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COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEThe Same Yet Different: Creating Unity Among the Diverse Members of the Bahá'í Faith
AUTHOR 1Deborah Clark Vance
DATE_THIS2002/2003 Winter
VOLUMEVolume 29:4
TITLE_PARENTJournal of Intergroup Relations (a publication of the National Association of Human Rights Workers)
ABSTRACTA study of the process by which people form a unified community from diverse cultures based on interviews with a small group of American Bahá’ís; the importance of foundational beliefs in this process; learning intercultural communication.
NOTES This paper is based on Vance's doctoral dissertation presented to the Department of Communication and Culture, Howard University, May 2002.
TAGSAfrican diaspora; Change; Conflict resolution; Cultural differences; Cultural diversity; Persian diaspora; Race; Sociology; Tests and difficulties; Unity; Unity in diversity

Resolving intergroup tensions poses one of the most intractable problems facing humankind, on both the community and national levels. The act of drawing boundary lines around geographic formations, naming them, and declaring that those within the lines differ substantially from those outside peppers human history with tales of clashes, battles, wars, disagreements, slavery and oppression as one group defeats another, relegating the vanquished to a diminished status. A hegemonic view of history would posit that the past provides a blueprint for future behavior, that history indicates the reality of human nature, that to the victor always have gone and always will go the spoils. So opposing sides grit their teeth as they face off in compromise, and both leave the table wondering if the other side gave up as much. Such a view provides little hope for actual and sustained peace among diverse groups. Might a new paradigm manifest itself, deposing those that went before, and providing a means for resolving conflicts that, rather than enervating both sides, enriches them?

Much communication research focuses on ingroup-outgroup perceptions and how these contribute to differences (Brown, 1985; Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988; Gurevich, 1989; Hecht, Collier & Ribeau, 1993; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995; Omi & Winant, 1989; Wright, 1994; Yang, 1992). Ingroup-outgroup conflicts range along a continuum, from interpersonal arguments to battles to genocide, gathering bitterness and bad history, growing such that children inherit the disputes of their forbears. Humans are born or opt into family, cultural, ethnic, religious, and national groups, any or all of which impact on their individual identity. Indeed, human beings reify the groups with which they identify. Social psychological research (e.g., Aronson, 1995) reports that individuals see outgroups not only as different but also as inimical; thus, research indicates that one should not expect another’s group to be viewed as positively as one’s own (Tajfel, 1981). For example, individuals in organizations must seek out and band with others of the same race or ethnicity to counteract the negative behaviors directed toward them from the dominant group (Nkomo & Cox, 1990). Some of this research (Cox, Loebel & McLeod, 1991; Gurevich, 1989) hopes to pinpoint ways to resolve conflicts, transcending the differences in order to reach agreement; only time will tell how many of these can be resolved by tackling them on an interpersonal level. None of this research problematizes the necessity of the existence of groups, only their meaning.

A fundamental issue related to intergroup tension surrounds perceived similarity, especially as individuals forge identities from groups to which they feel an allegiance (Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988). Group identity feeds self-perception inasmuch as individuals negotiate cultural- or group- sanctioned ways of speaking, acting, thinking and believing (Wright, 1994). Indeed, people simultaneously draw identities from multiple groups, such as religious, political, national, ethnic and racial, which become more or less salient at different times, and which may pull them in opposing directions (Collier, 1994).

Among the sources of group identity most often blamed for conflict ranks religious affiliation, inasmuch as one's identification with a religion often carries a highly emotional dimension that can seem impervious to reason. The 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon by purported Islamic zealots offer concrete examples of acts that resist understanding by those outside of that identity group. Moreover, because of its involvement with fundamental cognitive structures and beliefs, religious affiliation also can obstruct agreement, for how can one easily accept the validity of opposing theologies? Most religions contain universal principles that explain the mysteries of human creation to their adherents. They also comprise cultural dimensions that reflect the lives of a particular group of believers such that, for example, a Roman Catholic in Peru and another in Chicago may perceive a deeper bond with one another than with a Protestant or Jewish conational.

Chen and Starosta (1998) state that because multiculturalism will provide the norm in the future, intercultural communication scholars should address issues that show how diverse peoples can peacefully co-exist. Zhong (2000) points out that the global trend is toward diversity and that there is a tension between identity and diversity. The present study takes a few steps back from intergroup conflict to examine what happens when individuals move from a primary group identification and enter into a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural group. It seems to affirm the suggestions of Collier (2000) and Zhong (2000) that individuals form multiple and multicultural identities. It also suggests the fluidity and negotiability of cultural identity. Moreover, it explores how core beliefs can effect identity formation.

