If you’ve ever taken the Intercultural Development Inventory, a psychometric assessment administered at multiple secular and Christian organizations, you may have sensed that there’s more to it than your ability to get along with people of other cultures. In a group discussion, a friend at a Christian college stated he was concerned that it undermined Christian theological principles. The IDI administrator from another Christian college, who was taking the mic around the room, responded, “that’s what I would expect a white male to say” and moved on to someone else with a raised hand.

Who would dare critique it after that?

But after researching the theory behind the IDI, I’m convinced that it does indeed undermine basic Christian principles. And yet it’s remarkably popular. Its website boasts it “is the premier cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence used by thousands of individuals and organizations to build intercultural competence to achieve international and domestic diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes.”[1] In the website’s “partial list of organizations” administering the IDI, two evangelical institutions are mentioned: Bethel University and North Park Theological Seminary.[2] An internet search reveals many more faith-based organizations, such as the Association for Theological Schools, which recommends it as part of “Preparing for 2040 Diversity Strategic Plans”[3] and a Christian consulting organization, whose primary role is administering the IDI and counseling afterwards.[4]

But the use of the IDI in Christian organizations is misguided.

The Challenge of Finding a Critique of the IDI

Perhaps Christian organizations are unwittingly applying the IDI because up to now it has not come under the scrutiny one would expect. In my research, the only article openly critiquing the IDI was from this year, questioning if it was an accurate assessment for people of color.[5] All other research articles were overwhelmingly positive. The IDI website is pleased to mention “60 published articles and chapters and over 66 Ph.D. dissertations.”[6] However, discounts may have the effect of incentivizing favorable reviews. Dissertation authors can apply for the lowest rate for the 13.5-hour online training for the IDI—$1,600, and in at least one instance from a publication in 2019, the Christian college researcher had a tuition waiver sponsored by IDI, LLC.[7]

The Theoretical Framework of the IDI

Another reason the IDI may be popular with Christian organizations is that on the surface, the theory behind it looks good. The theoretical framework represented in this 50-point multiple-choice exam is the Intercultural Development Continuum, which was tweaked based on IDI usage, from Milton J. Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).

The IDI continuum ranges from denial to polarization to minimization — these are considered monocultural orientations (or ethnocentric orientations in the DMIS) based on always using one’s own culture as a point of reference. After the transition category of minimization, the intercultural orientations (or ethnorelative orientations in the DMIS) occur: acceptance and adaptation, where one contextualizes their own culture within other cultures. Denial “misses difference,” polarization “judges difference,” and minimization “de-emphasizes difference” whereas acceptance “deeply comprehends difference” and adaptation “bridges across difference.”[8] A goal of intercultural development on the continuum is the seeking of difference without assuming that diverse people have much in common.

Monocultural Mindset ———————————————–> Intercultural Mindset

Ethnocentric (in DMIS) Ethnorelative (in DMIS)
Denial Polarization Minimization Acceptance Adaptation

The Constructivist Approach: Reality Is Not Knowable

What may not be obvious to someone encountering the IDI for the first time is that this understanding of culture is based in constructivism, which Bennett explains as an observer’s “organization of reality” based on their “interactions.”[9] Bennett states this in his book Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, the book that Mitchell R. Hammer, the current president of IDI, LLC, recommends in his Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide for more theoretical understanding.[10] There is truth to some aspects of constructivism — pink in the United States is currently considered a color associated with girls, but in 1700s France it could be associated with boys.

But Bennett’s conception is more expansive. It includes all beliefs and values, not just some. In an article he wrote on the constructivist paradigm, he noted that “‘facts’ are constructed for some purpose,” “a factual dispute is a result of reifying constructions,” “argument is about the goodness of one context over another,” and “subjectivity and objectivity are aspects of a constructed dialectic.”[11] In other words, we can’t confidently know reality. Certainly, we cannot comprehensively know reality, but Bennett’s claim is far more radical. In his book, he affirms multiple-reality theories: “reality is not a given, discoverable quantity. Rather, it is a variable, created quality.”[12]

Bennett’s assumption that all beliefs and values are thus “constructed” is also revealed in his explanation of the category of minimization. My informal survey of multiple studies showed that most college students and many others who would’ve self-identified as “acceptance and adaptation” prior to taking the exam were categorized by the assessment as minimization. “Minimization of cultural difference,” writes Bennett, “is the state in which elements of one’s own cultural worldview are experienced as universal.”[13]

And there’s the rub affecting Christian principles: Christians believe in universals.

