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Early studies in acculturation

Contemporary developments


The term “acculturation” is widely accepted among American anthropologists as referring to those changes set in motion by the coming together of societies with different cultural traditions. This field of investigation is generally referred to by British anthropologists (and by British-influenced students in Africa, Oceania, and Asia) as “culture contact.” In contrast with this straightforward phrase focused on the conditions under which the changes take place, the term “acculturation” and its derivatives remain somewhat ambiguous. A persistent usage gives it the meaning of cultural assimilation, or replacement of one set of cultural traits by another, as in references to individuals in contact situations as more or less “acculturated”; inconsistency is often apparent in the writings of American anthropologists with regard to whether the term is applied to results or to processes of change.

Early studies in acculturation

The emergence of acculturation as a significant field of study in social science may be readily traced. First glimpsed as an area of anthropological inquiry in the 1880s, it became a major focus of investigation during the subsequent eighty years. The term appears first in the writings of North Americans—for instance, W. H. Holmes (1886), Franz Boas (1896), and W. J. McGee (1898) — but they did not use it to name the same phenomena. McGee spoke of “piratical acculturation” and “amicable acculturation,” meaning transfer and adjustment of customs under conditions of contact between peoples of “lower grades” and “higher grades” respectively, a distinction that was not very clear in his essay. Boas used the term in a more general way to refer to an inferred process of change as a result of which the cultures of a region become similar to one another. Boas’ usage gained some currency among German ethnologists, notably Ehrenreich (1905) and Krickeberg (1910). However, the current, widely accepted usage is much closer to that advanced by McGee, even though his two “types” have never been regarded as useful.

Ethnographic observation

From the 1880s on, North American anthropologists concerned themselves increasingly with studying the phenomena of cultural change resulting from contacts between peoples. It is notable, however, that their interest was so directed toward the reconstruction of dead cultures, as in Lowie’s (1935) intensive studies of Crow Indian culture of the buffalo period, that they very rarely described what they saw before them. They applied themselves to gathering data for tracing the extent of diffusion of cultural elements in the past, but they did not make direct observation of the process of diffusion among the people with whom they were working.

In the 1930s, almost simultaneously among anthropologists working in North America and in Africa, a new focus of field studies developed. Attention turned to firsthand observation of the contacts between Indians and Anglo-Americans and between native Africans and Europeans, and some attempt was made at relating present conditions among the native peoples to current and recent conditions of contact. One early study of this type, made by Margaret Mead (1932), was reported as The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe; another of greater historical depth and wider scope, but with the same focus of interest, was Reaction to Conquest, by Monica Hunter Wilson (1936), which reported the great variety of results of contact among the Pondo and other natives of South Africa. Studies of this sort increased steadily during the following decade, North American and British anthropologists being the chief contributors, although one German, Richard Thurnwald (1935), was active. The shifting focus of interest among anthropologists was indicated in 1936, in a question raised at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The editor of the influential American Anthropologist, Leslie Spier, asked for instructions as to whether he should accept for publication papers dealing with “the culture of natives who participate in civilized life … the so-called acculturation studies … of … hybrid cultures …” (American Anthropological Association 1937).

Contemporary developments

By 1936, however, studies by Herskovits (1927), Lesser (1933), Redfield (1929), Schapera (1934), and Spier himself (1935) were making it clear that acculturation studies had become an important interest of anthropologists. This fact gave rise to an action in 1935 by the Social Science Research Council aimed at the better coordination of research in acculturation. The foundation appointed a committee of three prominent anthropologists and instructed them to attempt the formulation of a more systematic approach. Under the chairmanship of Robert Redfield, the committee prepared a short memorandum called “Outline for the Study of Acculturation” (Redfield et al. 1935). It sought to define the field of study that was coming to be called “acculturation” and to provide a check list of topics concerning which field data should be gathered if the phenomena defined were to be systematically investigated.


Modest in scope and severely practical in aim, the memorandum turned out to have an extremely important effect. The definition of acculturation delimited a field of observation consistent with much previous anthropological research: “Acculturation comprehends those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield et al. [1935] 1936, p. 149).

This definition was epoch-making, or perhaps better said, epoch-marking, for it immediately established a conceptual framework for both the longstanding interest in diffusion that had characterized anthropological work in culture history and the newer interest in directly observable processes of cultural change. The concept of diffusion had not been associated with any clear conception of cultural mechanisms.

The memorandum identified types and situations of contact, processes, psychological mechanisms, and results. The processes of “determination,” “selection,” and “integration” were identified as, respectively, those resulting in the presentation of traits by a “donor group” in contact situations, the accepting of traits by a receiving group, and the modification of accepted traits by a receiving group. The use of the terms “acceptance,” “adaptation,” and “reaction” recognized the replacement of cultural elements, combination of elements into new wholes, and rejection of elements. These features became the basis of much later analysis of acculturation phenomena.

