Politics and complexity in intercultural fieldwork: The Vietnam experience

Gail Elizabeth Whiteford, Lindy Mcallister

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    14 Citations (Scopus)


    Aims: While increasing numbers of students from countries such as Australia undertake fieldwork programs in resource-poor countries as part of health professional educational programs, there have been relatively few studies focussed on the complex processes and impacts of the student experiences over time. Therefore, the purpose of this research was to illuminate the deep learning processes of students while undertaking an intercultural fieldwork program and, more specifically, to highlight the contextual forces that shaped their experiences directly and indirectly. This article presents the context-related findings from a qualitative study of a multidisciplinary health professional fieldwork program located in an orphanage for children with disabilities in Vietnam. Methods and results: This study utilised a critical incident approach, eliciting qualitative data from interviews undertaken with 23 occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech pathology students from Charles Sturt University while on placement in Vietnam, and interviews undertaken upon return home. All students were in their final year and the placement duration lasted for either 4 or 6 weeks. Two cohorts of students were interviewed during the 5-year duration of the study. Interviews were also undertaken with six staff from professional and non-professional backgrounds and one of the managers of the orphanage. This served as both a means of data triangulation and as a stakeholder focussed program evaluation. Data analysis processes included both thematic analysis and story cataloguing. These strategies addressed the dialectic tensions between parts of stories clustered under thematic headings and whole, context bound stories. Accordingly, analytic outcomes include both a series of linked themes that describe intercultural learning processes and a critical incident story catalogue. While the findings from this study specific to intercultural learning and competency development have been published elsewhere, in this article the authors present and discuss narrative data which underscore the fundamentally complex and political (in the broadest sense of the term) nature of intercultural fieldwork. Essentially, the findings are that numerous contextual forces and multiple perspectives inform and shape the intercultural fieldwork experience and that this needs to be recognised and actively addressed during the planning and execution of such programs, especially in resource-poor settings. Conclusions: Student learning and competency development in intercultural fieldwork placements can significantly impact on perceptions of self and on professional identity in a positive and life changing way. However, undertaking and negotiating fieldwork in a resource-poor setting such as Vietnam, is an activity with multiple layers of complexity. Accordingly, students and staff must be sensitive to both the historico-political milieu in which they find themselves as well as the attendant power dynamics of resource-rich to resource-poor intercultural interactions.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalAustralian Occupational Therapy Journal
    Issue numberSUPPL. 1
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2007


    • Complexity
    • Context
    • Intercultural learning
    • Occupational therapy fieldwork
    • Resource-poor settings


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