Lest it be thought that I’m focusing on theory rather than what’s on the assessment, below are three examples of test items from the IDI that are alleged to indicate minimization.

  • “People are the same despite outward differences in appearance.”[14]
  • “Human behavior worldwide should be governed by natural and universal ideas of right and wrong.”[15]
  • “Because there are universal values, cross-cultural conflicts can be resolved.”[16]

From these three test items and my research into the theoretical framework and studies applying the IDI, I have substantial concerns with the assumptions behind the IDI that undermine two fundamental Christian beliefs: the imago dei and objective moral values.

The image of God is undermined.

Bennett, Mitchell R. Hammer — the president of IDI, LLC, and another researcher — Richard Wise, describe minimization as people applying physical universalism based on physical appearance and transcendental universalism based on assumptions regarding spirituality or ways of being in common.[17] Adopting an a priori hostility to all transcendental universalism is an undermining of the theology of the imago dei. The image of God, writes the evangelical theologian Millard J. Erickson in Christian Theology is “universal in humankind.” He sees the “communicable attributes of God” as “those qualities of God for which at least a partial counterpart can be found in his human creations.”[18] As Perry Glanzer wrote in a recent blog, one exemplar quality of the imago dei is the desire for justice.[19]

In a study of 15 people, examining religious differences among leaders, dissertation author Kelly Phipps noted that five of the participants “seemed to be deliberately embracing minimization.”[20] All five demonstrated conservative Christian beliefs. Phipps writes, quoting one participant, “As Herman said, the belief that people are fundamentally alike is not an ‘ill-formed or naïve belief,’ but rather a fundamental tenant [sic] of his faith as he understands it.”[21] A test taker such as Herman would respond affirmatively to “people are the same despite outward differences in appearance.”[22] Those test takers who affirm the imago dei from a doctrinally sound or intellectually coherent standpoint will nevertheless have test item outcomes deeming their intercultural development as minimization.

Objective moral values are undermined.

Ironically, for Hammer, Bennett, and Wiseman, it is not until people have moved from minimization to acceptance that they are no longer “withholding equal humanity.”[23] The ability to transcend minimization implies being able to understand how one’s own culture directs values, as well as how others’ values are affected by their cultures. They are sympathetic with the challenge of retaining one’s own values while still seeing values as relative across cultures.

Bennett provides an illustration of dealing with this “value relativity” in his story of talking to a student who was wondering if she was retreating into ethnocentrism by her support for the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.[24] When Bennett asked her what “good” that Iraqis could see in Saddam Hussein, she responded: “he is a monster and all Iraqis think so except some evil people who are profiting from his cruelty.”[25] For Bennett, the student demonstrated a lack of awareness of how her own culture had shaped her views and was also not aware of the multiple perspectives that Iraqis could have. She needed to recognize what was “good” in some contexts” could be “bad” in others. She was “denying equal humanity to Saddam Hussein and Iraqis who supported him by labeling them ‘monsters’ and ‘evil.’”[26]

I can laud Hammer and Bennett’s desire to see others as equally human and to understand how one’s culture’s worldview has affected their own values and how other cultures’ worldviews affect others’ values. I do want to demonstrate “intercultural empathy” by being able to “imagine the world as another experiencing it.”[27] But I remain concerned with and unconvinced by the assumption that all values are constructed.

For example, one assumption is that gender and sexual orientation are constructed, as acknowledged by IDI, LLC. This acknowledgement is demonstrated in the Sample Intercultural Development Plan form on the website for an individual with the categorization of minimization. It includes the recommendation of “gender studies classes” and ticking off “sexual orientation” as a way to understand one’s own “diversity dimensions.”[28]

Within the last year a friend at a secular non-profit took the IDI as part of an action plan responding to the public outrage of the widely disseminated video showing a white police officer’s knee pressed into the neck of a black man, George Floyd, as he gasped for mercy. But the consultant in his follow-up conversation did not focus only on activism regarding people of color but also recommended that my friend advocate for her LGBQT+ colleagues as one of her goals in intercultural development.

