Guidelines from social science theory and research in being and becoming community: Prof. C. Groenewald and Dr. F. Kotze


During a conference on multicultural congregations in South Africa, Prof. Groenewald and Dr. Kotze highlighted the importance to manage power issues in intercultural ministries. Here is a summary of their paper.

Prof. Groenewald and Dr. Kotze emhasised the importance to enquire about the power dimensions of social relations if we want to understand and improve the relationships and operation of multicultural congregations. Important questions to ask are for example:

  • Who are the power holders and the powerless in any social configuration?
  • What are the means of power and in what ways are these means demonstrated?
  • How do powerful members exert their power in the social situation, in what ways and with what means to their disposal?
  • How do powerless members respond to the exertion of elite power and in what ways and with what means?
  • What is or can be the social outcome of power relationships and the way they play out in a social situation?

We need to pay serious attention to power issues in multicultural congregations because cultural relationships in South Africa, as in many other colonial and post-colonial societies, tend to be defined in power terms. Culture often has been mistaken for rank, class, estate or caste and for justifying and even legitimising social distance among various layers of people. People of so-called “high culture” would look down on those of “low culture” and avoid interpersonal contact and intimate relationships with the latter. Such differentiation precipitates in the structures of society and defines the included and the excluded.

Religion is viewed by many scholars as a meaning generating structure in society. Religion can play on a more unconscious level but also on a deliberate level a big role how people interpret and see themselves in power relationships. Because the generation of meaning – that is, making sense of life, providing the reason for living a life, regardless of or in the face of nonsensical events – is very personal, sensitive, fragile, and sanctimonious, it has become an effective object of power exertion and manipulation of people. It is in this area of life that powerful people have invent extremely effective means to influence less powerful and powerless people and to subordinate them to positions of passive compliance in life. This may be an explanation of why people of different cultural inclinations prefer to practice their religious obligations among like-minded fellows of the same faith and conviction. The correlation between separate worship arrangements and the power distribution in multi-cultural societies, especially where such differential patterns associate with race and sometimes language, is not coincidental or purely because of some practical consideration for easy communication. It may be understood as the outcome of power relations more than other socio-religious considerations.

Amitai Etzioni (1961) distinguishes three types of means for exerting power; namely coercive means such as physical force; normative means that commit people to adhere to beliefs and values; and calculative means that appeal to the rational application of material or economic resources as rewarding mechanisms for being compliant.

By and large, interculturalism is new ground in South Africa and manifests a different type of community and not a mainstream community type. While tolerance would be a characteristic of a multicultural community, close intimacy as among dedicated faithful Christians in their worship community is an unusual social phenomenon.

The coming about of these rather exceptional social configurations seems to be explained mainly in terms of a common and a shared belief in Christian faith terms – seeing Jesus Christ as the only and singular Redeemer and Saviour from eternal damnation and the Way to everlasting life. Among the non-theologised reasons for increasing the racial mix of local congregations, Venter’s research indicated that external factors were the majority reasons (70.3%; of which demographic changes were strongest). Internal considerations such as deliberate effort to invite other races, were quite small or actually unknown. Unless forced to adapt, congregations do not change their own composition of membership deliberately.

The challenge for the church is how can we achieve respect, trust, caring and a supporting community and Christian koinonia among and within congregations at the local level that currently experience cultural diversity. How can intergroup and interpersonal relationships be promoted towards becoming more positive for the involved parties to these relationships? For many the answer lies in more direct contact between people of different cultures and ethnic groups.

However, social contact in itself is not sufficient to produce positive relationships. A number of preconditions are to be considered unless contact among politically conflicting or culturally different people lead to even more negative behaviour. Based on an extensive Western Cape research project in the late 1980s, a period of intense turmoil and conflict in our country, the following findings must be taken seriously when contact between culture groups is promoted:

  1. Contact, that is, social interactions on a face-to-face basis, between members of in- and out-groups do have as its result a change of attitude towards the other.
  2. The direction of this attitudinal change however depends on the kind of social situation in which the contact happens.
  3. It is not necessarily a direction of change that follows on contact but a change in the intensity of the attitude.
  4. The change of attitude often stays limited to the contact situation itself and is not generalised to other situations.
  5. Real conditions in society often include negative contact situations which then create an increase in negative prejudice among the participants or their groups.
  6. Conditions that create beneficial or advantageous conditions for a decrease in negative prejudice normally are found in the following situations where:
    1. In- and out-group members of equal status are in contact;
    2. Contact is between members of the majority group and higher status members of the minority group;
    3. Contact is encouraged by recognised authority figures and where the normative climate is beneficial for intergroup contact;
    4. The contact situation promotes intimate (close) contact rather than superficial contact;
    5. The contact situation is experienced as pleasant and unforced (voluntary);
    6. In functionally important affairs, the members of the respective groups work together in an interdependent way to achieve overarching common goals that are regarded as more important than their respective group centred objectives;
    7. The contact situation understate in- and out-group differentiation and string group members together within an overarching common in-group;
  7. On the other hand, conditions that create an adverse climate for decreasing negative prejudice are found in situations where:
    1. The contact situation evoke competition between the respective groups;
    2. The contact situation is experienced as unpleasant, tensed, and forced;
    3. The status of one of the groups is diminished;
    4. The in-group holds the out-group responsible for their (the in-group’s) frustration;
    5. The respective groups find each other’s moral and ethical standards offensive or distasteful;
    6. The members of the minority group are of a lower status according to relevant criteria than the majority group;
    7. The contact situation promote or increase in- and out-group differentiation.
    8. From the above we can state the following as concluding remarks –
  • Contact may decrease prejudice if the right conditions are valid for the contact situation.
  • The nature of the organisation (congregation) may have an effect on the outcome of the contact.
  • The development of friendship relationships are an important goal to strive for.
  • Facilitators / leadership need to have proper and relevant knowledge and skills in promoting intergroup relationships.
  • Trust building in which positive attitudes and relationships can develop has a better chance to materialise in the context of a local community, that is, in contrast to nation-wide efforts.
  • The creation of positive relationships within the local community however needs to be generalised to other situations, for example, the work situation and politics.
  • The continued emphasis on the group character of “races” needs to be discontinued and positive identities (such as religious identity) need to take its place.
  • Contact situations need to be structured to promote voluntary participation and association in such a way that friendship formations be encouraged, with an emphasis on the worth of the individual and not of the group.
  • Aspire to find an overarching identity and values above sectional identities and group norms.
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