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Service Learning in the Intercultural Communication Course: Promoting Civility, Engagement, and Understanding of Global Development Issues

Mark Meister and Charles Okigbo

Volume 13, 2000.


This essay provides a rationale for why the basic intercultural communication course should teach students about various development communication issues including human rights, indigenous peoples, sustainable and eco-development, global poverty, and natural resource inequity. In this age of globalization, communication students need to be exposed to the major issues of intercultural communication from the perspective of global (not national) diversity. This is best achieved through a service-learning pedagogical approach that supplements skill development in the intercultural communication classroom. As such, we promote a classroom approach that advocates service learning and theory enactment with the intent of promoting civility and community.


To begin, we offer the following statement about globalization that actually occurred in a college-level intercultural communication course last year.

After a lively discussion about why it is important for students to learn about intercultural communication from a global perspective, a male student wearing a baseball cap and drinking from a coffee mug raised his hand and asked the following question.

"Why should I care about what happens to people who live outside the United States? All they want is for us to bail them out of the mess they have made of their lives. I'm sick of all these U.S. and the U.N. sponsored efforts abroad. It's not our problem."

Although many of us cringe at similar responses occurring in class discussions, and granted the comment may not reflect a dominant attitude among our students, we do think it represents a lack of understanding about global affairs and development issues. We advocate an approach that emphasizes student appreciation of global development issues. We contend that a service learning focus provides a much needed theoretical and analytical frame by which to discover and witness discrimination and "othering" of people and cultures globally.

Service learning is a curriculum focus that enables students to serve other peoples and institutions while incorporating theory and course material into the service activities. Service learning fuses experience, volunteerism, and theory into learning. According to Eyler and Giles (1999) over two hundred institutions of higher education have developed service learning into a variety of disciplinary curriculum from physics to home economics. We advocate that intercultural communication courses should adopt a service learning perspective as a means by which to promote critical learning and support skills based learning. We offer the context and theory of development communication as the operative for promoting service learning.

In order for us to make our case supporting service learning in the intercultural communication course, we briefly discuss the history of intercultural communication and its emphasis on skill development and training. Next, we provide a rationale for incorporating service learning pedagogy, not as a replacement for skills-based education, but rather as a supplement to it, that promotes civility and community. In this discussion, we profile a dialectical approach to intercultural communication inquiry and practice and discuss its relevance to service learning. We then discuss our emphasis on service learning practice with development communication as the case study. Finally, we offer some recommendations for intercultural instructors interested in activating service learning.


Intercultural communication "efficiency"
Interest in intercultural communication accelerated in the post World War II environment that recognized the critical role of culture in public opinion formation and management both for national and international affairs. Typically, anthropologist Edward Hall's book The Silent Language, published in 1959, is credited with initiating the relationship between communication and culture. Hall's book and his creation of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the U.S. Department of State (DOS) grew out of the need to apply abstract anthropological concepts to the practical world of foreign service diplomats (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1998). As such, Hall's FSI, which was based on his 1959 publication, advocated training and skills development, that according to Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz (1998) is "now the standard use of intercultural communication training" (p. 15). Several aspects of intercultural communication training established by Hall are accepted as part of the repertoire of training procedures used today. For example, Hall created teaching materials out of his experiences abroad which students in the training sessions were willing to provide.

Generally, most of the people who were trained by Hall and his FSI were diplomats intent on garnering "effective" business profits from other cultures. As such, the FSI trained business people how to conduct business in different cultures to maximize profits. After the development of the FSI, Hall expanded his audience beyond foreign diplomats to include all those involved in international business, today one of the largest markets for intercultural training. At present, intercultural communication continues to serve the function of training Americans to go abroad, and "it has established a university base now, and many practitioners engage in research, as well as teaching large numbers of undergraduate students the basics of an intercultural communication approach" (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1998, p. 17).

