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Focus Group Analysis
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 15 Numbers 1& 2, 2005

A Qualitative Analysis of Online Group Process in Two Cultural Contexts


Penne L. Wilson, Ana C. Nolla, Charlotte N. Gunawardena

University of New Mexico


Jose R. López-Islas, Noemi Ramírez-Angel, Rosa M. Megchun-Alpírez

Universidad Virtual del Tec De Monterrey

Monterrey, Mexico


Abstract: Employing focus group data, this study examined if there are differences in perception of online group process between participants in Mexico and the United States of America (US). Focus group participants identified several factors that influence online group process: (1) language, (2) power distance, (3) gender differences, (4) collectivist vs. individualist tendencies, (5) conflict, (6) social presence, (7) time frame, and (8) technical skills.


1. Introduction


The need to understand how groups process in an online environment has become increasingly important with the expansion of the Internet and the World Wide Web as a medium for collaborative learning and team work in cross-cultural and cross-national settings.


The purpose of this paper is to discuss an exploratory study conducted to examine if groups in two national contexts, Mexico and the USA, perceive online group process differently and if these differences could be attributed to cultural differences. The team of researchers in Mexico and the USA wanted to identify issues that should be considered in the development of international online discussions that would maximize inclusion of the participants.


2. Review of the Literature


The review of literature examined research related to three areas for this study: (i) group process; (ii) cultural variability factors; and (iii) computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a medium for discussion.


2.1. Group process


Successful groups require open communication, mutual supportiveness, effective conflict management, discussion of strategy, and the appropriate weighing of individual inputs into group decisions (Gladstein, 1989). Group process can most easily be understood by describing its relationship to three conditions that directly affect group interaction: (i) group atmosphere; (ii) the relationships that develop between group members; and (iii) the communication system that is established. Analyzing these three areas can explain what is happening in a group in terms of process (Robinson and Clifford, 1974).


2.2. Cultural variability factors influencing group process


According to Branch (1997, p.38), “Culture can be regarded as the epistemology, philosophy, observed traditions and patterns of action by individuals and human groups. Cultural groups develop rules for interacting as a way to negotiate physical environments, explore religious beliefs, and achieve socially constructed desires.” However, culture is not static, culture is constantly changing and individuals belong to more than one culture, some voluntary and some involuntary. Not only is culture an abstract concept of self and group, “it also consists of a distinctive symbol system together with artifacts that capture and codify the important and common experiences of a group” (Wild, 1999, p.198). Within the CMC environment, culture reflects the greater environment within which the conference exists. However, the members of the group also create culture as they work and communicate together.


In his research into business-oriented cross-cultural values, Hofstede (1980) identified four dimensions against which the nationally-held values of his sample could be classified. He labeled these dimensions "individualism-collectivism", "power distance", "uncertainty avoidance", and "masculinity-femininity".


Individualistic cultures emphasize the individual’s goals while collectivist cultures stress that group goals have precedence over individual goals. Individualism-collectivism is the major dimension of cultural variability used to explain cross-cultural differences in behavior (Gudykunst, 1994, Triandis, McCusker and Hui, 1990). According to Hofstede (1984), Mexico is collectivist and the USA individualistic.


Power distance is the extent to which power, prestige, and wealth are unequally distributed in a culture. In countries with larger power distances, higher-status individuals exert excessive influence during group communication. In low power-distance countries, status differences among individuals are less significant and people believe in equal rights. Hofstede (1980) identified Mexico as having large power distances, where power is distributed unevenly in organizations and society. Conversely USA scored low on power distance.


Uncertainty refers to the value placed on ambiguity in a culture. It is the extent to which the members of a society are made nervous by situations that they perceive as unstructured, unclear or unpredictable. Hofstede (1980) reported Mexico and the USA to be among the countries having lowest uncertainty avoidance and most tolerance of ambiguity.


The masculinity-femininity dimension refers to the rigidity and definition of gender roles and to the extent to which open conflict is deemed acceptable. Masculine traits are attributes such as strength, assertiveness, competitiveness, task achievement, and the acquisition of things. Feminine traits are attributes such as affection, compassion, nurturance, and emotionality (Hofstede, 1984). The more assertiveness, competitiveness, and ambition are accepted, the higher a country’s rank on the masculinity measure. Mexico and USA were classified as masculine countries. However, Mexico scored well above the mean and the USA very close to the mean (Hofstede, 1980). Herring's (1996) research on Internet listserv discussions shows gender differences in communication patterns.


