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Voluntary Inter-Cultural Exchange and Understanding Groups: The Roots of Success in U. S. Sister City Programs

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image of International Journal of Comparative Sociology
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Sister City Programs (SCPs) are an important type of inter-cultural exchange program. This paper reports on a largely qualitative evaluation of a purposive sample of U.S. SCPs (108 affiliations) based on observations, content analysis and nearly 2,000 interviews in 21 countries. Often originating because of U.S. immigrants from some non-U.S. country or their descendants, SCPs are usually bi-national volunteer groups with, in principle, Sister City Committees on both sides. Success of SCPs was defined in terms of their being two-sided (reciprocal) and promoting mutual friendship and understanding across cultures through various activities mainly run by a Sister City Committee. Youth exchanges were often success-promoting, especially when carefully organized and lasting a month or so. Exchanges involving families and friends were also often success-promoting if they lasted long enough, involved reciprocal homestays and close relationships, with someone learning the other's language. Not very successful were exchanges of mayors and city officials, which tended to be very formal and impersonal. Similarly unsuccessful were tourist activities (often unreciprocated), which were generally brief and superficial, with hotel stays and minimal contact between visitors and residents. About one-fourth of SCPs with one side in the U.S. seemed dormant or "dead," for a variety or reasons. Another one-half of SCPs engage in some activities but do not reach a high level of people-to-people exchange. The final one-fourth achieve substantial people-to-people exchange. For the latter programs, there is substantial impact on inter-cultural understanding at the level of individuals.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Sociology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, U.S.A.


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