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.