Despite some criticisms of Hofstede’s dimensions, and the danger of stereotyping individuals of a particular culture, Bell Ross and Faulkner (1998) recognize that Hofstede’s work has made a valuable contribution to intercultural understanding “[p]roviding insight into what culture is in and of itself” (p.39). Hofstede’s model is one of very few empirically supported frameworks that attempts to explain interpersonal phenomena and communication in terms of observed cross-cultural differences (Barret, Drummond and Sahay, 1996; Bochner and Hesketh, 1994; Cifuentes and Murphy, 2000; Fernandez et al., 1997; Merritt, 2000).


In addition to the national differences identified by Hofstede (1980), cultures differ in communication styles. Hall (1976, 1984) distinguished between high and low context communication. In high-context cultures like Mexico, communication relies on indirect verbal messages that are dependent on context clues. In low-context cultures like the USA, messages provide most of the information in the explicit code itself.


An important element of cross-cultural communication that needs to be considered is language. While this is an element often ignored in current theoretical frameworks, language represents a different way of thinking as well as a different way of speaking (Gudykunst and Asante, 1989). Language became a great barrier for Mexican students interacting in a computer conference with students from the USA because it detracted from equal participation and made it more difficult for Spanish speakers to participate (Wilson, Gunawardena and Nolla, 2000).


2.3. Computer-mediated communication as a medium for discussions


Three attributes of asynchronous CMC identified by Harasim (1990) – time-independence, text-based communication, and computer-mediated interaction – influence the way individuals communicate in groups. While asynchronous group interaction increases opportunities for member input that may enhance the quality of decision-making, consensus decision making can be awkward and time-consuming online (Harasim, 1990). Communication anxiety – the feeling experienced when one’s message is not answered or referenced (Feenberg, 1987) – may be another concern, along with lack of immediate feedback which makes it difficult to determine if the receiver has understood the message.


Text-based communication contributes to more reflective interaction (Harasim, 1990), and can free people from the bonds of physical appearance and enable communication at the level of ideas (Harasim, 1993). However, many of the nonverbal and contextual cues generally rich in relational information are absent in CMC. Social presence theory (Short, Christie, and Williams, 1976) has been used to account for the impersonal nature of CMC. Harasim (1993) cites research that shows that the reduced cues in text-based messages make it difficult to resolve conflicts of ideology or interest. However, field research in CMC often reports more positive relational behavior and has indicated the development of “online communities” and warm friendships (Walther, 1992; Baym, 1995). Kollock and Smith (1999) note that these online communities differ in important ways from face-to-face communities. The comparative anonymity provided by the text-based system has shown to create interpersonal distance that allows less vocal or introverted participants “space” and opportunity to contribute, resulting in an equalizing effect of participation (Hartman et al., 1995; Olaniran, 1994). However, because of the premium on text-based communication, those who feel that they are not good writers or for whom the language of the conference is not their native language, may feel disinclined to participate.


Computer-mediated communication is interactive, and encourages involvement. While the online environment is particularly appropriate for collaborative learning approaches because it emphasizes group interaction, individuals who do not wish to interact or who have poor computer skills are less likely to participate.


3. Research Questions


This exploratory study examines differences in student perceptions of group process in CMC in two national contexts, Mexico and the USA It also attempts to determine if the differences observed could be described as cultural differences. The study draws on: (i) the dimensions developed by Hofstede (1980, 1984) and Hall (1976, 1984) to examine cultural differences; and (ii) the framework developed by Harasim (1990) to understand the unique characteristics of the CMC medium that influence group process.


The following research questions relating to group process in CMC were addressed in this study.


  1. How do Mexican and USA participants perceive the unique characteristics of CMC as a medium for group work?
  2. How do Mexican and USA participants perceive conflict as a factor in online communication?


4. Methods


Cultural differences are multifaceted and complex. This study used focus group interviews as the data collection method to seek input from students who had participated in a variety of computer conferences. The researchers wanted to observe the interaction with the groups based on the topics supplied as well as to use the data as an exploration of new ideas.


