Millions of people cross cultural boundaries each year. Immigrants and refugees seek a new life away from their familiar grounds, along with various groups of temporary sojourners – from employees of multinational corporations, missionaries, diplomats, and military personnel, to professors, researchers, high school and college students, musicians and artists, and doctors and nurses. Although individual circumstances may differ widely, all strangers in a new environment embark on the common project of acculturation.
Approaches And Related Concepts
Research on acculturation has been extensive across social science disciplines. The term was first adopted in the 1930s by the Social Science Research Council to represent the new inquiry in cultural anthropology. The Council provided the parameters for this new field of inquiry, which dealt with “those phenomena which result when groups of individuals have different cultures and come into first-hand contact with subsequent changes in the original pattern of either or both groups” (Redfield et al. 1936, 149).
Early anthropologists such as Herskovits (1958) observed the dynamics of change in traditional cultures and the presence of kin, friends, and social organizations within immigrant communities. Sociologists such as Glazer and Moynihan (1963) have addressed issues pertaining to the processes in which minority groups are integrated into the political, economic, and social structures of the society. More recently, researchers in social and cross-cultural psychology and intercultural communication have investigated acculturation at the individual level, dealing primarily with intrapersonal and interpersonal issues. Szalay and Inn (1988), for instance, examined how thought patterns of immigrants changed over time, while Gudykunst (2005) focused on the two ubiquitous psychological experiences of uncertainty and anxiety. Other individual-level studies have researched acculturation of native-born domestic ethnic minorities, such as Native Americans (Kim et al. 1998), who face acculturative pressures from the mainstream culture.
From the perspective of the individual, acculturation refers to the learning, practicing, and internalizing of the symbols and behaviors prevalent in the new cultural environment. Acculturation often accompanies deculturation, that is, unlearning or replacement of some of the symbols and habitual practices of the original culture, at least in the sense that new responses are adopted in situations that previously would have evoked old ones. The interplay of acculturation and deculturation experiences facilitates adaptation, that is, the process of internal change in the individual so as to achieve a relatively stable, reciprocal, and functional relationship with a given environment. As some of the old cultural habits are replaced by new ones, individuals acquire increasing proficiency in self-expression and the fulfillment of their various social needs.
Changes occur more readily in superficial areas such as overt role behavior than in areas involving deeply held beliefs and values. Given sufficient time, even those who interact with natives with the intention of confining themselves to only superficial relationships are likely to be at least minimally adapted to the host culture “in spite of themselves” (Taft 1977, 150). The theoretical directionality of adaptive change is toward assimilation, a state of psychological, social, and cultural convergence to those of the natives. Although full assimilation is a lifetime goal even for long-term immigrants, the long-term trend of cultural convergence has been amply documented in numerous studies of immigrants and subsequent generations.
The cumulative-progressive trajectory, however, has been challenged by some investigators since the 1970s following the movements of civil rights, ethnic power, and ethnic identity. Berry’s (1980) model, for example, reflects such a pluralistic concern. It is built on two basic conscious or unconscious identity choices each individual can make: “Are [ethnic] cultural identity and customs of value to be retained?” and “Are positive relations with the larger society of value and to be sought?” The response types (yes, no) to these two questions are combined to produce four acculturation outcomes: integration (yes, yes), assimilation (no, yes), separation (yes, no), and marginality (no, no). Berry’s model emphasizes multiple psychological choices individuals can make and the corresponding identity outcomes with respect to their original culture and the host society. As such, the model offers an alternative approach to the traditional conception of acculturation as the unitary process of new cultural learning and acquisition.
The Communication Factors
Communication is the carrier of all social processes and the essential means for organizing, stabilizing, and modifying human life. It is through communication that individuals learn to interact easily with others in a given cultural community. Documenting and incorporating an extensive body of research evidence, Kim (2001) offers an interactive model in which the following communication factors link an individual to a new cultural environment.
Host communication competence is defined as the totality of an individual’s capabilities pertaining to communicative engagement with the host environment in accordance with the verbal and nonverbal codes, norms, and practices of the host culture. This concept includes linguistic and cultural knowledge as well as the affective-motivational aptitude to appreciate and participate in the emotional and aesthetic sensibilities of the natives including the experiences of joy, humor, and beauty, as well as anger and despair. Host communication competence directly influences, and is influenced by, participation in host social communication activities. The primary mode of social communication is host interpersonal communication in face-to-face encounters with local people. Active participation in such direct contacts facilitates the development of host communication competence and supportive personal relationships. Newcomers also participate in the host social processes via a wide range of public and mediated forms of host mass communication, from radio, television, newspaper, magazine, and movie, to art, music, and drama. By engaging in such public communication activities, strangers are able to expand the scope of their acculturation experiences beyond the immediate social context with which they come into daily contact.
