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The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity

Summary by Milton J. Bennett, Ph.D. (Revised 2014)

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) was created by Dr. Milton Bennett (1986, 1993, 2004, 2013) as a framework to explain how people experience and engage cultural difference. The DMIS is grounded theory; it is based on observations he made in both academic and corporate settings about how people become more competent intercultural communicators. Using concepts from constructivist psychology and communication theory, he organized these observations into positions along a continuum of increasing sensitivity to cultural difference.

The underlying assumption of the model is that as one's perceptual organization of cultural difference becomes more complex, one's experience of culture becomes more sophisticated and the potential for exercising competence in intercultural relations increases. By recognizing how cultural difference is being experienced, predictions about the effectiveness of intercultural communication can be made and educational interventions can be tailored to facilitate development along the continuum.

The DMIS continuum extends from ethnocentrisim, the experience of one's own culture as "central to reality," to ethnorelativism, the experience of one's own and other cultures as "relative to context." Developmental movement is one-way, permanent, and applicable to anything defined as cultural difference, although there may be "retreats" from some positions. More or less familiarity with particular cultures does not change one's level of sensitivity, although it affects the breadth of competence one can enact.

Positions along the continuum define the general ways in which perception of cultural difference is being organized into experience. The particular configuration of perceptual strategies used by each individual and group is their predominant experience of difference: one position is predominant, although perceptual strategies may span several positions. In other words, each individual or group has a uniquely complex experience of cultural difference that is nevertheless characterized by one of the following developmental positions.

Denial of cultural difference indicates an experience in which cultural difference is not perceived at all, or it is perceived only in very broad categories such as "foreigner" or "minority." The constructs available for perceiving one's own culture are far more complex than those available for other cultures. Individuals experience psychological and/or physical isolation from cultural difference.
People are disinterested or perhaps even hostilely dismissive of intercultural communication.

Defense against cultural difference indicates an experience in which cultural difference is perceived in stereotyped and polarized ways. Cultures are organized into "us and them," where typically the "us" is superior and the "them" is inferior. People at Defense are threatened by cultural difference, so they tend to be highly critical of other cultures and apt to blame cultural difference for general ills of society. In Reversal, one's own culture is heavily criticized, while other cultures are perceived in relatively non-critical, romanticized ways. The intercultural worldview is still polarized, but the poles are reversed.

Minimization of cultural difference indicates an experience in which elements of one's own cultural worldview are perceived as universal. People assume that their own physical or psychological experiences are shared by people in all cultures, and/or that certain basic values and beliefs transcend cultural boundaries. The stressing of cross-cultural similarity reduces Defense, so people here are much more tolerant of superficial cultural diversity. However, Minimization obscures deep cultural differences, including the masking of dominant culture privilege by a false assumption of equal opportunity.

Acceptance of cultural difference indicates an experience in which one's own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. Acceptance does not mean agreement - cultural difference may be judged negatively - but the judgment is not ethnocentric. People at Acceptance are curious about and respectful toward cultural difference, but their knowledge of other cultures does not yet allow them to easily adapt their behavior to different cultural contexts.

Adaptation to cultural difference indicates the experience of generating appropriate alternative behavior in a different cultural context. Adaptation involves intercultural empathy, or experiencing the world to some extent "as if" one were participating in the different culture. This imaginative participation generates "feelings of appropriateness" that guide the generation of authentic behavior in the alternative culture. People at adaptation can enact their intercultural sensitivity as intercultural communication competence.

Integration of cultural difference indicates an experience of self that is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. People with a predominant Integration position often are dealing with issues related to their own "cultural liminality," or in-betweeness. This liminality can be used to construct cultural bridges and to conduct sophisticated cross-cultural mediation.



  • Bennett, M. (1986). A developmental approach to training for intercultural sensitivity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10, no.2: 179-95.
  • Bennett, M. (1993). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the intercultural experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
  • Bennett, M. (2004). Becoming interculturally competent. In J. Wurzel (Ed.), Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource
  • Bennett, M. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, & practices. Boston: Intercultural Press.

A complete bibliography on DMIS and its applications can be downloaded from

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