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Review of  Intercultural Communication

Reviewer: Kristen E Michelson
Book Title: Intercultural Communication
Book Author: Ronald Scollon Suzanne Wong Scollon Rodney H. Jones
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 24.30

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In this third edition of “Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach”, Scollon, Scollon, and Jones expand upon the framework initially put forward by Scollon and Scollon in 1995 and carried out in a second edition in 2001, which introduces and develops the concept of “discourse systems” as a way to get beyond the culture-equals-nation problem imposed by the term “culture”. Rather than “culture”, the authors suggest that it is the various discourse systems into which we have been socialized -- formally or informally -- that influence our interpersonal communication. “Discourse systems” contain: “ideas and beliefs about the world, conventional ways of teaching other people, ways of communicating using various kinds of texts, media, and ‘languages’, and methods of learning how to use these other tools” (p. 8). Like others (Verschueren, 2008; Matsumoto, 2010), Scollon, Scollon, and Jones strive to avoid essentialist notions of culture and do so by: 1) developing a culture-general approach with an intricately woven macro-paradigm through which to understand communication, and 2) substituting the term “culture” with the term “discourse systems” as a way to avoid the frequent associations of culture with ethnicity or national origin. They nuance their understanding of discourse systems through careful articulation and reiteration of the fact that their descriptions are not of groups of people, but rather abstract systems in which people participate. In other words, they are not interested in discourse communities, but rather in discourse systems. Unlike much of the literature on intercultural communication where the focus is on communication breakdowns between interlocutors, and often attributed to problems with the linguistic code (see Spencer-Oatey et al., 2012), Scollon, Scollon and Jones are interested in the underlying factors which mediate communication.

The first half of the book begins with chapters on functions of language and on elements of discourse systems, while the latter half contains a series of chapters on specific discourse systems. In the first chapter, “What is a Discourse Approach?”, the authors begin by acknowledging the many definitions and connotations of ‘discourse’, noting that their own work draws primarily upon the Foucauldian notion of “orders of discourse” and Gee’s (2011) notion of “Discourses with a capital D” (p. 8). This leads to the foundation of their argument: that Discourses are cultural toolkits employed in social interactions for the purposes of communicating who we are, as well as what we presume about others and the groups to which they belong. Chapter 2 includes a discussion of speech acts, speech events, and speech contexts, emphasizing the point that knowledge of context shapes and helps our understanding of speaker meaning. In Chapter 3, the authors discuss two sides of face strategies (involvement and independence), give examples of how these are instantiated in specific discourse styles, and describe three face systems: deference, solidarity, and hierarchy. Chapter 4 focuses on conversational inference, adjacency sequences, and cohesive devices such as reference (pronouns), schemata (grammar of context), prosodic patterning (intonation and timing), and conversational inference.

Chapters 5-8 each focus on one of the four main elements of discourse systems that cut across all cultures proposed by the authors: face systems, forms of discourse, socialization, and ideology. Chapter 5 focuses on inductive vs. deductive discourse patterns in spoken and written discourse, with a view toward how certain preferences for one or the other relate to involvement strategies, politeness, and face work. In Chapter 6 the authors further unpack the four universal elements of their framework of discourse systems against the backdrop of the notion of ideologies. They illustrate these through a detailed description of the Utilitarian discourse system (AKA the “discourse system of ‘global capitalism’”, p. 112), tracing the origins of this system from the Enlightenment through Bentham and Mill. They continue with a description of the Confucian discourse system and its roots in Chinese philosophy. The focus in Chapter 7 is on forms of discourse. The authors draw a distinction between various purposes of communication (information conveyance or relationship maintenance), and map these values onto the two discourse systems they have outlined in the previous chapter. They proceed to outline six theories of communication in the Utilitarian discourse system: anti-rhetorical, positivist-empirical, deductive, individualistic, egalitarian, and public (i.e., institutionally sanctioned), and conclude with discussions of multimodal communication and the notion of emplacement. Chapter 8 focuses on both informal and formal modes of socialization, noting that socialization into a discourse system is always partial and participation is always peripheral.

Chapters 9 through 11 focus on specific discourse systems, the first of which -- corporate and professional discourse -- is situation-bound, while the latter two -- generational, and gender and sexuality discourses -- are identity-bound. Throughout these chapters the authors make a point to reiterate that individuals simultaneously belong to multiple discourse systems. In the chapter on professional discourse (Chapter 9), attention is on management systems, organizational vs. individual goals, and participation and apprenticeship. The chapter on generational discourse (Chapter 10) affords an opportunity to reiterate the distinction between voluntary and involuntary discourse systems, and proceeds with an overview of the historico-cultural events influencing the discourse systems of certain age groups of people who have grown up in the US and China, respectively. The chapter on sexuality and gender discourse (Chapter 11) provides a context in which to discuss notions of performativity, to problematize the “difference” approach to intercultural communication, and finally, to reiterate the point that communication does not merely stem from who we are, but rather what we are trying to do in a particular moment in terms of the identities we are asserting and the relationships we are negotiating or ratifying.

The final chapter, “Doing ‘Intercultural Communication’”, serves as a synthesis chapter, discusses dangers of stereotyping and othering, and finally, reiterates the notion presented in Chapter 1 of intercultural communication as mediated action.