Unity in Diversity

That unity in diversity holds a prominent role in the teachings of the Bahá’í religion renders this community a worthy target of study. Bahá’í doctrine maintains that a primary function of religion consists of promoting unity, and that individuals of diverse cultures who enter the Faith must put aside racial, ethnic, and national antipathies to create this unity. Bahá’ís point to successes in their ability to unite diverse people into friendships and families and may provide a working model of multicultural communication. An independent religion established in 1844 and with some 5 million adherents worldwide, the Bahá’í Faith represents more than 2,100 different racial and tribal groups, 182 nationalities, as well as individuals from “virtually every nationality, religious background, and social class” (Bahá’í International Community, 2001). In its 150-year history, it remains largely untroubled by schisms.

This study asks how members of the Bahá’í Faith perceive unity, inquiring into how they seek common ground with fellow group members, as well as with non-Bahá’ís. It examines the reported interpretations of individuals of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds as they try to forge a group identity, specifically as members of a Bahá’í community, and searches the lived experiences of individual Bahá’ís for a collective experience. Research questions include: How do Bahá’ís interpret their doctrine as it applies to creating unity?; and how do they apply their interpretations to bridging cultural differences among their members?

Literature Review

The literature reviewed relates to racial and ethnic identity formation, intergroup prejudice and intergroup power, anticipating a need for this groundwork when analyzing and describing the intercultural dynamics that occur among the diverse Bahá’í respondents as they pursue unity. Because individuals of various religious, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds bring with them the perspectives afforded by their cultures when they enter the Bahá’í Faith, the interview questions involve cultural identity and whether individuals override their cultural differences in communicating, worshipping, organizing themselves, educating their children and interrelating. The researcher, herself a Bahá’í, employs in-depth interviews in a grounded theory procedure to uncover the lived experiences of the respondents who describe the process.

Research into how individuals form their identities, how these identities connect with cultural groups, how cultural groups incorporate change, how cultural groups relate to other groups and how they interrelate within larger organizations should all provide a solid theoretical foundation for this study. Inasmuch as these research areas build on each other, the literature reviewed here concentrates on the latter stages, that is, of how cultural groups interrelate.

Identity relies to some degree on group membership. Two group processes – perceived similarity and association – work to reinforce one's identity as a group member (Wright, 1994). Besides the shared group elements, an ethnic identity assumes an out-group against which its members define themselves; what the group is contributes to its definition (Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988; Volkan, 1992; Eriksen, 1993). Ingroup members tend to treat and to assess each other more favorably than they do members of a perceived outgroup (Hecht, Collier, & Ribeau, 1993). Gudykunst and Hammer (1988) focus on how intergroup comparisons precede perceived group memberships, asserting that saliency of group membership depends on the extent of uncertainty reduction. In dialogue, the mere existence of one viewpoint may negate another's position.

Ethnic identity comprises a collection of identifications that individuals have with their ethnic groups (Hecht & Ribeau, 1991). Ethnicity requires that two groups perceive each other as being culturally different from themselves. Serbs and Croats, Sami and Norwegians, the Lue and Thais seem culturally similar to an outsider but perceive each other as distinctive. Discrimination on ethnic grounds can be called racism in Trinidad or communalism in Mauritius or India, though the events surrounding both can be analogous (Eriksen, 1993). As an individual evaluates her group membership, sometimes comparing it to a dominant culture, the importance of her ethnic identity may fluctuate, but gains saliency during threats to group identity or upon comparison with another ethnic group (Hecht, Collier, & Ribeau, 1993).

Individuals tend to perceive members of outgroups as more similar to each other than are members of their own ingroups, and perceive the ingroup more favorably (Tajfel, 1978). Further, ingroup members treat each other differently from members of a perceived outgroup. For one thing, members of outgroups are treated as stereotypes (Hecht, Collier, & Ribeau, 1993). Sometimes ingroup members are incredulous that outgroup members hold particular beliefs, to the point where they do not even perceive that values and beliefs contrary to theirs can actually exist (Gurevitch, 1989).

Racial identity formation is central to social relations, as it contributes to identity formation and comprises group dynamics; it should be viewed as fluid, unstable and decentered (Omi & Winant, 1989). Social pressures reinforce one’s membership in a group or category, and in order for a group to persist it develops customs as well as an awareness of its nature. Those outside the group may identify with group attributes if they possess similar attributes but cannot identify with other group members unless they also bond with the group's leader or central tenets, identifications which provide group stability (Wright, 1994). An individual’s behavior influences that of fellow group members who identify in greater and lesser degrees with the group and its values which, when internalized, provide a rather stable identity, influencing the individual’s own behavior as they contribute to her sense of self (Aronson, 1995).

Cultural and ethnic groups often arrange themselves in a hierarchy within societies, may hold conflicting interests, and may behave as though giving up some of these interests threatens their group’s very existence. Thus mainstream white culture in the United States can be viewed as the dominant culture against whose norms and values other groups are measured. In comparing minority groups to dominant cultural values, minority groups are often perceived as wrong or inferior. Research on whiteness (Jackson, 1999; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995) demonstrates an increasing awareness among whites of their privilege. Whiteness is perceived as a construct that serves to prevent social cohesion (Jackson, 1999). Political and social relations among different ethnic groups seldom achieve an egalitarian state. Orbe struggles with the question of how co-cultures might mediate their power disparities embedded in communication, and how they might understand their similarities without negating their differences (Orbe, 1998).

