Mar 27, 2010

Grounded Theory

Jing Ke & Sarah Wenglensky
Feb, 2010
Course Title: Research Method

Grounded Theory - Handout

It’s a world view that says not to have a world view when doing research.
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The methodology of grounded theory was developed by American sociologists Glaser and Strauss in 1967 to describe a new qualitative research method they used in their research Awareness of Dying in 1965. In this study, they adopted an investigative research method with no preconceived hypothesis and used continually comparative analysis of data. They believe that the theory obtained by this method is truly grounded in the data. For this reason they named the methodology “grounded theory” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

The goal of the grounded theory approach is to generate a theory that explains how an aspect of the social world “works”. The goal is to develop a theory that emerges from and is therefore connected to the very reality that the theory is developed to explain.

Key definitions
According to Creswell (2009), grounded theory is “a qualitative strategy of inquiry in which the researcher derives a general, abstract theory of process, action, or interaction grounded in the views of participants in a study.” (p. 13 & 229) This process involves using multiple stages of data collection and the refinement and interrelationships of categories of information (Charmaz, 2006; Strauss and Corbin, 1990, 1998).

Other definitions of grounded theory:
Grounded theory is “a systematic qualitative research methodology in the social sciences emphasizing generation of theory from data in the process of conducting research.” (Martin, et al. 1986)

“The grounded theory approach is a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon.” (Strauss and Corbin, 1990)

A complete grounded theory research design often contains the elements listed in Table 1. These steps may not be undertaken sequentially in the research; the researchers sometimes need to go back and forth amongst several steps.

Table 1 General elements in a grounded theory research design
1. Question formulating
2. Theoretical sampling
3. Interview transcribing and Contact summary
4. Data chunking and Data naming – Coding
5. Developing conceptual categories
6. Constant comparison
7. Analytic memoing
8. Growing theories

Defining features
Two primary characteristics of grounded theory research design:

1) the constant comparison of data with emerging categories and,
2) theoretical sampling of different groups to maximize the similarities and differences of information (Creswell, 2009, p.13).

Current uses of grounded theory
Grounded theory is a powerful research method for collecting and analyzing data. Traditional research designs which usually rely on a literature review leading to the formation of a hypothesis. Then one tests the hypothesis through experimentation in the real world.

Grounded theory investigates the actualities in the real world and analyses the data with no preconceived ideas or hypothesis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In other words, grounded theory suggests that theory emerges inductively from the data (Chesebro & Borisoff, 2007). Though it can be used in different types of research, grounded theory is often adopted to formulate hypotheses or theories based on existing phenomena, or to discover the participants’ main concern and how they continually try to resolve it (Glaser, 1992).

Strengths and weaknesses
Due to the difficulties and weaknesses encountered when applying grounded theory, this methodology is still not widely used or understood by researchers in many disciplines (Allan, 2003).

An effective approach to build new theories and understand new phenomena
High quality of the emergent theory
Emergent research design reflects the idiosyncratic nature of the study
Findings and methods are always refined and negotiated
Requires detailed and systematic procedures for data collection, analysis and theorizing
The resulting theory and hypotheses help generate future investigation into the phenomenon
Requires the researcher to be open minded, and able to look at the data through many lenses
Data collection occurs over time, and at many levels, helping to ensure meaningful results

Huge volumes of data
Time consuming and painstakingly precise process of data collection/analysis
Lots of noise and chaos in the data
Prescribed application required for the data-gathering process
There are tensions between the evolving and inductive style of a flexible study and the systematic approach of grounded theory.
It may be difficult in practice to decide when the categories are “saturated” or when the theory is sufficiently developed
It is not possible to start a research study without some pre-existing theoretical ideas and assumptions
Requires high levels of experience, patience and acumen on the part of the researcher

Data Collection
This is not to suggest that classic grounded theory is free of any theoretical lens but rather that it should not be confined to any one lens; that as a general methodology, classic grounded theory can adopt any epistemological perspective appropriate to the data and the ontological stance of the researcher (Holton, 2009).

Data collection of grounded theory is directed by theoretical sampling, which means that the sampling is based on theoretically relevant constructs. It enables the researcher to select subjects that maximize the potential to discover as many dimensions and conditions related to the phenomenon as possible (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Many experiments, in their early stages, use the open sampling methods of identifying individuals, objects or documents. This is so that the data’s relevance to the research question can be assessed early on, before too much time and money has been invested (Davidson, 2002).

Grounded theory data collection is usually but not exclusively by interviews. Actually, any data collection method can be used, like focus groups, observations, informal conversation, group feedback analysis, or any other individual or group activity which yields data (Dick, 2005).

Interview transcribing is probably one of the most time-consuming parts of the research. The researchers are suggested to transform the tape recordings of interviews and other notes into word-by-word transcripts for further analysis. However, some researchers (Glaser, 1992, Dick, 2005) argue that taking key-word notes during the interviews, tape-recording the interviews and checking the notes against the tape recording and converting them to themes afterwards can also do the job well, and is less time-consuming.

Data Analysis and Interpretation
I believe grounded theory draws from literary analysis, and one can see it here. The advice for building theory parallels advice for writing a story. Selective coding is about finding the driver that impels the story forward. (Borgatti)

Grounded theory data analysis involves searching out the concepts behind the actualities by looking for codes, then concepts and finally categories.

1. Codes: coding is a form of content analysis to find and conceptualize the underlying issues amongst the “noise” in the data. During the analysis of an interview, the researcher will become aware that the interviewee is using words and phrases that highlight an issue of importance or interest to the research; they are noted and described in a short phrase. The issue may be mentioned again in the same or similar words and is again noted. This process is called coding and the short descriptor phrase is a code (Allan, 2003).


“Pain relief is a major problem when you have arthritis. Sometimes, the pain is worse than other times, but when it gets really bad, whew! It hurts so bad, you don't want to get out of bed. You don't feel like doing anything. Any relief you get from drugs that you take is only temporary or partial.” (interviewee)

One thing that is being discussed here is PAIN. Implied in the text is that the speaker views pain as having certain properties, one of which is INTENSITY: it varies from a little to a lot. (When is it a lot and when is it little?) When it hurts a lot, there are consequences: don't want to get out of bed, don't feel like doing things (what are other things you don't do when in pain?). In order to solve this problem, you need PAIN RELIEF. One AGENT OF PAIN RELIEF is drugs (what are other members of this category?). Pain relief has a certain DURATION (could be temporary), and EFFECTIVENESS (could be partial).

Coding procedures in Grounded Theory Approaches
Strauss and Corbin (1990) describe some flexible guidelines for coding data when engaging in a Grounded Theory analysis:

Open Coding: form initial categories of information about the phenomenon being studied from the data gathered. This is “the process of breaking down, examining, comparing, conceptualizing, and categorizing data” (p. 61).

Axial Coding: involves assembling the data in new ways after open coding. A coding paradigm (logic diagram) is then developed which:
Identifies a central phenomenon

Explores causal conditions
Identifies the context and intervening conditions
Specifies strategies
Delineates the consequences

Selective Coding: involves the integration of the categories in the axial coding model. In this phase, conditional propositions (or hypotheses) are typically presented. The result of this process of data collection and analysis is a substantive-level theory relevant to a specific problem, issue or group. It is “the process of selecting the core category, systematically relating it to other categories, validating those relationships, and filling in categories that need further refinement and development” (p. 116).

