Case Incidents in Counseling for International Transitions

By Nancy Arthur and Paul Pedersen (Eds.)

Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association, 2008. 334 pp.

ISBN 978-1-55620-269-8 $59.95

Reviewed by Paul T. P. Wong

My immediate reaction after reading through Case Incidents in Counseling for International Transitions was “Wow, multicultural counseling has come a long way!” It has moved beyond the confine of multicultural issues in America and advanced in at least two directions: international transitions and specific contexts within a cultural setting. These advances are consistent with the increasing recognition of the importance of international psychology. Arthur and Pedersen focus on case studies of the lived experiences of individuals going through various types of cross-cultural transitions. Their editorial decision was to provide “material that would help make the conceptual issues come alive through the experiences of real people. To that end, we chose the critical incident method as a way of providing an expanded view of counseling to incorporate international contexts” (p. xi).

They have indeed achieved this ambitious objective. The rich collection of so many case studies of real people in diverse cultural contexts is probably the single greatest strength of this edited volume. These cases constitute a very useful resource for teaching multicultural competency and international psychology. Another innovative feature of the book is that for each case study, there are two commentators who have an insider’s view of the cultures under examination. In many cases, the commentators took on the role of either a counselor or a supervisor and examined the cases with their own theoretical perspectives and insights. Thus, these commentators provide diversity, richness, and authenticity.

The book is organized around four broad categories of international transitions: work, study, refuge, and peacekeeping. Altogether, there are 19 case studies, with 4 to 5 cases for each category. My main complaint of this book is the lack of a concluding chapter that synthesizes the various cases and draws some conclusions.

On a technical matter, I wonder why the editors want to emphasize the critical incident technique developed by J. C. Flanagan (1954). Strictly speaking, “the critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behavior in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles” (Flanagan, 1954, p. 327). It is supposed to be a behaviorally oriented technique focusing on participants’ report of what behaviors and events critically hinder or help the attainment of a specified goal.

In contrast, the vignettes employed in Arthur and Pedersen’s book are stories of individuals who have experienced some difficulties that involve complex issues of how to adapt to cross-cultural transitions. Often the stories are based on the authors’ recounts of the life experiences of their clients. Therefore, nothing is gained by artificially imposing Flanagan’s critical incident technique as the methodological framework for the case incidents.

The Role of Culture

Front and center in all the chapters of this book is the role of culture. Arthur and Pedersen have made a compelling case that the construct of culture is more profound and pervasive than is generally recognized. Psychologists who firmly believe in the universality of their scientific findings or of their own therapeutic approach fail to understand (a) the Euro-American ethnocentric biases in their paradigms and (b) the breadth and depth of cultural impact on all aspects of behavior, as demonstrated by the various chapters in this book. Such a misunderstanding will hinder the development of international psychology as a science and a profession.

It is often difficult to understand culturally different individuals merely from one’s own cultural schema. More often than not, a cultural divide stands as a barrier between individuals, creating misunderstandings and conflicts. Pedersen (pp. 75–80) points out that people are not aware of their own culturally bound assumptions not only about mental health and illness but also about people’s perceptions and choices. Therefore, he stresses the need for inclusive cultural empathy (ICE) as an antidote to cultural biases.

ICE enables us to achieve an empathic relationship with other people in a broad range of culturally complex situations, such as family, school, and organization. In other words, the impact of culture on any individual must be recognized in a wide range of formal and informal roles and social norms.

Ecological and Contextual Perspectives

Behavior can be understood only in terms of its ecological contexts. One of the recurrent theoretical models in the book may be broadly referred to as the ecological model initially developed by Bronfenbrenner (1977). According to this model, the individual is conceptualized as operating within nested systems. Together, these embedded systems play a role in influencing an individual’s decisions and behaviors. For example, career choices may be framed as resulting from interactions between systems and subsystems (Heppner and Heppner, pp. 7–10).

Cook (pp. 230–236) is even more explicit in advocating an ecological perspective (EP). Drawing heavily on constructivism, Cook stresses that behavior is always situated in a set of contexts. Therefore, it is not possible to understand behavior apart from the person’s interactions with the different levels of contexts. EP also elaborates how differences in meaning making occur according to each contextual level. In short, we cannot fully understand the meaning of a behavior unless it is viewed at all levels of ecological contexts.

The Importance of Meaning Making

The thread of meaning making runs through several chapters in Case Incidents in Counseling for International Transitions. Culture is essentially a system of meaning making through language, customs, religion, education, and social norms. The ecological and contextual perspective of culture inevitably highlights the vital role of meaning making in cross-cultural adjustment.

