Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity
Bennett, M. (2017) Development model of intercultural sensitivity. In Kim, Y (Ed) International
encyclopedia of intercultural communication. Wiley
Milton J. Bennett, Ph.D.
Intercultural Development Research Institute
The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) created by Milton J. Bennett is a
grounded theory based on constructivist perception and communication theory. It assumes that the
experience of reality is constructed through perception, and that more complex perceptual categories
yield more complex (sophisticated) experience. Specifically, the DMIS assumes that we are constructing
boundaries of “self” and “other” in ways that guide our experience of intercultural events. The most
ethnocentric construction, Denial, is one wherein only vague categories of “other” are available for
perceiving people from different cultural contexts. At the other end of the continuum, the most
ethnorelative construction of Integration supposes that complex self/other categories are incorporated
into one’s personal identity and into decision-making regarding ethicality in multicultural relations. This
entry describes the theory and application of DMIS to diagnosis and intervention, including some
discussion of measuring intercultural sensitivity and the main criticisms of the model and its
Following a process of grounded theory development, the Developmental Model of Intercultural
Sensitivity (Bennett, M., 1986, 2013) codified observations about people who were becoming more
competent intercultural communicators in both academic and corporate settings. These initial
observations were made for the purpose of determining “what to do next” in intercultural training
programs. The idea was to observe the sequence of competence acquisition, and then to apply a coherent
theoretical structure that could explain the development in terms of movement through different stages.
(The term “stage” referred to sequential positions along a continuum, not discrete conditions.) With that
theory in hand, it would be possible to diagnose where people were along the continuum and to facilitate
movement in terms of the theoretical structure.
Describing a developmental process required specifying an ultimate goal of intercultural training.
Based on the then-prevailing consensus of intercultural practitioners, the goal of training was to enable
more competent communication in alternative cultural contexts. Secondary goals included applications
of intercultural communication competence to activities such as intercultural mediation and conflict
resolution, interethnic (gender, sexual orientation) equity, multicultural team or global organization
leadership, multicultural classroom teaching, health care delivery, etc. The original observations that
yielded the DMIS were made strictly in terms of communicative behavior, following Cronen and Pearce
(1982); the criterion for judging whether people were more interculturally competent was whether they
could “coordinate meaning” across cultural contexts with something approaching the facility they had in
their native context(s). In this sense communicative competence as defined by the DMIS follows the
lead of linguistic competence – the ability to understand and generate appropriate utterances in context.
If native communicative ability is taken as the criterion for intercultural competence, then the
next question might be, ‘how does one come to be communicatively competent in one’s own culture?’
This question led to the use of constructivist perception and communication theory as the explanatory
framework. Constructivism in general holds that people’s experience is a function of their perceptual
organization of reality. Lacking a complete instinctual program, human beings need to internalize the
“worldview” of their group and then enact that worldview in ways that maintain it and apply it to novel
situations (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). Based on particular forms of cultural perception, elaborate
human languages and other forms of communication have evolved for adapting to novel and complex
situations. Constructivist communicative competence refers to this naturally learned human ability to
coordinate meaning and action in complex ways within large groups.
The basic mechanism for internalizing (embodying) worldview is perception (Bennett &
Castiglioni, 2004). Following Piaget, Vygotsky, and other developmentalists (Mooney, 2013) children
become more adaptive to their particular circumstances by elaborating perceptual categories of relevant
things while leaving irrelevant things either unperceived or only vaguely categorized. For example,
pasta is a relevant category for Italian kids, and many of them already know the shapes (e.g. penne or
rigatoni) that go with different sauces. Pasta is not very relevant for American kids, and most of them
can only use the undifferentiated category of “macaroni.” Writ large, culture provides us with a set of
these kind of figure/ground distinctions that allow us to co-construct with our compatriots the unique
adaptive processes of our group. We assume a general similarity in experiencing the world, and we are
relatively adept at taking perspectives of others in the group whose experience differs from ours within
defined constraints. Our joint experience is the “feeling of,” as in the feeling of being Japanese, or the
feeling of being a woman, or the feeling of being black or white in a white-privileged society. We give
form to that feeling with our behavior – behavior that manifests in individual ways our collective
The move from communicative competence in one’s own culture to communicative competence
across cultures is the key concept for DMIS. It assumes that dealing with otherness in complex ways is
not a natural or historically important part of any culture’s adaptive strategy. As a result, otherness exists
in a broad and vaguely defined perceptual category, like macaroni for pasta. Such a perceptual condition
is inadequate for communicating effectively with cultural outsiders, since it lumps together people of
different cultures inappropriately and precludes taking their unique perspectives in any meaningful way.