Note 1: the three types of coding are not necessarily sequential; they are likely to overlap. After collecting additional data, the researchers return to analyzing and coding data, and use the insights from that analysis process to inform the next iteration of data collection. This process continues until a strong theoretical understanding of an event, object, setting or phenomenon has emerged. (Constant Comparative Method)

Note 2: as mentioned, the process of naming or labeling objects, categories, and properties is known as coding. Coding can be done very formally and systematically or informally. In grounded theory, it is normally done quite informally. For example, if after coding much text, some new categories are invented; grounded theorists do not normally go back to the earlier text to code for that category. However, maintaining an inventory of codes with their descriptions (i.e., creating a codebook) is useful, along with pointers to text that contain them. In addition, as codes are developed, it is useful to write memos known as code notes that discuss the codes. These memos become fodder for later development into reports.

2. Concepts: codes are then analyzed and those that relate to a common theme are grouped together. This higher order commonality is called a concept (Allan, 2003).

Note: based on our understanding, the process of inducting concepts is overlapping with the three types of coding process (mentioned above). They are basically the same but different researchers give them different descriptions according to their specific research experience.

3. Categories: concepts are then grouped and regrouped to find yet higher order commonalities called categories. It is these concepts and categories that lead to the emergence of a theory (Allan, 2003).

"An effective strategy is, at first, literally to ignore the literature of theory and fact on the area under study, in order to assure that the emergence of categories will not be contaminated by concepts more suited to different areas." (Glaser & Strauss, 1967)

Note: according to Strauss and Corbin (1998), grounded theory has particular types of prescribed categories as components of the theory. But this may not appear appropriate for a particular study.

To Recap: developing a grounded theory model involves systematically analyzing a phenomenon in order to explain how the process occurs inductively (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Standards of Validation
Strauss & Corbin (1990) state that there are four primary requirements for judging grounded theory:
1) It should fit the phenomenon, provided it has been carefully derived from diverse data and is adherent to the common reality of the area;
2) It should provide understanding, and be understandable;
3) Because the data is comprehensive, it should provide generality, in that the theory includes extensive variation and is abstract enough to be applicable to a wide variety of contexts; and
4) It should provide control, in the sense of stating the conditions under which the theory applies and describing a reasonable basis for action.

Grounded theory is about adopting a constant comparative method, therefore the conformity and coherence of codes, concepts and categories is also an important indicator for a valid grounded theory. This means that a grounded theory is reliable when there comes no new categories in the data collected. This means one can say the theory is sufficiently developed.

The process under which the theory has been developed can evaluate the quality of a theory. This contrasts with the scientific perspective that how you generate a theory is not as important as its ability to explain new data.

The researcher should not switch their focus from abstraction to description as concepts emerge. Detailed description offers data for conceptual abstraction and the possible emergence of a grounded theory in the future, but cannot be considered grounded theory.

Deciding to use grounded theory means embracing it fully (not pieces of it). It requires the adoption of a systematic set of precise procedures for collection, analysis and articulation of conceptually abstract theory.

Report Writing and Rhetorical Structure
Glaser and Strauss (1967) describe 4 main stages in building grounded theory:

1. Comparing incidents applicable to each category
Begin by coding the data into as many categories as possible. Some categories will be generated by the researcher, and some from the language and data of the research situation. As more instances of the same category code are found ideas about that category can be refined. At this point it's best to stop coding and make a memo of these ideas.

2. Integrating Categories and their Properties
The constant comparative method will begin to evolve from comparing incidents to focusing on emergent properties of the category. Diverse properties will start to become integrated. The resulting theory will begin to emerge by itself.

3. Delimiting the Theory
Eventually the theory comes together, and there are fewer changes to the theory as the researcher compares more incidents. Later modifications include taking out irrelevant properties of categories, and adding details of properties into an outline of interrelated categories. More importantly, the researcher begins to find ways to delimit the theory with a set of higher level concepts. The researcher needs to generalize the theory more as they continue to make constant comparisons against it. The number of categories will be reduced.

New categories are often created halfway through coding, and it usually isn't necessary to go back and code for them. The researcher only needs to code enough to saturate the properties of the category. Later the researcher can evaluate the categories and emergent theory by moving on to new comparison groups.

4. Writing Theory
"When the researcher is convinced that his analytic framework form a systematic substantive theory, that it is a reasonably accurate statement of the matters studied, and that it is couched in a form that others going into the same field could use -- then he can publish his results with confidence" (p. 113).

A Review of Study: Qualitative Tussles in Undertaking a Grounded Theory Study
This paper, by Judith A. Holton, is a methodological critique of Classic Grounded Theory (as developed by Glaser). Holton attempts to identify and clarify some of the key misconceptions in the use and understanding of Grounded Theory. She uses examples of research studies that have been performed under the guise of grounded theory, but are only using fragments of the grounded theory methodology. Holton explains how this does not constitute true grounded theory research.

Key Points
Personal bias: grounded theory literature often states the need to have no preconceived notions or frameworks in mind when conducting the research. It seems impossible to ignore ones worldview (and it is). The point is to be able to look at the phenomenon and emerging data from many lenses.

The data fit: one of the biggest problems (as seen by classic grounded theorists) is when researchers dismiss data altogether because it does not “fit”. In grounded theory the data that does not fit established theories and frameworks is the important data! This is what will lead to a totally new view/interpretation of the phenomenon under study.

Giving in: there is a tendency for researchers who undertake grounded theory to fold, or become lenient in their application of the rigid and time consuming process of data analysis. Grounded theory is time consuming and often frustrating. This must be understood and embraced if the process is to be successful.

Description vs. explanation: explanation of patterns of behaviour is the ultimate goal of grounded theory research. Description of what is happening is often seen as a substitution. These two outcomes are not interchangeable. It is not about accuracy of description, it is about conceptual abstraction, resulting in conceptual hypotheses.

Role of context: the context of the study should not influence data analysis from the outset. The context should be seen as another piece of the puzzle that may or may not be of importance. If it is of importance this will emerge naturally from the participants.

1. What is the phenomenon of interest?
2. Does grounded theory best suit the study of the phenomenon?
3. Is there existing literature on the specific area of interest?
4. Are there theories that adequately explain the occurrences within the phenomenon?
5. What is the role of the researcher in the study?
6. Is the body of literature acting as additional data?
7. Is it ensured the context does not influence data analysis?
8. What is the researchers relationship to the study?
9. What precautions will be taken to ensure unbiased approach of the researcher?
10. How will constant comparative analysis occur?
11. Who are the subjects of interest?
12. What is the data collection method?
13. What are the coding procedures?
14. How will relationships between concepts be identified and categorized?
15. Are the results new explanations of relationships?
16. Is the process constantly reflexive?

Conclusions and Recommendations
The value of grounded theory is in its ability to examine relationships and behaviour within a phenomenon from an unbiased in-depth perspective. That is to say, when a researcher enters a study with no framework or theory they are wish to fit the data into the doors are open to discovering explanations that have yet to be articulated. More importantly, the explanations ultimately come from the participants being studied. When a grounded theory study is executed correctly and rigorously, there is little chance that the resulting explanations have distorted by the researchers personal worldview.

