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Rethinking the Concept of Acculturation
Implications for Theory and Research
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Seth J. Schwartz
Jennifer B. Unger
Byron L. Zamboanga
José Szapocznik
This article presents an expanded model of acculturation
among international migrants and their immediate descendants. Acculturation is proposed as a multidimensional
process consisting of the confluence among heritage-cultural and receiving-cultural practices, values, and identifications. The implications of this reconceptualization for
the acculturation construct, as well as for its relationship
to psychosocial and health outcomes, are discussed. In
particular, an expanded operationalization of acculturation is needed to address the “immigrant paradox,”
whereby international migrants with more exposure to the
receiving cultural context report poorer mental and physical health outcomes. We discuss the role of ethnicity,
cultural similarity, and discrimination in the acculturation
process, offer an operational definition for context of reception, and call for studies on the role that context of
reception plays in the acculturation process. The new perspective on acculturation presented in this article is intended to yield a fuller understanding of complex acculturation processes and their relationships to contextual and
individual functioning.
Keywords: acculturation, immigrant, cultural practices,
cultural values, cultural identifications
cculturation has become a well-recognized and
important area of study (Berry, 1980, 2006b;
Tadmor, Tetlock, & Peng, 2009). Broadly, as
applied to individuals, acculturation refers to changes that
take place as a result of contact with culturally dissimilar
people, groups, and social influences (Gibson, 2001). Although these changes can take place as a result of almost
any intercultural contact (e.g., globalization; Arnett, 2002),
acculturation is most often studied in individuals living in
countries or regions other than where they were born—that
is, among immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and sojourners (e.g., international students, seasonal farm workers; Berry, 2006b). Acculturation research generally focuses on immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, who
are assumed to be permanently settled in their new homeland—although these three groups may be quite different
from one another. As a result, we use the terms migrants or
international migrants to refer to these three groups collectively, but where applicable, we discuss ways in which
our hypotheses or propositions differ by type of migrant.
May–June 2010 ● American Psychologist
© 2010 American Psychological Association 0003-066X/10/$12.00
Vol. 65, No. 4, 237–251
DOI: 10.1037/a0019330
University of Miami
Claremont Graduate University
Smith College
University of Miami
Rates of international migration have reached unprecedented levels in the United States and throughout the
world. The United States, for example, is experiencing a
massive wave of immigration larger than the great immigrant waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and in
contrast to those earlier waves, the current wave is unlikely
to be cut off by restrictive legislation in the near term
(Portes & Rumbaut, 2006). Western Europe, Canada, and
Australia are also undergoing one of the largest immigrant
flows in recent history. On a worldwide scale, migrants in
the current (post-1960s) wave, which occurred when many
countries opened their borders to a more diverse array of
migrants, originate largely from Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East—regions where
collectivism (focus on the well-being of the family, clan,
nation, or religion) is emphasized over individualism (focus on the needs of the individual person; Triandis, 1995).
These migrants are settling primarily in North America,
Western Europe, and Oceania—regions where individualism is emphasized more than collectivism. As a result,
there are gaps in cultural values between many migrants
and the societies that are receiving them.
Not surprisingly, the large flow of migrants around the
world has prompted increased scholarly interest in acculturation. At least three edited books on acculturation have
been published since 2003 (e.g., Berry, Phinney, Sam, &
Vedder, 2006; Chun, Organista, & Marı́n, 2003; Sam &
Berry, 2006); and a cursory search of the PsycInfo literature database seeking journal articles with the word acculturation in the title returned 107 records from the 1980s,
337 from the 1990s, and 727 from the 2000s. However,
there remain a number of important challenges regarding
operational definitions, contextual forces, and relationships
Seth J. Schwartz and José Szapocznik, Department of Epidemiology and
Public Health, Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, University of
Miami; Jennifer B. Unger, School of Community and Global Health,
Claremont Graduate University; Byron L. Zamboanga, Department of
Psychology, Smith College.
