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Encountering Tamil communities in Chennai, India and Melbourne, Australia: a reflexive study of learning about ‘the other’ and self

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posted on 15.05.2017, 06:45 authored by Goward, Penelope Anne
This study is situated in a globalising world where cultural flows of people, practices and ideas are part of everyday life (Appadurai, 2001). Literature in the field of intercultural studies (e.g. Angrosino, 2007; Liamputtong, 2010, 2008) and the connected field of culture and identity (e.g. Crewe & Maruna, 2006; Hopper, 2007; Lawler, 2008) show that these cultural flows have some generalisable impacts on the way life is lived across the world, but they are also experienced in particular and diverse ways by individuals throughout the world. The study examines these flows through two inter-connected perspectives. From one perspective this thesis is a narrative-based inquiry into the effects of globalisation on middle-class Tamil peoples living in Chennai, India and Melbourne, Australia. From another perspective it is a critically reflexive account of one person’s efforts over a period of five years to understand and forge intercultural relationships with an ‘other’ culture in this globalising world. From both perspectives, the study is about ‘transformation’ for middle-class Tamils in Chennai, and Melbourne, and for the author, as the researcher. My PhD journey began as an investigation into the mediating impact of the English language upon cultures and cultural practices of Tamils living in two geographically distanced parts of the world. However, soon into the study I came to agree with a range of researchers, such as Crystal (2003, 2006, 2008), Graddol (2010), Kirkpatrick (2010) and Pennycook (1994, 2003, 2007), who point to globalisation and globalising practices as the major driving force behind the newly attained status of English as a (or the) global language. And so my reading broadened and a more complex picture emerged. Thus I became sensitized to the influence of globalisation on cultures, cultural practices and the language of the Tamil peoples in Chennai (and on Tamil diasporic communities in Australia). I explored the concept of globalisation through a range of theorists (e.g. Chirico, 2014; Robertson, 1992; Robertson & White, 2007; Turner, 2010b) and, importantly, Eriksen’s (2014) key concepts and dimensions of globalisation. I worked with Appadurai’s (1996, 2001) ‘global cultural flows’ to explain the shifts and transitions in national and international economies, political interactions, and an increasing sense of compressed time and place. The study is underpinned by a humanistic philosophy in the interpretive paradigm. I work with social constructivist theories associated with the social construction of meaning (Creswell, 2013; Denzin & Lincoln, 2008). The work of Burr (2003) and Gergen and Gergen (2001, 2004, 2009) are particularly important in the way I position myself as an intercultural researcher (see also A. Gray, 2003). Conscious of the tendencies in ‘insider/outsider’ debates to descend into simple dualism, I have taken on the role of ‘invited guest’ in my investigation ‘into’ these cultures and cultural practices. This methodological stance enabled me to participate in the daily activities, interactions and events of some Tamils in the course of my learning about the explicit and tacit aspects of Tamil cultures. However, I am mindful of Said’s (1978) warnings of the dangers of propagating colonialist approaches to power, exploitation, and control in research. My strategy, in this respect, has been to develop a distinctly reflexive narrative-based inquiry that draws rigorously on theorised notions of narrative, story and experience throughout this thesis (Etherington, 2004, 2007, 2009). I conclude that the linguistic and cultural practices of the middle-class Tamil participants in Chennai, India, as in Melbourne, Australia, are being significantly influenced by a range of globalising flows that can be seen to be in a state of profound “transition and transformation”. Individual Tamils and Tamil communities in Chennai are beginning to challenge the deeply held view of traditional cultures as being static, prompting them to engage in new identity work as they are impacted upon, and to some extent, engage with these global flows. In Melbourne, the middle-class Tamil families are in a complex process of transitioning into Australian social and cultural life, while consciously attempting to maintain what they see as ‘their’ traditional cultural practices. Globalising flows are having particular but quite diverse impacts on the identities and cultural practices of middle-class Tamil families, such that the deeply felt notion of the ‘joint’ family is changing, as indeed it has been changing over the course of the last one hundred years. My experience as an intercultural researcher, even one who was to a significant extent an ‘invited guest’, is that the journey of intercultural research is a slow and complicated one that requires time, patience and resilience in order to build understandings of an other’s cultures and cultural practices in a globalising world. I learned that I needed to be continually and reflexively open to difference and to transformation in ‘the other’ and ‘the self’, and to the ways in which my own background and cultures are unavoidably mediating the ways in which I learned about and understood the experiences and cultures of the middle class Tamil communities. This PhD study demonstrates what is possible in a globalising world when participating in intercultural encounters. It also reveals that these encounters can lead to further engagement through patience, attitudes of inclusiveness and reciprocity, understanding, and sensitivity.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Graham Parr

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre


Degree Type



Faculty of Education