The predominant approach to teaching intercultural communication is skills-based. Although Hall's approach clearly outlines the relationship between communication and culture, which is the basis for the study of intercultural communication, this has predominately been advocated as teaching students with skills for "effective communication" abroad. Much of Hall's work emphasizes "effective intercultural communication" rather than "meaningful intercultural communication." According to Hall and Reed Hall (1998) "[t]he essence of effective cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing the right responses than with sending the 'right' messages [emphasis ours]" (p. 199). It is our position that service learning can supplement skills-based pedagogy, and that the dialectical approach toward the study of intercultural communication bridges an emphasis on skills and service. Thus, we advocate the teaching of skills but also the teaching of civility.

With the exception of Martin, Nakayama, and Flores' (1998) dialectical approach to intercultural communication and other critical approaches, intercultural communication theory generally emphasizes a skills-based and training approach. For example, Gudykunst's research on how various cultures create communication strategies for reducing uncertainty during first encounters, points out that such strategies are based on whether people are from individualistic or collectivist cultures (Gudykunst, 1983; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1984). Granted, Gudykunst's research is certainly significant for understanding the differences in how cultural peoples communicate. Yet, it is highly objectivistic, static, and assumes there is one "right" way in which to communicate cross-culturally. Thus, it is not culturally sensitive, and researchers may be too distant from the phenomenon or people they are studying. Like many other theories such as intercultural communication competence (Hammer, 1984; Nishida, 1985), intercultural communication apprehension (Watson, Monroe, & Atterson, 1989), intercultural relationship development (Gudykunst, 1983, 1985), and intracultural communication (Martin, Hecht, & Larkey, 1994), the emphasis is mainly on providing training and skills with the intent of "effectively" communicating with people of different cultures.

Such theoretical approaches emphasize the "distance" between the researcher and the people being studied. Often the assumption for conducting research is the creation of effective communication strategies in an attempt to lessen the obvious distance between the culture and standpoint of the researcher and that of peoples being studied. Shortening the distance is best described as an "effective communication strategy" approach that is highly rationalistic and mechanistic. The problem, of course, is not all cultures and people share the same rationalistic and linear perspective that most researchers interested in the creation of communication strategies and skills possess. Martin, Nakayama, and Flores (1998) offer the dialectical approach to intercultural communication as an alternative to the skills-based "effective" approach. The emphasis here is on "meaningful" rather than "effective" communication that emphasizes skills and civility.

The dialectical approach "emphasizes the processual, relational, and contradictory nature of intercultural interaction [emphasis original]" (p. 5). Simply, the dialectical approach focuses on the processual character of understanding the relationship between communication and culture, the relational rather than individual aspects and persons, and the rhetorical/critical process of simultaneously understanding the often contradictory notions of communication and culture. Holding two contradictory positions simultaneously is contrary to formal education in the United States. Most of our assumptions about learning and knowledge presume dichotomy and mutual exclusivity (e.g. multiple choice and true/false tests). Dichotomies--good-evil, planets-earth, arteries-veins, air-water, man-animal--form the core of our philosophical, scientific, and religious traditions (Gill, 1994).

In contrast, a dialectical approach recognizes the need to transcend these dichotomies. It "emphasizes that the world is neither monistic nor dualistic" (Martin, Nakayama, & Flores, 1998, p. 6), and in recognizing the interdependent and complementary aspects of the seeming opposites (Yoshikawa, 1988). For example, students can be both wise and stupid at the same time. The strong can also be weak. Politicians can simultaneously be truthful and deceitful.

The dialectical approach is an important intercultural communication theory because it does not solely emphasize "effective" communication. It also encourages a critical examination and appreciation of how communication and culture are socially and rhetorically constructed, that in turn highlights the need for service and civility. As such, both communication and culture are dependent on one another, but also remain at contradictory odds with one another. Communication and culture are both similar and different and often exist to both privilege those skilled at "effectively" communicating across cultures and also discriminating against those whose perspectives are not so much concerned with "efficiency."