Preparation of this article was supported by Grants DA019409 and
DA026550 (S. Schwartz, Prinicipal Investigator) from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Seth
J. Schwartz, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Leonard M.
Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, 1425 N.W. 10th Avenue,
Miami, FL 33136. E-mail: [email protected]
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Seth J.
to psychosocial and health outcomes that must be addressed (Rudmin, 2003, 2009). Therefore, the purpose of
this article is to raise some of these questions and issues
and to propose an expanded, multidimensional model of
acculturation and of the demographic and contextual forces
that can influence the acculturation process. As part of this
objective, we draw on and integrate various streams of
literature on cultural adaptation (specifically on cultural
practices, values, and identifications), on ethnicity, on discrimination and acculturative stress, and on context of
reception. Further, because the bulk of acculturation research focuses on mental or physical health indicators as
correlates or outcomes of acculturation, we draw on these
prior studies to illustrate some of our points. Specifically,
we use health outcomes as a way (a) to illustrate some of
the limitations of the current acculturation literature, (b) to
suggest ways of circumventing these limitations, and (c) to
highlight potential ways to advance the conceptualization
of acculturation so that we can better understand the health
and well-being of international migrants.
There are many aspects of the acculturation literature
that may require rethinking, and we focus on some of those
here. First, we review and contrast major acculturation
models that have been developed within cultural psychology, and we outline some of the strengths and weaknesses
of these approaches. Second, we discuss the roles of ethnicity, and of similarity between heritage culture and receiving culture, in acculturation. Third, we delineate the
ways in which acculturation is more or less salient, and
may operate differently, for different groups or types of
migrants. Fourth, we discuss the immigrant paradox, in
which acculturation has been examined simplistically in
relation to health outcomes, and we suggest addressing the
immigrant paradox by expanding the conceptualization of
acculturation. Fifth, we introduce such an expanded model
of acculturation—including cultural practices, values, and
identifications—that has the potential to synthesize several
existing literatures and to increase the theoretical, empirical, and practical utility of the acculturation construct.
Finally, we delineate context of reception as the ways in
which the receiving society constrains and directs the acculturation options available to migrants, and we frame
acculturative stress and discrimination under the heading of
an unfavorable context of reception.
Before we embark on our review and expansion of the
acculturation literature, we should note that the issues we
raise in this article may not apply to groups who experience
involuntary subjugation, either on their own land (e.g.,
Native Americans) or after their ancestors were forced to
migrate to another nation (e.g., African Americans). In
these groups, acculturation likely interacts with a complex
set of grievances that generally do not apply to immigrants,
refugees, asylum seekers, and sojourners (e.g., Forman,
2006). As such, a discussion of involuntarily subjugated
groups is beyond the scope of the present article.
Rethinking Models of Acculturation:
Dimensions and Categories
Acculturation was originally conceptualized as a unidimensional process in which retention of the heritage
culture and acquisition of the receiving culture were cast as
opposing ends of a single continuum (Gordon, 1964). According to this unidimensional model, as migrants acquired
the values, practices, and beliefs of their new homelands,
they were expected to discard those from their cultural
heritage. Indeed, many Americans assume that earlier
waves of European immigrants to the United States followed this type of straight-line assimilation (Schildkraut,
2007), and newer migrants are often criticized for not doing
so (Huntington, 2004).
Since the early 1980s, cultural psychologists have
recognized that acquiring the beliefs, values, and practices
of the receiving country does not automatically imply that
an immigrant will discard (or stop endorsing) the beliefs,
values, and practices of her or his country of origin (e.g.,
Berry, 1980). Berry developed a model of acculturation in
which receiving-culture acquisition and heritage-culture
retention are cast as independent dimensions. Within Berry’s model, these two dimensions intersect to create four
acculturation categories—assimilation (adopts the receiving culture and discards the heritage culture), separation
(rejects the receiving culture and retains the heritage culture), integration (adopts the receiving culture and retains
the heritage culture), and marginalization (rejects both the
heritage and receiving cultures).