Contemporary British efforts (Methods … 1938; Malinowski 1945) called attention to the importance of establishing a “zero point” from which the nature and extent of change could be measured, pointed to the utility of detailed census data in connection with the determination of trends in cultural change, and introduced the concept of intermediating or contact social structures as a recurrent part of every contact situation.

Herskovits and Linton

During the next 25 years an increasing number of field studies in acculturation gave occasion for the development and sharpening of concepts. Herskovits (1937a; 1937b) in his studies of New World Negro cultures provided numerous analyses of what he called “syncretism,” or recombinations of cultural elements from different societies into new wholes. He also introduced the concept of cultural focus, the area of greatest awareness and elaboration of cultural elements, which he held is the area of most rapid change but, under certain contact conditions, may be the area of greatest resistance to change. Linton (1940) emphasized the distinction between two major classes of conditions under which contact changes take place. He designated one of these “directed culture change,” calling attention to circumstances under which a dominant society may induce or force changes in the way of life of a subordinated society. These circumstances, he held, have consequences very different from those in which members of a society are able to choose cultural elements freely. Linton (1943) recognized a class of “reactions” as nativistic movements and proceeded to classify these into some six different types, ranging from “magical–revivalistic” to “rational–perpetuative” movements, a useful beginning at the classification of very complex recurrent phenomena of culture contact. Ralph Beals (1951) pointed out similarities in the processes that anthropologists were referring to as acculturation and those that had long been studied by sociologists as urbanization. He also suggested (1953) the applicability of concepts and research approaches derived from acculturation studies to the study of ethnic and class relations in large, complex political units. Another Social Science Research Council committee (Social Science Research Council 1954) made notable advances toward sharper conceptualization of results of contact and of types of contact situations in terms of role networks. Although Kroeber’s characterization of the field of acculturation as a passing fad ([1923] 1948, p. 426) was belied, it was still true by 1960 that generally accepted propositions about the nature of change under contact conditions were lacking. The 1935 memorandum had ventured no generalizations, nor did the 1954 committee report.

One of the early criticisms of acculturation studies had been that they were ethnocentric. They were almost exclusively limited to situations in which societies of Western culture were dominant. Kroeber, Herskovits, and others felt that this led to serious bias because there was inadequate basis for comparative analysis. This criticism came before anthropologists were led to attempt acculturation analyses outside the Western framework. Actually, the great variety of Western cultures provided considerable basis for broad comparative study. Studies of the contact conditions set up under the dominance of Spain during the period from 1500 to 1800 in Mexico, the Philippines, and South America began to be made in great detail (for instance, Foster 1960; Phelan 1959). The processes and results of Hispanization during the colonial phase and Mexicanization during a later phase were very different, just as were the sharp differences between Anglicization of North American Indians on reservations and Anglicization of Ghanaians on the Guinea coast of Africa. In short, a wide variety of historical acculturation situations were fairly well known by 1960. These differed according to the dominant European nations, according to the historic periods as the European nations changed, and according to the cultures that were subordinated. Students of acculturation were beginning to bring into the same framework with Westernization those instances of acculturation called Hinduization (Bose 1929), Sinification, and Japanization; it also seemed likely that Romanization and Hellenization were on the point of being included in the same framework of investigation.

The main line of development of acculturation studies continued to be descriptive. Studies seemed to aim at determining what kinds of cultural elements changed readily and what kinds were resistant to change. Most studies took their direction from the circumstances of acculturation in the parts of the world where they were carried out. Thus the North American investigators learned about many instances of cultural loss and disintegration and about cultural assimilation as they conducted research on the Indian reservations of the United States and Canada. Similarly, Mexican and other students, as they worked in the cultures of Middle America, became familiar with examples of syncretism, or cultural fusion, in the Indian religious, economic, and social systems of that region.

It was apparent that some half-dozen foci of interest had developed that were leading to the formulation of general problems. These foci of investigation were the following: (a) nativistic movements, (b) cultural fusion, (c) personality and acculturation, (d) biculturism, (e) social scale and cultural change, and (f) techniques in directed change.

Nativistic movements

Detailed information concerning nativistic movements among non-Western peoples began to accumulate before the concept of acculturation had taken form. One of the earliest careful studies was that of James Mooney (1896), who in the 1890s studied the Ghost Dance among Indians of the western United States for the Bureau of American Ethnology. He combined this with less detailed comparative studies of other nativistic movements among Indians north of Mexico. Variant forms of the Ghost Dance continued to be described (Spier 1935; Suttles 1957), as well as other North American Indian movements, such as the Native American Church and the Handsome Lake Religion (Wallace 1961a).

