Stereotypes of international ITESM students

The stereotypes international ITESM students have of Mexico and Mexicans and the possible relation to the mass media

by Claudia Chapa Cortés

1. Introduction

Background

The images that the Mass Media projects of foreign countries, especially those of Third World countries, have been discussed and remain a constant worry among communication theorists. Through studies and research, it has been emphasized that the Third World images shown are generally associated with negative topics such as corruption, poverty, political crisis, and natural disasters among others.

Although some authors believe that images and stereotypes aren’t important variables in making a decision on an international level, others affirm that these images are definitely variables that affect decisions. “For this simple reason, the study of perceptions-images, stereotypes, reputations, prestige, credibility- in the international arena represents a venerable and distinguished tradition like the analysis of decision making process” (Coatsworth y Rico, 1989, p. 15). Consequently, if the image we have about a country or a culture is distorted or incomplete, that would lead, among other things, to make a decision based on a perception, which could often be mistaken or incorrect. Besides, stereotypes don’t just appear in the moment of decision making; McCombs (in Bryant & Zilman, 1996, p. 13) comments that news can influence our daily life, the way we dress, our plans for the future, our feelings and worries. If we consider that there is often an unbalance of information in the news that people recieve from agencies located in First World countries, it is likely that the images they transmit will influence the receivers in a negative way.

Bailey (in Coatswhort & Rico, 1989) mentions that the images that individuals from different countries have of other individuals, could modify the behavior related to certain actions. “For example declarations and attitudes conform a type of dynamic predisposition that –when they are positive- make international cooperation easier; and –when they are negative- can complicate relations” (p.75).

Johnson (1999) says that one important barrier inside global communication is the perpetuation of ethnic and racial stereotypes, because normally these are long-lasting. “This suggests that stereotypes that we see on TV today have their roots in the ancient television images, printed mass media, movies and news” (p.418). When we talk specifically about Mexico, research demonstrates, among other things, the types of images that are projected in different mass medias. In this area, different studies have demonstrated North American mass media coverage of Mexico and it has been proved that what was discussed in the New International Order of Information and Communication (NOMIC) is not being applied in most medias.

The ITESM, Campus Monterrey (Technological Institute of Superior Studies of Monterrey) has many international agreements between different universities all over the world. Through these exchanges, the established ideal is that students acquire an international experience and also learn or perfect a foreign language. Since 1997, it has approximately an average of 500 students per year. Approximately 50% of these students come from the USA and the other 50% is divided among students from Japan, Germany, Spain, Norway and Canada.

In an informal way, it can be observed that many students come with preconceived stereotypes of Mexico that strongly affect their initial attitude when arriving in the country. Can the images that someone has of a culture or a country modify their attitude or behavior when dealing with a situation or a problem? The presence of international students at ITESM Campus Monterrey is an interesting opportunity to evaluate the presence of stereotypes.

Problem Definition

Based on what was stated above, the goal of this research is to determine what stereotypes the international students of ITESM Campus Monterrey have about Mexico and Mexicans when they arrive in the country. In addition, we will look at the possible relationship with the mass media and it’s importance in the creation of favorable or unfavorable attitudes towards our country before arriving. Another objective is to determine how their stay in Mexico and the direct contact with the country, people and institutions modifies their perception and attitudes.

1.3 Justification

This project is not based exclusively on highlighting the importance of avoiding fake or stereotyped images of a culture. It is also necessary to emphasize what has been discussed in the last decades: the negative image that the First World Countries project of Third World Countries. The management of information and images allows us to notice the informative and economic imbalance that remains between the industrialized nations and our southern countries. It is very important to continue questioning the correct utilization of information in the international media, which could be easily used according to the organization’s or even the countries’ interests.

Limitations and delimitations

The analysis of this project is limited to finding the stereotypes that the international students have of Mexico and Mexicans and their relation with the mass media, as well as their possible consequences and/or effects on the surveyed students.

It is important to consider that the impact of mass media in the adoption of images and stereotypes with the students will be analyzed exclusively from an exploratory and limited perspective because of the difficulty of measuring the influence of years of exposure to multiple mass media. Another important consideration is that the spectrum of images that the mass media presents of Mexico (and other countries) is dynamic, so a transversal study like this one will just show the current state of the stereotypes that the international students have when arriving to Mexico and not what future generations might have.

2. Theory

Nowadays we live in a world where there is a lot of interrelation between contemporary phenomena. According to Kleinwächter and Nordenstreng (in Asante & Gudykunst, 1989), information and communication become global problems and developed and non-developed countries, socialists and capitalists countries are affected by this flow of information that does not respect borders. There are laws, proposals, rules, agreements, exchanges and many other initiatives to stay communicated.

If at the beginning the industrial production of goods and cultural products was mainly developed in the frame of the national State and benefited the dominant sectors in these states, as the capital has increased its field of action, it has affected a greater number of people and more aspects of social life, and at the same time, the search for new consumers has transcended state borders. (Murciano, 1992, p.34)

The development of technology has brought along political, economical, social and cultural consequences for every nation. Technology can be used for positive purposes, but it can also be used in a negative way, “creating instruments to promote lack of trust, enlarge conflicts or even dominate or exploit other nations” (Kleinwächter y Nordenstreng en Asante y Gudykunst, 1989, p. 87).

If we consider what was just stated, it is thought that as a consequence, this will have an effect in those countries that somehow have depended, even in a small way on developed countries, establishing new forms of external dependence in every area. Although technological development is one of the challenges in this millennium, the division between the First and the Third World is still very wide, and there are amazing differences in media transmissions and imbalances in the flow of information.

The current era can be characterized by the dominance of the global society, where communication is an important element and where it would be expected to have more open and direct communication. Nevertheless a well defined tendency to the opposite can be found, and so communication and the flow of information is controlled by those who are the most dominant. Kleinwächter y Nordenstreng (1989) mention that although more than three quarters of the worlds population live in undeveloped countries, less than a quarter of the newspapers, broadcasts, radio receivers, televisions and telephones are in these countries. “Three quarters of the world can still be described as undeveloped in the fields of information and communication” (p. 88). The right to inform and be informed, to have information and to participate in the national or international information flow (in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is not a right that developing countries have. News agencies such as UPI, AP and AFP dominate the flow between these countries. Television chains, especially north American, broadcast large quantities of movies, series, commercials, news and more (Kleinwächter y Nordenstreng, 1989). Because of this, the national identity as well as the national security of southern countries is constantly threatened.

2.1 About the message to the audience: effects of mass media.

The contents of messages in mass media has been discussed for many years, and has been the subject of study for many researchers. It has been pointed out that the media influences our perception of many things of everyday life and that there are many factors that shape and educate people, mass media being one of them. So, some important factors in the process of perception is related to past experiences, cultural expectations, needs, moods and attitudes.

If we consider that media participates in the way people socialize, it can be deducted that the content of a given message will affect that persons learning by guiding his or her point of view. Getino (1996) explains that the effect a cultural product has, will depend on the characteristics of the sources of experiences that transmitters and receivers have. It is also mentioned that the communication process is something very complex that creates confrontation and interaction between the components that every individual has. Anten, Cakim y Hall (1999) conclude that “an individual trusts the images in media to understand a culture when he/she does not have real experience about it” (p.437). According to a study developed with Mexican, Turkish and North Americans, where the first thought North American shows were more “typical” when they saw them in their home countries than when they arrived to the United Stated to live there temporarily. The authors conclude by saying that “the notions that Mexicans and the Turkish have of something typically American while they saw North American shows in their home countries, seemed to have been influenced not only by the content of the shows, but also by the lack of knowledge of everyday life in the United Stated” (p.446). They also mention that these interviews suggests that in the absence of real life experience, television can shape the audience’s understanding. Bailey (in Coatsworth y Rico, 1989) affirms that an important aspect of international relations in this era is the image a person has of another person, especially in an era of mass politics. “Mass media is probably the most important source to impact those images” (p.75).

Different theories have been developed through time, trying to explain the process of the audience’s reception; this is not so simple as to affirm that a message will affect somebody’s way of thinking, “An overdose of hamburgers and French fries can lead to an indigestion; the consequences of an overdose of television are not as easy to identify” (Greenberg, 1980, p. 183).

It is possible that the content of a message does not influence in a direct way a person’s behavior, but that it does have consequences in the long run in the form of cultural stereotypes. There is a theory that describes how these messages and contents are “planted” inside people’s minds and it is called “the cultivation theory”. This theory demonstrates the direct or partial effects, but mostly how the daily repetition of a given pattern is transmitted to different audiences. So, in the course of time and after being exposed to these repetitive messages, the audience begins to change its attitudes and in the long run, even its behavior. In other words, the cultivation theory explains that the longer an individual is exposed to the construction of a reality, the bigger the probability of the individual perceiving that reality is as close or similar to his or her own. The cultivation process can produce an indirect effect on the audience, when it is exposed for a long period of time to a given stimulus, instead of creating an effect to the exposure to a particular program. If having a stereotyped image of a Mexican or Mexico can be an effect of long term exposure to the media, it could be said that these images end up reinforcing each other and influence people’s behavior.

This theory was developed by the researcher George Gerbner (1977) who explains that “the effects of mass media are not those that mainly lead us to do things, but those that contribute to the meaning of what is done –or accepted or rejected- a more fundamental and decisive process” (p.205). He also mentions that for television viewers who spend long periods of time in front of the television set, this monopolizes and represses other sources of information. The effect this constant exposure creates is what he called “cultivation” or in other words “ learning the vision of a common world, common rules and common values” (Severin and Tarkand, 1997, p.299).

Another theory that could complement the cultivation one is the theory of Cultural Imperialism. This theory focuses on the imbalance and the inequality of the international flow of messages. “Cultural imperialism happens when the culture of a central and dominant country is imposed unilaterally on the peripheral countries that this country dominates over their own cultural integrity” (Beltrán & Fox in Lozano, 1997, p. 96). There are many studies conducted through this approach and Dorfmann and Mattelart (1979) can be mentioned with the analysis they made about Walt Disney’s cartoons, in which it was concluded that they transmitted capitalist values and ideologies, from the North American culture. Other studies focused on the press, allow to see that the unbalance and the inequality mentioned before is a persistent problem that has not been solved yet. “A culture cultivates the images of a society. Dominant communication agencies produce a system of messages that cultivate a pattern of dominant images” (Gerbner, 1977, p. 205). This implies that a dominant culture will create an structure based on values, priorities and relations that people will follow without questioning. Talking about research done about Mexico, Lozano (1997, p. 126) comments that “the conclusions of this studies show the importance of coverage that US media do about Mexico in the last decade, especially the negative and sensationalist side that has characterized this information”.

If we combine the theories exposed before, Cultivation Theory and Cultural Imperialism, it could be supposed that a message content formed with a dominant and hegemonic ideology, through time and during several years, could influence a person’s attitude and consequently the way of daily life, being decisive in many processes like decision making. One of the problems that preoccupies us the most is the possible audience involvement in these messages and the credibility that they could give to the transmitted messages.

3. Methodology

A methodological strategy was designed to permit us to define the types of Mass Media the subjects were exposed to and the role of the information sources in the process of images and stereotypes appropriation.

3.1 Method selection

A survey was chosen as through it we can collect important numeric data inside the research. There are also variables inside the survey that deal with social aspects, so qualitative techniques such as in-deep interviews were used with some students to be able to work within these variables. The goal of the survey was to determine what Mass Media was used most and what kind of images the foreigners had.

Approximately 1,200 e-mails were sent to every single international exchange candidate to explain the project. From these, 211 students responded back. Once they gave their authorization to participate in the project, the survey was sent via e-mail. One survey was conducted before the student arrived to Mexico and the other before he/she went back to his/her home country. This way the perceptions were compared before and after having contact with Mexico and Mexicans. At the time of leaving, the survey was completed on paper or by e-mail.

3.2 Measure’s instrument design: survey

A base survey was designed and a pilot was given to approximately 40 students. After the pilot test, some questions and scales were corrected to create the final test. The survey was divided mainly in 3 parts: the first one referred to general data like age, sex, nationality and some questions regarding the times they had visited Mexico. The second part had to do with social aspects, where themes like family contact, school and mass media were discussed. The third and last part of the survey had to do with the stereotypes that were shown using open and closed questions. Both surveys, prior to leaving their home countries and arriving in Mexico, had open questions that were in some cases answered in-depth. The surveys had the same structure.

3.3 The Sample Group’s Results

The non-probabilistic convenience sample was used. This was determined because of the type of population and their interest towards the project. As stated before, the survey was sent exclusively to those students who agreed to answer it. The total number of surveys completed by students before arriving to Mexico was 116. The surveys completed by students once in Mexican territory before leaving to their home countries was 95. Ideally it was best to have surveyed more students; however, according to the nature of the project, the participation of a student was completely voluntary and only a few of them decided to participate. The surveys were conducted over a period of 2 years, four school semesters. It began in January 1999 and finished in December 2000. The control variables were gender and nationality and the independent variables had to do with social and academic aspects and mass media consume.

In-depth focused interviews were done with some students. The selection of these students was done with the same method used for the original group : non-probabilistic convenience sample because some students were more interested in the project and wanted to share their experiences. Age and nationality was taken into consideration to count as many different profiles as possible. The interviews took place inside the campus in public areas (cafeterias, classrooms) because they were familiar and comfortable places for the students. The interviews were conducted at different periods of time. In the end 10 interviews were made with students who lived in Mexico at different times and places.

A lot of opinions were given in the interviews and surveys and will be exposed in the following chapter. They will be recognized by the gender (H for men and M for women), followed by the age and finally the country the student comes from.

4. Results

Based on the methodology described above, the results of this Project are the following:

Question 1: What images or stereotypes do international students have of Mexico and Mexicans?

For analysis purposes, the opinions will be divided into positive and negative images. When asking what they thought about Mexicans a 1-5 scale was used, where 1 represented the most positive side while 5 was the most negative.

Several medias were found for the different categories (previously established according to other research projects) Positive images about Mexicans included good, happy, party, non-drug addicts and civilized. The 4 first characteristics were pretty close to the positive side while the last one (civilized) was in the middle, maybe assuming a non- knowledgeable opinion. “Mexicans are hospitable, generous, happy and they like to party and talk, they’re also conservative, machos, dirty, they don’t respect the law, burocratic and lazy” (H-23-Sweden)” One French student said: “I think people aren’t civilized, I didn’t like a lot of behaviors and everything is caused by bad education or non-existent education” (H-23-France)”

With regard to negative images, students thought before arriving to Mexico that Mexicans were conservative, drunk, dangerous, machos, dishonest, dirty, poor, under-developed and not lazy nor working people. “It’s very hot, there’s a lot of crime and danger. There are a lot of poor people. A lot of men with moustaches and guitars. A lot of cactus” (M-Japan)”

Question 2: Were there any changes concerning the images or stereotypes during their stay in Mexico?

For this question, a comparison was made between the students before arriving to Mexico and right before leaving the country in order to compare opinions. There were some differences between these two groups.

Every single variable had a change, some moved to the positive side, others to the negative side, while some remained the same. The variables that showed minimal change were the ones related to happiness, drug addiction, development, party, honesty and cleanliness. The variables that changed the most were those related to security and socioeconomic levels which moved to the positive side. “I didn’t bring my camera because I thought someone was going to steal it from me once I got off the plane, am I dumb or what? (Inés-21-Spain)”.

Question 3: Do the students identify some influence from the Mass Media when developing their stereotypes in their countries? what media and what messages?

It’s important to mention that in this question, 55% of the surveyed said that influence from Mass Media regarding the images they had (or still have) of Mexicans was very strong. Twenty-nine percent answered that the influence was small since they didn’t trust the media when imaging Mexicans “I think that they’re a respectable population, their history wasn’t very pleasant but very rich. I know the typical stereotypes of Mexicans sitting under a cactus with their sombrero but I’m not interested in these clichés. I know Mexicans work hard and rest as anybody else in the world. I don’t think tequila effects are so different from vodka or cognac (H-France)” From the total number of people surveyed, 98% said that had been exposed to TV in their home countries, 93% to radio and cinema, 94% to internet and 90% to printed media. From these subjects, 81% remembered having seen images of Mexico in some form of mass media. “There’s very little information about Mexico in France, except from Chiapas and knowing the mass media manipulation, especially regarding this case, I knew I had to be careful (M-23-Francia)”

Question 4: What other variables seem to influence the adoption of images and stereotypes:

Control variables

As it was stated before, the control variables were gender and nationality. The surveyed didn’t present significant differences regarding gender. The only evident difference was regarding security: More women than men thought that Mexicans were more dangerous that what men thought. Talking about nationality, there were some differences regarding the civilized and working variable. In general students from Europe showed more objective responses talking about history and political environment in Mexico. Students from North America and Asia showed almost non knowledge about these variables.

Social Variables

The social variable was very important for images adoption or reinforcement because this could vary from the familiar context and friends they had and how some of these subjects are brought up. For example 38% of the international students never talked about Mexico with their families or friends, which might have influenced what they thought about the country. Those who did talk about Mexico with family or friends talked about different subjects like tourism, culture and generally about political crisis and natural disasters when they occurred.

Academic Variable

82% of the students received academic information about Mexico in their schools in their home countries. What they learned was very different, most of the time on a superficial level. We could say that the academic variable is pretty important but is not the most important when adopting images. It could be used as a complement to already established opinions but definitely the social variables seem to be stronger with international students, before arriving to Mexico and once in the country too. Something very interesting was to find out that apparently one of the most important variables with North Americans at the moment of creating or reinforcing an image is whether or not they knew Mexican-Americans in the U.S.A. The stereotypes that already existed about this minority in the US are strong, perhaps stronger than Mass Media.

5. Conclusions

As it has been discussed throughout this project, it is very hard to conclude that Mass Media can actually be responsible for the creation or appropriation of images in individuals. Like Gerbner said (1977) the combination of different factors, Mass Media included, could bring an individual to have different effects.

Life on television is full of conflicts and resolutions. Characters come and go, we love them and eventually we leave them, but the conflicts come back. At the least moment, problems get solved, most of the times with a miracle and always fast (…) Some conflicts are trivial, others more important for human survival. (Greenberg, 1980, p. 190).

The lecture each individual gives a message will depend a lot on his personal and cultural background and that’s how personal identities are formed little by little and in the long term. Getino (1996) explains that the real impact of audiovisual products can’t be measured when a cultural identity is being formed through an explicit or implicit intention of the producers “but by the lecture that every single person makes. These are subjects, in any case, more active and protagonistic than those who actually designed and transmitted the products” (p. 267).

It’s very important to say that until this point, the analysis focused on message production from First World Countries to Developed and Non-Developed Countries, arguing that due to Gerbner’s “cultivation”, cultural imperialism and imbalanced informative processes, many of the productions project images that are not close to reality at all. However it would be interesting to do some research as to the type of Mexican productions that are transmitted all over the world. It is well known, on a superficial and informal level that one of the most demanded Mexican products are soap operas, which represent a very particular Mexican reality. On the other hand, Mexican movies, the golden Mexican age movies have been also transmitted at least in Spain and Latin America so some of the images could also come from our own Mexican productions.

Finally we could conclude by saying that even if there were efforts made by the Government, international associations and various countries and producers, there still exists a notable imbalanced informative process and an unequal projected image of Hispanics (Mexicans included) in most Mass Medias we are exposed to. As it was said before, it is not just the type of images projected and the possible problems they might cause, it is also a concern, the fact that in the long term, these images will also be digested and believed by the Hispanics themselves.

These results could help researchers on the one hand, to continue analyzing either the media content, imbalanced information or the effects on individuals, among other subjects. On the other hand, the Government could establish policies to promote more realistic images of Mexico and Mexicans; this could be done through local productions where Mexican ideology can be transmitted, where a more adequate, social reality is being portrayed.

6. Bibliography

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