Voluntourism: A Journey Toward Intercultural Sensitivity?

IDR LogoOn 24 March 2015, the Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing posted an article online entitled “Volunteer Tourism and Intercultural Sensitivity: The Role of Interaction with Host Communities.” Co-authors Ksenia Kirillova, Xinran Lehto, and Liping Cai introduce us to the work of Dr. Milton J. Bennett at the Intercultural Development Research Institute and the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).

Rather than dive into the results of the work of Kirillova, Lehto, and Cai, let’s take a closer look at the DMIS in order to better understand how such a model could guide the voluntourism sector toward crafting experiences that lead individuals along the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism – the six-step journey outlined by Milton Bennett.

The DMIS At A Glance

The DMIS consists of six steps, three of which are associated with Ethnocentrism, and three of which are associated with Ethnorelativism. The first three steps are: 1) Denial of Difference, 2) Defense Reversal, 3) Minimization; the final three steps are: 4) Acceptance, 5) Adaptation, and 6) Integration. From “Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory” comes a brief explanation of the DMIS [p.423]:

“The underlying assumption of the model is that as one’s experience of cultural difference becomes more complex and sophisticated, one’s potential competence in intercultural relations increases… The crux of the development of intercultural sensitivity is attaining the ability to construe (and thus to experience) cultural difference in more complex ways… The DMIS assumes that construing cultural difference can become an active part of one’s worldview, eventuating in an expanded understanding of one’s own and other cultures and an increased competence in intercultural relations….

Each change in worldview structure generates new and more sophisticated issues to be resolvedin intercultural encounters. The resolution of the relevant issues activates the emergence of the next orientation. Since issues may not be totally resolved, movement may be incomplete and one’s experience of difference diffused across more than one worldview. However, movement through the orientations is posited to be unidirectional, with only occasional ‘‘retreats.’’ In other words, people do not generally regress from more complex to less complex experiences of cultural difference.”

[Source: Hammer, Mitchell R., Bennett, Milton J., and Wiseman, Richard (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, p.421-443.]


The Six-Steps of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

Ethnocentrism: Steps 1-3

Step 1: Denial of Difference

Denial of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only real one. Other cultures are either not discriminated at all, or they are construed in rather vague ways.” [p.424]

Step 2: Defense

Defense against cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only viable one. People at Defense have become adept at discriminating difference, so they experience cultural differences as more ‘‘real’’ than do people at Denial.”

“A variation on Defense is Reversal, where an adopted culture is experienced as superior to the culture of one’s primary socialization (‘‘going native,’’ or ‘‘passing’’). Reversal is like Defense in that it maintains a polarized, ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ worldview. It is unlike Defense in that it does not maintain the other culture as a threat.” [p.424]

Step 3: Minimization

Minimization of cultural difference is the state in which elements of one’s own cultural worldview are experienced as universal. The threat associated with cultural differences experienced in Defense is neutralized by subsuming the differences into familiar categories…People at Minimization expect similarities, and they may become insistent about correcting others’ behavior to match their expectations. Particularly for people of dominant cultures, Minimization tends to mask recognition of their own culture (ethnicity) and the institutional privilege it affords its members.” [p.424]

Ethnorelativism: Steps 4-6

Step 4: Acceptance

Acceptance of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. By discriminating differences among cultures (including one’s own), and by constructing a metalevel consciousness, people with this worldview are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human… Acceptance does not mean agreement—some cultural difference may be judged negatively—but the judgment is not ethnocentric in the sense of withholding equal humanity.” [p.425]

Step 5: Adaptation

Adaptation to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture. One’s worldview is expanded to include relevant constructs from other cultural worldviews. People at Adaptation can engage in empathy—the ability to take perspective or shift frame of reference vis-a-vis other cultures.” [p.425]

Step 6: Integration

Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. Here, people are dealing with issues related to their own ‘‘cultural marginality’’; they construe their identities at the margins of two or more cultures and central to none.” [p.425]

Final Thoughts…

Looking over these six steps, one cannot help but see some of the themes regarding the negative impacts of voluntourism. The issues described in blogs, tweets, and other social media, as well as articles by journalists and undercover reporters, nevertheless, seem to fall into the “Ethnocentrism” category. Reversal, an alternative to Defense, and Minimization appear regularly in the media and via social media.

Hammer, et al, conclude the section on the description of the DMIS with these words:

“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.” [p.426]

What might make for an interesting exploration is to uncover whether voluntourism potentially serves as a bridge across the Ethnocentrism-Ethnorelativism divide. Many of the complaints logged against voluntourism appear to be generated from the position of “avoiding cultural difference.” What would voluntourism look like if it was developed from a place of “seeking cultural difference”? If the development of Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration were aligned with these experiences, incorporated into the fabric of the pre-trip, during-trip, and post-trip elements thereof? What might we see from participants, from host communities, from all stakeholders if each stakeholder group held intercultural sensitivity with the same regard as the sustainability of the projects? Could we see a greater relevance for voluntourism in our 21st Century World?