A rationale for studying development communication in the intercultural course
We witness cultural and social inbalances within and outside the United States. We readily have access to reports of cultural bias in our own towns, cities, states, and regions. Yet we remain immune to those cultural and social discrepancies existing beyond our borders. As a nation, we remain isolated from the global phenomenon of pervasive discrimination, oppressive poverty, social corruption, and massive abuses of human rights. We often neglect to pay sufficient attention to the problems associated with other world regions such as the former Communist countries of Europe and the developing countries of Asia and Africa. These tendencies are largely attributed to media stereotypes about other culture, and feelings of enthnocentricism.

Consistent with the dialectical approach that emphasizes processes, relations, and contradictions in studying intercultural communication, we advocate an in-depth look at the sub-discipline of development communication. Our teaching of intercultural communication will be deficient if it does not incorporate the processes, relationships, or contradictions of development communication. Thus, we will discuss the major themes associated with development communication and provide several reasons why the capstone intercultural communication course should spend time focusing on development communication issues and service learning.

Development communication themes
Our curricular offerings in intercultural communication will be hollow if they do not pay sufficient attention to development communication, which is often mistakenly assumed germane in studies of Third World countries only. If we agree with Schramm (1964) that the mass media intersect with national development in such areas as widening our horizons, directing attention to salient social issues, raising aspirations, creating a climate for change, broadening the policy dialog, and helping substantially in all types of education and training, then it is easy to see that this is not the preserve of poor countries. There is as much need for development communication education in the United States today, as there is in China, Russia, and Zimbabwe. Though originally conceived largely as a technological phenomenon, development communication has come full circle, and is now realized as a cultural force that derives much of its relevance and significance from the sense people make of it in the context of their daily preoccupation. This is the sense in which development is accepted as an internal process that cannot be imposed from outside a particular culture. For instance, the diffusion of new ideas, which is a quintessential paradigm of development communication, is based on voluntary acceptance of innovations that people are aware of, show interest in, and desirous of trying, and would adopt or reject in a social milieu, based on cultural considerations (Rogers, 1995).

Education in development communication has often not kept pace with new advances in the field, and thus, after more than six decades of formal training in this branch of the social sciences, there are few examples of successful education with significant practical impact on people's lives. The result has been a series of revisions of paradigms, starting from technological determinism through direct effects models to limited effects and participatory approaches (Servaes, Jacobson, and White, 1996). The shortcoming is attributable to the slowness in experimenting with innovative teaching methods, such as experiential and service learning, as is advocated here. It is not surprising that even practically-oriented training organizations such as the United Nations organizations and various development assistance agencies do not pay adequate attention to more practical applications of development communication, even when their primary responsibilities are in bringing about behavior change through communication and education campaigns. It is such neglect that is largely responsible for the failure of many social change campaigns, and have led to new approaches that involve new frameworks that are based on the culture of the beneficiaries (UNAIDS/PennState, 1999). The wide range of subject matter we encounter in development communication is fit for the application of experiential and service learning, especially in the explication of processes, relationships, and inherent contradictions.

Among the most dominant themes of development communication, also essential issues of intercultural communication, are agricultural and economic development, gender relations, health problems, inter-cultural harmony, and political change. A fundamental process in promoting positive change in any of these areas is the employment of a cultural education paradigm that expresses the bonding between the change agent and the beneficiaries. This approach benefits from a service learning method where students are taught that being a harbinger of new ideas does not necessarily make them better than the beneficiaries of their projects do. This can break down ethnocentric walls that are common in the use of traditional skills training in intercultural communication, where many students assume that "other" cultures have inherent social values that inhibit modernization or development. As Melkote (1991, p. 61) observed, the end result in such situations is "to continuously extend the modern (i.e. Western) component and displace all traditional (i.e. Asian or other) elements in developing nations." What is needed is a practical and experience-based approach to teaching so that students can appreciate inter-cultural differences in a less judgmental style. Development by itself, and its facilitation by communication, are processes that lend themselves to easier explication through service learning.

