Roberto Suro’s Commentary on Cultural Openness

18 Jan 2011|Added Value

Robero Suro

Roberto Suro has a long and storied career as a journalist (Time Magazine, Washington Post), author and founder of the Pew Hispanic Center.  We sought his studied perspective on ethnic identity and its role in U.S. society…

Commentary on the Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company Study of Cultural Openness
by Roberto Suro
Professor of Journalism and Public Policy, Managing Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California

The census is our national storybook. It depicts one-dimensional characters in a straight-ahead narrative. It excels at putting raw population numbers on the map. After all, that is the constitutionally-mandated function conducted every ten years. Various other kinds of census data are also pretty good for sorting people into big categories like age cohorts, racial groups or household types. And, those categories can be charted over time as they grow or shrink. For a couple of decades at least, the census has been telling us an important story about demographic change with the potential to transform American society. But it tells the story in deceptively simple terms. The Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company Cultural Openness Scale offers a unique and valuable supplement.

Census data, and much of the social science derived from it, inevitably emphasize boundaries. The census asks people to put themselves in boxes, one box at a time.  As the Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company data shows us, individual identities are rarely self-enclosed. What’s more, the texture of American society is defined not only by boundaries but also by the means that people use to cross them. The concept of cultural openness offers us a perspective that looks beyond the boundaries and thus gives us a chance to tell more complex and more revealing narratives.

People form bonds based on kinships and commonalities. They see themselves as belonging to a place, a race, or a nation. That’s all natural and inevitable.  But sometimes our means of measuring these categories lead us to think that those categories are discontinuous and mutually exclusive. Sometimes cultural, political and economic imperatives push us into thinking of social groupings as separate from each other as islands scattered far out at sea. In fact we know that people within various segments of society are constantly interacting, that individuals can move among segments sometimes with great frequency and fluidity, and we know that people often identify with several different segments at once. All those interactions are powerfully revealing in any society, and they gain power due to circumstances like technological and demographic change or the frequency of exchanges with other societies. Those circumstances define our interconnected world in which people are being pushed together and the boundaries between them are blurring.. As a result, in the United States today, the interactions must be taken into account as much as group characteristics.

The survey questions that underlie the Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company study explored the traffic around and across the boundaries in considerable detail. They measured several types of cross-cultural behaviors from the most casual poaching of consumer products to the construction of intimate relations. And, the survey measured attitudes about boundaries, what people see when they look beyond them and how they feel about acts of crossing. The responses provide a dynamic portrait of American society. It is as if all the census numbers were set in motion.

An overwhelming majority of Americans say they have drawn benefits in some way from other racial or ethnic groups. For most this includes some kind of personal contact.  For instance, 82% of African Americans, 77% of Hispanics and 69% of Non-Hispanic Whites said that they “have learned many new things from people whose race or ethnicity differs from my own.”

Group identities remain important, but these data show that Americans are not locked within those identities. 78% of African Americans, 77% of Hispanics and 62% Non-Hispanic Whites indicate that they “appreciate the influence that other cultures are having on the American way of life.”

Moreover those identities lose some of their meaning once all the interchanges are taken into account. A group identity may be a point of departure, a point of reference or a source of content. But it rarely defines an individual entirely. There is a lot of contact around the edges, and the edges are porous. Amalgamation is the norm rather than clean-cut segmentation.

Not surprisingly there is a great deal of variation in the ways people cross boundaries. There are differences in the extent to which they do it and in their comfort level.  The Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company analysis helps us make sense of this variation with a typology of cultural openness in five stages. At one end are people who are distrustful of people or influences that emerge from outside of their own group. At the other end are those who cross cultures with such ease they are hardly aware that boundaries exist.  In between there are three categories that start with a passive acknowledgment of intercultural influences as a good thing and move to an active pursuit of experiences and situations that cross boundaries.

The Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company Cultural Openness Framework

Valuable survey data is attached to the descriptions of each stage to give a rough sense of what kinds of people are likely to fall into the different categories. But, I do not view this as a new schema of segmentation. Indeed, that would contravene the very spirit of inter-cultural exchanges. Leaving aside stage one—those distrustful of difference—membership in these categories would seem somewhat fluid.  Most Americans, I’d guess would find themselves somewhere in the middle three categories, and I would imagine that many people move back and forth among them depending on the circumstances. So, a person might be a passive receptor of cultural influences sometimes and then active seeker of diverse experiences at other times.

As with any good typology, the value here is in the conceptual framework. The analysis proposes a spectrum of cultural openness and a method for demarcating benchmarks. It takes into account both outcomes—the extent of interchange—and an individual’s degree of engagement—whether they are active or passive participants. As such, Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company’s five stages of openness start to build a vocabulary for describing a wide range of attitudes and behaviors. This framework can thus become the basis both for understanding individuals and for drawing a collective portrait of an evolving society.

It seems important to underscore that openness is quite different than the assertion of identity. What’s measured in this study is the extent to which individuals are willing and able to engage people and artifacts of exogenous origins.  There is no direct relationship between that set of traits and the ways in which an individual expresses their own identity. So, for example, someone could be a potent creator of cultural content based on a group identity and still be quite appreciative of other cultures.  Similarly, an individual who is closed off to outside influences might not necessarily have a strong, clear sense of their own identity. My point is only that openness and assertiveness are two separate functions and can operate independently of each other.

Much of our thinking about race and other kinds of groupings gauges people by the ways they assert their group identities. This certainly applies to exclusion, the erecting of barriers, which is often associated with an aggressive affirmation of group identity. So too discussions of diversity also often emphasize the affirmation of identity. Driven by the metrics of boundaries we’ve tended to think of a diverse society as being defined by a multiplicity of discreet groups. In the United States the key metric has been the share of any population that is not white, and hence we have oblique term “majority minority” to describe a population that has tipped towards a significant degree of diversity. Similarly, in the classic “salad bowl” model of multiculturalism many different identities affirm themselves side by side. The Cheskin Added Value/The Futures Company analysis takes us in a new direction by focusing on the metrics of openness.

In the old formulation what mattered was the number of discreet groups and the number of people that could be assigned to each of them. In the new formulation what matters is the number of ways that people from different groups exchange influences and the quality of the contacts among them. In the old view people are largely static. They have an identity that does not change much and is based largely on inherited attributes. In the alternative view the key variable is an individual’s openness to otherness and identity necessarily evolves with experience.
These are two starkly different ways of describing contemporary society.  The old metrics based on boundaries already suggested that a great demographic transformation was underway. The new metrics of openness suggest the potential for an even more fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and engage with each other.

Certainly the new metrics that emerge from the cultural openness scale should cause us all to rethink the way we conceptualize audiences and messages.  The ability to reach identities built on crossing boundaries becomes more important perhaps than the ability to communicate to people by way of existing group identities.

So too these metrics challenge us to rethink our history and to try to understand whether there have been other moments when cultural openness exercised notable influence. Could it have been in the early stages of suburbanization when white ethnics shed a great deal of specific identity to mingle in a new kind of family-oriented middle class? That era certainly has had a lasting influence on the way we see and portray ourselves as a nation. And, most importantly, if the demographics are telling us that cultural openness is becoming an ever larger trend, then these new metrics challenge us to prepare ourselves for a society that is about to experience some profound changes.


For more information contact Stephen Palacios, Cheskin Added Value.

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