Some recent research has suggested that Berry’s integration category (also referred to as biculturalism; BenetMartı́nez & Haritatos, 2005) is often associated with the
most favorable psychosocial outcomes, especially among
young immigrants (e.g., Coatsworth, Maldonado-Molina,
Pantin, & Szapocznik, 2005; David, Okazaki, & Saw,
2009). Bicultural individuals tend to be better adjusted
May–June 2010 ● American Psychologist
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Jennifer B.
(e.g., show higher self-esteem, lower depression, prosocial
behaviors; Chen, Benet-Martı́nez, & Bond, 2008;
Schwartz, Zamboanga, & Jarvis, 2007; Szapocznik, Kurtines, & Fernandez, 1980) and are better able to integrate
competing tenets from the different cultures to which they
are exposed (Benet-Martı́nez & Haritatos, 2005; Tadmor et
al., 2009). Of course, the degree of ease versus difficulty
involved in integrating one’s heritage and receiving cultures is, at least in part, determined by the degree of
similarity (actual or perceived) between the heritage and
receiving cultures (Rudmin, 2003). For example, when
ethnicity is held constant, migrants coming from Englishspeaking countries, or who are otherwise proficient in
English, may encounter less stress and resistance in the
United States than may migrants who are not familiar with
the English language. Among Black Caribbean immigrants, for instance, many Jamaicans might experience less
discrimination and acculturative stress than might many
The bidimensional approach to acculturation, and our
expansion of this approach, subsumes similar constructs
such as assimilation and enculturation. Assimilation refers
to one of Berry’s (1980) categories—namely, adopting
receiving-culture practices, values, and identifications and
discarding those from the culture of origin. Enculturation
has been used to refer to the process of selectively acquiring or retaining elements of one’s heritage culture while
also selectively acquiring some elements from the receiving cultural context (Weinreich, 2009). Within the constraints imposed by demographic and contextual factors,
individuals are able to purposefully decide which cultural
elements they wish to acquire or retain and which elements
they wish to discard or reject (Huynh, Nguyen, & BenetMartı́nez, in press).
May–June 2010 ● American Psychologist
The acculturation categories model, however, has
been criticized on at least two fronts (Rudmin, 2003, 2009).
First, creating the 2 ⫻ 2 matrix of acculturation categories
requires classifying individuals as high or low on receiving-culture acquisition and on heritage-culture retention.
The primary methods of classifying individuals as high or
low in categories have involved using a priori values, such
as the sample median (e.g., Giang & Wittig, 2006) or the
midpoint on the range of possible scores (e.g., Coatsworth
et al., 2005), as cut points. The use of a priori cut points
increases the likelihood that equal numbers of participants
will be classified as high and low on each dimension, and
therefore that all four of Berry’s categories will be well
represented in the sample. However, the cut point between
high and low is arbitrary and will differ across samples,
making comparisons across studies difficult. The use of a
priori classification rules assumes that all four categories
exist and are equally valid (Rudmin, 2003). Indeed, research suggests that more empirically rigorous ways of
classifying individuals (e.g., cluster analysis, latent class
analysis) may not extract all of the categories or may
extract multiple variants of one or more of the categories
(e.g., Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008). This seems to suggest that not all of Berry’s categories may exist in a given
sample or population, and that some categories may have
multiple subtypes.
Second, the validity of marginalization as an approach
to acculturation has been questioned (Del Pilar & Udasco,
2004). The likelihood that a person will develop a cultural
sense of self without drawing on either the heritage or
receiving cultural contexts is likely low. The marginalization approach may be viable only for the small segment of
migrants who reject (or feel rejected by) both their heritage
and receiving cultures (Berry, 2006b). Indeed, studies using empirically based clustering methods have found small
or nonexistent marginalization groups (Schwartz & Zamboanga, 2008; Szapocznik et al., 1980; Unger et al., 2002),
and scales that attempt to measure marginalization typically have poor reliability and validity compared with
scales for the other categories (Cuellar, Arnold, & Maldonado, 1995; Unger et al., 2002).