Chen’s (pp. 124–130) contextual multicultural counseling model represents a neat way to integrate meaning making and international transition. Chen proposes that meaning in life should be understood within the client’s different contexts of cross-cultural transition and the interactive relationships of these transitional life experiences. Acculturation reflects a dynamic process involving multiplicity of diverse and complex variables. “Meaning-making only becomes relevant and meaningful to the enhancement of the international students’ coping and adjustment experiences if cultural variables are considered and understood within each student’s unique individual acculturation experiences” (p. 129).

From Multicultural Competency to International Psychology

Every international or cross-cultural transition poses a challenge to change. Schlossberg (1981), as cited by Wang and Connath (p. 5), wrote, “a transition can be said to occur if any event or nonevent results in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world and thus requires a corresponding change in one’s behavior and relationships.” Multicultural competency is needed to facilitate change. Most of the case incidents illustrate how a lack of cross-cultural competency can create problems in international transitions.

For me, the most telling story is Case Incident 3 about Rebecca, a young social worker in Nunavut. When she saw Inuit children poking and teasing a caged polar bear cub, she openly displayed her anger and impulsively removed the cage without getting permission from the community leaders. This action alienated her from the community. Her lack of empathy and tolerance prevented her from understanding the true life experiences of Native people. Multicultural competency or cultural intelligence (Brislin, Worthley, & MacNab, 2006) would have helped Rebecca.

I propose that successful adaptation to international transitions demands more than cognitive abilities such as awareness, sensitivity, knowledge, and skills. Cultural intelligence is necessary but not sufficient. To facilitate cross-cultural integration, some form of personal transformation is needed in one’s attitudes and values (Wong & Wong, 2006). Justin (pp. 161–167) points out the need to internalize and incorporate many new experiences and cultural influences into one’s own understanding and worldview, leading to the development of what may be called an international personality. Steward (pp. 134–135) emphasizes the importance of promoting multicultural identity in addition to multicultural competency. We need to learn how to switch from one set of culturally appropriate behaviors to another while maintaining a clear sense of one’s own racial identity.

When international interactions are increasing on all fronts, from business, to sports, to education, we need to entertain the idea of becoming an international person who feels at home in different cultures. Although an international person may be primarily anchored in one culture, he or she feels comfortable to take on a multicultural identity. More specifically, an international person possesses the following set of attitudes, values, and characteristics:

  1. openness to new experiences
  2. tolerance of discomforts in cross-cultural encounters,
  3. inclusive cultural empathy
  4. respect for other cultures and perspectives
  5. humility as an antidote for egocentric and ethnocentric tendencies.

The importance of these five characteristics in international transitions can be detected in most chapters in Case Incidents in Counseling for International Transitions. Therefore, these attributes demand more
attention in our ongoing dialogue and research on international transitions.


Every cross-cultural transition speaks of both the impermanence of life and the transitory nature of human existence. Each international transition also provides both risks and opportunities for personal growth. Successful adaptation to international transitions leads to integration and personal growth, while unsuccessful adaptation may undermine one’s functioning and well-being. The same kind of risks and benefits also operates at the institutional and national level because international transition is an agent or catalyst for positive organizational change.

In a globalized world, it is inevitable that cultural barriers need to be replaced by bridges of cooperation. Clashes between civilizations and cultural warfare will eventually descend to the level of barbaric tribal wars. The destiny of humanity hinges on mutual understanding and harmony among nations. International psychology can play a vital role in this significant and noble enterprise.

The editors have demonstrated that multicultural competency in counseling has progressed to the point of developing an international psychology of cross-cultural transitions. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about academic psychology and higher education in general. Arthur and Pedersen remind us that psychology is impoverished scientifically and professionally when it ignores culture as a major source of influence in all aspects of human behavior.

I highly recommend Case Incidents in Counseling for International Transitions to all those actively involved in international transitions, whatever their academic discipline or professional designation. This book has shown us promising pathways to develop an international psychology that will not only advance the psychology discipline but also enhance international cooperation.


  1. Brislin, R., Worthley, R., & MacNab, B. (2006). Cultural intelligence: Understanding behaviors that serve people’s goals. Group & Organization Management, 31, 40–55.
  2. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513–531.
  3. Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51, 327–358.
  4. Wong, P. T. P., & Wong, L. C. J. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of multicultural perspectives on stress and coping. New York, NY: Springer.


Wong, P. T. P. (2009). From multicultural competency to international psychology [Review of the book Case incidents in counseling for international transitions]. PsycCRITIQUES, 54(3). doi:10.1037/a0014298