A similar abundant body of data regarding the nativistic movements characteristic of Melanesia, usually collectively called “cargo cults,” steadily developed, beginning with early studies of the Vailala Madness (Williams 1923) and continuing to the present in the study of the Paliau movement in the Admiralty Islands (Schwartz 1962). These were summarized at some length by Worsley (1957) and by Hogbin (1958). The Hau Hau movement of the Maoris of New Zealand and the Mau Mau movement of the Kikuyu of East Africa, as well as numerous other nativistic movements in South Africa, Siberia, South America, and Middle America were intensively described. Notable efforts to explain these recurrent contact phenomena in terms of a general theory have been those by Nash (1937), Worsley (1957), and Wallace (1961b). Nash’s analysis of Klamath and Modoc nativistic movements in the western United States and Worsley’s study of cargo cults opened the way to consideration of the relation between deprivation of groups and individuals in contact situations and their participation in movements focused by symbols expressing basic attitudes of acceptance and rejection of the dominant culture. This approach has been carried farther and made more systematic on a comparative basis by Wallace, whose studies of the Iroquois Handsome Lake Religion have led to the formulation of hypothetical stages in what he calls the revitalization process under conditions of dominant-subordinate relations in culture contact. The immense variety in nativistic movements, now known in great detail for most areas of the world under Western dominance and less well for some other conditions, is being reduced to some kind of systematic classification and general interpretation. It is at the same time being related to theories of nationalism and religious revivalism in complex states.

Cultural fusion

As soon as the pioneer students of acculturation turned their attention to firsthand studies of contact, they became aware of emergent cultural forms stimulated by contact situations. In some instances, very circumscribed portions of the cultures combined under new circumstances to give rise to new culture complexes or traits. This was the case of the New World Negro supernatural figures described by Herskovits, which were a combination of elements taken from both European Christianity and African religions. In other instances, large segments of cultures were transformed into something which could be matched in neither the receiving nor the donor society prior to contact. This was the case of the institution of “potlatch” among Northwest Coast American Indians. In still other instances, it was clear that the process of recombination could result in the creation of whole new cultures, a process that appeared to characterize many of the Indian cultures of Middle America following the period of extensive innovation from Spanish culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such instances of cultural fusion gained the special attention of anthropologists, who presented descriptions of them from all over the world in all aspects of culture, including technology, language, economy, social organization, religion, and art. It became clear that fusion characterized all instances of contact change and that results of contact varied in respect to the degree to which fusion took place, rather than as to whether or not it occurred to the exclusion of replacement or other processes. For example, revitalization movements characteristically employed fusions of various cultural elements available in the contact situation. This was true even though such movements (in the minds of their participants) might stand for rejection of everything from a dominant society. Furthermore, there appeared to be certain conditions that were recurrently associated with fusion (e.g., Interuniversity Summer Research Seminar … 1961; Firth 1959).


The contact phenomenon known originally as “acceptance,” or replacement by borrowed elements, was studied rather intensively, although perhaps not so much so as cultural fusion. It was studied especially among North American Indians, but also to some extent among Polynesians and Africans. Studies of Navaho veterans of World War II made it possible to identify stages in the process of individual acceptance of new modes of living (Vogt 1952), and studies of what was called biculturation by Polgar (1960) made clear that individuals in contact situations that stimulated replacement were not restricted to a single type of response. As in bilingualism, two or more ways of behavior could be learned by an individual and employed under different circumstances where appropriate. Bicultural response was found to be a recurrent phenomenon under the conditions set up on Indian reservations in the United States. Its implications in terms of integration of the individual personally and as a participant in culture were obvious. Distinction was made between acculturation processes as they affect individuals and as they affect groups.

Acculturation and personality

A. I. Hallowell (1945) made a series of studies among Indians of Canada that pointed to the conclusion that personality configuration remained relatively stable as compared with cultural behavior. These studies among Ojibwa and Salteaux Indians seemed to disagree with studies by the Beagleholes (1941) of Polynesians in New Zealand and elsewhere, which led them to the conclusion that personality structure must change before cultural systems could change. Wallace (1961b) held that the personalities of peoples in contact acted as screens that selected elements from the cultures of neighboring societies with which they were in contact, a viewpoint consistent with Hallowell’s interpretations. Studies by George Spindler (1955) of Indians in the same region as those studied by Hallowell attempted to relate changing sociocultural variables to changing personality variables. These studies pointed more and more to an interest in the types of individual response and adjustment correlated with types of contact situations. As such they constituted investigations very closely related to the studies of biculturalism.