The time and detailed analysis required to properly execute grounded theory methodology makes its use daunting and limited. There are many variables that must be in place (i.e. resources, experience of researcher, acceptance of methodological processes etc…) in order for grounded theory to be successfully carried out. When this occurs the results can be invaluable to the understanding of social phenomena.

Allan, G. (2003). A critique of using grounded theory as a research method. Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods. 2(1).
Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Chesebro, J.W., & Borisoff, D.J. (2007). What makes qualitative research qualitative? Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. 8(1), 3–14
Creswell, J.W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dick, B. (2005). Grounded theory: a thumbnail sketch. [On line] Available at
Glaser, B. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.
Glaser. B.G. & Strauss, A.L. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Transaction, Inc.
Holton, J. A. (2009). Qualitative Tussles in Undertaking a Grounded Theory Study The Grounded Theory Review, 8(3), 37-49.
Martin, et al. (1986). Grounded Theory and Organizational Research. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 22(2), 141.
Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques (1st ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Mar 26, 2010

The Constitution of Collectivism in an Organization: From A Rhetoric Perspective

Jing Ke
Nov, 2009
Course Title: Organizational Communication

The Constitution of Collectivism in an Organization:
From A Rhetoric Perspective

In contemporary society, although the capacity and prominence of individual have been largely facilitated by modern technology, the sense of collectivism is still exist in both private and public organizations as well as some countries which hold collectivist thinking as dominant ideology. This article analyzes the constitution of collectivism applies to both classical and contemporary rhetoric theories, questioning how a sense of collectivism is built up in one organization both technically and ideologically. The main argument is, classical rhetoric’s focus on linguistic means of persuasion is widely used in constituting a sense of collectivism in an organization. Also, on a larger scale, the long-established philosophical principles of a nation can also be interpreted as a rhetorical discourse/context which shapes the nation’s dominant ideology and personality.

Key words: collectivism, rhetoric, organization

In this information era, the term “collectivism” seems somewhat out of date – with a computer connected to the Internet at hand, one can easily keep one’s life going on without stepping out of his/her house and at the same time being informed what is happening on the other side of the earth. The possibility and capacity of the individual is now stretching to an unprecedented level while, on the other hand, the dominance of central power is breaking down in every social dimension.

However, as a matter of fact, the sense of collectivism has never disappeared from the scene. In business organizations, collectivism, defined as “any of several types of social organization in which the individual is seen as being subordinate to a social collectivity such as a state, a nation, a race, or a social class” (Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2009), has transformed into the spirit of teamwork and the sense of loyalty to the company which contribute to team culture and business success (Tarricone & Luca, 2002); not to mention military organizations and some central government agencies (e.g. the U.S. Department of Defense), where collectivism is undoubtedly the leading principle due to their special duties like managing military forces for war-fighting, collecting and analyzing intelligence, and protecting the security of the country. In fact, in some East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, collectivism is the dominant ideology and philosophy that fulfills these countries’ social life and political activities, making a sharp contrast with many western countries.

The constitution of collectivism in an organization is a progressively accumulative process rather than accomplished at one stroke. It is a communicational practice aims at issues of motivation, persuasion and “sales” of opinions (McMillan, 1982). The process of persuasion can be interpreted as a rhetorical manipulation which shapes the personality of a group. Such process can be explained by either classical or contemporary rhetorical theories.

Classical rhetoric originates in 5th century BC Greece and focuses on persuasiveness and the features of an effective speech (Wiseman, 2007). It is “a theory of public speaking, which develops an extensive technical vocabulary to describe features of argument, arrangement, style, and delivery” (Kennedy, 1994). When it is used in organized persuasion, as Hegstrom (1990) argues, the possible effects would be the organizational values superseding individual ones, making an emphasis on “unity of voice” in organization’s identity. In other words, the public speaking, or the “speech” emphasized by classical rhetoric, has a potential power in conveying organizational values to a group of individuals. As a result, a sense of collectivism is constituted through such rhetorical activities.

Contemporary studies on rhetoric address a more diverse range of domains than did classical rhetoric. It focuses on the analysis of discourse and the relationship between rhetoric and knowledge (Burke, 1969). Contemporary rhetorical theories see rhetoric as a mean to constitute social realities as well as a medium for creating, managing, or resisting ideological meanings (Giddens, 2005). An array of organizational phenomena that can be marked as a practice of collectivism is then produced by such process, such as the systems of influence and control writ large (P. K. Tompkins & Cheney, 1985) and the epideictic (it is one of Aristotle's major branches of rhetoric, which means speech or writing that praises or blames) advocacy of values in society (Goldzwig & Cheney, 1984). One good example on this would be the constitution and widely acceptance of the Confucian way of thinking in East Asian countries. Throughout long historical immigrations and inter-cultural communications, most Esat Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) share very similar values and ideologies mainly based on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. These had shaped the mainstream discourses and dominant ideologies of East Asian countries which influence, lead and control people’s behaviour.

Definitions and Implications of Collectivism
Before examine the relationship between rhetorical theories and the constitution of collectivism, some characteristics of collectivism should be clarified. In the book Beyond Self-Interest (2002), collectivism is defined as “the theory and practice that makes some sort of group rather than the individual the fundamental unit of political, social, and economic concern (Beabout et al, 2002). In other words, group become the basic element in all social activities in collectivist’s discourse. Beabout et al go on to say, “in theory, collectivists insist that the claims of groups, associations, or the state must normally supersede the claims of individuals.”

The ignorance or denying of individual needs and merit directly lead collectivism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-sacrifice in an organization. For instance, in ancient feudal society of China, people believed in that family is the ultimate goal and standard of their everyday life, and all their activities should be consistent with the family’s interest and reputation. And on a broader scale, for every social member, the nation is a larger “family”, and everyone in the country should be a royal subject to the emperor. According to Perry (1984), this family-centered social structure is generated from the production mode of Chinese traditional farming society, in which family is the basic unit of production and individuals have to rely on the collaboration of family members in order to make a living in the “small peasant economy”. Perry also argued that the process of social production, which allows limited freedom of individual’s movement, is also a process of the strengthening of this sense of collectivism.

Ayn Rand (1944) argues that “collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group - whether to a race, class, or state does not matter…Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called ‘the common good’.” As a matter of fact, when it is adopted by a country, the wholeness and integrity stressed by collectivism usually increase the risk of stirring up nationalism and dictatorship. For instance, looking backward the history of human society in the past century, Communism, Socialism and Fascism may all be termed collectivist systems.

In the field of mass communication studies, the Spiral of Silence Theory (Anderson, 1996) could somehow explain the generating and legitimacy of collectivism in an organization. Spiral of silence theory asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority (Anderson, 1996). In other words, People will be unwilling to publicly express their opinion if they believe they are in the minority. They will also be more vocal if they believe they are a part of the majority. Thus the more marginalized, the less people speak, and the stronger the majority will be, this forms the spiral of silence.