Movement along the continuum from Ethnocentrism to Ethnorelativism is accomplished through
elaborating categories for otherness, so that eventually the perception (and thus the experience) of
cultural difference is as complex as that of important events in one’s own culture. This ability to have
more complex personal experience of otherness is termed intercultural sensitivity. Intercultural
communicative competence is the forming of intercultural sensitivity into behavior that coordinates
meaning across cultural contexts with more or less the same ease that one coordinates within one’s own
culture. Notable behavioral forms of intercultural sensitivity are empathy (the generation of appropriate
behavior in alternative contexts); and meta-coordination (the “third-culture” contexts that generate value
from cultural diversity).
The DMIS stages (positions) are construed both in terms of basic perceptual structures vis a vis
otherness and in terms of certain “issues” regarding cultural difference that tend to be related to each of
the stages. The names of the stages refer to the issues, while the description of the experience of each
stage refers to its perceptual structure. The first three stages of Denial, Defense, and Minimization are
Ethnocentric; they refer to issues that are associated with experiencing one’s own culture as more
“central to reality.” The last three stages of Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration are Ethnorelative;
they refer to issues associated with experiencing all cultures as alternative ways of organizing reality.
Movement through the stages is not inevitable; it depends on the need to become more competent in
communicating outside one’s primary social context. When that need is established, it is addressed by
building more complex perceptual structures that can resolve the increasingly complex issues of dealing
with cultural difference.
The DMIS is a culture-general model; when more complex perceptual structures are established
for any culture, they apply to all cultures. For instance, greater perceptual sensitivity towards a different
national culture group allows more sensitivity towards a different generational or sexual orientation
group, assuming that those groups are also defined in cultural terms. Additionally, movement through
the stages tends to be one-way; people do not easily become more ethnocentric after having developed
ethnorelative perceptual structures. However, people can rather easily retreat from one ethnocentric
stage to an earlier one, particularly from Minimization to Defense.
In addition to its use as an individual diagnostic, the DMIS can be interpreted at an
organizational level. More complex organizational structures are parallels to more complex personal
perceptual structures. Greater intercultural sensitivity in an organization means that more complex
structures are allowing cultural difference to be perceived more fully. The resulting “climate” regarding
cultural difference carries the potential for better resolution of the issues associated with multicultural
workforces and global operations.
The default condition of DMIS is the denial of cultural difference – the failure to perceive the existence
or the relevance of culturally different others. Perceptual categories for otherness are not elaborate
enough to allow discriminations among different kinds of others, who may be perceived vaguely as
“foreigners” or “minorities” or not perceived at all. The constructs available for perceiving one’s own
culture are far more complex than those available for other cultures, so people experience themselves as
more “real” than others – even to the point that others may not seem fully human. People are
disinterested or perhaps even hostilely dismissive of intercultural communication. In organizations,
Denial is a condition wherein there are no structures (policies and procedures) to recognize and deal
with cultural diversity.
The issue experienced as Denial is created when people who prefer stability (sameness) are
forced by some circumstance to become aware of others (differentness). This occurs when, for instance,
significant numbers of refugees or immigrants enter a community, or when people must face cultural
differences in a changing workforce or globalized organization. Initially, the sameness pole is
exaggerated while the differentness pole is suppressed; one’s self and compatriots are perceived as
complex compared to the simplicity of others. Resolution of the contradiction involves beginning to
perceive others in more specific and complex ways. Personally, this occurs when others are personified
through media or personal contact. Organizationally, resolution of Denial occurs when difference is
acknowledged by procedures such as multiple-language forms or incorporating visual diversity into
When the resolution of Denial issues allows it, people can move into the experience of defense against
cultural difference. The perceptual structure of this stage is a dichotomous categorization of “us and
them,” where others are perceived more fully than in Denial but also in highly stereotyped ways. People
at this stage tend to be critical of other cultures and apt to blame cultural difference for general ills of
society; they experience “us” as superior and “them” as inferior. A variation of Defense is reversal,
where people switch poles so that “them” are superior and “us” are inferior. People in this form tend to
simplistically romanticize or exotify another culture while being more complexly critical of their own
culture. In international contexts, the informal term for reversal is “going native.” In domestic contexts,
the term “false ally” may refer to a dominant-culture member in reversal who takes on the cause of
“oppression” without much experience or understanding. An organization indicates Defense by rhetoric
that exalts the superiority of its national cultural roots and its current organizational culture.
