Mark Orbe on Co-Cultural Theory, Part 1

Mark Orbe on Co-Cultural Theory, Part 1


Hi, I’m Andrew Ledbetter from Texas Christian
University, and today I’m talking to Dr. Mark Orbe, who is the creator of co-cultural
theory. So Mark, how would you summarize co-cultural
theory for us? Well, I think the best way to summarize it
is a theoretical framework that allows insight into how those people who are traditionally
marginalized in a society communicate. OK, and just, in terms of marginalized people,
how did you become initially interested in studying the communication behavior of marginalized
groups? Well, I think all of us at some point in our
lives experience marginalization. My particular interest started in graduate
school, as I left the upper Northeast and traveled to the Midwest, the rolling hills
of Athens, Ohio. And being a product of a multiracial marriage,
and being from a lower socioeconomic background, when I started graduate school I really felt
like an outsider. And I wanted to understand the process of
how that impacts how I was communicating, but then extending it to other groups, and
trying to see similarities and some differences about how people negotiate that kind of outsider
status. But for me it was race and class as I entered
my Ph.D. program. I never sought out to create a theory. And people always ask me, “how do you create
a theory? Can you tell me how you start it?” Well, it just happened kind of organically. I was really interested in getting at the
essence of the phenomena of what it means to be different. So phenomenology is the study of phenomena,
looking at the essential characteristics of that. And I first started studying African-American
men, and then I saw some linkages between other types of groups. So for me, phenomenology has allowed me to
study people’s stories, people’s perceptions of their own lived experiences, hopefully
in kind of real time, and the insight that I was able to get from that, the rich narratives,
allowed me then to understand a particular experience in a larger context, that oftentimes
quantitative research was not, did not allow me to do. So, so, in thinking about these different
choices, if we just talk about communication approaches and preferred outcomes, there’s
a menu, if you will, of nine options that people could pursue. How strategic is that choice? Is that something that people think, “Oh,
I really need to kind of figure out purposefully what I’m going to do,” or is it more in
the moment, they just kind of react and enact one of those, one of those approaches? So I’ll answer your question by what my
normal response is, “Yes.” So, it’s both/and. I think that part of the basic premise of
the theory is that if you are in a marginalized position, you are much more aware and conscious
of the outcomes and the effects of your communication. It has to be strategic when you’re in a
position where you are in a less powerful hierarchical relationship. I think over time, then it might become second
nature, where you’re not explicitly, consciously thinking about what you’re going to do,
but it is always grounded in some choices that were part of your earlier lived experience. (Andrew): Sure. And I think in different situations—so you
have those nine communication orientations, in different situations I might have one primary
orientation, but I will be adaptive depending on the situational context, which is one of
the factors. (Andrew): OK. So I think initially, initially when you find
yourself in a position that you haven’t been in before, and you’re one of a few,
let’s say in a room, one of the few women, one of the few people who identify as LGBT,
Muslim, etc., you’re very conscious. And I think over time, the more experiences
that you have in that context, you’re probably less conscious, but it’s grounded in that
field of experience that’s become normalized. I’d like to talk for a minute about field
of experience. What, what do you mean when you talk about
field of experience, and how does that shape how co-cultural group members communicate? Field of experience is interesting to talk
about. I find a great—I have great difficulty talking about it without using the words “field” and “experience.” (Andrew laughs) So it’s kind of like the sum of your life. It can be, you know, how you were raised,
where you were raised, your schooling. Every experience you have contributes to a
larger, kind of, field of experience, or a larger set of, of life circumstances that
informs how you communicate in this day right now. So I often tell students, think about it as
your life experiences as the baggage you bring, and we all need certain things—sometimes
we need to leave certain things in the past, and we still drag them along. But we have these sets of experiences that
inform how we’re communicating today. And for me what’s important about field
of experience is knowing that not every co-cultural group member from the same group—let’s
say, African Americans—has the same field of experience. So at my university, we have a number of students
who come from inner city Detroit, who were raised in predominantly African American neighborhoods,
went to predominantly black schools. We also have African American students who
come from the upper peninsula, or rural areas. But sometimes at campus, our faculty and staff
sees all black students as the same. That’s a very different set of experience,
where I have an African American student who is the only African American person in their
family—they were adopted—and they lived in an all-white town. Their experiences navigating, as a co-cultural
group member, Western Michigan University, is going to be different than someone who
comes from Detroit, or from Benton Harbor, or another predominantly black area. So, we have to know that field of experience
is a really important understanding how people communicate. That makes sense. So, I’m curious too about effectiveness
of these different approaches that you’ve outlined. So you’ve certainly, I think the theory
does a great job of saying, hey, these are the options that, that people often use when
they’re trying to make their voice heard or perhaps not make their voice heard as they
communicate with a dominant group. But, do any of those strategies tend to be
more effective than others, particularly if people are wanting to have their views taken
seriously as a member of a marginalized group? Yes, so, one of the important things, and
people—I’ve had some pushback on this. One of the important things is, I don’t
view any particular strategy, or any particular orientation, as ideal. As most effective. Because it does matter on their lived experience,
it matters on what they want to get out of it, it matters on situational context. So in some context, any strategy could be
the most appropriate, because there are times where I assimilate. There are times where I want accommodation,
and there are times where separation is my ultimate goal. The key is choosing those practices and enacting
them in order that you can meet your larger goal, and those goals might change over time. So I don’t think there are any particularly
ways in which we can say, OK, this strategy is the most effective for this outcome. It really depends on the context. So you talk about ability as one factor that
influences how co-cultural group members seek their preferred outcomes. What are the specific communication abilities
or competencies that can help somebody pursue the preferred outcomes that they’re seeking? Yes, it was interesting because that was a
factor—that’s probably the least discussed factor of the six factors. And I think I included it, it was important
to include given the lived experiences of the individuals who contributed to the theory. I wanted to make sure that people understood
that not everyone should assume that everyone has equal abilities. Think about communication approach. So I was raised in the upper Northeast. I do not have any problems enacting my abilities
to be assertive and aggressive. (Andrew chuckles) And when I moved to the Midwest, what I thought
was assertiveness, was viewed as aggressiveness. (Andrew laughs) Because of the cultural norms. I was described as abrupt, confrontational,
rude, and I’m thinking back home, this is polite Mark, or “Mahk” as I was known
at home. (Andrew laughs) So I had to work on my ability to enact a
nonassertive approach.

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