Social scale

In Africa and in Middle America there was an interesting convergence of research approaches represented by Godfrey and Monica Wilson (1945) and Robert Redfield (1941) respectively. This consisted in the study of the relationship between social scale and cultural change. Redfield’s studies of acculturation in Middle American communities led him to the formulation of a general theory of cultural change that related changes in degree of secularization, individuation, and cultural disorganization to change in “isolation.” In general, he held that decreasing isolation was associated with increases in the other three variables. This was not presented by Redfield as “acculturation theory,” but it is obvious that by decrease in isolation of a community or group of communities, he could only mean increase of contacts. This aspect of his “folk–urban” theory is therefore to be considered as concerned with conditions of contact. Employing different phraseology, but obviously proceeding from the observation of phenomena very similar to those observed by Redfield, the Wilsons developed a similar body of theory. They did not employ the term “isolation,” but identified a variable that they called “social scale.” This in general means the extent of the area of social interaction of a given set of individuals and appears, therefore, to be more easily measurable than Redfield’s isolation. However, the Wilsons insisted that intensity as well as numbers of persons in interaction had to be considered in social scale. This introduced complications but still seemed to promise better possibility of precise statement of relationships than did Redfield’s propositions. The propositions that the Wilsons advanced were very similar to those of Redfield. They suggested, for example, that increase of social scale is correlated with decrease of magicality. This was close to the proposition that decrease of isolation is correlated with increase in secularization. Both these efforts at formulation of theories of contact change were important as offering a common, broad framework for acculturation studies within the general theory of cultural and social change.

Applied anthropology

After World War ii, one of the most active areas in acculturation study was one often spoken of as applied anthropology. Attention was focused on practical programs aimed at specific changes in societies or subsocieties dominated by others. Programs of colonial administrations in Africa and Oceania, of Latin American governments in areas of high Indian density, and on Indian reservations in the United States were all studied intensively by such investigators as Keesing (1953), Hogbin (1958), Erasmus (1961), Aguirre Beltrán (1957), and many others. These programs of directed cultural change were analyzed with respect to the techniques employed for bringing about change, the objectives, and the results achieved. The work of Keesing (1953) and Foster (1962) was increasingly directed toward establishing a comparative framework within which propositions concerned with the dynamics of directed culture change could be tested.

Edward H. Spicer

[See alsoCulture and personality; Diffusion; Nativism and revivalism. Directly related are the entriesAnthropology, article onapplied anthropology; Culture, article onculture change; Evolution, article oncultural evolution.]


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The term acculturation was first used to refer to the changes that take place in cultural groups as a result of contact between them: "Acculturation comprehends those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups" (Redfield, Linton, and Herskovits 1936). Later, recognizing that there are psychological changes among the group to which they belong, Graves (1967) coined the term psychological acculturation. At both the cultural and psychological levels, the term has become widely used to refer to both the process of change (over time) and to the longer-term outcomes (often termed "adaptation") of the contact.

Acculturation is different from both enculturation and socialization. The latter terms refer to the process of initial incorporation into one's primary cultural group through an informal enfolding of the individual (enculturation), or by more formal and deliberate teaching (socialization). The former refers to a later involvement with a second culture, which may or may not lead to the incorporation of individuals into it.

Contemporary Issues

Current work on acculturation deals with several issues. First, the process is highly variable and has a number of possible outcomes (Berry 1980) depending on whether we focus on dominant (numerical, powerful) groups or non-dominant ones. One possibility is that the groups and individuals will merge to form a new culture that combines elements of both cultures (usually by the non-dominant group changing to become more like the dominant culture): this possibility has been termed assimilation. A second possibility is that the non-dominant group seeks to maintain its culture and avoids further contact with dominant group (termed separation). A third way (integration) occurs when both groups maintain their own cultures, adapting them so that their continuing contacts enable them to live together in a culturally plural society. The fourth possibility (marginalization) occurs when individuals and groups no longer value their own culture and do not seek to participate in the larger society. For many years, it was assumed that assimilation was the only and inevitable way for acculturation to take place; however, the continued existence of many cultural communities within diverse societies demonstrates that the other three ways are also possible. Integration is often the preferred way of acculturating (Berry 2002).

A second issue is whether change following contact will be only in the non-dominant group or will also be evident in the dominant group. Acculturative change is clearly underway in both groups: massive changes have occurred in immigrant-receiving societies, as well as among immigrant groups themselves. Increasingly, acculturation is recognized as a process of mutual accommodation, in which both (all) groups in contact change in the various ways outlined above.

A third issue is whether the process is a short-term one that is over and done with in few years. Historical and current evidence shows that changes continue over generations, starting with those first in contact, and continuing for their children and later generations. Cultural groups often do maintain themselves by way of the process of enculturation, and then continue to adapt to their ongoing intercultural contact, by way of acculturation.

Fourth is the distinction between process and outcome. Acculturation (the process) clearly takes place over time and has a complex course as groups and individuals try out the various ways of acculturating. However, at any one time, groups and individuals can be understood as acculturating in a particular way, with certain consequences. A distinction has been made between two forms of adaptation (Ward 1996): psychological and socio-cultural. The former refers to internal personal qualities (e.g., self-esteem, good mental health, a clear identity); the latter refers to relationships between the individual and the new sociocultural context (e.g., competence in living interculturally, in daily interactions in school and work). Successful acculturation requires both forms of adaptation evidenced by positive psychological and sociocultural adaptation. Integration is not only the most preferred way, but it is also the most successful (Berry 1997).