The study of cultural factors that influence group process involved the use of three focus groups that were held to gain feedback and information about how groups process in an online environment. At the University of New Mexico (UNM), two separate focus groups were held, each with three individuals who had been, or who currently are, students in the Organizational Learning Instructional Technologies (OLIT) Department of the College of Education at UNM. Two of these students completed Masters Degrees in OLIT and the other four were working on their PhD in the same department. All of these focus group participants were involved in more than one computer-mediated conference. All of them considered themselves to be of USA nationality.


At Monterrey Virtual Tech in Mexico (ITESM), one focus group with three individuals was held. This focus group included Mexican students from ITESM online courses. These participants were working on their Masters degree in e-commerce and all of them had participated in more than one computer-mediated conference. All of these students considered themselves to be of Mexican nationality.


A single set of questions was developed for use by the researchers on each of the university campuses. The focus group in Mexico was conducted in Spanish. The transcript of the group discussion was translated into English and then sent to the researchers in the USA. The transcripts of each of the three focus groups were analyzed according to the method described below and a set of themes was derived. These findings were then sent to Mexico for verification by the Mexican researchers who provided clarification and feedback before final compilation of the report.


4.1. Analysis of focus group transcripts


The text of the focus group conversations was processed using content analysis. Krippendorff (1980) defines content analysis as “a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from data to their context” (p. 21). In his explanation of the conceptual foundations for content analysis, Krippendorff insists that content analysis must be predictive of something that is observable in principle to aid decision making, or to help conceptualize that portion of reality that gave rise to the analyzed text. He further suggests, “any content analysis must be performed relative to and justified in terms of the context of the data” (italics in original text) (p. 23).


Coding of the text was performed according to Neuman’s (1997) three steps for content analysis: (i) open coding; (ii) axial coding; and (iii) selective coding.


4.1.1. Open coding.


Open coding was the first attempt to condense the mass of data into categories. Two methods were used in the open coding process: deductive category application and inductive category development. Using a combination of these two methods was important because it allowed the researchers first to code the text using predetermined themes and concepts and second to reread the same text and code ideas presented within the context of the text which were not previously identified.


Concepts and themes previously described by the researchers were applied to code the text using Mayring’s (2000) step model of deductive category application – a methodological controlled assignment of a category for a prior formulated theoretically derived category. Figure 1 identifies the steps in a qualitative content analysis using deductive category application.




Figure 1. Step model of deductive category application (Mayring 2000).



Open coding of the text of the focus group discussion was first done using the themes/concepts provided by the Hofstede model which identifies five characteristics associated with various cultures: collectivism/individualism; high power distance/low power distance; high context/low context; high ambiguity/low ambiguity; and feminine/masculine.


In addition, although these cultural characteristics were not enumerated to the focus group participants, the first question they were asked was: “In general, what cultural similarities and differences can you see that may account for the way in which groups interact online, groups make decisions, and groups develop?” The cultural characteristics identified by Hofstede, which were also referred to by the members of the focus groups, included power distance, gender, and collectivism vs individualism.


The next question that was posed to the focus group participants was: “If there were conflict in an online group, how would you like to see it resolved?” The concept of how conflict is handled in an online group was reflected in the text of the focus group discussion and was therefore coded as a theme in the content analysis.


After the application of the previously determined theoretically derived categories, a second method, referred to by Mayring (2000) as inductive category development, was applied. To apply this method, the researcher works through the material, and categories are tentative and step-by-step deduced. According to Mayring (2000), “[w]ithin a feedback loop, those categories are revised, eventually reduced to main categories and checked in respect to their reliability” (p.4). Figure 2 is a representation of the step model for inductive category development.




Figure 2. Step model of inductive category development (Mayring 2000)


Other ideas, which were identified in the inductive category development process, were language, social presence, and timeframe. Language was included as a theme because the focus group participants indicated that language may influence the way in which the participants process information and because language is also reflective of thought processes. Social presence and time frame are characteristics of the medium that were repeatedly mentioned by focus group participants as factors influencing online group process.