Organizational politics involves conveying a set of informal rules to certain privileged groups while closing others out. Cultural biases reinforce the dominant group's hegemony. The behavior of group leaders and members representing a group reflects the power differences, affective patterns, and cognitive formations of their group in relation to other groups. In the United States, communication patterns are measured against a standard based on whites (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995), particularly males. Providing co-group members with egalitarian status in a common ingroup can reduce intergroup bias (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000).

Intercultural relations are usually hierarchical, racism is institutionalized and forms part of the structural fabric of groups, and racial and ethnic groups continue to promote a we-they dynamic. With this as background, this study looks at selected members of the Bahá’í Faith, a religion comprised of individuals from many diverse cultures that professes unity, to see what happens to these intergroup dynamics.


In an attempt to find a meaning for unity that is held in common across the group, this study uses a grounded theory procedure coupled with participant observation and in-depth interviewing. Participant inquiry, interviewing and grounded theory form a strong procedural triad, sharing a common ontological perspective. The qualitative researcher focuses on description and explanation that result from conceptually specified analytic categories (Huberman & Miles, 1994; Janesick, 1994).

Grounded theory is the best choice to try to understand processes (Morse, 1994) such as those that lead to perceptions of unity among Bahá’ís, as it affords a method of analytic induction that helps to locate and describe relationship patterns. Based on the premise that truth is enacted and not external, grounded theory supposes that the researcher interacts with her data in developing a theory that emerges from the data. As an interpretive work, the study should include perspectives and voices of the respondents who perceive and interpret their own and others’ behaviors which the researcher then incorporates into her own conceptualizations (Strauss & Corbin, 1994).

The cooperative inquiry perspective holds that research is always personal, that a researcher participates in what she describes. Concrete reality is the connection between subjectivity and objectivity, never the latter in isolation (Reason, 1994). The researcher in this study partakes in a complete membership role in the community. Forming a long-term trusting relationship between the observer and the observed, such as that which occurs in participant inquiry, has been inspired by a feminist ethic of caring and commitment that distinguishes it from a pure observational project (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Collective secrets are “known but suppressed aspects of group life that would be controversial if revealed outside the group;” participant observation is a way around this (Lindlof, 1995, p. 193). An “insider’s perspective is vital to forming an accurate appraisal of group life” (Adler & Adler, 1994, p. 380).

A researcher looks for an interviewee who can speak cogently and amply about his or her experiences. As she moves through the process of interviewing, the interviewer should actively listen in order to hear the significance of remarks. Moreover, she should feel free to ask new questions, skip others, and reshuffle the order. The accounts of individuals represent their particular views on reality as they interpret it. In gathering accounts, a researcher interprets the representations and forms her own representation (Lindlof, 1995).

The 17 respondents were located by a snowball sample, in which an initial contact suggested several others as possible respondents, and they recommended others still (Lindlof, 1995). All currently reside in the mid-Atlantic region, in several different Bahá’í jurisdictions. As called for in grounded theory, as wide a range as possible of respondents was sought. Table 1 lists the 17 respondents, comprising 7 men and 10 women. Their racial and ethnic breakdown consists of 6 African Americans, 6 Anglo-Americans, a first-generation Persian immigrant and a first generation Persian-American, 2 Asians and 1 Hispanic. Their ages range from 20 to 63, and their years in the Bahá’í Faith range from 1 to 38. The respondents include those getting by on low wages and a fixed income, who rely on public transportation, to those in management positions living comfortably; they represent the technical and science-minded as well as the artistic and humanistic thinkers.

Table 1

The Respondents


Subject Ethnic Bg Sex Age Bahá’í Since Occupation

Donald B M 49 1971 Clerk

Feridoun P M 27 1989 Computer programmer

Gloria B F 42 1973 Small business owner

Holly W F 30 2000 Artist & mother

Judy W F 55 1988 Consultant

Karen W M 41 1980 Housewife & librarian

Lena B F 63 1965 Retiree

Min A F 40 1983 Statistician

Natasha A F 40 1975 Housewife & mother

Olivia B F 50 1968 Art teacher

Roger W M 53 1962 U.S. grain inspector

Sam H M 53 1968 Supervisor

Shawn B M 46 1980 Chemistry lab technician

Sholeh P F 20 1995 Undergraduate student

Susan W F 53 1970 Neonatal nurse

Tom W M 45 1972 Marine biologist

Tanya B F 40 1983 Nurse


Key: W=White; H=Hispanic; B=Black; P=Persian; A= Asian; M=Male; F=Female

This study examines the reported interpretations of individuals of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds as they try to forge a group identity, specifically as members of a Bahá'í community. As a member of the Bahá’í Faith, I am a participant observer and have derived my research questions based on my tacit knowledge of the Bahá’í community. Moreover, the respondents understand that I share their fundamental beliefs and know their stories, thus they must be probed to elaborate their responses. This affects the way they relate information to me, as well as the way I understand this information. Identifying the categories that emerge from the data requires an understanding and analysis of the meanings conveyed by the respondents: looking for common themes and putting them into categories requires a filtering through the mind and experience of the researcher.