Christians believe that moral values, such as ones regarding sexuality and gender, are sourced in God, and while the application of those values may be shaped by culture’s worldview, those values are still objective — they are independent of what I think or believe. It does not seem unreasonable to expect that Christians who take the IDI would be labeled on the continuum for minimization regarding the items “human behavior worldwide should be governed by natural and universal ideas of right and wrong”[29] and “because there are universal values, cross-cultural conflicts can be resolved.”[30]

It is not that Bennett simply is not nuanced in his understanding of the application of objective values when he mentions “good” in some contexts and “bad” in others. I teach ethics based on the work of Oliver O’Donovan, who sees God’s moral law as an “outline” we participate in. Context does affect moral behavior, but, as I tell my students, our participation may look different while maintaining the same value — in one context welcoming one’s elderly parents into your own home may be the right decision but in another putting your elderly parents in a care home where you visit them could be the right decision. But both share the value of honoring one’s parents.

However, these would appear to be different values to Bennett, not the application of the same objective value. In the constructivist approach that underlies the IDI, Bennett actually insists that those who affirm the existence of objective values will remain ethnocentric and at the minimization stage.[31]

Could a Christian Dedicated to the Theoretical Framework Evangelize?

The short answer to that question is “no.” Evangelicals may chafe the most when taking the IDI. One of the surprises in my research was realizing that organizations dedicated to evangelism have administered it to their members. Examples include Inter-Varsity Canada[32] and even currently the Presbyterian Church in America Mission to North America.[33] According to Bennett, “it’s not ethnocentric to have a religious belief; however, it is ethnocentric to assume that people in other cultures either do share your belief or would if they could.”[34] That last portion or “would if they could” is antithetical to evangelism.

In Phipps’ study, the group of five who seemed to “embrace minimization” had the most “certitude”[35] about the authoritative truth of salvation. Phipps points out that despite this certitude, they all had the theme of “respectful dialogue,” which she recognized as another path to openness to differences, although that path is not reflected by the IDI. Regardless of this group’s desire for respectful dialogue, they may never progress beyond the “ethnocentric” category of minimization toward what Hammer has deemed an “intercultural mindset,” something Phipps herself mentions.

Conclusion: Doctrinal Soundness Looks Like Racism

The IDI website encourages use of the IDI as a pre-test and post-test,[36] implying that Christians who take it, commit time to working to improve their intercultural development, and then retake it to score only slightly higher and perhaps not past minimization will be frustrated or ashamed. If they are from the “dominant cultural group” of a society and are scored for minimization, their Intercultural Development Plan will inform them that they are “mask[ing] equal recognition of cultural differences” due to the influence of their dominant group.[37] Thus, if they are white and live in the U.S., they are, in effect, being told they are racist.

As with my friend at the beginning of this article, to protest the response given to your answers based on your Christian beliefs is fruitless. It would appear to reveal your racism rather than show a substantive rationale for your answers. The IDI falls into the trap of trying to control both the questions and the answers: to be uncertain of your racism is a fool-proof sign of just how racist you are.

Why are Christian institutions acquiescing to the flawed assumptions of an assessment such as the IDI?

They are so aware of what they’re not that they are forgetting what they are.

