Extract from: Education in a Changing Environment 13

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Education in a Changing Environment 13th-14th September 2004

Conference Proceedings

The ‘Stranger’, the ‘Sojourner’ and the International Student

Nicola Coates, n.j.coates@salford.ac.uk


Contemporary discourses of internationalisation in HE have resulted in constructions of the ‘international student’ that have little empirical grounding. This paper, therefore, is concerned with exploring the ‘sojourner adjustment’ literature (Church, 1982) to understand the social situation of international students. An overview of the key conceptual frameworks within this body of literature is provided. It is argued that these frameworks, and the concept of ‘adjustment’ on which they rest, insufficiently explain the evidence of empirical studies. A consideration of the ‘sociology of the stranger’ (McLemore, 1970) offers an alternative perspective that has great affinity with many of the research findings. Seen in this way, the international student’s situation often contradicts the espoused aims of internationalisation. The final section sets out the methodological framework of a proposed investigation of the motivations, expectations and experiences of students, in their own terms, that aims to address some of the issues raised.


It is well documented that the number of international students in UK HE is increasing (Halliday, 1999; Habu, 2000), with China (PRC) currently contributing 9%, Malaysia 5% and Hong Kong 4% each of total international student numbers (UKCOSA, HE Statistics, 2002). In 2001/2002 the total number of international students in UK HE (including EU and non-EU students) was 340,500 comprising 12% of the total HE student population. 91,300 of these were studying for undergraduate degrees.

These national changes have been reflected at Salford University. International students (EU and non-EU) now make up 15% of the Salford student population (University of Salford, 2003a) and Chinese (PRC) students are the largest international student group, at 609 (approximately 4% of the Salford student population). The recruitment, integration and support of these students forms a key objective within the University Strategic Framework (University of Salford, 2003b).

Accompanying these developments, a discourse of ‘the internationalisation of HE’ has arisen (Habu, 2000; Halliday, 1999; Devos, 2003). This has resulted in the construction of positive and negative stereotypes of the ‘international student’ that have little empirical grounding, for example:

  • a means of revenue for HE strongly related to commercialism (Devos, 2003, Habu, 2000);

  • ‘the other’ responsible for declining academic standards and increased pressure (Devos, 2003, Halliday, 1999);

  • cultural mediators who have the potential to enrich their fellow students’ experiences (University of Salford, 2003b; Habu, 2000);

  • potential employees in a global economy (University of Salford, 2003b; Habu, 2000).

With the growth of internationalisation, we need to develop an empirical understanding of the motivations, expectations and experiences of international students. This paper presents a challenge to existing stereotypes by investigating the evidence to date.

Sojourner Adjustment

Research on the experience of international students in the UK is sparse. In this paper, I seek to contribute to this literature, drawing upon the research concerned with ‘sojourner adjustment’ that has evolved in the US over the past 40 years (Bochner et al, 1977; Church, 1982; Gullahorn and Gullahorn, 1963; Selltiz et al, 1959). Currently overlooked in studies of UK HE, this research is of potential relevance to international students as it is concerned with the adjustment of short-term visitors (sojourners) to new cultures. In addition, the focus of the majority of studies has been the adjustment of foreign students to the culture of the country in which they are studying.

In general terms, the literature depicts two theoretical frameworks to understand the experience of foreign students. Both models are based on the premise that ‘adjustment’ is the ultimate aim and so the ultimate measure of a successful sojourn. Although not mutually exclusive, the frameworks, described below, are conceptually distinct.

Recuperation Models

Recuperation models are commonly represented by a U-curve and focus on recovery from ‘culture shock’ as the mechanism by which life in a foreign land is accommodated. The theory was first developed by Lysgaard in his 1955 study of Norwegian Fulbright Scholars in the U.S. (Church, 1982). Oberg (1960) provided further detail to the model by defining the stages of adjustment: an initial high on first arrival; subsequent disenchantment leading to ‘culture shock’ (described as a crisis potentially leading to nervous breakdown); recovery and eventually full adjustment and effective functioning in the new culture. Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963) added a second ‘U’ to the curve to account for reacculturation on the return home.

Culture Learning Models

Culture learning models view cross-cultural adjustment as a learning process. Their central thesis is that to adapt it is necessary to learn the norms and rules of the new sociocultural system. Culture learning is explained in two ways, focusing on communication (Church, 1982; Scollon and Scollon, 1997) and behavioural learning (Atherton, 2003).