Research questions include: By what process can individuals from separate cultural groups form a unified community? Do community members profess a group identity that overrides their cultural distinctiveness? In order to obtain information on beliefs and affiliations, the researcher of this study interviewed individuals, inviting them to describe their understandings so that the researcher might uncover their expectations, focusing on how Bahá'ís interpret their doctrine as it applies to creating unity; and how they apply their interpretations to bridging cultural differences among their members.

Derived from these research questions, interview questions probe individuals’ thinking about any unity they may have experienced. Each was asked a series of questions relating to unity, but the researcher also pursued trains of the respondents’ thinking when such opportunities arose. The questions, based on the researcher’s tacit knowledge of the Bahá’í community, probe how Bahá’ís perceive unity, investigate how they incorporate the diverse cultures of its members, explore various states of mind and emotion, examine the thought processes of the respondents, address aspects of interethnic and intercultural relations that appear in Bahá’í localities, and promote a dialogue.

Such a dialogue between interviewer and respondent can elicit change in both parties, as the act of performing research, like other human acts, does not leave the world the same as before. The questions included: Can you describe a time where you experienced unity? What does it mean to be united? Do you live in or have you lived in a community that is or was united? Does your community have diversity? In what way are your community members diverse? What are obstacles to unity? How do you know when you have achieved unity? What is the significance of unity in the Bahá'í Faith? What does a person have to do or how does s/he have to live to achieve unity? Is unity something one person can promote, or does it take an active effort on the part of both parties? How can, if at all, third parties, such as institutions, produce unity among the believers? Have you ever done anything to increase unity among others? How do you perceive your ethnicity (race, nationality, religious background) within the context of the Bahá’í Faith? Do you give up aspects of your culture to be a Bahá’í? Does becoming a Bahá’í add onto your culture of origin? Do any members retain a position of superiority and authority or inferiority and submission within your community? Do some members expect others to adapt to their way of doing things? If so, are they aware of their expectations? Do you see yourself as the same as or different from Bahá’ís of different cultural backgrounds?

Such in-depth, open-ended but topic-focused interviews should reveal descriptions of lived experiences of selected Bahá'ís as they relate events or situations they see as addressing the concept of unity. Rather than highlighting any single event held in common across communities, questions concentrate on respondents’ perceptions of unity within their Bahá'í communities and their lives. The tape-recorded interviews, each lasting between one and two hours, occurred in a location convenient to the respondent such as a home, office, or even a public park. While the same basic set of questions were used for each respondent, it was sometimes desirable to follow a respondent’s lead down a side path in order to fully understand the concept he or she was trying to express.

In an interpretivist study such as this, the researcher acts as a research instrument and plays an active part in interpreting the data. Written transcripts developed from recorded interviews were reviewed in order to locate recurring themes. A schema analysis was used to find a system of key beliefs and values, and felt or derived ideology in two-hour tape-recorded interviews. Phrases that represent salient ideas and themes that best express the intended meanings were picked out and coded in a constant comparison method (Glaser, 1968) in pursuit of a system of categorization that adequately describes the universe of discourse and indicates a theory about respondents’ framework of reality.

The data are organized into eleven structural and dynamic conditions that provide one way to understand what comprises the respondents’ thought processes about unity. The resulting categories build on each other in a logical sequence, leading from an internal individual belief through a speech process and toward a sense of group identity. In other words, they are conceived as building blocks, each constructed on the one preceding, and revealing a discourse that defines the community to its members and holds them together. Lacking any of these categories may detract from a perception of unity. The themes that emerge are Oneness of religion; Spiritual nature of humans; Writings as law; Cultural traits; Personal states; Consulting; Taking action; Eliminating prejudice; Embracing diversity; Transforming; and Forging a group identity.

Constructing and arranging these categories is the researcher’s representation of the respondents’ interpretations of their perceptions. The categorization uses respondents’ words as data, with all the caveats that pertain to the words of any individuals who present their thoughts and perceptions. This study limits itself to examining the experience that interviewees were willing to convey to a fellow community member; they may have responded in some other way to persons who were less familiar with their faith. There was no member check for these categories.

Challenging Intergroup Boundaries

In its examination of ways in which culture impacts on individual identity, intercultural communication theory has been strong in dissecting how different cultural identities can serve as barriers to understanding. However, the literature rarely, if ever, discusses how individuals can overcome these intergroup boundaries while allowing them to exist. This study looks at a multicultural, multiethnic group that, although it views humans as metaphysically the same, does not dismiss cultural differences. Indeed, individuals comprise groups and cultures, and individuals take action, not groups and cultures, and when those diverse individuals come together to decide on a plan of action, they bring with them their cultures. The data suggest that some behaviors effect affinity more than others.

