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.

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast!

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” — a quote that grabbed me during a recent keynote address by BNI (Business Network International) founder and Chairman Dr. Ivan Misner. He was introducing his new book, Business Networking and Sex (Not What YouThink!).

Those (in the audience of more than 1000 Kansas Citians) with more exposure to culture-related topics probably guessed that the book focuses on networking techniques of the different genders and how to be successful networking with the opposite sex. But to hear so boldly from this networking icon how powerful culture truly is in relationship building and the networking process resonated strongly with this Cultural Detective!

When I heard this statement from Dr. Misner, I wished I could have jumped up on stage and displayed the Cultural Detective Women and Men Values Lenses. It would add to the value of his research by providing clear underpinnings as to what motivates the networking behaviors of men and women, and it would help explain the “whys” behind the stories illustrating their differences which seem to be highlighted throughout the book.

Dr. Misner’s book takes a three-pronged look at business networking across the sexes by offering a surveyed objective look at how men and women think about, approach, and in what ways they are successful at business networking. He then counters that with a “he said” (Frank) and “she said” (Hazel) analysis and interpretation of the survey results.

Over a four-year period they surveyed more than 12,000 businesspeople globally (covering every continent) on 25 questions about business networking. The results and interpreted analysis could bring about some interesting and revolutionary changes to the way in which each sex approaches networking with the other. Communication gaps could be narrowed and connections broadened through Hazel and Frank’s guidance and revealing a bit of the opposite sexes “Lens.”

My only wish was that Dr. Misner would have take the results of the survey to a deeper level by breaking it down to country-specific data. But then again, that’s where Cultural Detective national Values Lenses could shed some light!

NOTE: While the book reviewed in this post references two genders, and we offer an excellent package with this same approach, Cultural Detective Women and Men, there are other ways to look at gender than just a polar division of male/female. Cultural Detective LGBT examines some of these complexities of gender and sexual orientation.

Book Review: How Maps Change Things

by Ward L. Kaiser, published by the New Internationalist and ODT Maps, 2012.
Free download through March 31 for Cultural Detectives

Anyone looking to develop a new class or training program to improve intercultural competence? This just-released book, How Maps Change Things: A conversation about the maps we choose and the world we want, could be the basis of one terrific learning journey! I highlighted something on nearly every one of its 188 pages. I learned so much, on so many different yet related topics, that I now have five or six threads of learning and discovery I want to pursue!

At first glance you might think this is a book about maps. Then you read on page six that it is about

“… how we shape and use maps and how they in turn shape us. It’s about how we see the world and how we therefore understand our place in it.”

So you start to hope that How Maps Change Things could teach us to be careful whether we label a certain body of water the “Arabian Gulf” or the “Persian Gulf,” or color-code parts of Kashmir as Indian or Pakistani, but it goes way beyond that.

“Because such maps encourage the feeling that some areas are home to movers and shakers while others shelter mere pawns.” — page 74

Mr. Kaiser, the author, is a big fan of equal-area projection maps such as the Peters, as most in the global diversity and inclusion field are, and points out how maps such as the Mercator aren’t good for much other than navigation. But in addition to showing us how maps can be used to perpetuate bias, he shows us how maps can also be used to promote perspective shifting, equity, and social justice:

“Through internalizing many ways to see the world we may even develop openness to other people’s points of view and greater self-awareness.”
— page 164

“What if people all over the world threatened by, well, you name it – logging, commercial development, polluting factories, hydrofracking chemicals in drinking water, say – what if they could all see maps as tools of analysis and action? …

How about a map to make clear where the hazardous electronic wastes of the developed world get dumped …

Bring together maps, available technology, human creativity, and people’s willingness to take a stand and you’ve got a powerful recipe for changing events.” — page 176

For these reasons and others this volume will be useful to interculturalists and those interested in diversity, sustainability, and social action.

The author premises that maps are tools that serve a purpose.

“Maps are verbs. They may seem to be tactile objects, documents we can handle or fold – nouns – but don’t be fooled. In persuasively framing questions and selectively supplying answers they act; they initiate; they function as agents.” — page 15

To illustrate this point he shares some terrific stories: one about the role of maps in a territorial dispute between First Nations people and the Canadian government (pages 35-39); another about how a map can skew our view of a country as a source of oil or as a residence of people and families (pages 8-17); and a third showing how a map was used to get one county to pay for a highway interchange that served another county (pages 34-35). There is a chapter about the connection between maps and faith/values (chapter 10 page 141), and how maps are used for disease control and health (page 170), as well as for crime prevention (page 173), a topic of special interest lately with concerns of profiling and ethnic bias.

The book is written in a lively, accessible style, though it gets heavier and slower toward the end; ironically, the final chapters are where Mr. Kaiser’s true passion seems to lie. It contains several embedded learning exercises (e.g., page 121) and interesting conversations such as how indigenous North Americans mapped (page 40). Via this latter conversation, he shows that the “culture” of map-makers is not universal. This, to me, is a hugely important point. Too many people believe their area of professional practice is culture-neutral or universal when, in fact, even science is culturally relative (as well as discipline-relative!).