In the case of culture learning through communication, effective interaction with members of the host culture is seen as the key to adjustment. It is through communication with others that the new culture is learned. Models of behavioural learning suggest that effective adjustment lies in implementing appropriate social behaviours. Social behaviour results in either ‘reinforcing’ or ‘aversive’ stimulators. To learn to engage appropriately and effectively in a new culture the individual needs to understand these stimulators so culture learning can occur through trial and error (Paige, 1993).

Where’s the Empirical Evidence?

Recuperation Models

Although many empirical studies have explored recuperation models, few have provided supporting evidence since Lysgaard’s study in 1955 (Church, 1982). Sewell and Davidsen (1961 in Ward et al, 1998) found a U-curve pattern in changes in attitudes and social interaction over time. However, as Church (1982) notes, many other authors found no significant trends in their data. This suggests that the existence of a U-curve in research findings is dependent on how concepts are operationalised.

Such difficulties in operationalisation form a key criticism of the U-curve model. For example: identifying mutually exclusive indicators for each stage is difficult; the expression of each stage may vary by culture, and the notion of ‘full adjustment’ has little support. The U-Curve is also challenged by studies of culture learning. These provide evidence that not all sojourns begin with an ‘initial high’ – they can also follow an ascending pattern of adjustment related to learning - and that although depression occurs with some frequency it is not universal (Church, 1982). This sparsity of evidence led Ward et al (1998) to conclude “Despite its popular and intuitive appeal, the U-curve model of sojourner adjustment should be rejected” (Ward et al, 1998:290).

Culture Learning Models

Investigations of ‘culture learning’ have focused on the link between host culture contact and adjustment, or the ‘association hypothesis’. These studies are based on the assumption that through interacting with host nationals, students obtain social support, language proficiency and become familiar with the host society’s customs and values.

Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963) found correlations between level of social interaction with host nationals and general sojourn satisfaction, but subsequent studies have failed to show a direct link between these variables. Sam’s (2001) survey of 304 international students in Norway found that although number of friends per se significantly affected a student’s life satisfaction, language proficiency and having a host national friend did not. Similarly, Tokoyawa and Tokoyawa (2002) found an association between the engagement of Japanese students in extracurricular activities and ‘adjustment to American campus life’, although their conclusions regarding host associations are tenuous as the study presumes that extracurricular activity results in interaction with host nationals.

The literature notes problematic assumptions of the ‘association hypothesis’ that have not been addressed in empirical studies. There is an assumption that adjusting to another culture simply requires learning its ways, but adaptation also involves understanding and acceptance (Bochner, 1977). This can be inhibited in a variety of ways, for example, communication difficulties resulting from language-conditioned differences in categories of experience and differences in non-verbal communication (Scollon and Scollon, 1997).

Bochner (1972 in Church 1982) argues these misunderstandings may lead to negative experiences of interaction detrimental to future communication, which makes culture learning less probable. Watson and Lippett (1955 in Church, 1982) note that understanding and acceptance of a culture is unlikely to occur when values of the new culture contradict deep-seated personality orientations, when defensive stereotypes exist and where home and host cultures differ widely in values and frame of reference.

The quantitative methods adopted in this field, which have focused on interaction frequencies and number of host companions, have failed to effectively assess degree of intercultural understanding. These quantitative methods also fail to recognise the cultural differences that may exist in definitions of ‘acquaintances’ and ‘friends’, making the results of many studies questionable.

The Problem with the ‘Adjustment’ Concept

The preceding models and empirical studies take ‘adjustment’ as the ultimate aim and measure of a successful sojourn. As Anderson (1994) notes:

The predominant conception still tends to carry the specter of culture shock (or identity crisis) at its core, and it still reflects the view of cultural adaptation as an achievement. (Anderson, 1994:298-299)

Within the sojourner adjustment literature, the operationalisation of the concept has been strongly influenced by American foreign policy, a key objective of which is to establish close contacts with major regional powers (Habu, 2000). The underlying presumption of this policy is that student exchange will improve international relations and contribute to mutual understanding (Bochner, 1977). This context has led to ‘adjustment’ being measured in a variety of ways including: ‘overall satisfaction’; ‘proportion of free time spent with Americans’; ‘at least one close host friend’; ‘variety of activities undertaken with Americans’; ‘initimacy of friendships with Americans’; ‘number of host friends’; ‘changes in attitudes to the US’.

