'Affective Meaning' in Arabic

Duke sociologists hope collaboration with Arab-Americans will improve social interactions abroad

Stop for a moment, and think about a mother comforting a
child. 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 identify 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 addition 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 on
the planet 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."