The psychological motivation of this spiral is simple: fear of social rejection and isolation, and also, fear of being associated with the rejected person (Noelle-Neumann, 1984). At the same time, making oneself into a group brings the sense of safety and belonging, then collectivism generates. Noelle-Neumann (1984) also argues that the media accelerates the muting of the minority in the spiral of silence due to its big influence on shaping public opinions. According to Noelle-Newman (1984), the media not only tell us what to think about, but show us what everyone else is thinking. In my opinion, from contemporary rhetoric perspective, those agendas and discourses set by mass media can also be viewed as different rhetorical systems in which people are persuaded into certain beliefs and behaviours.
There are many other resources in literature discussing the definition of collectivism. Despite different expressions, two characteristics of collectivism could be summarized: Firstly, the superiority of the collectives over the individuals; and secondly, the similarity and simplification in identity for members in a collective. This may help understand the relationship between rhetoric and constitution of collectivism.

Classical Rhetoric in the Constitution of Collectivism
Literally, the word “rhetoric” includes four meanings: the art of speaking or writing effectively; skill in the effective use of speech; a type or mode of language or speech; and verbal communication (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009). In one word, the original meaning of rhetoric is all about techniques of effective speech and eloquent expression. As Cothran (2003) argues, classical rhetoric requires a man to be familiar with “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” in expression. Cothran (2003) also mentions that although the study of rhetoric truly begins at a young age with practice in imitating the writing of others, it extends in later years into the specific study of persuasive expression.

There is no better place to begin the latter kind of study than with Aristotle’s Rhetoric. According to Aristotle (1954), there are three elements of communication: the speaker (the sender), the audience (the receiver), and the speech itself (the message). Actually, communication is the interaction between the three elements: the receiver understands what the sender intends to say in the exchanges of information. Aristotle also said there are three modes of rhetoric in which persuasion is accomplished – ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos refers to the character of the speaker or source. For example, whether the speaker is trustworthy or not, or whether the source is reliable. Logos refers to the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments or messages, meaning the logical strengths of the arguments. Aristotle said, using enthymeme and example is a good way to enforce the logos. And pathos refers to the emotions of the audience or listeners. To take into account how the audience feel is crucial when one try to persuade people of something, and often the speaker may elicit emotions like pity, anger, enthusiasm or scepticism among the audience. Aristotle believes that in the practice of persuasion, these three principal dynamics usually work together to make a good persuasive effect.

Combined with Aristotle’s discourse on effective persuasion, classical rhetoric has been widely used by collectivists to build up the sense of collectivism in target groups. One representative example on this would be Hitler’s rhetorical speech which mobilized millions of Germans into fanatic Nazism. As a matter of fact, Hitler used speeches as a main tool of his Nazi propaganda. According to Harold Lasswell’s (Levyatan, 2009) analysis of Hitler’s speeches, Hitler succeeded in captivating and influencing his audiences by combining the above three modes into a highly personalized way of speaking. As Lasswell shows, Hitler used ethos by adopting a unique individual stamp in voice and non-verbal elements in his speech, making himself charismatic and trustworthy. Lasswell mentioned that Hitler’s voice “carried a stronger challenge than those of the Western leaders” (Levyatan, 2009, p.56). Hitler used logos to establish the legitimacy of his National Socialism by advocating the superiority of a racially defined “German people”; and his arguments “healed” the Germans from the sense of failure and humiliation in World War I. And using pathos, Hitler dedicatedly elicited anger and enthusiasm in the audience to control their feelings. He also had a keen perception of the listeners’ psychological need. All of these factors contributed to the sheer force of his speeches.

Besides Aristotle and his followers’ discourses on ethos, logos, and pathos about the classical arts of persuasion, some modern researchers tend to study rhetoric through psychological means. Gardner (2004) applies a cognitive psychological lens to his review of persuasion or what he terms “changing minds”. He notes that “rhetoric is a principal vehicle for changing minds” that in its best form encompasses “tight logic, draws on relevant research, and resonates with an audience” (p. 16). Gardener (2004) also stresses the importance of the ability of mind changers strategically to develop, share, and embody a message or “story” that resonates with a given audience. As he argues in the book, “the more of an individual’s intelligences you can appeal to when making an argument, the more likely you are to change a person’s mind, and the more minds you are likely to change” (p. 30). In one word, Gardner reiterates the importance of linguistic skills, credibility, resonating with the audience and reasoning as he articulates the process for changing minds or persuading ourselves and others. Nevertheless, in his discourses, we can still find some clear links with the traditional canons of rhetoric on persuasion.

Summarized from the above analysis, it is fair to conclude that the constitution of collectivism and the success of propaganda to a target group of audience can be interpreted as a practice of classical rhetoric in a given circumstances.

Contemporary Rhetoric and Collectivism
Contemporary rhetoric, as mentioned in the introduction, focuses on the discourses and the ideological meaning of rhetoric in social construction (Burke, 1969). Throughout the centuries, people have relied on different ideologies in order to explain all kinds of beliefs, although they might be political, religious or social. van Dijk (2001) argued that, ideology, as a special form of social cognition shared by social groups, may influence the ways social attitudes are expressed in discourse structures and affect the productions or interpretations of discourse directly. In other words, ideology shapes our values and worldview. For instance, the traditional ideology of gender roles in a given social group or system indicate the long-exist beliefs on what men and women “should” do in their social life. In most of both Eastern and Western culture context, traditionally, men are connected with high professional education, careers, works and achievements, and decision-makings in a family; while women are not expected to receive professional education or appear in workplace but devote themselves in things like housekeeping and child care. However, in some matriarchy societies (e.g., the Mosuo Tribe living in today’s Sichuan-Yunnan provincial border of China), the leading role is taken by women and especially by the mothers of the community, the gender roles men and women played are much different compared with those in patriarchy societies.

Ideologies may also control the knowledge acquired and shared by a group, such as the social beliefs which a group holds to be “true” or “good” according to its own evaluation or verification criteria. As Bhatia (2008) argues, social realities are often negotiated and determined by elite groups of society, including political and religious leaders, the mass media, and even professional experts, who give meaning to complex, multifaceted constructs consistent with their individual socio-political agendas. One example Bhatia mentions is the ideologies and discourses of anti-terrorism, in which the Bush-Administrations defines “what we the public and media understand by the term terrorism; who are terrorists; what constitutes terrorism; how we can fight terrorism, etc.” Bhatia goes on to say that in order to convince audiences that the version of reality that the Bush’s government is representing is the objective truth, particular themes such as the construction of religion, Weapons of Mass Destruction, orientalism, and attack vs. self-defence are utilized (Bhatia, 2008). What’s more, Bhatia argues that those particular themes are realized through the use of rhetorical resources such as category work, appeals to historicity, negative other-presentation, and metaphor, which allow a subjective conceptualization of reality to appear more convincing through the invocation of emotions and ideologies. In one word, according to Bhatia (2008), the use of language and rhetoric features achieves the themes that enable the discourse of illusions on anti-terrorism to eventually take effect.