The categories, reconceptualized here into a model, indicate necessary elements whose presence could lead another researcher to a similar finding in a multifaceted group that seeks a unified identity. The data provide an articulation of what it takes to attain the unity described by the respondents and is presented here as comprised of four levels. The following model describes each level:

A Model of Intergroup Unity

1.0. Social Structures – Constants Outside One’s Control

1.1 Oneness of Religion

    1. Spiritual Nature of Humans

    2. The Writings as Law

2.0. Internal States – The Make-up of Humans

    1. Cultural traits

    2. Personal states

3.0 . External Bridges – Processes of Decentering

3.1 Consulting

3.2 Taking Action

3.2.1 Eliminating Prejudice

3.2.2 Embracing Diversity

4.0 Growing into Unity – Multicultural Communication

    1. Transforming and Growing

    2. Forming a Group Identity

An organic, linear sequence exists in the internal and external changes represented by these categories: The categories indicate that the processes involved in the quest for unity are not all under the control of individuals. The first group of categories in 1.0 comprise social structures (1.1 Oneness of Religion; 1.2 Spiritual Nature of Humans; and 1.3. The Writings) that represent foundational beliefs which serve as points of departure for the group and can perhaps find parallels in secular groups, such as doctrines, procedures and those beliefs that group members recognize hold them together and which each member agrees above all else to accept. They are profound enough to provide the Bahá’ís an unquestioned authority, paramount to the group’s cohesion. The intergroup literature notes that sharing central tenets and bonding with the group’s leader comprise identifications which enable group stability (Wright, 1994). An important step in the model is one’s awareness of the constants that comprise this foundation.

While ethnic and cultural categories provide flavor, they also are seen as secondary to human spirituality. Bahá’í doctrine teaches that these differences can be overcome because of the beliefs that humanity is united spiritually and that the reality of this unity can be made conscious. A core concept – unity in diversity – may challenge existing communication literature on identity formation and challenge Bahá’ís who try to apply it in practical terms, as it has no other model to which they can refer. For example, in the Bahá’í Faith, blacks and whites join in a covenant to resolve the race problem (Thomas, 2001).

Growing out of the first category, categories 2.1 Cultural Traits, and 2.2 Personal States comprise beliefs about the makeup of human beings. Cultural differences, seen as deeply engrained, are acceptable and even desirable as they may provide necessary perspectives. Roger says

Since they’re black and you’re white, they might have a different perspective on the same reality. It’s like you both could be looking at the same thing and seeing something different and the reason they see it differently from you is based on their different experiences and perceptions of reality.

Personal states, however, comprise an area that also includes those hindrances which are perceived to be under an individual’s control – such as greed, illness, ignorance as well as pursuit of power, influence or personal gain – that prevent her from attaining unity. In this step, group members center themselves in an awareness of what about them is cultural as distinct from what are personal characteristics.

Respondents describe the Bahá’í Faith as something that individuals enter into and in doing so bring cultural teachings with them. Bahá’í communities reflect the culture in which their members live as well as the cultures from which they derive. Bahá’í communities bring together in consultation on assemblies and committees and at the Feast, individuals like the respondents, who, like Lena, may at one time have associated with Black nationalists; or like Heather, a white woman from the suburbs, and Donald, a black man from the city, who never encountered people from different races while growing up; Tanya who was regularly harassed for being black while growing up; Gloria who, as an African American woman, was tailed by security police while shopping for an engagement ring in a jewelry store; Tom who used to leave public pools when blacks showed up; Sholeh and Feridoun whose families fled Iran because of Muslim persecution against Bahá’ís; Olivia, an African American woman married to an Eastern European; Judy, a former Catholic white woman married to a Persian; Min and Natasha, women from Taiwan and India; Susan, a former marijuana-smoking hippie; Sam, son of a Mexican woman, who grew up in a small town; Roger, a white man who served in the armed forces – all bringing their perspectives, experiences and educations into their Bahá’í community. Tom describes the bigoted family into which he was born and his continuing to struggle to overcome his indoctrination. Holly also recognizes her programming. Others describe how cultural baggage includes notions of superiority which sometimes inspire friction from cultural practices, and not only from the hegemonic white culture. Min says the Chinese see themselves as superior, and Sholeh and Feridoun, both first generation young Persian-Americans – see their parents’ generation as believing themselves superior within the Bahá’í Faith. Lena laments the behavior of urban blacks who leave the city when they can afford to, and look down on those they left behind.