4.1.2. Axial coding.


After completing the application of themes previously identified and the development of additional themes, a second pass through the data, referred to as “axial coding” in which the researchers’ primary task was to review and examine initial codes and to organize and identify themes or ideas that were the key concepts in the analysis (Neuman, 1997), was completed. This reading of the text verified the themes that had been identified and indicated that the characteristics identified by Hofstede reoccurred in the focus group discussions that were held. The axial coding also determined the order of importance of the themes identified by the focus group participants.


4.1.3. Selective coding.


In the final selective coding process, major themes or concepts that ultimately guided the researchers’ search were used to reorganize specific themes identified in earlier coding and to elaborate more than one major theme (Neuman, 1997). Researchers also looked for cases that illustrated themes and comparisons and contrasts were made. The completion of the coding process led to the synthesis of information that is included in this paper and its organizational structure.


5. Findings: Factors Influencing Online Group Process


5.1. Culture


5.1.2. Language.


The major factors which influence the development of groups online belonged to the primary category of culture based on the frequency of their mention by members of the focus groups. The most often mentioned factor was language and language use. This category was identified by the inductive category development process and resulted from the communication and miscommunication by members of all three focus groups. Members of the focus group in Mexico and the two focus groups in the USA indicated that, even though members of an online conference may share a common base language, if they come from different parts of a country there might be differences in terminology and in the use of certain words.


  • It was noticed by a UNM participant that there are unique language uses within the USA. For example, students living on the east coast of the USA and those in the desert (referring to the south-western part of the USA) may use words differently.


  • At ITESM, a student observed that the most striking cultural difference was the use of certain words with unclear or similar meanings. Although this discrepancy in terminology caused conflict or misunderstanding only 1% of the time in the discussion group, it was the main difference.


Language was also mentioned by a UNM participant who noted that everybody is tolerant of other participants who are identified as using their second language to communicate in the conference.


  • “As long as second language speakers keep to the point, they will be accepted … (I am) less tolerant of native speakers who don’t speak well.”


It was also observed that the participants of the conference would develop their own language that includes the creation of special jargon or the use of shortened terms. Within this context, a UNM participant noted:


  • “If people do not use the right language, they will not get an answer.”


Within the text-based environment of the computer-mediated conference, language was identified as the primary factor that can aid or impair group process.

5.1.2. Power distance.


One of the ideas identified by the members of the focus groups that contributed to development of the group was the way in which students communicate with their teachers. This factor was identified through the deductive category application using Hofstede’s model. Within the context of the CMC, it was the teacher who most often functioned as the mediator of the conference. The students from ITESM noted that the Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan students who were participants in the online classes treated the teachers with a greater formality. It was suggested by the focus group participants that perhaps this difference could be a lack of familiarity with the distance education system.


  • “They (Columbians, Ecuadorians, and Venezuelans) have more respect for the professors and we (Mexicans) do not have it but we approach the course with more familiarity and confidence.”


  • “It could be ignorance about the system. It is not as much a lack of respect on the part of the Mexicans, but rather either you know the system or don’t know and they don’t.”


At UNM, a focus group participant noted that, as the instructor in the CMC, she tried to run her computer conferences with the idea that all of the participants formed a single group where she was just another member of the group. Each of these identified quotations indicated the perception by the students of the role of the instructor. The power position which was given to the instructor by the students affected the way students performed and the roles that they assumed within the group.


In addition, the roles that students play within the group are also related to the cultural factor of power distance. At ITESM, the students felt that having previous information about the participants was not important; they expressed the idea that quantity and quality of interaction among the group members was far more important than having information about the other participants. In fact, one student noted:


·        “When I read the resume about another participant, I was very impressed, but this person did not participate in the session the way I thought that he would. Participating in the session is more important than having an impressive background.”


5.1.3. Gender – masculinity vs femininity


Masculine vs Femininity was a factor related to online group process which was mentioned only by the participants at UNM. This characteristic was identified in Hofstede’s model and was applied as a category to the focus group content analysis through deductive category application.


  • One of the focus group members at UNM observed that in the MUD in which he participates, 70% of the participants are male and 30% are female. It is his belief that this male to female ratio is responsible for the fact that the tone of the conversations is very blunt. He said, “It is a wonderful world of bluntness. Even the females are blunt.” The implication here would be that males tend to be more blunt than females and that females who participate in environments where males are in the majority, behave more like males.