On the other hand, the productions or representations of ideological discourse (e.g. mass media, religion, art, architecture, politics, history, culture, language, laws, ethics, etc.) may reinforce the legitimacy of ideology (van Dijk, 2001). For instance, in the above “gender roles” example, the stereotypes of men and women in social life are ceaselessly reinforced by our own social activities from generation to generation, making the ideology of gender roles becoming more legislative; then the legislation of this ideology in turn dominates our behaviors to conform to it – and the process will go on and on. From my perspective, such “produce - reinforce” process forms a circle between ideological discourses and their representations. Noticeably, contemporary studies of rhetoric investigate such interactivities (Giddens, 2005).

The research on Confucianism and East Asian philosophy gives us a vivid example on these interactions and explains why people in these countries own a high sense of collectivism in their values. Yum (2007) argues that Confucianism, which has been the dominant ideology in China and then Japan and Korea for nearly two thousand years, created the philosophical emphasis on collectivism, hierarchy and social harmony in these countries. In its doctrines, Confucianism contains two of the most important principles: jen (humanism, human dignity and collective sharedness) and li (propriety or etiquette, people should treat other people with respect and deference). Generally speaking, the Confucian discourse systems stress that “people are people through the other people” and “the very existence and identity of an individual depends on his/her relationships with others” (Yum, 2007, p. 16). Accordingly, following the rules of proper behavior and making contribution to the group one belongs to is thought to be “good” and “right” in their ideologies since East Asian people consider proper human relationships to be the basis of society.

Confucianism has left a strong impact on interpersonal relationships and communication patterns in East Asian countries. According to Yum’s earlier article (1988), the East Asian communication patterns differ from those of North America because of the Eastern emphasis on social relationships, which stems from the doctrines of Confucianism, as oppose to the North American emphasis on individualism, which stresses equality, fairness, and justice. Yum (1988) explains that, the emphasis on Confucianism in social relationship is “conducive to cooperation, warm, relaxed human relations, consideration of others, and group harmony” (p. 386). According to Yum’s (1988) arguments, Confucianism has also contributed to the East Asian Communication patterns of process orientation, differentiated linguistic codes, indirect communication emphasis, and receiver-centred communication. In contrast, North American patterns of communication represent outcome communication, less-differentiated linguistic codes, direct communication emphasis, and sender-centred communication.

As a matter of fact, some scholars believe that the impact of Confucianism on interpersonal relationships and both interpersonal and organizational communications in East Asian countries is a major cultural factor to explain the impressive economic and social progress of Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, etc. in the past three decades (Chen & Chung, 1994). For instance, the Japanese way of management tend to create establishing long term personal relationship between employees, and employees are encouraged to stay in the organization for a long period of time; while Western organizations adopt high mobility, heterogeneity, and individualism by contrast.

In one word, it is obvious from the above cases, on ideological level, different cultural contexts and discourses can be seen as a given rhetorical system in which a certain kind of belief (collectivism), communication pattern (from top to bottom and receiver-centred) and group behaviour (collectivistic activities) are created.

In summary, the articles and examples mentioned in the preceding analysis provide a clear view, both theoretically and practically, to how a sense of collectivism is constituted in an organization by rhetorical means. With the supportive case study of Hitler’s speeches and East Asia’s Confucianism, we can easily go to the conclusion that classical rhetoric’s focus on linguistic means of persuasion is widely used in constituting a sense of collectivism in an organization. On a larger scale, the long-established philosophical principles of a nation can also be interpreted as a rhetorical discourse/context which shapes the nation’s dominant ideology and personality.

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Open the Deadlock? Government Transparency and Communication Policies of Chinese Government during Sichuan Earthquake

Jing Ke
Dec, 2009
Course Title: Government Communication

Open the Deadlock? Government Transparency and Communication Policies of Chinese Government during Sichuan Earthquake

At 2:28 in the afternoon of May 12, 2008 the ground in China's Sichuan province shuddered and cracked open. Buildings, roads and lives were torn apart in seconds. During the next minutes, tremors of the quake were felt throughout the whole country and reached as far away as Russia, India and Pakistan. With a magnitude of 8.0, the massive earthquake had left nearly 70,000 dead with over 18,000 missing
[1] and about 5 million people (most of them poor and elderly villagers) homeless[2] (though the number could be as high as 11 million[3]), making it the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time.

Eighteen minutes after the disaster, at 2:46 in the afternoon, the official press agency of Chinese government Xinhua News Agency first publicized breaking news of the earthquake on its website. Fourteen minutes later, at 3:00 in the afternoon, the major state television broadcaster and mouthpiece of the government China Central Television (CCTV) started a 24-hour live broadcast of the disaster on both CCTV-1 and CCTV-News channels. At the same time, most of the mainstream media in China (newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, magazines) as well as new media (websites and cell phone news, etc.) began to report the earthquake. According to Asian Weekly magazine, after the earthquake, CCTV had sent over 160 reporters to the disaster zone, and they were doing their job with the support of all the provincial TV stations in China. The quantity and quality of news broadcasting on the earthquake “break the record in Chinese news reporting history”

Besides domestic media, seniors in Chinese central government also had a quick response to the unexpected cataclysm. Ninety minutes after the earthquake, Premier Wen Jiabao, who has an academic background in geology, flew to the earthquake area to oversee the rescue work
[5]. Soon afterward, the State Council initiated an emergency contingency plan to deal with the entire rescue, settle and rebuild work after the earthquake. In order to communicate with the public effectively and publicize the latest information of the disaster, the central government disseminated the information primarily via three channels:

State-owned domestic media (mentioned above)
Press conferences and the Chinese government’s official web portal
Overseas media and independent journalists facing the foreign audience

Such is the profile of Chinese government’s reactions on information communication after the earthquake. Based on the event, the question I focus on in this essay is: Can government achieve pure transparency in its communication with the public? If not, then to what extent can the transparency be?

On May 1, 2008, just eleven days before the earthquake, the Regulation on Publicizing Government Information of People’s Republic of China was officially promulgated and came into force in China. From the political science perspective, this regulation, if effectively implemented, would have a far-reaching impact on Chinese society. As the insiders have already revealed, once issued, “it will commit all government organs to publishing most of the information which until now has remained locked in office desks”
[7]. In other words, this regulation unprecedentedly represents the principle of citizen’s “right to know” and asserts government’s obligation on disclosure of information about public affairs.

It is quite fair to say that the Chinese central government’s responses and reactions, including their attitude to state-owned and overseas media on news reporting after the earthquake, have highly, although not thoroughly, revealed the principles of this information publicizing regulation. Comment from the International Herald Tribune and other overseas media states that Chinese government’s attitude on the earthquake news reporting is “amazingly open”
[8]. As a matter of fact, compared with the long-established tradition of highly centralized administration, lack of transparency, and state-controlled information publicity as well as news censorship in journalism, the central government of China, when facing the Sichuan Earthquake, is trying out a more open and transparent way to communicate with the public. In today’s global discourse and competition of new public management (NPM), these reactions showed the eagerness of Chinese government and the leadership of China to gradually move the huge bureaucratic machine towards a modest form of “good governance”[9] through the ongoing administrative reforms and innovation.