Occasionally an organization shows reversal by supporting activities for non-dominant others based on
simplistic stereotypes (e.g. shopping trips for the assumedly female spouses of conferencing executives,
when a) the spouses might not all be female, and b) even if they are female they might not fit the
stereotype and could resent having it applied).
The contradiction experienced as Defense occurs when “us” and “them” are forced into contact.
The greater visibility and exaggerated stereotypes of others generate an experience of threat, fueling red-
lining, exclusive membership, and other segregationist strategies. When actual contact is inevitable,
focusing on power differences (such as privilege or oppression) supports the polarized Defense or
reversal experiences. Conversely, resolution of Defense is accomplished by focusing on commonalities
– equal humanity, shared values, etc. In organizations, Defense is routinely resolved by team-building
exercises that stress mutual dependence and define differences as in-group variations of personality and
The resolution of “us and them” allows the move to the minimization of cultural difference. As the term
implies, cultural differences that were initially defined in Defense are now minimized in favor of the
assumedly more important similarities between self and others. Those similarities are based on the
familiar elements of one’s own cultural worldview; people assume that their own experiences are shared
by others, or that certain basic values and beliefs transcend cultural boundaries and thus apply to
everyone (whether they know it or not). The stressing of cross-cultural similarity generates “tolerance,”
wherein superficial cultural differences are perceived as variations on the shared universal themes of
humanity. However, Minimization obscures deep cultural differences both for individuals and for
organizations. At this stage, organizations tend to exaggerate the benefits of unbiased equal opportunity,
thus masking the continued operation of dominant culture privilege. Confrontation with these deeper
differences may cause people to retreat to the earlier ethnocentric stage of Defense.
The Minimization issue for individuals is their desire to project similarity on a wider world and
the stubborn resistance of that world to losing its real difference. This means that the more contact
people seek out with others in the name of shared values, the more likely it is that they will be forced to
confront significant cultural differences. Something similar happens in organizations, where an
overstressing of “unity” yields too much uniformity, which forces the organization to decentralize and
focus on its diversity, sometimes with the result of divisiveness. In both the individual and
organizational cases, resolution of the issue occurs when similarity and difference, unity and diversity,
are put into dialectical form: assuming similarity allows us to appreciate differences, and unity provides
focus for diversity.
Movement out of the ethnocentric condition of Minimization allows cultural difference to be organized
into categories that are potentially as complex as one’s own. In other words, people become conscious of
themselves and others in cultural contexts that are equal in complexity but different in form. The
acceptance of cultural difference does not mean agreement – cultural difference may be judged
negatively – but the judgment is not ethnocentric in the sense that it is not automatically based on
deviation from one’s own cultural position. For the same reason that an oenophile wants to learn more
about wine or a bibliophile wants to finish the novel, people at Acceptance are curious about cultures
and cultural differences. But their limited knowledge of other cultures and their nascent perceptual
flexibility does not allow them to easily adapt their behavior to different cultural contexts. In
organizations, the rhetoric and support structure for “diversity and inclusion” exists at this point of
development, but the incorporation of intercultural sensitivity as a criterion for global or multicultural
leadership is not yet established.
The challenge (issue) of Acceptance is the need to reconcile cultural relativity with ethicality.
People at this stage want to be respectful of other cultures, and for that reason they may adopt the naïve
and paralytic position of “it’s not bad or good, it’s just different.” However, all behavior demands that
judgments be made (including doing nothing), and the demand is to find a basis of judgment that is not
ethnocentric in either Defense (superiority) or Minimization (universalist) terms. One such system that
can be applied in both personal and organizational contexts is William Perry’s Ethical Scheme (1999).
After resolving the ethnocentric ethical positions of dualism and multiplicity, the Scheme demands that
decision-makers engage contextual relativism – an understanding of “goodness in context” – before they
make an ethical commitment.