Communication activities of newcomers often involve their co-ethnics or co-nationals, as well. Whether we speak of American military posts in the former West Germany, or African immigrants in Spain, ethnic communities provide newcomers with access to ethnic interpersonal communication activities. Many immigrant communities have organized some form of mutual-aid or self-help organizations. Such organizations render assistance to those who need material, informational, emotional, and other forms of social support. In addition, immigrants in many communities enjoy ethnic mass communication activities such as watching satellite television programs or recorded movies and music tapes, and reading ethnic newspapers that are available locally or accessible via the Internet and other technological means. Initially, participation in ethnic social communication may provide important support functions for newcomers. Prolonged and exclusive reliance on ethnic social communication, however, tends to discourage and impede acculturation in the host environment at large. Suro (1998) attributed Hispanic immigrants’ relatively slower pace of socio-economic advancement in the United States (compared to Asian and European immigrants) to the ease with which they visit and maintain ties with their home countries.
Figure 1 The stress–adaptation–growth dynamic (Kim 2001, 59)
Communication, Stress, And Transformation
The experiences of host social communication necessarily entail stress. In studies of short-term sojourners, terms such as culture shock and transition shock capture stress reactions including irritability, insomnia, insecurity, and loneliness, as well as defensive reactions such as denial, avoidance, and withdrawal. Relatedly, the process of sojourner adjustment over time has been depicted in the U-curve hypothesis. This model explains that people typically begin a cross-cultural sojourn with optimism and elation, followed by the subsequent “trough” depicting a stage of hostility and emotional difﬁculty, a recovery stage characterized by increased language knowledge and cultural learning, and a ﬁnal stage in which anxiety is largely gone and new customs are accepted and enjoyed. The Ucurve hypothesis has been extended to the W-curve by adding the experiences of re-entry shock and readjustment upon returning home (Ward et al. 2001).
Stress is also central to Kim’s (2001) theory of cross-cultural adaptation. In this theory, the adaptation process is explained as an unfolding of the stress–adaptation–growth dynamic. As shown in Figure 1, the stress–adaptation–growth dynamic plays out not in a smooth, arrow-like linear progression, but in a cyclic and continual “draw-back-to-leap” movement. As a newcomer strives to meet the challenges of the host environment, some aspects of the host culture are incorporated into his or her host communication competence. A “crisis,” once managed, presents an opportunity for new learning and self-renewal. To the extent that stress is responsible for frustration and anxiety, it is also credited as a necessary impetus for new learning and growth. Kim further explains that, as the ﬂuctuations of stress and adaptation diminish over time, a calming of the overall life experiences takes hold and a largely monocultural identity begins to shift toward an increasingly “intercultural” identity.
With the advent of electronic communication and globalization, one no longer has to leave home to experience acculturation. Through direct contacts as well as via mass media and other technological means of communication, people around the world are increasingly exposed to the images and sounds of once-distant cultures. In many urban centers, local people are routinely coming into contacts with foreign-born individuals. This rapidly developing phenomenon of crossing cultures at home promises a new chapter in the continuing evolution of acculturation theory and research.
- Berry, J. (1980). Acculturation as varieties of adaptation. In A. Padilla (ed.), Acculturation: Theory, models and some new findings. Washington, DC: Westview, pp. 9 –25.
- Glazer, N., & Moynihan, D. (1963). Beyond the melting pot. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Gudykunst, W. (2005). An anxiety/uncertainty management (AUM) theory of strangers’ intercultural adjustment. In W. Gudykunst (ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 419 – 457.
- Herskovits, M. (1958). Acculturation: The study of culture contact. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
- Kim, Y. Y. (2001). Becoming intercultural: An integrative theory of communication and cross-cultural adaptation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kim, Y. Y., Lujan, P., & Dixon, L. (1998). “I can walk both ways”: Identity integration of American Indians in Oklahoma. Human Communication Research, 25, 252 – 274.
- Redfield, R., Linton, R., & Herskovits, M. (1936). Outline for the study of acculturation. American Anthropologist, 38, 149 –152.
- Suro, R. (1998). Strangers among us: How Latino immigration is transforming America. New York: Knopf.
- Szalay, L., & Inn, A. (1988). Cross-cultural adaptation and diversity: Hispanic Americans. In Y. Y. Kim & W. Gudykunst (eds.), Cross-cultural adaptation: Current approaches. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 212–232.
- Taft, R. (1977). Coping with unfamiliar cultures. In N. Warren (ed.), Studies in cross-cultural psychology, vol. I. London: Academic Press, pp. 121–153.
- Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock, 2nd edn. Philadelphia: Routledge.