Family Acculturation

Beyond cultural groups and individuals, acculturation processes and outcomes also take place in families, often with evidence of differences between spouses and between parents and children, in both their preferred ways of acculturating and in the adaptations that are achieved.

Acculturation constitutes a double transition for married immigrants in that both the individuals and the marriage need to adapt to the new culture. In this context, marital adaptation relates to the mutual accommodation of spouses when each is faced with a new culture, new forms of behavior, and different ways of acculturating. Marital and acculturation problems may be closely linked with each other. Marital problems constitute a major source of stress leading to disagreement between spouses. These problems can make life more difficult in the new culture, or conversely, a happy marriage can lead to a successful adaptation. Marital strain was found to have an impact on both the marital distress and the depressive and psychosomatic symptoms of Indo-Canadian women (Dyal, Rybensky, and Somers 1988). Josephine Naidoo (1985) found that South Asian women in Canada who had supportive husbands experienced fewer feelings of stress. Among Muslim Moroccan immigrants in Montreal, those who were more satisfied in their marriages had less psychological stress (El Haïli and Lasry 1997).

Research suggests that marital conflict does not necessarily increase due to immigration. Immigrant Jewish couples in Israel were found not to experience more marital tension than Israeli-born couples. In fact, couples who stayed in their native land expressed more conflict than immigrant couples in domains such as whether the wife should work outside the home and the division of labor in the home; the two groups did not differ in terms of decision making in the home (Hartman and Hartman 1986). Hispanic American couples also did not differ from European American couples in the frequency of major marital conflict (Lindahl and Malik 1999).

In a study on the acculturation and adaptation of married Turkish immigrants in Toronto, Canada, Bilge Ataca (1998) introduced marital adaptation as a separate facet of the overall adaptation of immigrants. The findings showed that the marital relationship did not experience more difficulty due to the problems of living in a new culture. Immigrant couples were not found to be different from Turkish couples in Turkey and European Canadian couples in terms of marital adaptation. Hence, it seems as if immigration increases solidarity between spouses by leaving them to resolve problems on their own, thereby, improving the marital relationship (Hartman and Hartman 1986).

Overall, Turkish immigrant couples strongly adopted the separation strategy more than other acculturation strategies. They placed high value on maintaining their cultural identity and characteristics, and resisted relations with the larger society. Couples of high and low socioeconomic status (SES), however, showed different preferences. Those of high SES preferred integration and assimilation to a greater, and separation to a lesser extent than those of low SES (Ataca 1998).

When marital adaptation was examined in light of acculturation attitudes, marginalization showed a significant impact on psychological and marital adaptation (Ataca and Berry under review). Marginalization brought about not only negative psychological outcomes, but also impeded the couple's adaptation. When alienated from both the culture of origin and the culture of settlement, individuals may develop a marginal state of mind in which it is cumbersome to accommodate the spouse. However, the established link in the literature between marginalization and psychological difficulty held true only for those of lower SES. Adopting the marginalization strategy (as defined above), only when coupled with low levels of education, produced a negative effect on psychological and marital well-being. The feelings of not belonging to either culture, loss, isolation, and loneliness, coupled with few resources such as low proficiency in English, low wages, and few appropriate skills in the new cultural context, may trigger feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and thereby lead to the most adverse effects. This state of mind may also promote more marital discord.

Ataca's (1998) study also revealed a major effect of SES on the marital relationship. Immigrant couples of low SES had better marital adaptation than those of high SES (Ataca and Berry 2002). Because most high SES women are employed outside the home, they can be more independent and enjoy greater autonomy and freedom than their counterparts in the low SES group. This may cause conflicts between spouses in the high SES group because it weakens the husband's traditional authority. In contrast, the traditional roles are the norm and, therefore, are more prevalent in the low SES group. Most women are not employed outside the home; they are dependent on and submissive to their husbands. They do not challenge the husbands' authority; this prevents tension in the marital relationship. In general, with networks of friends and relatives less available, the spouses depend more on each other for support as they become acculturated. Marital support and adaptation in this context were also related to acculturation attitudes. The stronger the bond between spouses with greater support and satisfaction in marriage, the more they chose to cherish the culture of origin and resist relations with the larger society (Ataca 1998).