Thus although humans are spiritual and refer to the Writings that are seen as truth, they also hold cultural assumptions through which they filter their understanding of the Writings and, consequently, of the truth. Moreover, because the Writings extol human diversity, members do not always know when a cultural view may be conflicting with the teachings. The additive strategy described by Hall (1976) suggests that individuals first must become aware of their own culture, then become aware that others have a culture, decide whether there are parts of their own and of the other culture they like, and choose among them, thus building a repertoire of conscious strategies. That individuals can behave this way indicates that they have control over the amount of cooperation they wish to extend, and they are not bound by their culture.

The actual work of unity gets done in 3.1 Consulting and 3.2 Taking Action, comprising communication processes and strategies that Bahá’ís use as bridges to unite among themselves and with the world. Subcategories 3.2.1 Eliminating Prejudice, 3.2.2 Embracing Diversity and 3.2.3 Transforming and Growing, include specific requirements and goals of consultation and action; these are conscious processes and under one’s control. These sub-categories especially, along with 2.2 Personal States, provide areas where intercultural trainers may focus their efforts in finding ways to recreate in other groups some of the successes Bahá’ís have experienced in becoming unified. Growing into Unity – Multicultural Communication, 4.0, with 4.1 Transforming and Growing and 4.2 Forming a Group Identity, include appreciating and enjoying each other’s choices, as well as learning from each other’s cultures, which involve decentering – extending outside one’s own culture to apprehend the others’ viewpoints (Chen & Starosta, 1998). The unity in the Bahá’í community does not rely on changing cultures wholesale, but on appreciating the perspectives they provide as well as aligning behavior to focus on the good of the whole. Respondents preface any discussion about cultural difference with one about spiritual unity, seeing cultural diversity from that angle. Gloria, a 42-year-old African American small business owner puts it, “Humanity is the same yet different. I don’t have a problem with this ‘same thing yet different.’”

Respondents emphasize that the community has slowly grown more able to recognize any sort of cultural dominance. Further, the Writings encourage them to reexamine their own cultures and traditions, which means that Bahá’ís often find themselves not participating in cultural celebrations with their families and neighbors. While several respondents describe their ethnic origins which seem to present barriers to unity by establishing feelings of exclusivity, other USAmerican Bahá’ís have struggled to give up their cultural expectations of religion deriving from their exposure to Judaism and Christianity, and to view as culturally relative things like expressions of piety and musical expression of spiritual feelings. As with third-culture building (Chen & Starosta, 1998), individuals can increase their repertoire of behaviors, adding strategies and possibilities to what they already know cognitively and affectively. Perhaps they start to find it comfortable to form new behaviors by becoming involved with contrast cultures, which happens in many local Bahá’í communities where members come from various backgrounds. However, second generation Persians among the respondents complain that their parents have difficulty perceiving the Bahá’í Faith as separate from their culture of origin, which may be a hindrance in their ability to achieve feelings of unity with individuals from other cultures.

Unity begins with consultation but needs to result in action, such as relationship formation. Indeed, respondents deem working in groups toward a common goal as an activity conducive to unity. In the community depicted by respondents, everyone must participate because truth lies among the group, not in any one individual.

Respondents generally view entering the Bahá’í Faith as an additive process that they need not relinquish their cultural heritage. As Donald says

Being a Bahá’í of black…background…rather than losing anything… we have gained a greater appreciation and understanding and...a greater understanding of our value as individuals and as a people, by being Bahá’ís…we’ve also gained a greater understanding of and been able to contribute more to a greater understanding of ourselves as human beings and the rest of the races and ethnic groups.

Given that a goal of consultation is to seek the truth which is multifaceted, different cultural viewpoint are often sought out and even celebrated.

People understand that their worldview is not necessarily the worldview, and that they’re open to everyone’s viewpoint, so when you have that going on, then people are able to celebrate diversity because, number one, they can see it as opposed to only seeing right or wrong. (Gloria, 4)

Thus limitations exist in the self that cannot be fulfilled without input from the whole. Because consensus is the preferred mode of decision-making, group decisions should be embraced by all. Solutions are never seen as absolute but more as working theories, responses to temporary needs or problems, right for the present. What respondents describe resembles decentering, where communicants detach themselves from familiar cultural ways in order to find a common place with others (Chen & Starosta, 1998). This common place becomes known through communication, as interactants exchange feelings and ideas in search of solutions to problems affecting all.

Because respondents perceive individuals as undergoing a transformation process, they account for the possibility that an individual may be immature or ignorant of some of the teachings, believing that as the individual learns and grows, she will exhibit behavior that is more cooperative and more in line with Bahá’í teachings. Thus, if individuals gain more familiarity with the teachings, they should be able to experience unity; yet some respondents acknowledge that particular individuals, because of personal issues, may be unable or unwilling to do this. Usually respondents see this as under someone’s control as Tom, who calls ego an obstacle to unity; Tanya who posits that prejudice derives from an individual’s upbringing; Feridoun who believes that feelings of superiority or inferiority are personal faults, and Judy who says that some personality issues prevent unity and that strong personalities sometimes dominate consultation.