A service learning approach also brings out the close relationships that manifest in many social cultures, and ultimately add meaning to communicative acts. Development does not come about in neat packets, and often involves progress in some sectors and setbacks in others. The critical element is the net value of achievement over time rather than short-term growth. This underlines the need for sustainable development approaches that are founded on holistic and cross-cutting strategies aimed at preserving future stock, instead of depleting present resources in the name of growth. A skills approach to intercultural and development communication usually neglects the interrelationships in social change processes, as it focuses unduly on survival tactics to maximize immediate effects. However, steeping students deeply into the various relationships that characterize our human society and manifest themselves in development activities can bring home the lessons of how development is a maze. For example, in the phenomenal development of the East Asian economies, Root (1996) found that the "miraculous growth" was achieved through a congruence of such factors as the state's role, good governance, viable social institutions, bureaucratic capabilities, government-business interface, and income equity. Communication is the cement that binds all these various sectors together to achieve the necessary policy cohesion, without which development is impossible. Such a pattern of interrelationships is no less evident in American cities and regions, where it is becoming clear that positive change in such areas as drug abuse, youth violence, and teen pregnancies must involve inter-sectoral negotiations. A teaching approach, such as service learning, which makes students more appreciative of the value of these relationships, is no doubt highly recommendable. We cannot assume that all students will automatically understand the intricate ramifications of intercultural and development communication, which even at the best of times, can suggest contrapuntal tendencies.

One of the paradoxes of intercultural and development communication is the difficulty in determining the specific contributions of communication messages in particular situations. Though such communication theories as knowledge gap, cultivation analysis, and agenda setting suggest that communication messages have some effects on audiences, there is still much room for controversy over the specific contributions of specific communication content. Even more disconcerting is the realization that in some situations, the results of communication can be in the opposite direction, as is the case with violence and catharsis (Baran & Davis, 1995). Yet, another contradiction is the gap that often exists between knowledge and behavior in the areas of intercultural and development communication. Knowing what to do does not necessarily lead people to do what is expected of them. Though these situations appear to suggest extreme difficulties in successfully managing social change campaigns, many positive results show development is possible. A service learning approach that takes students through role playing, examination of practical case studies, and empathic learning will be more effective in dealing with these contradictions than the usual skill-transfer techniques.

Development communication is a wide field that borrows extensively from anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, and sociology, among others (Schramm and Lerner 1978). Its overriding concern is a deep interest in the processes, interrelationships, and contradictions that we experience as members of extant communities that employ communication to express our thoughts. As Kleinjans (1978, p. ix) observed, "all countries are developing countries (and) development is the process through which a society moves to acquire the capability of enhancing the quality of life of its people, primarily through the solution of its problems." It is therefore easy to see that development communication is a fit subject to teach students who sooner than later must address themselves to society's many problems.

With an understanding of development communication, we offer the following reasons why such an approach, combined with service learning, should be promoted in the intercultural communication course.

1. A focus on development communication recognizes the basic tenants of dialectical theory. The basic themes of development communication (human rights, poverty, cultural folklore, indigenous peoples) all illustrate a tension between those who "have" and those who "have not." Consistent with dialectical theory, students are encouraged not to isolate those who "have" and those who "have not." Rather, the focus is on understanding the inter-relationships between the dichotomies and to relate these synergistic "tensions" to larger contexts such as culture, politics, religion, and science/technology. For example, much of the debate about global development revolves around the notion of "sustainable development." The imperative of this concept is "wise use" of natural resources for future generations. Yet those promoting "sustainable development" often do not have an understanding of how native indigenous people perceive development issues. The imposition of "sustainable development" is often counter to the cultures of native peoples. Thus, development communication encourages students to not look in terms of opposites, but rather how these tensions are related to one another. What is ultimately promoted by this focus on development communication from a dialectical perspective, is the synchronicity of communication and culture.