Intergenerational conflicts and acculturation preferences of parents and children have also attracted attention in the area of family acculturation. One study found that young Cuban Americans adopted the values of the larger American society more than their parents, whereas the parents remained more attached to their heritage cultures. These differences in acculturation led to greater intergenerational conflicts; parents lost control over their adolescents who strived for autonomy and rejected the traditional Cuban ways (see Szapocznik and Kurtines 1993). Jean S. Phinney, Anthony Ong, and Tanya Madden (2000) studied intergenerational value discrepancies in family obligations among both immigrant and nonimmigrant families in the United States. In the Armenian and Vietnamese families, the intergenerational discrepancy was greater in families who had longer residence and a U.S.-born adolescent, while Mexican families did not show such a difference. The Vietnamese had the largest discrepancy compared to the other immigrant groups. Such discrepancies, however, were not found to be greater in immigrant families; European and African American families did not differ from Armenian and Mexican American families. Phinney and colleagues (2000) concluded that value discrepancies between parents and adolescents are not necessarily related to immigration, but may reflect a universal tendency in which parents strive to maintain the existing norms, and adolescents question their obligations.

Andrew J. Fuligni and colleagues studied attitudes toward authority, autonomy, family obligations, and perceptions of family conflict and cohesion among American adolescents with Filipino, Chinese, Mexican, Central and South American, and European backgrounds (Fuligni 1998; Fuligni, Tseng, and Lam 1999). Asian and Latin American adolescents had stronger beliefs and greater expectations about their obligation to assist, respect, and support their families than did European American adolescents. This finding was consistent across the adolescents' generation; the same ethnic differences held true for the third-generation adolescents (Fuligni et al. 1999). However, in terms of beliefs and expectations about parental authority and autonomy, Fuligni (1998) found that only Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican American adolescents who come from immigrant families followed traditional norms of agreeing with parents and placing less emphasis on behavioral autonomy. Adolescents from native-born families were similar to European American adolescents in their beliefs and expectations. Hence, over generations, Asian and Latin American adolescents displayed influences of both their culture of origin by the endorsement of family obligations and of the American culture by the desire for greater autonomy (Fuligni et al. 1999).


Acculturation is a highly variable process for both the cultural groups in contact and for their individual members; it is also a complex situation for spouses and for parents and their children. Thus, no easy generalizations can be made. However, in most studies, people tend to prefer to acculturate first by integrating and then by separation. Both of these involve the maintenance, to some extent, of their heritage culture. This pattern of preference is also the most successful for couples and families, especially when spouses and parents and children agree on how to acculturate. At the same time, some evidence supports involvement with, and acquisition of competence in the larger society. However, if this is done at the expense of heritage culture loss, it can be personally maladaptive and disruptive to marital and family relationships.

See also:Immigration; Intergenerational Transmission; Socialization; Socioeconomic Status


ataca, b. (1998). "psychological, sociocultural, and marital adaptation of turkish immigrants in canada." ph.d. dissertation. kingston: queen's university.

ataca, b., and berry, j. w. (2002). "psychological, socio-cultural, and marital adaptation of turkish immigrants." international journal of psychology 37:13–26.

ataca, b. and berry, j. w. (under review). "comparative study of acculturation and adaptation among turkish immigrants in canada." journal of cross-cultural psychology.

berry, j. w. (1980). "acculturation as varieties of adaptation." in acculturation: theory, models, and some new findings, ed. a. padilla. boulder, co: westview press.

berry, j. w. (1997). "immigration, acculturation and adaptation." applied psychology: an international review 46:5–8.

berry, j. w. (2002). "conceptual approaches to acculturation." in acculturation, ed. g. marin, p. balls-organista, and k. chung. washington, dc: apa books.

dyal, j. a.; rybensky, l.; and somers, m. (1988). "marital and acculturative strain among indo-canadian and euro-canadian women." in ethnic psychology: research and practice with immigrants, refugees, native peoples, ethnic groups, and sojourners, ed. j. w. berry and r. c. annis. lisse, netherlands: swets and zeitlinger.

el haïli, s., and lasry, j. (1998). "pouvoir conjugal, roles sexuels, et harmonie maritale chez des couples immigrants marocains a montreal." revue quebecoise de psychologie 19:1–18.

fuligni, a. j. (1998). "authority, autonomy, and parent-adolescent conflict and cohesion: a study of adolescents from mexican, chinese, filipino, and european backgrounds." developmental psychology 34:782–792.

fuligni, a. j.; tseng, v.; and lam, m. (1999). "attitudes toward family obligations among american adolescents with asian, latin american, and european backgrounds." child development 70:1030–1044.

graves, t. (1967). "psychological acculturation in a tri-ethnic community." southwestern journal of anthropology 23:337–350.

hartman, m., and hartman, h. (1986). "international migration and household conflict." journal of comparative family studies 17:131–138.