The most obvious structural change since the previous edition is the inclusion of the end-of-chapter syntheses, discussion questions, and references for further study, all of which enhance this book’s pedagogical utility. The foundational theoretical framework remains intact, including treatment of the same four elements of discourse systems, and the same three specific discourse systems. Much of the content has been rearranged, however, and the resulting chapter reorganization serves to better elucidate the components of the framework. A vast amount of new content appears in the form of a more thorough presentation and discussion of the Confucian discourse system in the chapters on Ideologies in Discourse (Chapter 6) and Generational Discourse (Chapter 10), inclusion of new digital modes of communication, expansion of the participants under consideration in the discussion of generational discourse, and finally, development of a more inclusive discussion on sexuality and gender discourse that attempts to move beyond binary gender categories. Finally, other more subtle yet important modifications include the substitution of examples (e.g., replacing the discussion of a discourse system of an ESL teacher in the second edition with that of a corporate context).

Although the actual authors of this third edition are Suzanne Wong Scollon and Rodney Jones, Ron Scollon’s own work is appropriately honored posthumously through official attribution to him as first author of this edition. Further, the chapter on forms of discourse and its attendant discussion on authorship provide a natural in-text moment to further pay him tribute.

In framing their argument in terms of discourse systems, Scollon, Scollon, and Jones are able to focus on the deeper, underlying universal values affecting ways of relating and communicating interpersonally. The continuous maintenance of this same heuristic throughout the book works quite well; the use of the notion of discourse systems to overcome the problematic connotations of “culture” presents a discerning and compelling argument. The entire book is effectively cohesive with the authors reweaving key concepts throughout (e.g., relating politeness strategies to deductive and inductive rhetorical styles). Proposals are supported with clear examples, such as the illustration of a scene in which a father rejects his son’s offer to pay his taxi fare, and the way in which people participating in different discourse systems differentially interpret this scene.

As mentioned, Scollon, Scollon, and Jones endeavor to present a culture-general framework, rather than a culture-specific paradigm a la Hofstede (1980). It seems that at times, however, they do have to get specific in order to illustrate their argument, and when they do, they fall into the essentialist trap. For example, in describing ideologies and discourse (Chapter 6) they explain features of the Utilitarian and the Confucian discourse systems, ascribing certain ways of doing things to each of these systems. The geographical situatedness of these respective systems makes it hard to avoid conclusions of a culture-specific “East-West” dichotomy in spite of the constant reminders to the reader that “there is nothing inherently ‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ about these patterns” (p. 93). Nevertheless, the authors are quite aware -- and indeed acknowledge overtly -- that their own argument is not entirely immune to essentialization and reification, and once again, specificity seems inevitable in order to explain the components of the framework. Indeed, an East-West focus permeates many of the examples in the book, such as in the chapter on corporate and professional discourse where the authors say that: “…as these (multinational) corporations extend their operations throughout the world, they seek employees from the countries in which they are operating. In many cases those potential employees have not received primary socialization into the Utilitarian discourse system… Outside of these schools they have been enculturated, for example, into an ideology such as the Confucian one, which places a strong emphasis on interpersonal and familial relationships” (p. 189).

The authors state at the outset that this book is intended for students interested in learning more about corporate and professional discourse, and indeed their content as well as their overall proposal seems appropriate for their intended audience. The ultimate emphasis on the Utilitarian discourse system frames their argument in economic, corporate terms, and the many examples of speech situations include conversations which would take place in a professional workplace setting. This book is most likely to resonate with those in international business or international business communication, although the simultaneous breadth and depth of the work and the inclusion of such voices in the conversation as Vygotstky, Hofstede, Hall, Goffman, Gumperz, Hymes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lave and Wenger, Cameron, and so many others, renders this an equally interesting book for students in applied linguistics.

Assuming a more novice audience, the lack of in-text citations at certain points may be missing key opportunities for learners to begin to attribute specific ideas to their original authors. However, the “References for Further Study” at the end of each chapter are quite helpful, and these sections offer concise and useful overviews for those seeking to pursue any of the lines of thought presented.

Overall, the paradigm presented throughout the now three iterations of this book remains a remarkably insightful way to conceptualize factors influencing communication, or, in the authors’ own terms, factors mediating communication. By focusing on common denominators of all human life (ideologies, forms of discourse, socialization, and face systems) Scollon, Scollon, and Jones successfully arrive at a culture-neutral heuristic that can be used in any instance of interpersonal (and thus, intercultural) communication.


Gee, J. (2011). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method, Third Edition. London: Routledge.

Hofstede, G. H. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Matsumoto, D. (2010). Introduction. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), APA Handbook of Intercultural Communication (pp. ix-xv). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Spencer-Oatey, H., Işik-Güler, H., and Stadler, S. (2012). Intercultural Communication. In Gee, J. P., & Handford, M. (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis (pp. 572-586). London: Routledge.

Verschueren, J. (2008). Intercultural Communication and the Challenges of Migration. Language and Intercultural Communication, 8(1), 21-35.
Kristen Michelson is a third year doctoral student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. Her research interests center around SLA in study abroad, development of intercultural competence, multiliteracies approaches to culture and language teaching, teaching French as a foreign language, language use in intercultural encounters, and discursive and semiotic representations of cultural patterns through a wide variety of media, most notably digital spaces and literature.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0470656409
ISBN-13: 9780470656402
Pages: 336
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