Acculturation remains a significant issue in a diverse society. It refers to the process of cultural exchanges as a result of continuous firsthand contact among cultural groups. The primary focus lies in the change occurring among minority group members, particularly immigrants, after adopting the cultural features of the majority group. Change may occur in beliefs, values, behavioral practices, languages, or all of these.
Historically, acculturation is conceptualized with a one-dimensional approach. That is to say, individuals must lose cultural traits of their own group to gain characteristics from other groups for adaptation. This approach fits into the larger picture of the straight line model of assimilation. This model maps the process of assimilation in a linear fashion wherein immigrants relinquish their own ethnic culture before taking on (presumably) more beneficial host cultural behaviors. In a series of stages, immigrants first predominantly retain their own ethnic cultures, and as contacts with host society increase, they enter a stage where aspects of the two cultures combine. Finally, the host culture overwhelms the ethnic culture, and immigrants come to full adoption of the host culture.
The unidimensional perspective on acculturation makes an important assumption that ethnic culture and host culture are mutually exclusive. However, contemporary theorists on acculturation challenge this assumption. Instead, these theorists view acculturation as multifaceted, such that ethnic culture and host culture exist on different dimensions. This perspective believes immigrants have the ability to retain some of their ethnic practices and, at the same time, adopt other aspects of the host society’s culture.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Many observers often equated acculturation with assimilation in public discourse and in earlier assimilation theory until 1964, when Milton Gordon eliminated this confusion and provided a systematic dissection of the assimilation concept. In his conceptual scheme, acculturation is only one aspect of assimilation, sometimes called cultural assimilation, and it is the first step toward full assimilation. In his formulation, Gordon made a critical distinction between acculturation and what he called “structural assimilation,” by which he meant the entry of members of a minority group into primary-group relationships with the majority group. The primary group relationship refers to institutions or associations such as social clubs and cliques. Because discrimination and avoidance responses often lead to exclusion of immigrants and even the second generation, structural assimilation is slower than acculturation. Whereas acculturation is an inevitable outcome resulting from continuous contact between ethnic and majority groups, structural assimilation is not, because it requires new members to move out of their own groups or associations into the equivalent associations of the host society, which may not necessarily happen.
Gordon and other assimilation theorists view acculturation as one-directional, meaning that members of an ethnic group adopt the culture of the majority group. This largely fits the reality of the old era of immigration where Anglo-American culture clearly constituted the societal mainstream. Now, as U.S. society becomes more diverse and the demographic proportion of the earlier majority group shrinks, the boundaries of group cultural differences often get blurred. For example, children of immigrant families typically acculturate to the dominant culture and the immigrant culture; therefore, both cultures become important elements of the children’s development.
Measures for Acculturation
Language, often the largest initial barrier that immigrants encounter, is the first step and most widely assessed cultural practice associated with acculturation. In the U.S. context, English language use represents the first step toward successful adaptation. Language proficiency can enable immigrants to access the host society’s institutions, such as the media; to make friends with members of the host society; and to find better employment opportunities. Retention of native languages is often seen as a key indicator of ethnic identity. Because of the functional and cultural significance of language, many scholars have used language alone as an index for acculturation.
The second major measure of acculturation is participation in cultural practices of both majority and minority groups, which include a wide spectrum ranging from pragmatic activities such as food preferences and modes of dress to pursuits such as religion and artistic inclination. The unidimensional perspective of acculturation holds that retaining traditional cultural practices such as food and dress may alienate immigrants from members of the mainstream, slow down the process of their adaptation to the host society, and ultimately prevent them from full assimilation into the host society. On the other hand, the multidimensional perspective of acculturation holds that immigrants are able to retain their cultural heritage and adopt cultural practices of the host society, and more important, they are encouraged to do so.
The third major measure of acculturation is ethnic identity, which refers to how members of an ethnic group relate to their own group as a subgroup of the larger society.
Ethnic identity is only meaningful in the context of a pluralistic society. In a racially or ethnically homogeneous society, ethnic identity is virtually meaningless. In light of the two perspectives on acculturation, two models emerge to conceptualize ethnic identity. One is a bipolar model, guided by a unidimensional perspective toward acculturation, assuming that ethnic identity and acculturation are in opposition to each other. That is, a weakening of ethnic identity is an inevitable outcome of acculturation. The alternative model views minority group members as having either strong or weak identifications with their own culture and that of the mainstream. Strong identification with both groups indicates biculturalism; identification with neither group suggests marginality. Strong identification with the ethnic group but weak attachment to the host society suggests separation or isolation of the ethnic group.
Acculturation and Psychological Outcome
Researchers on acculturation often concentrate on the consequences of acculturation, particularly, its potential impact on psychological functioning. Two views emerge predicting opposite outcomes of psychological well-being as a result of acculturation.
One school of thought argues that the more acculturated a member from a minority group is, the more psychological distress he or she suffers. This rationale draws from Emile Durkheim’s social integration theory, in the sense that adopting the majority group’s culture may remove the minority member from the ethnic community and isolate that person from an ethnic support base. The minority member may experience alienation that increases the possibility of psychological distress. Externally, a minority member who attempts to acculturate may encounter resistance and discrimination from the host society, which could exacerbate psychological distress. The result is that members of minority groups do not find acceptance by either their own ethnic group or the majority group. Thus they find themselves experiencing marginality and psychological distress.
The opposing view predicts higher self-esteem and less psychological distress among people who are more acculturated than those who are less acculturated. This view sees psychological harm in any conflict between host and native cultures. Therefore, acculturation should improve one’s self-esteem and reduce psychological distress. When closely tied to the ethnic culture and exposed to conflicting practices, beliefs, and attitudes in the host society, a minority group member may feel confused, challenged, and lost about what he or she believes. In particular, if one is not equipped with strategies to achieve the goals valued by the host society, self-esteem will be damaged.
Empirical evidence exists to support both views. Both do agree that if minority members are not equipped with strategies to reconcile the cultural differences between the host society and their own group, they will experience acculturative stress that might lead to psychological distress.
- Alba, Richard and Victor Nee. 1997. “Rethinking Assimilation Theory for a New Era of Immigration.” International Migration Review 31:826-74.
- Berry, J. W. 1980. “Acculturation as Varieties of Adaptation.” Pp. 9-26 in Acculturation: Theory, Models, and Some New Findings, edited by A. M. Padilla. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Gans, Herbert. 1997. “Toward a Reconciliation of ‘Assimilation’ and ‘Pluralism’: The Interplay of Acculturation and Ethnic Retention.” International Migration Review 31:875-92.
- Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Phinney, Jean. 1990. “Ethnic Identity in Adolescents and Adults: Review of Research.” Psychological Bulletin 108:499-514.
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