodative intergroup processes has moved to close examination of encounters, particularly organizational behavior. One of the most interesting developments examines accommodative processes between police officers and members of the public (e.g., Giles et al. 2007). A key finding is that accommodation by police is likely the strongest predictor of attitudes toward police by people in different cultures and social classes. A challenge for CAT, and for understanding intergroup communication, is the complexity of the theory and whether it can be fully tested. CAT has recently been streamlined, but intergroup communication is a complex and complicated domain that does not lend itself to simple models. In the future, research will need closer links with qualitative approaches to identity and intergroup relations, particularly involving discourse analysis. The fascinating area of intergroup accommodation has generated much research over the past three decades, and will generate much more over the next 30 years.
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