2. A focus on development communication from a dialectical perspective highlights the relationship between communication, culture, and power. The dialectical approach to understanding intercultural interaction introduces students to how communication operates to reinforce, maintain, and re-create social power and status. What is highlighted is the relationship between communication and culture and how both rhetorically function to facilitate power over others. The imperative here is to encourage students to think holistically and not to simply focus on skills that reinforce cultural stereotypes. The significant questions for intercultural communication students to address in relation to development communication issues are: "Who controls the communication power in developing countries and how is this power reinforced?" and " To what extent, if any, do those exhibiting communicative power over people in developing regions, take into account the cultures of those developing nations?" This approach facilitates cultural/communication literacy because it focuses on the interdependency between the two.

3. Ideally, a focus on development communication from a dialectical perspective encourages students to promote change rather than contribute to further alienating people in developing regions. Undoubtedly, not all students will become advocates for developing people, but some will, and because of their advocacy they will have a greater understanding of the relationship between human rights, poverty, and development and how these conditions are often the by-products of communication. Students will learn to critique the relationships between dominant and subordinate cultures and, as such, will be more inclined to change their perceptions of "subordinate" cultures.

4. A focus on development communication from a dialectical perspective promotes social service rather than cultural adaptation. A skills-based approach to intercultural communication encourages students to see cultures as isolated from each other and from communicative processes. The "skills" taught are often considered appropriate "responses" and are detached from a larger understanding of culture. Intercultural communication "skills" are simply techniques for cultural adaptation, and are not concerned with promoting social service or change. Thus, the focus here is not only on teaching techniques that reinforce social hierarchies and cultural misrepresentations of so-called "inferior" cultures, but rather students are encouraged to serve as stewards for changing those cultural practices that reinforce discrimination.

So how can such a perspective be implemented in the intercultural communication classroom? How can a such an integrated and holistic focus become a reality? We offer the following discussion of how service learning reinforces "meaningful" rather that skills-based "effective" communication. We also offer practical solutions tot he problem of implementing service learning in the intercultural communication classroom.

"Meaningful" intercultural communication: Service learning
Our incentive for promoting service learning by facilitating an understanding of intercultural and development communication issues is prefaced on the knowledge that service learning encourages students to become more civil. Students become aware of what it means to be a concerned citizen and to engage in practices that promote "common good" outcomes. The ultimate result is an emphasis on culturally "meaningful" communication that is negotiated between participants. Service learning is a robust approach that allows teachers and students sufficient latitude to try a wide range of learning tools that include practical lessons, role playing, immersion experiences, and the use of diverse teaching aids. The creative teacher is unlimited in the extent he or she can use innovative teaching and demonstration tools. The guiding principle is the creation and sustenance of the "common good."

The premise behind service learning is to create, "a society that promotes and sustains the common good" (Lisman, 1998, p. 15). As such, this approach requests that students engage standards of civility that go beyond our usual emphasis on the common content of the intercultural communication course. Service learning promotes sustained and engaged service with the goal of making the world a more civil place. Widespread support exists for service learning as one of the ways in which society can become more civil. Service learning also can provide a meaningful way for developing and promoting institutional engagement and partnership between higher education and the community. It always implies a certain measure of community service, aimed at achieving practical benefits to students and their communities.

According to Lisman (1998) service learning, or academically based community service, "is a form of learning in which students engage in community service as part of academic coursework" (p. 24). The service experiences are connected with the learning outcomes of the course, and there is opportunity for teacher-guided reflection on service experience. Thus, service learning activities tend toward two characteristic relationships between the service provider and the recipient: one which emphasizes caring, giving, and compassion (charity), and one that upon critical reflection determines the need for active engagement in political action and social transformation (change) (Ward, 1997).

