In this article, we suggest that research is a practical activity building on local category
systems belonging specifically to research (etic categories) as well as categories belonging specifically to the national culture of the researcher (emic categories) (Pike 1967). Much cross-cultural research can be argued to rest on what has been called implicit comparisons (Nader 1994) of such categorisations. We assume that research of local activities, such as schooling and higher education, is influenced by the researcher’s emic and etic categorisations. To get beyond the risk of reproducing the researcher’s cultural background (i.e., emic categorisations) in the analysis of cross-cultural comparisons we suggest that the categorisations the researcher use in her tests and fieldwork descriptions are taken to be part of the research itself, rather than simply being an underlying (taken for granted) framework on which the research is conducted.
First we present a recent study of European universities as culturally diverse working
places and we present an approach in which the researcher’s emic and etic categorisations can be challenged when contrasted with each other (Hasse & Trentemøller 2008). Second, we argue for the need for a shared understanding among researchers in international projects. We present the method of culture contrast as one way of dealing with the inevitable problem of different perceptions of words and their meanings. This method does not rest on the approach employed in traditional cross-cultural studies where a generalized category, as a tertium comparationis, is identified and tested in two (or more) different cultural settings. Through a reflexive process of research, we show how patterns of connections can be contrasted and thus made explicit leading to new and surprising challenges of the researcher’s emic categorisations. We illustrate the case with examples of different understandings of three terms, hierarchy, family, and sexual harassment, in the Understanding Puzzles in the Gendered European Map (UPGEM) project.
Keywords: culture; word meaning; activity systems; cross-cultural studies; connectivity; cultural models; culture contrasts