Before examine the transparency issues of government communication, I’d like to figure out some fundamental elements and definitions of transparency in the field of political science. In the field of political science, “transparency” can be defined as “legal, political and institutional structures that make information about the internal characteristics of government and society available to actors both inside and outside of the domestic political system”
[10], this definition emphasizes the structural measures that create a climate that promotes transparency in government actions. Cotterrell also argued that “transparency is the availability of information on matters of public concern, the ability of citizens to participate in political decisions, and the accountability of government to public opinion or legal processes”[11], focusing on the opening organizational behavior. Finel and Lord at the same time defined transparency as “legal, political and institutional structures that make information about the internal characteristics of government and society available to actors both inside and outside of the domestic political system”[12]. In one word, open administrative procedures and citizen’s access to information and decision-making process are key aspects of transparency.

According to Fairbanks, Plowman and Rawlins, an ideal model of a transparent government communication, the Transparency Model
[13], can be visualized as a three dimensional triangle: The base of this model is a commitment to transparent communication processes, the three sides, or key elements of the model are communication practices, organizational support and the provision of resources[14]. This model can be used to understand how to make the workings of a government or public sector more transparent and how government should interact with the public.

One principal goal of this transparency model is citizen’s access to information, which increases the public’s knowledge on government’s activities and attendance in decision-making process. As Fairbanks, Plowman, and Rawlins argued, transparency in government actions and decision-making processes create an informed public, which is the basic stone of a healthy democracy
[15]. On the other hand, there is a direct connection between government transparency and its accountability. Scholars have suggested that good communication and interaction with the public can increase trust, since open access to information and transparent systems will increase the public's knowledge of government activities. Oppositely, the decline of trust in government is an outgrowth of poor communication between government and its publics, where publics feel that they are not well informed about government actions. The accountability of public sectors is a crucial factor for modern scientific administration, especially in crisis period. The image of accountability and trustworthy of a government would facilitate a more effective and efficient way for policy making as well as undertaking.

It seems Fairbanks’s model has perfectly depicted how to create a good, responsible, accountable, and transparent government communication, it represents us a vision of “government transparency” in liberal democratic political systems. However, pure transparency only establishes itself on the conceptual and theoretical side. On the practical side of government administration and public management, pure transparency in government communication is no more than a “cheerful willingness”. More accurately, I would argue that pure transparency is neither realizable nor advisable on the empirical level of government communication.

Fairbanks and his colleagues’ research
[16] has shown that, nowadays leaders and communicators in government have clearly recognized that the openness in the communication process of federal agencies is one of the basic requirements of a democratic government. However, we have spent most of our class throughout this semester discussing the un-transparent practices of government, such as strategic truth, plausible deniability, democratic propaganda and integrated circuit, etc. In other words, we were digging out the “ugly truth” of public management and the nature of political world: How to maintain a controlled or at least translucent communication under the mask of being transparent? From my perspective, this question is irrelevant with the political system, the ideologies, or the extent of democracy of a country. As a matter of fact, the issue of government transparency might be a never-ending dilemma for government leaders and social servants everywhere in the world. At least till now, we haven’t seen any political entity solve this problem perfectly.

In the context of Canadian parliamentary political system, as well as other western democratic countries, the un-transparent communication practices I mentioned above widely exist. Especially in the Westminster political system of Commonwealth of Nations countries (UK, Canada, Australia, etc.) which hold parliamentary opposition (multi-party) as a key characteristic and tend to have a more adversarial style of debate and contest between parties. In this situation, the game is all about “winning the power”, which means, the first objective of a government to be elected/re-elected and to stay in power. The competition between the majority and minority in the parliament is so severe that both sides would spare no pains to dig out any tiny mistakes and missteps of each other in order to embarrass and shame the competitor. Consequently, a paradoxical situation is shaped: on the one hand, government passes legislations to facilitate and protect transparency under the hat of being “democracy” (e.g. Access to Information Act and Freedom of Information); on the other hand, government has to control, attain and keep power, pure transparency is not realist -- such is the nature of governance.

Same thing happens in China’s single-party socialist political system. Though the central government has been pushing an extensive restructuring of public sectors for two decades
[17] in order to catch up with the pace of the country’s economic development and integrate with the rest of the world, current situation is still hardly optimistic. The uniqueness of China’s public sector administration and reform are widely known as “Chinese Characteristics”:

Firstly, the country’s leadership has to maintain an ideological correctness. Secondly, the leaders are eager to “learn from the west”, they largely adopt the NPM reforms originating in the Anglo-American countries[18] to accord with the economic reform and to facilitate the economic success. Thirdly, since the world has seen China’s rise in recent years, the central government is bearing increasing pressure from western world to change the governance to be more democratic and transparent, especially after China’s accession to the WTO. Finally, current conditions of Chinese society are rather complicated and the country’s economic development has suffered many growth-related problems[19] (e.g. inflation pressure, income gap, regional imbalance, and unemployment concerns). The Chinese society has also experienced many problems in the areas of school education, public health, public safety, and social welfare, etc. And now they have to face new problems -- the separatist or even terrorist thoughts and activities in the country.

From my perspective, Chinese society is now quite unstable under the superficial quietness and risk may occur (and is occurring) anytime. Based on all the considerations, the central government of China is also facing the dilemma I mentioned above in government communication and cannot achieve pure transparency on administration and information. As a matter of fact, until now China has refused to issue a press law because it might curtail the privileges of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda department in disseminating information.

Sometimes I feel this deadlock situation quite ironic and I would personally describe it as “good people doing bad things” -- Rationally, everyone in this domain knows that in government communication “greater transparency promotes accountability and better management”
[20] but practically no one can put it into practice. This is not only a phenomenon throughout the western world, but actually the whole political world. Grunig’s two-way symmetrical communication model[21] is a rather amiable belief for transparent government communication, but in contemporary political arena it’s a lofty aspiration.

Personally speaking, I prefer to look at this issue from a more realistic perspective. Thousands of years of human experience tells us that, any existence of government, no matter democratic, republic, communist, dictatorship, or, in history, monarchist and Christian etc., is a monopoly of organized forces. Control is necessary since the so-called “free markets” and “individual initiative” is not always reliable. Numerous historical events as well as social experiments have proved that no matter to what extent a society develops, the rationality of human mind is tend to be over-estimated and public opinion is always easy to be manipulated. Examples are Nazism’s upsurge in post-World War I Germany and the notorious Culture Revolution in 1960s China, as well as other political movements in human history that have agitated the public into fanatical obsession. Moreover, as some ancient Chinese politicians and philosophers believed, dialectically speaking, good social order depends on governance and people’s freedom depends on a certain extent of forces and restrictions. To be honest, I personally disapprove of the political philosophy of anarchism and I agree that a compulsory government is always necessary.

I’m not advocating high-pressure politics here. Pure transparency might be advisable and plausible at a low level of governance in a relatively small region (e.g. municipal government in cities, towns, villages and municipalities). In such circumstances, the population is smaller and the demographic structure is simpler, it is possible for government to hold assembly and to obtain a unifying public opinion and agreement on a given issue or policy. For instance, the municipal governments in Canada may set out some statues named as the Municipal Act, the Local Government Act, the Cities and Towns Act and the like to provide services that can be more effectively handled under local control
[22]. Also, the origins of the term democracy in ancient Greek have represented another good example of pure transparency and direct democracy in politics. Plato claimed that, to achieve democracy, all citizens were eligible to speak and vote in the Assembly, which set the laws of the city-state[23]. As a matter of fact, of the 250,000 inhabitants in Athens at that time, only some 30,000 on average were “citizens”, and of those 30,000 perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the popular Assembly[24].

