Book Review: Intercultural Communication, Globalization and Social Justice


by Kathryn Sorrells, Sage Publications, ©2013 ISBN 978-1-4129-2744-4

Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice provides fresh voice and much-needed current perspective on intercultural communication competence. Written as an undergraduate and graduate level text, as a 30+ year professional I also read it enthusiastically. From Sorrells’ debunking of racial color blindness (p. 62), to the commodification of culture (p. 190), to her closing call for global citizenship (p. 227), her keen intellect and passionate commitment to social justice is evident and unwavering throughout.

From the beginning the author makes clear the need to put intercultural communication in context and with a clear purpose:

“Regrettably, some of the most egregious injustices—exploitation of workers in homes, fields, and factories and violence perpetrated through racial profiling and ethnic cleansing—are performed within intercultural contexts and are enabled by intercultural communication.” (p. xiv)

…”the globalized context in which we live today makes ethnocentrism and ethnocentric approaches extremely problematic. The assumption that one’s own group is superior to others leads to negative evaluations of others and can result in dehumanization, legitimization of prejudices, discrimination, conflict and violence.” (p. 13)

“This text … provides a framework to create a more equitable and socially just world through communication.” (p. xiv)

By page 38, I knew I was in good hands, as Sorrells wove Amy Chua and her World on Fire into the intercultural mix, providing it as counterpoint to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.

The author appears to have challenged herself to address each topic, even the most familiar, through at least four lenses:
  • in what ways is the topic complex and contradictory,
  • how does the topic appear from micro, mess and macro views,
  • what are the local and global connections, and
  • how do the complexities and contradictions play out in our world today, particularly in terms of equity and justice?

Sorrells is an excellent teacher, providing rich yet succinct examples—unraveling the various interwoven threads of her stories to enable the reader to more clearly see each thread—while keeping the overall tapestry in mind. Her writing should energize and guide cadres of undergraduates, as well as professionals, to use intercultural communication theory and practice to bring more equity and justice to our world.

Sorrells covers the content you’d typically expect in a basic text on intercultural communication: nonverbal communication, context, dialogue, relationships, communication style, identity theory, use of space. What makes this book different is that she uses important current issues and topics to provide a fresh perspective and powerful, meaningful insight. She examines intercultural communication informed by topics such as power, hegemony, growing socio-economic inequities, the culture of capitalism, race, color-blindness, immigration, glocalization, hip-hop culture, appropriation, hybrid cultures, and online communication. She pulls from a variety of disciplines including feminist theory to address her topic. In the process, she introduced to this practitioner new ideas such as fragmegration (p. 131), culture jamming (p. 144) and polysemic space (p. 91).

The book begins by looking at why the intercultural field has not been able to settle on one definition of culture, tracing definitions of culture from anthropology, cultural studies, and globalization. The author next guides us through a much-needed review of the history of intercultural communication, doing so crisply and meaningfully. Revisiting the origins of the field may help us return to our collaborative purposes and away from the overly analytical comparative studies trends of today.

Each chapter concludes with discussion activities and questions, which for a trainer or coach will be invaluable. And they’ll make lesson planning for the classroom easy.

To enable students to navigate the complex intercultural spaces they inhabit, the author introduces a process of critical, reflective thinking and acting. She calls this “intercultural praxis.” Via six interrelated points of entry (inquiry, framing, positioning, dialogue, reflection, and action), “intercultural praxis uses our multifaceted identity positions and shifting access to privilege and power to develop our consciousness, imagine alternatives, and build alliances in our struggles for social responsibility and social justice.” (p. xvi)

Obviously the text is not intended for a basic-level reader of English! And, while this praxis model is definitely conceptually sound, it is far from easy to put into practice.

What were some of the points in this book that stood out for me? The concept of “positioning” is important:

… “how our geographic positioning is related to social and political positions. As you read these sentences, where are you positioned socioculturally? The globe we inhabit is stratified by socially constructed hierarchical categories based on culture, race, class, gender, nationality, religion, age, and physical abilities, among others. Like the lines of longitude and latitude that divide, map and position us geographically on the earth, these hierarchical categories position us socially, politically and materially in relation to each other and in relation to power.” (p. 18)

Sorrells explains that positioning “directs us to interrogate who can speak and who is silenced; whose language is spoken and whose language trivialized or denied; whose actions have the power to shape and impact others and whose actions are dismissed, unreported and marginalized.”

