July 28, 2011

Acculturation has been defined as the process of cultural change that immigrants undergo when they enter in contact with a new, host culture. Immigrants bring their own cultural identity, language, values, beliefs, and behaviors, which might differ from those of the host culture. Although it is less common to acknowledge that the host culture can also change through contact with immigrants, acculturation is a dynamic, reciprocal process that generates change in both groups, because culture is a dynamic and evolving configuration of cognitions, identities, behaviors, values, and norms.

There are two types of acculturation: group level and individual. Group-level change involves change at the societal level, such as a change in economic or political regime to which the entire population must adapt. For instance, due to colonization, revolution, or modernization, great economic and political changes take place that impact the society at large. Simultaneously, changes can occur at the individual level, and as individuals shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy, changes in values, behaviors, and competences take place. Individual-level acculturation can be a consequence of group-level acculturation, but not exclusively, as it also occurs when a single individual migrates to a different culture. It is possible that individuals are suddenly confronted with the need to survive and therefore have to adapt and change former behaviors, learn a new language, and live by different rules.

Acculturation may take place at a variable pace. At the group level it is possible that some changes happen very slowly. For instance, the evolution of attitudes toward vaccination or toward boiling water may require a long time in some societies, particularly if the indigenous medical beliefs differ from those of the host or colonial society.

In the early years of acculturation research, it was believed that immigrants would lose their culture while gaining the culture of the host society. Research has found that, rather than acculturation being a linear process, it is a dual process in which individuals can acquire the skills necessary to live in the host country, while retaining their own cultural skills. Such is the case of language. Immigrants do not lose their native language unless they migrate at an early age and are unable to practice their native language. Learning a new language does not have to happen at the expense of the native language. Many immigrants are bilingual; one does not have to forget one’s own language in order to learn English. European countries exemplify bilingual or multilingual societies in which bilingualism is not perceived as interfering with cognitive processes.

While language acquisition may be relatively fast, particularly if immigrants are exposed to education and training in the new language, cultural identity may change more slowly. Most immigrants continue to identify as Dominican, Brazilian, Vietnamese and, even after naturalizing and becoming citizens of the host country, they continue to identify with their original culture or their ethnicity. In fact, the history of the world reveals multiple examples in which ethnic identity is more powerful than national unity. The Basque people have retained their own ethnic identity and language despite having been assimilated by Spain. A Basque identifies first as Basque, and may even refuse to identify as Spanish. In Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot will not identify with a Turk Cypriot, even if both have been born on the island.

The tendency in the United States is to encourage “melting” into the pot rather than preserving a diversified, multicultural society. This is particularly true for European-descent Americans, who may say “I am American” rather than “I am Irish American.” However, assimilation has not been easy for people of color because they have been less welcome in the United States than white European groups. Descendants of enslaved African immigrants, of indigenous Latinos, or of the East Asians who migrated in the 19th century are often seen as strangers and foreigners in what has been their own land for a number of centuries. Thus, it makes more sense for them to identify as African American, Latino/Hispanic American, and Asian American rather than as American.

Immigration can be stressful because there are many losses and challenges that individuals face throughout this process. The resulting stress has been labeled acculturative stress. These pressures may come from the host society and involve the requirement of learning the language, customs, and mores, or they may come from the culture of origin and involve the retention of traditions, contacts with family, and potential disapproval from loved ones. The latter type of acculturative stress is common among secondor third-generation immigrants whose communities expect them to retain the behaviors and traditions of their parents. This type of acculturative stress has been less studied and it has often been disregarded in the literature.

Acculturative stress can result in poorer mental or physical health outcomes. For instance, women who had to leave children behind and cannot send for them until much later often experience depression due to separation from their loved ones. Immigrants who have fled war situations often suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder in addition to acculturative stress. In order to alleviate their pain, some immigrants may resort to alcohol or substance use, which, in turn, is related to greater risk for accidents, HIV/AIDS, and social isolation.

In sum, acculturation is a process that is multidimensional and complex, and that deserves careful study. It requires interventions not only to help immigrants adapt to the new society but also to help the host culture to successfully integrate the contribution of new immigrants.

SEE ALSO: Asian and Pacific Islander, Immigrant health, Latinos

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