Nevertheless, on a larger scale, for federal government and other types of government in contemporary world, to undertake pure transparency in government communication might cause huge disorder and chaos, and the situation will definitely lose control. Take China’s government communication strategy and activity after the earthquakes for example, though the communications between Chinese government and the public requires honesty and openness to stop rumors and halt panic, the impediments and balancing interest in pure transparency are still easy to perceive:

First and foremost, the central government of China needs to maintain public order and control the situation in the post-earthquake mess. When crisis happen, government sometimes cannot communicate all the facts and must “hide” some part of the truth for the public good. I would personally view this as a kind of obscurantism, which means the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known or a policy of withholding knowledge from the general public
[25]. But it really works in certain context, especially in China where the vast majority of the population is undereducated and easy to overthrow self-control in crisis period.

Secondly, the existing censorship practiced in China’s mainstream media constrains the media’s capacity to report the disaster objectively and independently. As I mentioned above, until now China has no press law and the propaganda department of central government is in charge of all the information disseminated from the mainstream media. As is always the case, the “reportage policy” of the earthquake was sent to all state-owned media in the country soon after the disaster happened in form of official documents through an intranet. Consequently, the mainstream media’s reports have to fulfill the government’s requirement of propaganda and the so-called “guidance of public opinion” (yulun daoxiang).

Last but not least, the ideological conflict between China and western countries and the world’s hostility to China’s recent year’s rise “forced” the central government to withhold information, in order to protect state interest and maintain a good (or at least neutral) national image. For instance, lots of schools collapsed in the earthquake and the bodies of teenagers are, as reported, “Too many to count”
[26], experts on global hazards pointed out that the loss of life could have been significantly reduced using known methods for designing or retrofitting structures in earthquake zones[27] and they named those collapsed buildings “tofu-dregs school houses”[28]. However, government till today refuses to accept responsibility and doesn’t admit that there is any quality problem of the school houses nor publicize the member of death in school collapse. It is probably because to do this will implicate other issues like the rampant corruption and misconduct in Chinese bureaucratic system. – In my opinion the government’s reaction is quite unsophisticated, as one can never solve a problem by cover it up.

Based on the above analysis, I would go to the conclusion that practically speaking, pure transparency in government communication is neither realizable nor advisable in any political context. It is not realizable because government has to win a power, there is no room for pure transparency; and it is not advisable because government has to run, there is still no room for pure transparency. Thus I personally believe that it is impossible to open the deadlock between theoretical and practical side of government transparency, Chinese government’s communication activities after Sichuan Earthquake also reflected this dilemma.

To close the essay, I want to add that the optimistic side of the deadlock needs to be highlighted. Although pure transparency is not realizable in contemporary government communication, the political practice of liberal democratic countries as well as some developing countries like China proves that the citizen’s access to information and government’s transparency is much better than decades ago. The widely adoption of E-Government in modern public management and all the legislations providing the right of access to information and protecting the citizen’s “right to know” guarantee that generally, government information is available to the public. Besides, with the development of public education and the information communication technologies, people are tend to shape more deliberate and considered opinions over public issues and can get information via non-professional media. From my point of view, the rise of today’s civil/citizen journalism may change the existing relationships between government, media and public in “public sphere”, and it will probably bring a more hopeful future of government transparency.

[1] “Casualties of the Wenchuan Earthquake” (in Chinese). 2008-06-08.
[2] Jacobs, Andrew; Edward Wong; Huang Yuanxi (2009-05-07). “China Reports Student Toll for Quake”. New York Times.
[3] Hooker, Jake (2008-05-26). “Toll Rises in China Quake”. New York Times.
[4] Zhang, Jieping. Sichuan Earthquake and Opening of Journalism (in Chinese). Asian Weekly. 2008. issue22
[5] Simon Elegant. China's Quake Damage Control. Time. 2008-05-13
[6] /
[7] Zhang, Junhua. 2005. Good Governance through E-Governance? Assessing China’s E-Government Strategy. Journal of E-Government, Vol. 2(4)
[9] Christensen, Dong, and Painter. 2008. Administrative reform in China’s central government - how much ‘learning from the West’?. International Review of Administrative Sciences. Vol. 74 (3): 351–371
[10] Finel B.I., Lord K.M. 1999. The surprising logic of transparency. International Studies Quarterly. 43: 315-339.
[11] Cotterrell R. 1999. Transparency, mass media, ideology and community. Cultural Values. 3(4): 414-426.
[12] B.I. Finel and K.M. Lord. 1999. The surprising logic of transparency. International Studies Quarterly. 43 (2) (1999), pp. 315–339.
[13] Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., and Rawlins, B. 2007. Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 7, Issue 1. 23-27.
[14] Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., and Rawlins, B. 2007. Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 7, Issue 1. 23-27
[15] Same as 14
[16] Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., and Rawlins, B. 2007. Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 7, Issue 1. 23-27
[17] Christensen, Dong, and Painter. 2008. Administrative reform in China’s central government - how much ‘learning from the West’?. International Review of Administrative Sciences. Vol. 74 (3): 351–371
[18] Pollitt, C. and Bouckaert, G. (2004) Public Management Reform: A Comparative Analysis, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[19] Kuotsai Tom Liou. (2008). E-Government Development and China’s Administrative Reform. Intl Journal of Public Administration, 31: 76–95
[20] The Gomery Commission Report. 2006. Chapter 10. Transparency and better management
[21] Grunig, J.E. (1997). Public relations management in government and business. In J.L. Garnett, & A.Kouzmin (Eds.), Handbook of administrative communication (pp. 241). New York: Marcel Dekker
[22] Municipal government in The Canadian Encyclopedia
[23] Grinin L. E. (2004). Democracy and Early State. Social Evolution & History. 3(2), pp. 93-149
[24] Democracy is people who rule the government directly. BBC. History of democracy
[25] obscurantism. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from
[26] Tania Branigan. (2008). In the rubble of a school, bodies everywhere - too many to count. The Guardian. 2008/5/16 , from
[27] Andrew C. Revkin. (2008). China earthquake brings faulty school design to the fore. New York Times. 2008/05/14, from
[28] Alex Lantier. 2008. "Rising death toll, popular anger in China quake". World Socialist Web Site. May 21, 2008.

Growing up under Pressure - Some of my views on Singapore film industry

Jing Ke
Oct, 2007
Course Title: Film Studies

Growing up under Pressure
Some of my perspectives on Singapore film industry

(As a Chinese born in the late 1980s and grown up in a populous mainland city, Singapore film is not a familiar word to me. Surrounded by Hollywood blockbusters and Hong Kong gangster films, I watched my first Singapore film 3 months ago after arriving here. The more Singapore films I watch, the more curious I feel about the film industry of this country, that is the reason why I choose this topic.)

Singapore film industry began in the early 1930s, it enjoyed a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s and produced nearly 400 films during that period. After its independence in 1965, the film industry of the nation was almost silent before 1990 as the government despised film making. However, since the release of Bugis Street and Mee Pok Man, the first profitable local film in 1995, film industry of Singapore has launched into its renaissance.
[①] From my perspective, the renaissance of Singapore film industry is in a steady but tortuous process.