  • Another member who also participated in a male dominated group noticed, “If a female posts a message, she may get 30 answers, where a guy may get only two or three.” He was suggesting that females are more noticed and nurtured by the group than males. The competition that exists as a characteristic associated by Hofstede with masculinity may also make males less inclined to respond to other males and expect males to work out their problems without as much support.


  • A female participant said, “I would not post in a group that was very competitive … I want a group that is more democratic, more helpful.”


  • A male participant observed, “If questions are long or touchy feely, people do not respond.”


Each of these quotations indicated that, at UNM, the roles of men and women within a group changed according to the gender dominant within the group and did affect the way in which the group functioned.


5.1.4. Collectivism vs individualism.


The Mexican students noted that, almost all of the time, decisions were made based upon the ideas that began the discussions. The preliminary postings to the online group were made by the Colombian, Ecuadorian, or Venezuelan students.


  • “You took the first opinions and the decisions were a consensus based on that.”


  • “I think that there aren’t cultural differences when the group made decisions. I have seen that the final work is an integration based on the first opinions, which were from the Colombians.”


The suggestion was made that, part of the reason that the students from the other countries contributed first, was because Mexicans were lax in meeting deadlines. But the students also seemed to exhibit collectivist tendencies because they reached consensus almost always based on the first opinion or idea that was stated. In the USA, there was much more of an emphasis on conversation and the expression of differing opinions. It was felt that the differences of opinions led to a richer conversation and resulted in individual learning. This is an expression of individualistic tendencies, which are more common in an individualistic society such as the USA


·        “I learn more from alternative perspectives,” a UNM student stated.


5.2. Other identified themes


5.2.1. Conflict.


The category of conflict grew out of the deductive category application and was introduced within the second question addressed to focus group participants: “If there were conflict in an online group, how would you like to see it resolved?” The Mexican participants noted that there was not very much conflict within the conference groups because the group was focused on the task and because, when a subject was posted, the members of the group mostly agreed with the first one to post a message. These focus group participants noted, however, that the non-Mexican students were a lot more “direct.” At UNM there were varying opinions about conflict and its role in group process. Much of the discussion about conflict centered on whether or not conflict was necessary to get opinions rolling. One participant observed, “I learn more from alternative perspectives … I like multiple perspectives.” Another noted that while some conflict was healthy as long as it leads to a sharing of opinions, too much conflict or “flaming” could cut off the discussion. People will drop out of the conversation if the conflict is too intense.


The following suggestions were made by both the UNM and ITESM participants to limit the level of conflict.


·        Avoid group e-mail to deal with conflict and keep conflict private.


·        The use of a moderator would be helpful. The USA participants felt that the moderator could check with the group to make sure that all of the members understand the conversation. They also felt that the group members should talk about the behaviors that they do not like to see. Then the moderator, if there is one, or members of the group need to enforce those rules. The Mexican group felt that the moderator should have the principle task of organizing roles and enforcing deadlines.


·        Another way to help avoid conflict is to have clear instructions and to establish basic rules for the way the group works.


The UNM participants also suggested these ways to avoid conflict:


·        Find a common interest that the two conflicting groups have and try to find some common ground.


·        It is important to give constructive criticism and to avoid “flaming.”


·        Members of the group need to remember that it is important to give the others a context for the comments that are made.


At ITESM one of the biggest areas of conflict arose around meeting deadlines. The students felt that because some of the students would wait until Sunday evening to send the information, it was difficult for others to receive the information in time to do anything with it. Students also felt that the late sending of information might also jeopardize being able to receive it at all.


5.2.2. Social presence.


The category of social presence was identified through the inductive category development process. Social presence was defined as “the salience of the other in a mediated communication and the consequent salience of their interpersonal interactions” (Short, et al, 1976, p.65). The students in the UNM focus groups suggested that it was important to the smooth functioning of the group to establish social presence, a sense that the members of the group are “real people” (Gunawardena and Zittle, 1995). While social presence may be desirable, some people prefer more of a relational level than others.


The following observations were made:


·        Building relationships certainly enhances civility online. The downside of developing a relationship is that “nobody wants to criticize you as you are now their pal.” The implication here is that this lack of criticism could result in less conversation or could impede the productive work of the group.


·        It is helpful to introduce yourself when working in an online group so that others know who you are.