The design and interpretation of the majority of studies reflects this political- educational context, with the primary concern being the measurement of ‘adjustment’ as embodied in these ideals. As noted earlier, little supporting evidence has been found, but rather than leading to a questioning of the concept, this has merely lead to a proliferation of studies identifying factors of successful or unsuccessful ‘adjustment’. This has imposed limitations to understanding the experience of foreign students (Church, 1982), and even today, Bochner’s conclusion of 1977 remains pertinent:

…relative to the huge research effort expended, very little has been achieved… by way of developing a theoretical model of the academic sojourn. (Bochner, 1977:278)

It is vital that studies of international students in UK HE do not merely measure the success or failure of the sojourn based on the achievement of ideals. Rather, there is a need for studies to explore the experiences of students in their own terms.

Alternative Findings of the Academic Sojourn

The focus on ‘successful adjustment’ has resulted in many empirical findings being excluded from theoretical frameworks, including the following:


Many authors have noted the formation of enclaves of foreign students on campus. For example, Klein et al (1971 in Church, 1982) concluded that social isolation from host nationals was a way of life for Far Eastern students in America. It has been suggested that enclaves function to reduce anxiety, feelings of powerlessness and social stresses. They enable traditional value and belief systems to be maintained and thus reduce the need for psychological and behavioural adjustment (Church, 1982; Gullahorn and Gullahorn, 1952). However, as Simon and Schild (1961 in Church, 1982) point out, enclaves can result in inaccurate pre-arrival perceptions being maintained.

Strategic Friendships

Rather than characterising international students as ‘isolated’, Bochner(1977) argues that the friendship patterns that foreign students generate are related to the particular circumstances of the academic sojourn. Firstly, students have networks of co-nationals who affirm and express the culture of origin. Secondly, the student has a network of host national friends whose function is the facilitation of academic and professional aspirations. Finally, the student has a multi-national network whose main function is recreational.

Social Skills and Cross-Cultural Accommodation

Furnham and Bochner (1986 in Anderson, 1994:303) acknowledge that sojourners often never fully adjust in the sense of the ‘U-curve’ and suggest an alternative ‘social skills’ model of cross-cultural accommodation. This model argues that sojourners can be strategic in what they learn, employing enough behavioural traits to ‘get by’, without necessarily understanding or accepting the new culture.


Odenyo (1971, in Church, 1982) found that personal status and self esteem of international students was strongly influenced by the perceived status accorded the home country by the host. Lambert and Bressler (1956 in Church, 1982) referred to a ‘looking glass’ in which sojourners form their attitudes to the host country based on their perceptions of attitudes to their own culture. Bochner and Perks (1971 in Bochner, 1977) support this, demonstrating that overseas students are under considerable pressure from both host and co-nationals to maintain and rehearse their national identity.

These findings though recorded in research reports have remained at the periphery of theoretical development. I would suggest any theoretical framework that aims to encapsulate the international student experience should be capable of incorporating these findings. In this respect conceptions of ‘The Stranger’ (Simmel, 1950) and ‘The Sojourner’ (Siu, 1952) from the sociological literature provide a valuable, alternative perspective.

The Stranger’ (Simmel, 1950) and ‘The Sojourner’ (Siu, 1952)

‘The Stranger’, as Simmel defines the concept, is an individual who is a member of the social system but is not attached to it. The concept is of relevance to international students as it refers to an individual who comes from another place and assumes, or is assigned a particular social position.

Underpinning Simmel’s definition of the stranger is the idea that ‘nearness and distance’ form an element of all social relationships. Nearness and distance can be understood in terms of ‘commonality of features’. Common features exist between all group members, however, to introduce ‘nearness’ into a relationship they must be unique. In the case of the stranger, common features tend to be general, therefore, although the stranger is ‘near’ in that common features exist, they are also ‘distant’, as these features are general.

Taking Simmel’s stranger as his starting point, Siu (1952) developed a social type of ‘the sojourner’ based on his empirical study of Chinese laundry-men in America. Siu defines the sojourner as “a type of stranger who spends many years of his lifetime in a foreign country without being assimilated by it” (Siu, 1952:34).

Siu suggests the sojourner does not become assimilated, defined by Park and Burgess as:

…a process of interpenetration and fusion in which person and group acquire the memories, sentiments and attitudes of other persons or groups, and by sharing their experience and history are incorporated with them in common cultural life. (Park and Burgess in Siu, 1952:35)

He suggests an alternative cycle of ‘adjustment’, which can be summarised ‘accommodation’, ‘isolation’ and ‘unassimilation’. Interestingly, the definition of ‘assimilation’ above has great affinity with the concepts of ‘adjustment’ discussed earlier.