Similarly they tend to see their cultures of origin – all cultures, perhaps – as changing and transitory in nature. Because Bahá’ís see the world and its individuals in a state of constant change, a fluid world where it is the nature of things to be redone, today’s unity may be different than tomorrow’s; differences are temporary and incidental, and should not be taken as being real and final. Shawn, contrasts the idea of growth and change with the perception in the non-Bahá’í world where:

A lot of people who haven’t accepted something like Bahá’í will say, “Well, this is where I am and that’s where I’ve been, and I’m always going to be this way, and that’s the way things are. And they don’t have any hope of change or see any need to go beyond where they are.

Roger muses that individuals accept that children will grow and develop but tend to perceive “adults as fixed and permanent, when in reality they’re not.”

Eliminating prejudice (3.2.1) may be the hardest task because prejudices intersect with one’s sense of identity. Indeed, much of the intergroup literature seems concerned with blockages that arise from prejudices – constructs leading to and comprising ethnocentrism, sexism, racism, snobbery and elitism, intimately connected with cultural identity. Individuals may cling to these areas because of personal states (2.2) such as egoism or greed, hindrances deemed by respondents as the greatest obstacles to unity. A basic tenet of critical race theory involves an ability to adopt the other’s reference point, something that the respondents also describe when relaying their experiences with race relations (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001). Respondents regard eliminating prejudice as a process of transformation and growth.

Respondents mention the elimination of racial prejudice as a specific action important to the group’s success. The Writings offer a model against which Bahá’ís measure their communities, including the exhortation to believers to rid themselves of all types of prejudice. Some caution that Bahá’ís need to understand history to be able to know the origins of the “disease” of racism. Respondents point to the effects of cultural teachings regarding racial prejudice and mention how their co-religionists mostly strive to eradicate these things. Yet some describe racist incidents within some Bahá’í communities, including incidents of institutionalized racism, which are seen in the context of personal struggles with transformation, self education, maturation, self awareness, and sincerity.

People who have prejudices usually have pretty much what they want, even if it’s on a lesser scale…but they feel they’re pretty much better than somebody else and so the fear comes in…Then they feel they have to give that up. Then they feel that the person they have to give it up to or the group or whatever is less worthy. Do they work for it? Were they born in America? And all these kind of things, you know. It’s a fear thing, you know.

Respondents describe a need to increase awareness of their own cultural assumptions. Yet they also point out that some cultural ways do not seem consistent with the Writings.

For example, as Gloria says,

There’s some things that I think I have to change about my culture, but again, look at how black people beat their kids. We’re not allowed to strike our children. Lots of black Bahá’ís I know aren’t quite sure what to do with that and still hit their kids.

And Judy says,

I’m married to a Persian so I see a lot of the cultural issues that arise within the Persian community…I think it is going to take maybe a generation, two generations for this whole issue of gender equality to settle into the Persian community…it’s very difficult often to just – suddenly – arranged marriages, there are still arranged marriages in the Bahá’í community.


Implications for Trainers

As previously stated, this analysis provides a Bahá’í articulation of how interpersonal and intergroup unity may be attained. The model is meant to apply to all sorts of problems, but the first steps are the biggest; that is, unless and until one holds a certain amount of belief in spirit, as spelled out in the first category, or elimination of prejudice as described in the third, resolving intergroup conflict will most probably take awhile.

A noteworthy aspect of this study is that the respondents seem to persevere, first of all because of their belief that overriding cultural, racial and gender differences is not only possible but inevitable. Intercultural theorists do not adequately examine the role in communication of such an active belief system. The study suggests that communicants can subordinate cultural differences if they want to do so, and that a firm belief provides a compelling reason to do so, especially at times when empirical evidence would indicate that reality is otherwise.

All training requires postulations about how growth and change occur: This project describes an approach based on the experiences of Bahá’í respondents. Even though this group of respondents expects to witness growth and change in interpersonal dealings among races, ethnicities, genders and nationalities around them – such as those which they have already experienced – they present their hopes with the caveat that such change will take years, perhaps generations. Although looking toward a common authority believed to have revealed God’s word provides a very compelling rallying point for the group members, the respondents point out that it is only a beginning; they still must read and understand the Writings, consult on their meaning and attempt to actualize them.

Starosta (1988) cautions researchers not to overlook culture; this study examines how individuals use the tools of their religion to confront cultural differences. The approach described by the respondents resembles more a multicultural building than the third-culture building addressed in the literature. Individuals of diverse cultures encounter each other in different localities and abide by the same consultative principles within the Bahá’í Faith. Though part of one group, they use different languages, music and approaches in their cultural expressions. Individuals, with their various cultural backgrounds come together in different localities, creating regional or national flavors that exist within a supra-cultural framework underneath which all individuals agree on certain principles. Thus the model describes how individuals expand the cultural boundaries they inhabit to allow others to fit in with them, or allow themselves to fit within the boundaries of others.