There are many illustrative research examples that provide support for the more vigorous use of service learning. Eyler and Giles' (1999) research points out that service learning is a highly effective pedagogy, particularly in higher education. Students learn "to connect the personal and the intellectual…acquire knowledge that is useful in understanding the world, build critical thinking capacities, and perhaps lead to fundamental questions about learning and about the society and to a commitment to improve both" (p. 14). Advocates of service learning suggest that its benefits include and increase in altruism, self-esteem, and efficacy (Luchs, 1981). Moreover, service learning proponents argue that through service students can experience the importance of making and keeping commitments to others, as well as learning to work with diverse populations.

These views are strong arguments in favor of employing service learning in enriching our curricular offerings in development communication and intercultural communication. Through service learning, students become appreciative and engaged with diverse people, customs, and values. They become familiar with issues such as human rights, poverty, and cultural norms and standards that are often quite distinct from those they are familiar with. Thus, by participating in service learning projects, they actively learn about and vicariously experience learning about the wide range of human culture and the roles communication plays in shaping and reinforcing culture. In this sense, as Ward (1997) concluded that "[s]tudents recognize the need to become more familiar with the practices and the values, attitudes, and beliefs imbedded in other cultures" (p. 142). Anything less than this is a disservice that leaves students largely ignorant of other cultures, disconnected for the positive values of engagement and commitment with an evolving global culture that cannot be avoided or neglected through "skills-based" education.

Recommendations for teaching development communication and service learning in the intercultural communication course
Often the communities as well as individuals and families who use the services of agencies that are of potential interest to students involved in service learning projects are unlike people and places to which they are accustomed. Often the settings tend to be in low-income communities of color with which students have had limited previous engagement (Ward, 1997). At the national level, because many social service agencies are hurting from recent funding cutbacks and layoffs, local volunteers, especially those who are well educated, are being called on to provide more extensive assistance in social service settings. The opportunities for students to engage with service learning are many, and such programs can be tailored to those service contexts that are in the most needy based on cities, counties, states, and regions.

We recommend the following service learning strategies as a means for teaching development communication themes in the intercultural communication course. Each of the recommendations we discuss is related to development communication theme discussed above.

First, choose intercultural communication course materials that emphasize the theoretical relationship between communication and culture. Implement course materials that offer a historical, as well as cultural, focus. A variety of readings in the form of a course pack, may be substituted for an all-encompassing textbook.

Second, it is important to remember that service learning provides the student with the opportunity to engage theory and practice. Therefore, it is important that class sessions devote just as much time to discussing theoretical and skill issues as well as student service learning experiences. However, a service learning perspective focuses less attention on testing and measuring the "effectiveness" of students knowledge in learning skills, and more attention is paid to how students engage experience with theory.

Third, service learning challenges the traditional mode of teaching that prescribes the teacher as the dictator of knowledge. Rather the teacher becomes more of a facilitator of knowledge, allowing students to readily make connections between theory, practice, and experience. Thus, instructors (regardless of the course content) must be willing to function less as dictators and more as a facilitators.

Finally, service learning allows for the open expression of experiences with the expectation that students' minds will be open to diverse people and cultures. Our national experiences with inter-racial conflicts shows that voluntary appreciation rather than legislative injunctions are more successful in promoting social harmony. Similarly, a teaching method that focuses on active learning through participatory engagement with people of diverse backgrounds promotes better learning than the traditional method of teaching for the sake of teaching.

In this essay we have argued for a service learning perspective that facilitates students' appreciation of diversity. Based on our conviction that development communication should be part of intercultural communication, we have discussed the major themes associated with development communication in the context of service learning. We affirm the objectives embraced by service learning in the intercultural communication course: that of facilitating students to become aware of the interrelationship between communication and culture, exhibit more civil behavior, become more engaged and concerned citizens, and ultimately become aware of the importance of engaging classroom learning with lived experience.


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