Resolving the issue of ethicality allows the move to adaptation to cultural difference. The perceptual
mechanism is that of “perspective taking” or empathy. This is a kind of context-shifting, assumedly
enabled by a neurological executive function, that allows one to experience the world “as if” one were
participating in a different culture. This imaginative participation generates “feelings of
appropriateness” that guide the generation of authentic behavior in the alternative culture. The ultimate
example of this shift in cultural terms is biculturalism, a mirror of bilingualism. In either case, the
outcome of the context shift is the competent enactment of alternative behavior that is appropriate to the
different context. Organizations at this point of development have policies and procedures that are
intentionally flexible enough to work without undue cultural imposition in a range of cultural contexts.
The issue of Adaptation is authenticity. If people can shift among several cultural contexts, in
which contexts do their true identities reside? The resolution of this dilemma lies in the extension of the
definition of identity into a more dynamic container – one that can contain a wider repertoire of ways of
being in the world. At an organizational level, Adaptation is the essence of “inclusion” of both global
and domestic diversity into organizational processes.
The resolution of authentic identity allows for the sustainable integration of cultural difference into
communication. In this integrated condition, communication can shift from in-context to between-
context states, allowing for the meta-coordination of meaning and action that defines intercultural
communication. On a personal level, Integration is experienced as a kind of developmental liminality,
where one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural
worldviews. Cultural liminality can be used to construct cultural bridges and to conduct sophisticated
cross-cultural mediation. Organizations at Integration encourage the construction of third-culture
positions based on mutual adaptation in multicultural work groups, with the anticipation that third-
culture solutions generate added value.
Qualitative Measurements of DMIS
As constructivist grounded theory, the DMIS for the most part uses qualitative rather than quantitative
criteria for assessing its credibility. Unlike the concept of validity in positivist quantitative methodology
– the measurement of something “real” – grounded theory depends on theoretical coherence for its
credibility. The strength of grounded theory is assessed by its ability to explain observed events within a
coherent framework that allows for useful diagnosis. In other words, the validity question is not “is it
true,” but rather “does it fit with empirical observation and is it useful?” Additionally, the
trustworthiness of grounded theory is assessed by its applicability to a reasonably wide range of
contexts, as opposed to a statistical measure of test reliability. By these criteria, DMIS is robust; the
model has not typically been criticized for lack of coherence or usefulness.
Assuming that the credibility and trustworthiness of DMIS is accepted, then the most
straightforward measurement of intercultural sensitivity is to elicit and interpret descriptions of the
experience of cultural difference through verbal interviews or open-ended textual questionnaires. This
qualitative approach has been employed since the early days of the DMIS, and researchers have
developed many forms of questionnaires and interview schedules using the basic formulation of DMIS
stages adapted to various contexts. Following are some examples of DMIS questions, responses, and
typical interpretations in a range of personal and organizational contexts.
A question that could elicit personal Denial in the healthcare context might be “How relevant
have you found cultural difference to be in the delivery of good healthcare at this clinic?” Responses
such as “kidneys don’t care what culture they’re in” indicate that the respondent is not experiencing
culture as a very important factor in healthcare. The more that elicited comments stress the relevance or
importance of culture to good healthcare, the more resolution of the Denial issue of stability/change they
indicate, meaning that the respondent is to some extent experiencing cultural differences together with
physiological differences in diagnosis and treatment. Shifting emphasis to the organizational level of
Denial would change the question to something like “What mechanisms such as multiple language
forms or on-call cultural specialists are established at the clinic?” The identification of such processes
(either through interviewing or other means such as document research) indicates that the organization is
acting on the reality of changing social conditions.
A question checking organizational Minimization in a corporate context could be “In
considering workplace relations, does company policy stress more the shared corporate culture or more
the differences represented by different cultural groups of workers? How?” Personally, Minimization
can be probed by a question such as “In your relationships with people of other cultures, how important
is cultural difference as opposed to human similarity?” Low resolution of Minimization is indicated by a
strong emphasis on the corporate culture or on personal similarity (minimizing the importance of
cultural differences). Conversely, describing a balance or reconciliation of unity and diversity would
indicate high resolution. The more the issue is resolved, the more respondents are able to simultaneously
experience both cultural similarity and cultural difference in cross-cultural situations.
On the Ethnorelative side, a question probing personal Adaptation could be “What is an example
of how you changed your behavior in a different cultural context to communicate more effectively?
How did you know what to do differently?” The failure to provide a substantial example indicates that
Adaptation is not yet relevant to the respondent. The more substantial the behavior change, particularly
if accompanied by a indication of empathy as the basis of the change, the more resolved the issue of
authenticity/context-shifting, meaning that respondents are experiencing themselves as having authentic
identity in more than one cultural context.