Research has begun to address these criticisms, and
some degree of validity for the acculturation categories
model has been reported (e.g., Schwartz & Zamboanga,
2008). Using latent class analysis (DiStefano & Kamphaus, 2006) and a sample of Hispanic young adults in
Miami, Schwartz and Zamboanga (2008) found that
classes resembling three of Berry’s four categories—
integration, separation, and assimilation— emerged from
analysis, along with two additional variants of biculturalism and an extremely small class resembling the marginalization category. Consistent with Rudmin’s (2003)
criticisms, the categories were not as well differentiated
as would be expected given Berry’s model, and multiple
types of biculturalism were extracted, but three of the
four categories proposed by Berry (1980) were well
represented in the sample.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Byron L.
Rethinking the “One Size Fits All”
Approach: The Roles of Migrant Type,
Ethnicity, and Cultural Similarity in
A further criticism of the acculturation literature is that it
adopts a “one size fits all” approach (Rudmin, 2003). That
is, according to Berry’s (1980) model, and other similar
approaches, the same two acculturation processes, and the
same four acculturation categories, characterize all migrants equally—regardless of the type of migrant, the countries of origin and settlement, and the ethnic group in
question (Berry et al., 2006). Many psychological approaches to acculturation (e.g., Berry, 1980; Phinney,
2003) have examined migrants in isolation and used terms
such as acculturation strategies, implying that individual
differences in acculturation outcomes are the result of
specific choices made by migrants. Although migrants
likely are at choice regarding some aspects of their acculturation, other aspects are constrained by demographic or
contextual factors. A more nuanced approach— based on
Berry’s model but adjusting for the many variations among
migrants and among their circumstances—may have more
explanatory power and broader applicability than a “one
size fits all” perspective (Chirkov, 2009).
Indeed, to understand acculturation, one must understand the interactional context in which it occurs (e.g.,
Rohmann, Piontkowski, & van Randenborgh, 2008; cf.
Crockett & Zamboanga, 2009). This context includes the
characteristics of the migrants themselves, the groups or
countries from which they originate, their socioeconomic
status and resources, the country and local community in
which they settle, and their fluency in the language of the
country of settlement. Two acculturation-relevant terms
that may require some definition and clarification are ethnicity and culture. Because so many contemporary migrants to the United States and to other Western countries
are from non-European backgrounds (Steiner, 2009; C.
Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008), ethnicity has become an integral aspect of the process of
acculturation and migrant reception—where ethnicity refers to membership in a group that holds a specific heritage
and set of values, beliefs, and customs (Phinney, 1996).1
Because acculturation refers to cultural change, it is
essential to specify how culture is defined. Culture refers to
shared meanings, understandings, or referents held by a
group of people (Shore, 2002; Triandis, 1995). Rudmin
(2003) contended that the similarity between the receiving
culture and the migrant’s heritage culture can help to determine how much acculturation is needed to adapt to the
receiving culture. Culture is sometimes, but not always,
synonymous with nations and national boundaries.
An additional factor that must be considered is language. Commentators (e.g., Huntington, 2004) and empirical studies (e.g., Barker et al., 2001; Schildkraut, 2005)
contend that a shared language is part of the fabric of
national identity and that migrants who speak other languages (or cannot speak the language of the country or
region in which they are settling) are considered a threat to
national unity. Permutations among language, ethnicity,
and cultural similarity, among other factors, affect the ease
or difficulty associated with the acculturation process. For
example, a White, English-speaking Canadian person who
moves to the United States will likely have much less
acculturating to do than an indig …
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