Using the Model in Other Settings

Interview questions include whether Bahá’ís feel obligated to unite with non-Bahá’ís, whether they feel able to unite with them, whether they perceive themselves as the same as or different from individuals who are not of the same culture, whether they relinquish anything in or add anything to their culture of origin when they become Bahá’í. Several respondents describe their attempts at and experiences with breaking down racial barriers in their workplaces and in their neighborhoods as they attempt to apply their consultative methods in dealings with those who are not Bahá’í. A few say that had they not been Bahá’ís, there are certain groups with whom they would never have associated. Some struggle with the notion that particular cultural elements not consonant with the Writings will eventually have to change. Others grapple with the idea of how their relations with people outside the Faith compare with those inside, wondering with whom do they feel a closer connection. Still others say that Bahá’ís as a group should embrace the contributions made by various cultures, especially minority ones.

While the efforts of selected Bahá’ís to make changes within non-Bahá’í contexts does not itself prove the universal applicability of Bahá’í precepts on unity, the model that has been extracted from the interviews allows that anyone who starts from a belief in human spirituality may move in the direction of unity in diversity. To this extent, the model proposes a means to transfer its findings beyond the Bahá’í community.

The literature on corporate cultures also suggests the possibility of a secular counterpart to spirituality. With regard to training, the mission statements of companies provide similar doctrines, consistent with the respondents’ claim that referring back to their Writings provides a necessary focal point. Intercultural and organizational trainers can adapt some of the insights provided by the Bahá’ís inasmuch as corporations and groups acquire a corporate culture and ask workers to transform themselves to keep with company ideals, and group members to act according to a different world view and behave towards others according to this view. Perhaps the closest that corporations have come to a model of inclusiveness, Theory Z sets out an organizational model that employs consultation, but it is used to inform workers of changes in company policy and invite them to voice their views. In this model, management does not share power to include employees in decision making. Moreover, it includes screening to find new employees who fit the corporate ideal, hold moderate views and a harmonious personality, and will likely endorse company philosophy and values (Robbins, 1983). Thus Theory Z primarily concerns itself with human relations, not with the exchange of many voices.

Schools and such municipal organizations as the police department have called on Bahá’ís in their localities for assistance in interracial training and conflict resolution in Chicago, Baltimore and Los Angeles, to name only a few. Bahá’ís themselves do not follow any prescribed formula for the training in which they engage. This model can help them gain insight into the groups with whom they consult. However, it needs testing to see which questions can be addressed and how soon it can address them. Intercultural conflicts differ in magnitude and severity and some may be more amenable than others to using such a model.

The model presented here suggests that successful communication across cultures might benefit from multilateral protocols, where none can presume to be the culture that establishes the rules, that communication succeeds when group members methodically follow certain steps, and that participants must become consciously aware of their cultural practices and view them as choices. It also suggests that working out differences may begin with some sort of covenant, an agreement to which all parties voluntarily hold. It remains to be tested whether other groups, secular or religious, whose members share similar core beliefs as this model (1.0 and 2.0) can enact steps 3.0 and 4.0 toward a similar unity in diversity among their members. It may be that some groups already follow these steps but are unaware of their process. These are areas where trainers and practitioners may focus their efforts.


This model of multicultural communication presents a process by which Bahá’í individuals form a unified community of individuals from diverse cultures. Although conscious of cultural differences, community members attempt to perceive as assets that exist on the same footing. In this respect the model differs from third-culture building that requires a relinquishing of cultural differences in order to create a third culture. Moreover, this study incorporates foundational beliefs among group members, an area that researchers often ignore, but one that bears further scrutiny.

All cultures contain individuals whose choices can impede and even disrupt the uniting of members from diverse cultures; the model asks that individuals be able to discern cultural traits which are fundamental but undergo glacial changes, from personal states which are transitory and can be changed at will, though perhaps with difficulty. As respondents point out, domination in their community derives from individual personality problems rather than from intrinsically cultural elements. Indeed, conflict itself may arise more from personality issues than cultural ones.

Because awareness of one’s own culture comprises a fundamental step in the model, an implication of this study is that individuals across cultures must begin to understand their own internalization processes of cultural modes of communication; knowing the connection between communication and culture provides a necessary tool in an increasingly multicultural world, and its study should permeate school curricula at all levels. This is a step that can be applied to intercultural discussions anywhere.

Further, the study indicates that individuals need to recognize that intercultural communication is a skill that must be consciously learned. Such a perspective can go a long way toward helping communicants rid themselves of prejudices, as they realize that there exists no precedent and no perfect model for intercultural communication: History mostly tells of groups forming to overpower other groups. The effort to change their behavior poses diverse challenges for individuals from different cultures, but all are challenged in some way. When all agree to admit that some of what divides them may be dispensable, they can begin to resolve their conflicts. In perceiving their mutual struggle to find points of contact, individuals can recognize that they share with those from different backgrounds the process of transforming themselves. As they negotiate a new group identity, they may find a myriad points – of contact and difference – with each other and may realize that they can as easily unite as divide themselves.


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