The film industry of a country is inseparable with its culture, history, politics and economy background as well as the ideology and value it believes in. Accordingly, I’d like to analyze Singapore film industry from the following aspects:

Singapore a small and multi-raced country possessing a diversified culture, the various ethnic groups celebrate their own cultures while they intermingle with one another. This special form of culture has great influence on local film industry, since film is a cultural practice, it is born in a certain culture context and has emotional and moral impact on the audience. Film is also remarked as a “bridge” connects different cultures and represents the culture background in which it is produced. Therefore to utilize film as an instrument for cross-cultural exchange is rather important to Singapore, since culture harmony is the basic element for a steady-going society.

Take Kelvin Tong’s horror film The Maid for example, it is a horrible story happens in a Singapore Chinese family, there are many traditional Chinese elements in the film, like the Seven Ghost Month, the Chinese Opera and the sacrifice to the dead, these are all representations to the traditional Chinese way of life in the old days. It would arouse a range of different responses among audience coming from different culture background. A Chinese will probably understand the heavy and deep pathos in this movie or even have a feeling of nostalgia to the philosophic perception on life and death in traditional Chinese values, while, say, an Indian or American would probably only enjoy the horror it brings in and sigh with confusion or even misunderstanding of the “unreasonable” Chinese way of life after seeing the film. They may have a peep into the traditional Chinese culture while misunderstand it at the same time. The risk exists in any film produced from any culture background.

Example above is one aspect of the culture issue, on a higher level, film need to represent the unique culture of Singapore to the world and promote indigenous culture at the same time. However, as 99% of the films screened in Singapore are imported while few films are exported, the indigenous culture of Singapore is under threat in the tide of globalization.

Politics & Ideology:
Acting as a part of media industry, film is under the influence of political power and ideological tendency since its appearance. Government is the leading power in control of the film industry, the administrative control can be implemented by two means, one is financing (this will be mentioned later), the other is censorship.

Film censorship is inevitably practiced in every country in different forms and different degree, according to Singapore Media Development Authority, the film censorship in Singapore aims to “protect the young from unsuitable content as well as to maintain stability and harmony in our multi-racial and multi-religious society”.
[②] Besides, films are classified into 5 categories in order to provide a wider choice for audiences. As a matter of fact, either the film censorship or the classification is accepted by most of the local audience.

However, things are becoming more complex when we regard film as a way to reflect reality rather than a tool to conform the ideology. Hong Kong broadcasting magnate Run Run Shaw once called Singapore “too clean”,
[③] which is a reflection on the strictness of the film censorship, and the “cleanness” is even seemed unreal.

I’d like to discuss more on Royston Tan’s film 15: The Movie, which narrates five fringe Singaporean teenagers who are abandoned by the system, the life they adopt is incompatible to the mainstream of the society. It seems more like a documentary than a film, recording the true-life story of the “bad boys” who lost themselves in the metanarrative in this postmodern world. For some acceptable reasons, this film was initially banned in Singapore and then suffered 27 cuts before being approved for release. It is reasonable for a film which reflects the dark side of a society being banned by the authority in order to maintain social stability, but sometimes to uncover and expose the wound is a better cure. The drug smuggling, suicide committing and self-abandoned adolescent gang boys can be found every place in the world and have become a social problem, film bears the responsibility to guide the audience looking into their inner world and touch their weakness behind the marble façade. It is much helpful than simply brand them “bad guy” and throw them in the corner of this “rich-and-educated-set-the-rule”
[④] society. From this point of view, film censorship can be more open and flexible in some certain conditions.

On the other hand, politics is an effective power in promoting the local film industry when the government has realized the function of popular culture in facilitating economy and improving country’s image in the world. Events like the annual Singapore International Film Festival and the Film Week in Singapore Season held in London 2005 witness the government’s effort in promoting Singapore film to the world. Actually these events turned out to be great success which acquires both reputations and profits for Singapore.

What impresses me most on Singapore film industry is that many celebrated films turned out to be very cheaply made. Eric Khoo’s film Mee Pok Man was made with a tight budget of S$100,000, and Tay Teck Lock’s Money No Enough was made for less than S$1 million but raked in S$5.8 million
[⑤], making it the most commercially successful local film up to now. (Disappointedly, according to a statistic made by Singapore Film Commission, which indicates the production cost and box office receipts of all Singapore films produced from 1991 to 2007, most of the films are still at loss in business.[⑥]) Compared with some Hollywood blockbusters with tens of millions of US dollar’s budget, or even some Chinese movies produced in recent years, the financing deficiency in Singapore film industry is easy to notice and is apparently a burden on its renaissance, although the relationship between financing, quality and commercial success is not a certainty in film industry.

Accordingly, from another perspective, Singapore films concentrate on themes like social life may objectively because of the restrictions on its small budget, further financial support and more multinational cooperation is needed if Singapore wants to produce epic films like Troy or high-tech films like Star Wars.

Audience & Market:
Geographically, Singapore is an island-state with a 4.5 million small population, it is a limiting factor to the domestic film market. At the same time, due to the diversified culture background, some small budget and realistic films tend to be more successful in Singapore, like Eric Khoo’s 12 stories, Djinn Ong’s Perth and Jack Neo’s I not Stupid. Concentrating on social topics and culture interweaving landscape in Singapore, these films are capable to maintain the customer inland as well as exploit new market and find audience overseas. In recent years, more and more Singapore films appear on the stage of some well-known international film festivals (Pusan, Berlin, Moscow, Venice, etc.), they are nominated or awarded, manifesting Singapore’s marching into the international film market.

It is reasonable that due to the limited space of box income in local film market, the future of commercially successful Singapore film lies in the oversea market. In order to get a position in the international film market, domestic film productions will compete (and cooperate) with studios like Hollywood, Bollywood, and other competitors in Europe and Asia. From my perspective, a renewal in film themes and trends in Singapore film industry is necessary, filmmakers could experiment on new themes like historical or fictive, also, cooperation with other film magnates in the world is helpful to exchange ideas and acquire new techniques in film making as well as solve financial problem.

There are many capable filmmakers and directors in Singapore, they make films with their talent and passion and are trying on different styles and genres, exponents are Jack Neo, Royston Tan, Eric Khoo and Kelvin Tong. These filmmakers and their works have become the milestones in the renaissance of Singapore film industry. Besides the achievement, there is still a rough road to go. More panoramic films capable to reflect the history, society and human spirit of Singapore are in need and other challenges still occur, like to forge an indigenous as well as distinct film culture and film style of Singapore; and to produce more mature films that are both artistically and commercially successful.

To sum up, rapid development in Singapore film industry in the past decade has accumulated governors’ and filmmakers’ experience and confidence in film making as well as marketing. Both domestic and oversea markets are being cultivated, while problems and challenges still exist, the film industry of Singapore has obtained great progress and is showing its huge potential. As long as Singapore film industry can take advantage of its internationalization while maintain the indigenous color, it will harvest more achievement in future.

[①] The history of Singapore film is from:
[④] This phrase is from one of the boy’s lines in 15: The Movie
[⑥] Statistic resource: