What You Need to Know About : Cultural Contracts theory

Cultural contracts theory was created by Ronald L. Jackson II in 2002 to respond to the ongoing discussion about identity negotiation throughout research in the humanities and social sciences. While it might seem obvious that this theory emanated from sociologist Charles W. Mills’s 1997 racial contracts treatise, the author was unaware of Mills’s work until nearly 3 years after the cultural contracts theory was established. The theory actually has its roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 explication of the social contract, which was a moral and philosophical essay on the implications of national sovereignty and the maintenance of social order. This early document spawned a lot of debate about freedom, independence, autonomy, and citizen obligation to social order. The cultural contracts theory is aligned with Mills’s theory to the extent that it is aware of and responsive to power inequities that destabilize or imbalance interaction and ultimately instigate cultural identity negotiation.

Jackson actually thought about the contracts metaphor when buying a home. He noted the similarities between communicating one’s preferences in important life negotiations such as buying a
home and negotiating one’s identity with a stranger whom we expect to behave or proceed in a certain way. In these kinds of interactions, one’s values, norms, beliefs, and patterns of communication— indeed one’s culture—are revealed within the encounter. Likewise, people negotiate differences in opinion, style, and orientation in these sorts of transactions. Whether two people are meeting one another for the first time or have been acquainted for years, they must still coordinate their relationship by understanding the other’s culture. Just as in a home-purchase contract, everyday communication contains “small print,” with hidden features of a relationship. In identity negotiation, the small print can be about hidden motives but is often about hidden insecurities that come as a result of past experiences. All of this complicates the encounter and is exacerbated in intercultural interactions where race, gender, and class all come to bear.

Littlejohn, Stephen W and Karen A.Floss. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory.USA:SAGE.654

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