The author’s reference to modern-day anthropologists Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo was also valuable. Their premise is that culture, in the context of globalization, has been “deterritorialized.” What this means is that “cultural subjects (people) and cultural objects (film, food, traditions, and ideas) are uprooted from their ‘situatedness’ in a particular physical, geographic location and reterritorialized, or relocated in new, multiple and varied geographic spaces,” (p. 43).

Hence, we find Hindi films and Amitabh Bachchan posters worldwide, with wildly different meanings attached. “Similarly, a person’s or group’s sense of identity, who migrates from Iran to Israel to the United States, for example, is reinscribed in new and different cultural contexts, altering, fusing, and sometimes transforming that identity.”

There were two very minor disappointments for me, amidst all the positives in this text. The first is that while this volume includes a great deal of content that other intercultural texts omit, Sorrells does not adequately address religion and its role in society today. The clash of religious and spiritual beliefs, the gaps between believers and non-believers, the judgments one to another, the fact that religion can provide access to power or motive for distrust, are important. Religion can divide or unite communities, nations, and continents. A chapter or at least a couple of pages devoted to the topic, as seen through Sorrells’ keen perspective, would be a valuable addition.

Second, while the book is overflowing with examples from all over the world, it is unnecessarily US-centered. Perhaps a US publisher wanted the book to sell to US universities, and thus preferred it be written that way. This could so easily have been a non-nation-centric book—with an even bigger market. It comes so very close that it seems a shame not to have gone the extra step.

Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice is a must-read for any intercultural professional or serious student of the field. And if you have the pleasure of teaching an intercultural communications class, this is a terrific new text.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Intercultural Communication, Globalization and Social Justice

  1. Dear Dianne,

    Thank you for bringing this kind of books to our attention as Cultural Detectives. I feel like screaming: there is no such thing as social justice, get with it and move on, people!!!
    Coming from a part of the world (Eastern Europe) where hundreds, thousands and milions of people have fought and suffered for this idea of social justice, just to find out that it’s an illusion….not sustainable in the face of globalised information cicles….not worth pursuing if wealth is something one can achieve within half a life time…I just can’t be silent anymore, especially not in my own beloved community of interculturalists.
    When will this culturally biased imperialistic movement called “more equality makes more social justice” ever wake up to reality instead of teaching generation after generation to continue agitating against a lost case?
    From my point of view social injustice has everything to do with poverty. From material poverty over to the poverty of the mind and soul, it is a matter of missing education and know-how that allows all those millions of human beings around the world to be exploited and taken advantage of.
    Whatever the publisher might have thought when taking this material on, it’s only an example of U.S. cultural bias to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dianne!

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  2. Oh, Rita dear, thank you for sharing this, from the depths of your soul. I trust that there is so very much truth in what you say, in what you know, and I for one would love to hear more. Please, write a bit more explanation? You are saying social justice has everything to do with poverty but not with equality? And, yes, definitely to do with education and empowerment. And that giving people hope or optimism, or urging them to act, is counterproductive? How would you like to see interculturalists best proceed around these issues?

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  3. For one, I would love to see interculturalists working with refugees, immigrants and very importantly with the children of these people. They need our help and insight the most of all, as the adults usually have no means to articulate, what they are going through; lack of orientation in the new cultural and political system being the largest problem I can see.

    Secondly, before urging anybody to act (in any self chosen way), wouldn’t it be smarter to secure the educational systems to be much better equiped and accessible to everybody around the world? Especially in the Western World? This is what upsets me so much: all this talk about equality seems to stop as soon as it comes to higher education. Only those who can finance it, will get it. How is that respecting the value of equal chances?

    And thirdly, yes, giving people hope and optimism is allways good and important, but it’s counterproductive to mix it with the messages of a political system of a foreign country, i.e. teachings about social justice in an environment made up of economically underdeveloped infrastructure is similar to a slap in the face of all previous generations, don’t you think?

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    • Oh, Rita, thank you for amplifying your perspective. I “get” the context from which you’re speaking much better now. And, yes, opportunity to education and particularly higher education would seem to be key. And this matter of not disrespecting, or of slapping in the face, previous generations. Huge. It reminds me of Tereza’s recent blog post here about the ghosts of our ancestors and the sacredness of place. All too easy or common to forget our interconnectedness. Thank you for taking the time to help me understand your view a bit more!

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