·        One of the group members who was an instructor noted that she has been astonished by what students have shared with her via e-mail. “It (the information shared) has to be based on trust based on my postings to the conference.”


·        Another participant noted that a touch of humor, a one or two “worder”, helps to get the group going every day as they attempt to get a task done.


·        Another factor which can help to develop social presence is the use of a quote on the signature line because it gives insight into the person.


The Mexican participants noted that they did not confirm when they had received e-mail. This lack of acknowledgment may indicate a lack of social presence.


·        “We, the Mexicans, don’t confirm that we receive the e-mail.”


This failure to confirm attempts to communicate, they believed, could also lead to the objectives of the conference not being achieved.


The Mexican students also seemed to believe that too much social presence might be detrimental to the achievement of objectives. They said that when they can see someone, they have a tendency to judge them by what they see. In the online environment, they have to focus just on what the other people said and how they said it.


·        “I found a difference when I studied for my program in a traditional classroom and online and this difference is that in a sense the Internet or the online way becomes more democratic because we tend much to judge the person as we see them and in the Internet, we give more value to what the persons are contributing to the group.”


5.2.3. Synchronous vs asynchronous.


This category was identified through the inductive category development process during the open coding step of the content analysis. At ITESM, the students seemed to think that the asynchronous CMC had more advantages, because participants had time to find research on which to base their answers. One student suggested:


·        “I think the asynchronous way has more advantages because you have more time to think through your ideas and reflect on them.”


At UNM, students felt that each of the time frames had its advantages depending upon the purpose or the objective of the conference. Synchronous time frames were generally used for groups that make decision or for whom ongoing conversation was important. Asynchronous time frames were important when the participants needed time to develop thoughtful answers or when the participants were unable to get together at a given time. In relationship to this idea, the participants said:


·        “I have a theory that people are either synchronous or asynchronous. Some like the immediacy of synchronous and the back and forth of it, and others like the asynchronous.”


·        “MUDs are task oriented and synchronous. It is harder to make a decision in an asynchronous environment.”


·        “I like asynchronous environments – you don’t have to respond immediately. I have time on my side.”


5.2.4. Technical skills.


The varying level of technological skills was an additional factor impacting group development mentioned by some Mexico and USA participants. If there is too much variance in the technical ability levels of the participants, it may negatively impact the ability of the group to function.


6. Conclusion


Content analysis of the focus group discussions identified factors that had been previously identified by Hofstede, but the groups identified other factors, which also determined the ability of the groups to process.


While cultural factors impact group process, so do more pragmatic factors like the time frame and the commonality of the language that was used.


The USA and Mexico group participants preferred the asynchronous timeframe for the CMC environment because it allowed for more reflection and for more careful work. As to the commonality of the language, both groups believed that efficient processing of the group was dependent upon a common language and common usage of that language. Moreover, both groups alleged that differences in language for both groups lead to conflict or affected the quality of work that was completed.


The ability of the groups to either use conflict positively in group functioning or to avoid conflict also determines how well the group processes. For participants in the USA, conflict around differing points of view was necessary, as long as it was not excessive or led to “flaming”, to help members of the group think creatively. The more individualist environment in which the participants’ function conditions them to see themselves as separate from the group, and thus they are not offended when other members of the group do not agree. For the Mexican participants, who work more regularly in a collectivist culture, conflict is not a useful condition in a CMC environment. The way to get work done is to establish a goal, and to begin the process through the formulation of an initial idea on which others build. For participants of both groups, the use of an instructor/moderator was determined to be useful in keeping the groups on task. However, the role of the moderator in handling conflict differed: in the USA, the moderator was to help keep the conflict constructive; and, in Mexico, to help keep the conflict minimal. One other important commonality identified by the groups was the reduction of power distance in the CMC environment which makes the situation more democratic.


On the other hand, the way in which social presence is established was perceived differently: in the USA, there was an expressed need for introductions, personal comments, and humor; in Mexico, there was the need to contribute effectively to the group task.


The importance of content analysis as a method in this study is that it did indeed verify previously determined themes and concepts, but it also helped to identify other factors, such as language and time frame preferences, as important to the processing of online group. These additional factors can thus become the focus of future online group process research, which can be extended to other cultural groups in other countries and to other professions.




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