A Journey of International Academic Collaborations
By Ayse K. Uskul, PhD
Ayse K. Uskul, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Essex, UK. Her research interests focus on implications of cultural variation in the conceptions of the self, social relations, and social cognition.
My academic journey started in Istanbul, Turkey, when I enrolled in the Department of Psychology at Bogazici University as an undergraduate student. It was a journey in its truest sense as it felt that I was constantly on the move during my postgraduate training years: I lived in Amsterdam, Toronto, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Along the way I have learned from and worked with wonderful people including Gun Semin, Michaela Hynie, Richard Lalonde, Daphna Oyserman, Norbert Schwarz, Richard Nisbett, Shinobu Kitayama, Ruti Mayo, and Johannes Keller. What is most exciting to me in academic work is to come up with puzzling research questions and to find ways of answering them. In my experience, best ideas and ways of testing them have come out of sharing thoughts with other researchers and collaborating with them on research projects. In this piece I want to share with you the two most recent collaborations I have developed.
The first one was initiated at the University Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I was holding a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. In addition to working with my main advisor Daphna Oyserman, I was also attending meetings of the Culture and Cognition Lab led by Shinobu Kitayama and Richard Nisbett. Inspired by earlier work on culture and cognition (e.g., Berry, 1965; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001) and in search for a clear-cut test of some cultural predictions in the area of cognition, I suggested testing some of the research questions in fishing, herding, and farming communities in the Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. Conducting field research in this region seemed most promising because it would allow us to examine cognitive mechanisms in communities that belong to the same national, geographic, ethnic, and linguistic region and yet vary in the degree of social interdependence among community members. As predicted, we found that members of farming and fishing communities, which emphasize harmonious social interdependence, exhibited greater tendencies to attend to the field as a whole and perceive relationships between the focal object and the field than members of herding communities, which emphasize social interdependence to a lesser degree (Uskul, Kitayama, & Nisbett, 2008). My collaboration with Shinobu Kitayama in this project opened up other opportunities. Later when I moved to the University of Essex (UK) for my first academic position, we collaborated on a project researching the roots of contemporary American ethos in relation to Western cultural heritage and a history of voluntary settlement (Kitayama, Park, Sevincer, Karasawa, & Uskul, 2009). We plan to continue our collaborative work which in the short term includes working on a review paper.
The seeds of the second collaboration were planted at an annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. Having been inspired by her work on relational self, I corresponded with Susan Cross at Iowa State University to ask her if we could meet to discuss research ideas. I had been thinking about ‘honor’ as a relational construct as experienced in the Turkish cultural setting and was interested in her views on this topic from a relational self perspective. An initial breakfast conversation in New Orleans was followed up by emails, phone calls and meetings at other conferences which finally resulted in a grant application based on our ideas regarding the cultural construction of honor in Turkey and the Midwestern U.S. For the last 2 years, we have collaborated on 6 studies funded by the National Science Foundation Social Psychology Program Section to research the construct of honor in these cultural settings. We are currently working on papers reporting on the findings obtained in this joint project which we hope will help contribute to understanding how honor can be experienced in varying forms in different cultural words.
My international collaborations involved meetings at many interesting places. In the summer of 2006 Shinobu Kitayama visited Istanbul where we met to discuss future projects. We sat on terraces sipping ouzo with a stunning view of the Bosporus and in tea houses drinking tea to talk about research (and later did research on tea farmers in the Black Sea region). In the spring of 2009 Susan Cross spent some time in Istanbul as part of her sabbatical where we met to discuss our papers and future studies. Some of our meetings were held while having brunch in tulip gardens, others in fish restaurants. I have no idea whether there is a correlation between research creativity and enjoying one’s drinks and food, but in my case I have definitely benefited from it.
I believe that collaborations are especially enlightening when it comes to comparative cultural psychological research. I have come to realize that collaborators not only bring their research expertise into research projects, but also their personal views on different regions that are the subject of investigation. I find it personally and academically challenging and enriching to debate the meaning of psychological differences and similarities between cultural groups as they unfold in collaborative projects. I experience the benefits and challenges of being an insider and outsider, but the experience gets only richer with having collaborators who are insiders and outsiders themselves.
Berry, J. W. (1967). Independence and conformity in subsistence-level societies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 415–418.
Kitayama, S., Park, H., Sevincer, A. T., Karasawa, M., & Uskul, A. K. (2009). A cultural task analysis of implicit independence: Comparing North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 236-255.
Nisbett R.E., Peng K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108, 291–310.
Uskul, A. K., Kitayama, S. & Nisbett, R. N. (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 105, 8552-8556.
Advice for students beginning collaborative work:
Consider starting your first collaborations with colleagues who have worked in international collaborative projects
Never underestimate the amount of effort required to understand the possibilities and limitations of different research sites
Remember it takes time and patience to establish common ground -- in setting up the logistics of doing your research, in agreeing on concepts and methods, in sharing accountability, responsibility and authorship, in establishing reliable modes of communication.