Tackling Cross-Cultural Diversity in SAS
Dr Lameese Eldesouky
I am an Arab-American who moved to Egypt three years ago to be a psychology professor. Throughout my graduate studies and postdoc, I exclusively worked with American samples and had no research experience with other cultures. When I got to Egypt, I intended to continue doing affective science research, but with one important change – I would get professional translators to translate my surveys into Arabic. I quickly realized that I had a naïve understanding of how to do research in a new country; I needed to do far more than just survey translation.
My experiences inspired a salon at SAS about research challenges outside of North America. I organized the salon around three challenges:
Challenge 1: A Societal Challenge
The need for cultural adaptation raised the challenge of adjusting to the society’s characteristics. For instance, many Egyptians distrusted authority figures (including researchers) and did not understand the value of science, which made recruitment difficult. Furthermore, many people were not used to talking about their emotions or participating in research more generally, which made them confused and uncomfortable. In addition, several people had low tolerance for long studies and gave unexpected reactions to previously validated stimuli; now I had to figure out how to create or adjust measures that would still have good psychometrics and please reviewers.
Challenge 2: An Institutional Challenge
As anyone who has moved nationally or internationally can attest, there was a challenge in maneuvering around university and governmental rules to avoid getting into trouble. Contrary to my experiences in the U.S., my university IRB viewed monetary incentives as a form of bribery given that a lot of the population was low-income; but then how would I incentivize people to participate in a 14-day experience sampling study? The IRB also preferred I study university students or alumni; but what about having a representative community sample? Even with IRB approval, some research projects required governmental approval; but I was never clear on which projects actually required governmental approval or why. All I knew is that the process took months. Meanwhile, I had to be careful of studying potentially sensitive topics, such as politics or religion, to avoid scaring participants or getting arrested.
Challenge 3: A Publication Challenge
Last but not least, there was a challenge in figuring out how to explain to reviewers why the data were not always perfect; for example, why my compliance rates were lower than usual or why I could not include too many survey items. I also had to constantly watch out for reviewer biases as someone who had a non-Western name, worked at a non-Western institution, and conducted research on a non-Western sample. As an example, I would have to justify having a community Egyptian sample, while I never had to justify having an undergraduate American sample.
Upon reflection, SAS attendees came up with three take-aways. These are actions that members of the society can take to encourage, facilitate, and even celebrate research with diverse populations.
Take-Away 1: Cultural (and Self) Awareness
Researchers should be mindful that every society is a bi-product of its culture, politics, and history. Importantly, these are not just factors that should be used to test questions about cross-cultural replicability; but, they should also be recognized for affecting how one even does research.
Take-Away 2: Openness to Experience
While the U.S. has made vast contributions to affective science, it has also implicitly set certain standards that can be difficult to achieve in other countries. Therefore, researchers should be more open to alternative standards without compromising ethics or scientific rigor.
Take-Away 3: Practice Empathy
All researchers should become more aware of the challenges faced by researchers in non-Western countries, even if they are not doing research on non-Western countries themselves. This increases support for those researchers and helps reduce reviewer biases. In addition, it helps researchers collectively come up with potential solutions to these issues.
While the challenges I discussed focused on Egypt, many SAS attendees across the world, even in other Western countries and the U.S. itself, had similar issues (though in varying forms and degrees). It is my hope that this salon increased awareness of these challenges and will be the beginning of a longer conversation.
Lameese Eldesouky is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the American University in Cairo who conducts research on emotion regulation and how it affects well-being and social relationships.