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Acculturation is the process whereby the attitudes and/or behaviors of people from one culture are modified as a result of contact with a different culture. Acculturation implies a mutual influence in which elements of two cultures mingle and merge. It has been hypothesized that in order for acculturation to occur, some relative cultural equality has to exist between the giving and the receiving culture. In contrast, assimilation is a process of cultural absorption of a minority group into the main cultural body. In assimilation, the tendency is for the ruling cultural group to enforce the adoption of their values rather than the blending of values. From a practical point of view it may be hard to differentiate between acculturation and assimilation, for it is difficult to judge whether people are free or not free to choose one or another aspect of a culture. The term "ethnic identity" has sometimes been used in association with acculturation, but the two terms should be distinguished. The concept of acculturation deals broadly with changes in cultural attitudes between two distinct cultures. The focus is on the group rather than the individual, and on how minority or immigrant groups relate to the dominant or host society. Ethnic identity may be thought of as an aspect of acculturation in which the concern is with individuals and how they relate to their own group as a subgroup of the larger society.

Acculturation is a complex concept, and two distinct models have guided its definition: a linear model and a two-dimensional model. The linear model is based on the assumption that a strong ethnic identity is not possible among those who become involved in the mainstream society and that acculturation is inevitably accompanied by a weakening of ethnic identity. Alternatively, the two-dimensional model suggests that both the relationship with the traditional or ethnic culture and the relationship with the new or dominant culture play important roles in the process. Using the two-dimensional model, J. W. Berry has suggested that there are four possible outcomes of the acculturation process: assimilation (movement toward the dominant culture), integration (synthesis of the two cultures), rejection (reaffirmation of the traditional culture), or marginalization (alienation from both cultures). Similarly, Sodowsky and Plake have defined three dimensions of acculturation: assimilation, biculturalism (the ability to live in both worlds, with denial of neither), and observance of traditionality (rejection of the dominant culture).

The term "acculturation" was first used in anthropology in the late 1800s. Early studies dealt with the patterns in Indian-Spanish assimilation and acculturation in Central and South America, the consequences of contact between Native American tribes and whites, and the study of the culture of Haiti as a derivative of West African and French patterns. Increasingly, the importance of acculturation has been recognized in the social sciences, sociology, psychology, epidemiology, and public health.


It has long been known that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are interrelated, and that there are marked variations in health status among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. There are many factors that can contribute to these variations, including the level of acculturation of a particular group. It is therefore important to have a method of measurement of acculturation.

The acculturation process affects a range of behaviors, values, and beliefs. All of the scales used to measure acculturation include items on second-language proficiency, because being able to communicate in the language of the host culture is a prerequisite to learning about it. Some scales also assess patterns of language use, friendship choices, food, music or movie preferences, cultural awareness, ethnic pride, place of birth, and contact with one's homeland. Acculturation scales have been developed for different ethnic groups, including Hispanics, Filipinos, Asian Americans, and Southeast Asian immigrants to the United States.

For immigrants, the percentage of one's lifetime spent in the host country and one's age at the time of immigration have been shown to correlate with more extensive and detailed measures of acculturation, and are therefore good indicators of an individual's level of acculturation when more detailed information is unavailable.


Level of acculturation has been shown to be associated with many aspects of health behavior in the United States. High levels of acculturation have been shown to be associated with greater use of mental health services among female Chinese immigrants, increased alcohol intake among Mexican-American women and Southeast Asian immigrants, and increased smoking prevalence among Asian-American youth and Mexican-American women. In contrast, a study among African Americans showed a lower prevalence of smoking among men and women with higher levels of acculturation. Dietary patterns have been shown to change with acculturation. For example, among Hispanics, those with a higher level of acculturation are less likely to consume rice, beans, fruits, meat, fried foods, and whole milk than those with lower levels of acculturation. Many studies have shown high levels of acculturation to be associated with increased cervical and breast cancer screening among Latinos and Asian Americans, and with increased cervical, breast, and colorectal cancer screening among Filipino and Korean immigrants. Such studies show that while acculturation can increase one's health risk in some cases, it can also promote health by creating access to certain forms of health care and by contributing to the abandonment of risky health-related behaviors and the adoption of behaviors that promote good health.

Acculturation has also been shown to influence knowledge and attitudes that shape and influence health behaviors. For example, several theoretical models postulate that knowledge of cancer screening guidelines, perceived severity of cancer, perceived susceptibility to contracting cancer, perceived group norms regarding cancer screening, and perceived barriers to cancer screening will influence whether or not a person will get screened. Many studies have demonstrated that these underlying beliefs differ between individuals with high and low levels of acculturation. A 1996 study showed that Latino women with lower acculturation levels were less knowledgeable about breast cancer risk factors and symptoms and had less favorable attitudes about breast cancer compared to their more acculturated peers. Another study showed that unacculturated Korean-American women were less likely to have friends who had mammograms, were less likely to receive a doctor's recommendation to get screened, and were more likely to state that it was difficult for them to go to a mammography facility than were their more acculturated peers. A study among Hispanic women found that the members of the more acculturated group were more confident in their abilities to acquire health-related information and to seek assistance than the less acculturated group. Still another study among first-and second-generation Japanese-American women found differences in general knowledge of osteoporosis, attributions of its causes, anticipated and preferred support mechanisms for care, treatment compliance, and feelings toward physicians.