Ideas of ‘unassimilation’ potentially explain the lack of supporting evidence for recuperation models of adjustment; in unassimilation ‘full adjustment’ can never be realised. Instead, the ‘adjustment’ of the sojourner involves the development of a new way of living that is neither characteristic of life at home, nor of the dominant cultural group. If the sojourner does not become assimilated, but rather, develops a new way of life, this raises the question, ‘What is their social situation?’

The Social Situation of International Students

Siu suggests “…on the basis of common interests and cultural heritage the sojourner tends to associate with people of his own ethnic group…” (Siu, 1952:36). This ‘colony’ may be scattered around, however, a centre of social activity is maintained. Although a more ‘public’ life may exist, in which the sojourner is involved in the community at large, the private life of the sojourner tends to be separate from the host culture. Siu suggests such cultural groups, “…share their pride and aspirations, hopes and dreams, prejudices and dilemmas and express their opinions about the country of their sojourn” (Siu, 1952:37).

Siu’s analysis of these ‘in-groups’ assists understanding of the student enclaves recorded in the literature (see above) and the identification of co-national friendships in Bochner’s study (1977). They also potentially explain Sam’s finding that it is number of friends per se, rather than number of host friends, that affects life satisfaction. The host national networks referred to by Bochner support the notion of ‘a public life in the community’, but, the picture Bochner paints is not quite so simple. He also found multi-national networks functioning as recreational friendship groups. Siu includes no parallel in his study, suggesting that the specific context of the academic sojourn has a unique influence on the type of networks that develop.

Siu suggests a sojourn will always have a ‘job’, an ultimate goal of which the sojourner is consciously aware (e.g. getting a degree from a foreign university). This ‘job’ is often linked to increasing social status and prestige at home and the sojourner seldom organises their life beyond this end. Siu suggests that the sojourner will interact with the host culture to the extent that this will assist with ‘getting the job done’.

It is difficult to identify any empirical evidence supporting this point, due to the lack of investigation of sojourner aims. The latter point (interacting with the host culture to ‘get the job done’) has some affinity with the ‘social skills model of adjustment’ in which sojourners are said to learn enough of the culture to ‘get by’. Similarly, parallels can be drawn with the host networks suggested by Bochner, which served as academic and professional support. However, the majority of studies tend to evaluate the achievement of assumed ‘sojourn objectives’. This has resulted in a distinct lack of evidence concerned with whether ‘the job’ actually exists, and if so, how students define this in their own terms.

Finally, Siu suggests that the social relation of the sojourner becomes characterised by a movement back and forth between the home and host culture. The homeland tie is maintained when abroad and return trips affirm the purpose of the sojourn. The social expectations, sentiments and attitudes of members of the primary group provide the visit home and the sojourn itself with meaning. However, as ‘adjustment’ (via ‘unassimilation’) occurs the sojourner may find their position anomalous with respect to both the home and host culture.

There is a distinct absence of research concerning itself with this ongoing relation of the student to their country and culture of origin. Schuetz (1944) suggests that the stranger “... seen from the point of view of the approached group… is a man without history…” (1944:502) and it seems that studies have been conducted in this manner. An investigation of these relations is vital to understanding the international student’s social situation. As Schuetz goes on to note:

To the stranger the cultural pattern of his home group continues to be the outcome of an unbroken historical development and an element of his personal historical biography which for this very reason has been and still is the unquestioned scheme of reference for his ‘relatively natural conception of the world’. (Schuetz, 1944:502)

Also associated with issues of identity, Simmel suggests that the consciousness that only the general is common can lead to an emphasis on difference. This can result in strangers being viewed as a particular ‘type’, rather than being conceived as individuals.This analogy can be applied to the sojourner adjustment literature in two ways.

Firstly, it supports findings that international students feel they are treated in ‘ethnic terms’, that is, as representatives of their culture. Secondly, Simmel’s point highlights the homogenising of diverse students in the research literature. Students from different cultural groups are researched as ‘international’, ‘foreign’ or ‘overseas’, and where studies claim to consider ‘culture’ this often involves the homogenisation of diverse groups. For example, Hashim and Zhiliang’s (2003) study focused on ‘anglophone African’ and ‘white western’ students, a group that included North Americans, English-speaking Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders. This homogenisation also fails to recognise intra-cultural variation and differences in gender, age, level and subject of study.