At the organizational level, questions that could show Integration in a social service agency
might be, “How consistently does the agency use cultural context as a factor in its decision-making,” or
“How often is intercultural competence used as a criterion for hiring or advancement?” The issue of
Integration is sustainability, and greater consistency of organization structures incorporating
intercultural sensitivity indicate more resolution of that issue, allowing intercultural communication
competence to become “the way we do things around here.”
Quantitative Measurements of DMIS
Although they represent a paradigm shift from the constructivist roots of grounded theory,
various quantitative measures of DMIS have been attempted, predominant among them the Intercultural
Development Inventory (IDI)™. In all cases, researchers have attempted to use Likert-type scaling to
rate statements that assumedly reflect DMIS stages. In the case of IDI, the statements were drawn from
interviews that basically followed the qualitative methodology described above. Raters were able to
classify statements into DMIS categories with a high degree of reliability. Exploratory and confirmatory
factor analyses were used to select 50 items representing five and subsequently seven scales. The initial
instrument research supported the basic structure of the DMIS and the sequencing of the stages
(Hammer, M. Bennett, Wiseman, 2003). Subsequent data analysis supported the discrete stages of
Denial, Defense (with reversal as a separate scale), Minimization, Acceptance, and Adaptation. The final
stage of Integration was not measured in the IDI research.
By assuming that the scale structure and Likert-type rating was yielding interval data, and further
assuming that “intercultural sensitivity” was a latent variable, the IDI employed parametric statistics to
generate a normative distribution, which in turn allowed combined scale scores to be compared in a
similar fashion to measurements of IQ. Additionally, the parametric assumption allowed statistical
significance to be attributed to changes in aggregate scores through t-testing, which meant that the IDI
could be used for pre/post quantitative program evaluation.
Criticisms of the DMIS and its measurements
The main criticism of the DMIS has been that its assumed linearity of movement represents a “Western”
and/or “male” bias, and that intercultural sensitivity might be better described in more nonlinear ways.
This is a sub-category of criticisms of developmental models in general, which all treat change as
accretionary. Alternative explanations may assume that change is cyclical or rapidly transformational.
A deeper criticism of DMIS that is less often stated but nevertheless implied by alternative explanations
of intercultural competence is that human behavior should be understood in the positivist terms of
objective science rather than in the more probabilistic terms of observer-dependent constructivism. It is
certainly the case that most explanations of intercultural competence attribute causality to underlying
traits or characteristics, while the DMIS instead assumes that intercultural competence is simply the
enactment of intercultural sensitivity – a learned perceptual adaptation.
DMIS qualitative measurements are criticized as being cumbersome and subjective – a valid
criticism of all qualitative measures. Like most constructivist theory, DMIS builds upon thick
description of human behavior rather than the leaner snapshots afforded by quantitative measures. But
the snapshot approaches (including IDI™) are criticized for simplifying the complex phenomenon of
intercultural communication. The IDI is also criticized for inferring the existence of a normally
distributed “quality” that is being measured by the test, when the basis for the IDI’s validity – the DMIS
– does not make such an assumption.
Research and theoretical development regarding intercultural sensitivity in general and the DMIS
in particular is continuing. Insofar as that research grows from the original constructivist and
developmental roots, it will avoid taxonomic classification and focus instead on developmental
diagnosis and intervention. Such research will also eschew correlations with personality characteristics
and focus instead on perceptual adaptation.
SEE ALSO: Constructivist Approach to Intercultural Communication; Cross-Cultural Communication
Theory and Research, Overview; Cross-Cultural Competence; Cultural Communication, Overview;
Culture-Specific and Culture-General Training; Dialectics of Culture and Communication; Intercultural
Competence Development; Intercultural Empathy; Intercultural Ethics
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Brief Author Biography
Milton J. Bennett is director of Intercultural Development Research Institute located in Oregon, USA
and Milan, Italy and an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Milano Bicocca. He was
previously an associate professor of communication at Portland State University, co-founder of the
Intercultural Communication Institute located in Portland, Oregon, and a founding fellow of the
International Academy of Intercultural Research. He has designed and conducted intercultural training
for over 150 schools, colleges, and universities, about 70 major corporations, and 50 agencies and
NGOs. His recently revised textbook is Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Paradigms,
Principles, & Practices.
Keywords: intercultural communication, constructivism, ethnorelativism, intercultural
training, intercultural education, intercultural research