One of the pleasures of reading How Maps Change Things is that it contains quite a few valuable “hidden” gems. One of my favorites: as the author discusses the huge socio-economic gap in our world, variously referred to by such inadequate (or judgment-laden) terms as North-South, 1st/3rd world, Developed/Developing nations, and Viable/Failed states, he provides in the footnotes a list of experts from diverse political persuasions and walks of life who share a consensus on the absolute need to bridge this gap (pages 138-139).

Through March 31 our friends at ODT Maps, the publisher, are offering this ebook FREE to our Cultural Detective community. I urge you to take advantage of this offer and help the author get this book put to good use!

Maps are tools, and can be purposed to perpetuate bias or to help us to create a better world. Cultural Detective has long been passionate about maps as learning tools. Way back in December of 2005 we dedicated an entire edition of our Cultural Detective e-news to maps (including 3 articles of activities and curricular ideas and a quiz), relying in large part on the expertise and generosity of our friends at ODT Maps.

It included: Using Physical Maps to Transform Mental Maps8 Map Activities for Intercultural Learning; a World Map Detective quizTraining with Map Power; and a free offer (a Mecca-centered Azimuthal map, a Peters Projection map, and a Population Map) from our friends at ODT Maps.

Bob Abramms at ODT has a wealth of books, DVDs, globes, puzzles, games, props, and  world maps for different purposes — terrific training material for intercultural and global diversity and inclusion professionals. If you’re not familiar with his great stuff, be sure to check it out.

Book Review: Transformational Diversity

Transformational Diversity: Why and how intercultural competencies can help organizations to survive and thrive, by Fiona Citkin and Lynda Spielman, SHRM, 2011. ISBN 978-1-586-44230-9

This book had me at the title. We all work with people different from us in gender, age, function, ethnicity, nationality, intellectual orientation or religious tradition, and many of us have also been involved in mergers and acquisitions that join two or more organizational cultures. We have a wealth of diverse human talent to draw upon to penetrate new markets and creatively solve problems, but how do we do so?

Books like this one, a compendium of the latest thinking along with sample designs and resources, are gifts. Such compendia guide the responsible practitioner through the maze of information available on the topic, sifting through to highlight for the reader what is most accurate or valuable, and ideally teach us where to turn for further learning. They help us take stock of where we are as a field, where we should be going, and the latest best practice for how to get there. This book does that in a no-nonsense, practical, and brief (131 pages before appendices and bibliography) manner.

The “new imperatives” that the authors cite are real and pressing. They include the need to:
  • Compete worldwide for the best talent,
  • Develop global workforce initiatives,
  • Coordinate all domestic efforts with an increasingly multicultural workforce,
  • Have diversity contribute more visibly to performance and the bottom line, and
  • Organize inclusion-oriented systematic education for all populations (p. 6).

Transformational Diversity aims to take diversity programming “beyond race and gender” (p. 1) to “more effectively enhance productivity and performance” (p. 3).  The authors tell us, “Transformational Diversity is a call for change in current diversity and inclusion programs, which in our experience seems [sic] to be struggling from fatigue and from challenges to produce measurable results,” (p. 5).

What does the book have going for it?

What most stood out for me is that they give voice, or, rather, print, to many of the things leading global D&I practitioners have been saying over the past decade. And this is valuable. Just a few examples include:
  1. The fact that organizations hire “diversity” and then proceed to erase it by teaching new hires to fit in (p. 10).
  2. The fact that so much diversity programming is U.S.-centric (p. 13), that U.S. diversity models have “historically been grounded in… government requirements and moral ground to redress past injustices and discrimination patterns” (p. 9), and that these rarely translate well overseas.
  3. That affinity groups have gravitated towards social and celebratory roles, when their real value is in education: “to make known any differences represented by the individuals within the groups so that the differences can be respected, and thus, accepted” (p. 76).
  4. The fact that understanding the dimensions of culture is not enough. “We do not have to choose between individual and group performance but instead make sure that the relationship between them becomes meaningful in the workplace” (p. 91).

The authors share numerous helpful examples and stories. They cite several research studies and reference statistics, another plus. Their approach is always practical, such as their three steps for rolling out Transformational Diversity (pp. 38-42) or their guidance for “Exporting U.S. Diversity Programs” (pp. 68-70). Many readers will find incredible value in the six programming templates (the authors call them “Archetypes”) the authors provide (Chapter 5).

Thus, there is incredible value in this book, and I highly recommend it for all of the above reasons. The authors do a commendable job communicating basic intercultural concepts to the diversity practitioner, with advice such as helping U.S. Americans to learn to see our biases (pp. 112-114).

What would I have liked to see in this book? Adding any of the below would have added volume and complexity, and one of the most terrific things about the book is its brevity and no-nonsense approach. But, with that qualifier, I felt many of the sample solutions were still heavily knowledge-focused rather than competence-building. This would seem to me a sign of the difficulty of breaking through to new paradigms from the old. The designs in the book are excellent, and with a bit more explanation they may center on skill development, but that fact did not show through as much as I would have liked.

Secondly, as an organizational development practitioner, I was very happy to read the authors’ cautions to embed change in the organization itself (p. 73). The importance of building organizational structures and systems to support Transformational Diversity seemed to me under-emphasized, however. The six Archetypes that the authors present, though they include one on coaching, seem to focus primarily on training. What about incorporating these new commitments and capacities into our hiring, promotion, and review processes, as well as into project management and other on-the-job activities? That is my bias, of course, and no book can do it all. This one is definitely worth the read.