On a related point, Habu (2000) suggests that Japanese women in UK HE feel they are perceived by their institutions as commercial entities. Not only does this suggest international students are viewed as a ‘type’, it also brings into question one final aspect of Simmel’s theory.

Simmel argues that throughout the history of economics, the stranger always appears as the trader required for products that originate outside of the group. Ideals associated with internationalisation suggest a conflict between conceptions of the international student as ‘trader of cultural knowledge’ and ‘consumer of UK HE’. Empirical evidence regarding the ‘economic’ positioning of the international student is sparse, however, Habu suggests

…One of the ironies of globalisation… is that the mutual educational advantages of cross cultural contact are undermined by a reductive, narrowly economic view of foreign students as a source of revenue… (Habu, 2000:43).

This therefore questions the relevance of Simmel’s ‘stranger as trader’ in current contexts of globalisation and consumerism. Of interest to the present study are the views of students themselves on their position within UK HE.

Proposed Study

The proposed study aims to address some of the issues raised through an investigation of the social situation, motivations, expectations and experiences of Chinese students at Salford University. Indepth interviews will be conducted at the start and end of the academic year (2004-2005) with eight undergraduate (four male, four female) and eight postgraduate (four male, four female) students from across the University who have registered for courses beginning in September 2004.

Students of one nationality have been selected in an attempt to de-homogenise the ‘international’ student experience that forms the focus of many studies. Students from China, in particular, have been selected due to the increase of Chinese students in UK HE in recent years. For example, between 2001/02 and 2002/03 there was a 70% increase in the number of students from China in UK HE (UKCOSA, 2004). These changes in the HE student population introduce a need to understand the experiences of these individuals.

The indepth interview has been chosen to enable both structure and flexibility (Legard et al, 2003). Falling within the constructivist research model (Kvale, 1996) the interview is seen as a conversation in which the researcher asks questions to enable the interviewees to tell their own stories in their own terms. In addition, in-depth interviews will enable intra-cultural variation to be explored and acknowledged in the study.

A variety of strategies to recruit interviewees will be implemented. A leaflet, written in plain English will be distributed at international student induction at the start of semester one. This will be followed by emails to all first year Chinese students and a face-to-face introduction with students attending ‘English for Academic Purposes’ classes. Students will be invited to take part in the research project, provided with details of ‘what this will involve’, and assured of the privacy and confidentiality of interviews.

Initial interviews, to be conducted in October and November 2004 will focus on: the students’ backgrounds and motivations for studying abroad, the formation and structure of initial social networks, interaction experiences and the role of ‘home’ and cultural background in the students’ experience and identity. The second interviews, to be conducted between April and June 2005 will enable a comparison of the social situation of students at the beginning and end of the academic year. Discussion will focus on whether original expectations have been realised, the students’ experiences throughout the year and their social situation at the end of the year.

Several issues exist surrounding the recruitment of students for the study and the conduct of interviews. Firstly, all information about the project will be distributed in English, leading to concerns about the accessibility of the study to all students, and potentially restricting the study to those with more highly developed English language skills. Secondly, the students involved in the study will be those who have volunteered, presenting various limitations to the interpretation of findings (e.g. to what extent the experiences of interviewees represent those of all Chinese students). Thirdly, interviews will be conducted in English, this presents limitations as the interviewees will have to express themselves in a second language. Interestingly, investigations of this issue in pilot interviews raised equally valid concerns about the presence of an interpreter. Due to resource limitations any such interpreter would be a fellow Chinese student from Salford. Pilot interviews suggested this would restrict the openness of the interviews and negatively influence the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee.

In conclusion, the research aims to investigate the social situation of first year students from China at university in the UK. Focusing on the experience of Chinese students in their own terms, the study will explore aspects of the academic sojourn overlooked in many studies. These include, social networks of Chinese students and their formation, whether ‘the job’ exists and how this can be defined, the form and role of the ongoing relation with the country and culture of origin and students’ perceptions and experiences of their position in UK HE. Drawing on the acknowledged limitations, the study also provides a valuable opportunity to investigate and reflect on issues of cross-cultural research, and the implications of these issues for research findings and future research practice.


I would like to thank Dr. G.W.H Smith, School of ESPaCH, University of Salford for his valuable comments.


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ISBN: 0902896806

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