logic and culture

Developing your academic argument: how is logic different across cultures?

Have you ever struggled with what is supposed to be a linear argument according to the Western academic tradition?  Or have you found understanding your students’ line of thinking a challenge? While research into crosscultural rhetoric may not reveal any universal rules for particular cultural traditions, some insight are available from various studies. Here are some ideas on what might be behind a divergence of approaches for Chinese and Western scholars.

How does logic look different in China and the West?

Mingie Xing, Jinhui Wang and Kenneth Spencer put together a paper published in Language Learning and Technology, in which the literature review provided an interesting summary on how some (largely Western) linguists have perceived the differences between Chinese and Western academic writing. One point emphasised is that readers of students’ work often expect a different kind of culturally constrained logic than what international postgraduate and undergraduate student writers are used to producing, based on their own extensive education in their home countries.

What does a logical sequence look like?

It is fairly well accepted that how writers organise their thoughts often depends on their cultural backgrounds. This is not about being confined to a limited bank of words in a second language and therefore repeating fairly similar ideas in different ways. For instance, Cortazzi and Jin (1997) found Chinese writers prefer to move inductively from background information to the specific, rather than stating the main point at the beginning of a paragraph. Similarly, Schneider and Fujishima (1995) reported that Chinese writers often move from the general to the specific, with a broad and far reaching introduction as background information, which I have often found.

What is relevant information?

Interestingly, it is valued in China to look at a topic from a range of angles (Young, 1994). This has been described by some linguists as “circularity” or even a spiral (Kaplan, 1966), although to me it seems rather like exploring the facets of a jewel. Shen (1989) claimed that Chinese composition followed an essential structure of moving from the surface to the core. Some have commented that such writing involves a topic shift in the form of a topic then a comment then another topic and comment (Eason, 1995).

Anecdotally, I have found hypotheses development to be far more complicated in some research papers from Chinese writers, probably because of this approach. It is not easy to suggest what to eliminate because the points leading to each individual hypotheses seem quite valid. As Xing, Wang and Spencer stated “in Chinese, the beauty of writing is believed to lie in delicacy and subtlety, not in its straightforwardness”. This might be very challenging for intercultural communication, especially when readers are used to a more linear approach in the Western academic tradition. Because these academics are expected to read and give feedback very quickly on such writing, this also poses a barrier to understanding nonlinear modes of writing.

What does critical analysis mean?

It certainly is not easy to adopt a critical stance when evaluating arguments if one is used to deferring to the authority of previous researchers, whether in one’s first or second language. Sometimes I have seen writers point to what the researchers “ignored” or “failed to address”, which is not a diplomatic way of introducing a possible research gap.

It is quite a challenge for any research student, whether international or local, to evaluate others’ research. This is more straightforward in some study areas than others. In the so-called hard sciences, a table with some accompanying explanations can be enough. In the humanities, where assumptions and theoretical approaches tend to be embedded in the research, this is harder to untangle. If you have any suggestions for further reading on crosscultural comparisons of academic writing, from any culture, I would be very interested to hear about it.