Footnotes

  1. “IDI General Information,” accessed May 26, 2021, https://idiinventory.com/generalinformation/
  2. “IDI General Information: Who Uses the IDI,” accessed May 26, 2021, https://idiinventory.com/generalinformation/who-uses-the-idi/
  3. “Intercultural Development Inventory,” accessed June 1, 2021, https://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/publications-presentations/documents/intercultural-development-inventory-161117.pdf
  4. “Christian Cultural Intelligence Group,” accessed June 1, 2021, https://www.developingculturalintelligence.com/
  5. Gemma Punti and Molly Dingel, “Rethinking Race, Ethnicity, and the Assessment of Intercultural Competence in Higher Education” Education Sciences, 11, no. 110 (2021), accessed June 1, 2021,https://www.mdpi.com/2227-7102/11/3/110/pdf
  6. “IDI Validation,” accessed May 31, 2021, https://idiinventory.com/idi-validation/
  7. Peter J. Jankowski, “A Construct Validation Argument for the Intercultural Development Inventory,” Measurement & Evaluation in Counseling & Development, 52, no. 2 (2019): 75–89. doi:10.1080/07481756.2018.1497428.
  8. “IDI General Information: The Intercultural Development Curriculum,” accessed May 31, 2021, https://idiinventory.com/generalinformation/the-intercultural-development-continuum-idc/
  9. Milton J. Bennett, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Paradigms, Principles, & Practices, 2nd ed. (Boston: Intercultural Press, an imprint of Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2013), 42.  
  10. Mitchell R. Hammer, Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide, 2012, rev. 2013, 45, accessed June 1, 2021, https://idiinventory.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Intercultural%20Development%20Inventory%20Resource%20Guide1.pdf
  11. Milton J. Bennett, “The Value of Cultural Diversity: Rhetoric and Reality–Reflections on the End of Relativism,” IDR Institute, July 8, 2016, accessed June 2, 2021, https://www.idrinstitute.org/resources/value-cultural-diversity-rhetoric-reality-2/
  12. Bennett, “Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy,” Basic Concepts, 222.
  13. Mitchell R. Hammer, Milton J. Bennett, and Richard Wiseman, “Measuring Intercultural Sensitivity: The intercultural Development Inventory,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, no. 4 (2003): 424-425.
  14. R. Michael Paige et al, “Assessing intercultural sensitivity: An empirical analysis of the Hammer and Bennett Intercultural Development Inventory,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, no. 4 (2003): 467-486.
  15. Junhua Wang, “Moving Towards Ethnorelativism: A Framework for Measuring and Meeting Students’ Needs in Cross-Cultural Business and Technical Communication,” Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 43, no. 2 (June 2013): 201–18, 208. doi:10.2190/TW.43.2.f.
  16. Wang, 208.
  17. Hammer, Bennett, and Wiseman, 424-425.
  18. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2013), 471.
  19. Perry L. Glanzer, “John Wayne and Wonder Woman: Expanding Our Conversation About Gender and Militant Justice,” Christian Scholar’s Review (blog), June 1, 2021, https://christianscholars.com/john-wayne-and-wonder-woman-expanding-our-conversation-about-gender-and-virtue/
  20. Kelly A. Phipps, “Same Direction – Different Paths: A Mixed Methods Examination of Leaders’ Openness to Religious Difference Using the Intercultural Development Inventory” (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2009), 88.
  21. Phipps, 88.
  22. Paige et al., 470.
  23. Hammer, Bennett, and Wiseman, 423.
  24. Milton J. Bennett, “Becoming Interculturally Competent,” in Toward Multiculturalism: A Reader in Multicultural Education, ed. J.S. Wurzel (Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004). https://www.idrinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/becoming_ic_competent.pdf
  25. Bennett, “Becoming.”
  26. Bennett, “Becoming.”
  27. Bennett, Basic Concepts, 49.
  28. “Intercultural Development Plan,” accessed June 2, 2021, https://idiinventory.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Sample-Intercultural-Development-Plan.pdf
  29. Wang, 208.
  30. Wang, 208.
  31. Bennett, “The Value of Cultural Diversity.”
  32. Donna Chun Wah Dong, “Towards Multicultural Christian Community: Developing, Implementing, and Evaluating an Intercultural Training Model with Campus Ministry Staff Leaders in Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada” (Theological Research Exchange Network [TREN]: Theses & Dissertations, 2012), 1–202.
  33. “Intercultural Development Inventory,” accessed June 1, 2021, https://pcamna.org/ministry/intercultural-development-inventory/
  34. Bennett, Basic Concepts, 92.
  35. Phipps, 64.
  36. Hammer, 21.
  37. “Intercultural Development Plan.”
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Posted by Heather Peterson

Dr. Heather Peterson is Associate Professor of English and Literature and Director of Core Curriculum at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, Minnesota.

One Comment

  1. Dr. Peterson, thank you for this article. We are evaluating IDI, and the perspective you share here is informative and helpful.

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