These studies show the importance of considering acculturation in developing health-education messages and interventions that are culturally appropriate in terms of language and content, and in terms of psychological factors related to health behavior change. Program planners, researchers, and health educators who understand and take into account the level of acculturation in a target population will be better able to design effective programs of health intervention.

Annette E. Maxwell

(see also: African Americans; American Indians and Alaska Natives; Asian Americans; Assimilation; Biculturalism; Cultural Anthropology; Cultural Factors; Cultural Identity; Ethnicity and Health; Hispanic Cultures; Indigenous Populations )


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The process of adapting to or adopting the practices of a culture different from one's own.

Acculturation is the process of learning about and adapting to a new culture. A new culture may require adjustments in all or some of the aspects of daily living, including language, work, shopping, housing, children's schooling, health care, recreation, and social life. Relocation to a society that is similar to one's own requires less acculturation than moving to a society where cultural norms are unfamiliar. For example, moving to a society where women's roles are different from those of one's home culture can cause feelings of isolation and confusion for the adult women of the family .

Acculturation is different in subtle ways from assimilation : assimilation involves being absorbed into the new culture. A popular metaphor for this process was introduced in 1908 by the playwright Israel Zangwill with his work, The Melting Pot. Acculturation, on the other hand, is the process of learning the practices and customs of a new culture. People can assimilate without being acculturated. The distinctively dressed Hasidim of Brooklyn or the Mormons of Utah are not completely acculturated to contemporary American society, but they are assimilated. Understanding the distinction between acculturation and assimilation is important for public policy and for society's ability to grow and function smoothly.

A homogeneous consumer culture worldwide has changed the nature of acculturation. People all over the globe watch the same news reports on CNN, rent the same movies, watch the same television programs, eat the same pizzas and burgers from fast food franchises, and many of the world's families have made at least one visit to a Disney theme park. Immigrants to a new country may already be very familiar with the customs and lifestyle of their new home.

Cultural pluralism and multiculturalism

American sociologist Horace Kallen argues that it is unrealistic and counterproductive to force new immigrants to abandon their familiar, lifelong cultural attributes when they arrive in the United States. Instead of the concept of the "melting pot," Kallen prescribed what he called "cultural pluralism." Cultural pluralism views U.S. society as a federation rather than a union. Sometimes referred to as multiculturalism, this approach suggests that each group of ethnic Americans has rights, such as representation in government according to their percentage of the total population, and the right to speak and work in their native language. However, English-language culture and social influences continue to dominate, but African American, Hispanic, Jewish, Italian, Asian, and other ethnic influences are certainly apparent.

Further Reading

Gordon, Milton Myron. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Jacobson, Adam R. "Changing With the Times." Hispanic 7, (March 1994): 20+.

Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. "Should Immigrants Assimilate?" The Public Interest, (Summer 1994): 18+.

Richey, Marilyn. "Global Families: Surviving an Overseas Move." Management Review 85, (June 1996): 57+.

Salins, Peter D. Assimilation, American Style. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

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acculturation, culture changes resulting from contact among various societies over time. Contact may have distinct results, such as the borrowing of certain traits by one culture from another, or the relative fusion of separate cultures. Early studies of acculturation reacted against the predominant trend of trying to reconstruct cultures of presumably isolated societies. Such work was faulted for implying that various cultural groups enjoyed an unchanging, precontact period. In this view, the anthropologist's job seemed quite simple, since each culture could be perceived as a unitary whole. Interactions with other peoples have, in fact, always been a significant feature of social life. Early studies of contact called attention to resulting social and individual psychological disturbances. Studies today often call attention to the development of one complex world system, in which some societies dominate others economically, politically, and socially. Many cultural theorists also observe the ways in which cultural groups resist domination, often working against acculturation in the process. Syncretism occurs when a subordinate group molds elements of a dominant culture to fit its own traditions. Acculturation differs from assimilation, in which different ethnic groups combine to form a new culture.

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ac·cul·tur·ate / əˈkəlchəˌrāt/ • v. assimilate or cause to assimilate a different culture, typically the dominant one: [intr.] he has acculturated to the U.S. | [tr.] the weeks spent acculturating the staff. DERIVATIVES: ac·cul·tur·a·tion / əˌkəlchəˈrāshən/ n. ac·cul·tur·a·tive / -ərətiv; -əˌrātiv/ adj.

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Acculturation (acquiring cultural characteristics): see CULTURAL RELATIVITY.

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acculturation See ASSIMILATION.

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