Understanding Acculturation and Why It Happens

What is acculturation?

ThoughtCo/Adrian Mangel

Acculturation is a process through which a person or group from one culture comes to adopt the practices and values of another culture, while still retaining their own distinct culture. This process is most commonly discussed regarding a minority culture adopting elements of the majority culture, as is typically the case with immigrant groups that are culturally or ethnically distinct from the majority in the place to which they have immigrated.

However, acculturation is a two-way process, so those within the majority culture often adopt elements of minority cultures with which they come into contact. The process plays out between groups where neither is necessarily a majority or a minority. It can happen at both group and individual levels and can occur as a result of in-person contact or contact through art, literature, or media.

Acculturation is not the same as the process of assimilation, though some people use the words interchangeably. Assimilation can be an eventual outcome of the acculturation process, but the process can have other outcomes as well, including rejection, integration, marginalization, and transmutation.

Acculturation Defined

Acculturation is a process of cultural contact and exchange through which a person or group comes to adopt certain values and practices of a culture that is not originally their own, to a greater or lesser extent. The result is that the original culture of the person or group remains, but it is changed by this process.

When the process is at its most extreme, assimilation occurs wherein the original culture is wholly abandoned and the new culture adopted in its place. However, other outcomes can also occur that fall along a spectrum from minor change to total change, and these include separation, integration, marginalization, and transmutation.

The first known use of the term "acculturation" within the social sciences was by John Wesley Powell in a report for the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology in 1880. Powell later defined the term as the psychological changes that occur within a person due to cultural exchange that occurs as a result of extended contact between different cultures. Powell observed that, while they exchange cultural elements, each retains its own unique culture.

Later, in the early 20th century, acculturation became a focus of American sociologists who used ethnography to study the lives of immigrants and the extent to which they integrated into U.S. society. W.I Thomas and Florian Znaniecki examined this process with Polish immigrants in Chicago in their 1918 study "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America." Others, including Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, focused their research and theories on the outcome of this process known as assimilation.

While these early sociologists focused on the process of acculturation experienced by immigrants, and also by Black Americans within predominantly white society, sociologists today are more attuned to the two-way nature of cultural exchange and adoption that happens through the process of acculturation.

Acculturation at Group and Individual Levels

At the group level, acculturation entails the widespread adoption of the values, practices, forms of art, and technologies of another culture. These can range from the adoption of ideas, beliefs, and ideology to the large-scale inclusion of foods and styles of cuisines from other cultures. For example, the embrace of Mexican, Chinese, and Indian cuisines within the U.S. This includes the simultaneous adoption of mainstream American foods and meals by immigrant populations. Acculturation at the group level can also entail the cultural exchange of clothing and fashions, and of language. This happens when immigrant groups learn and adopt the language of their new home, or when certain phrases and words from a foreign language make their way into common usage. Sometimes, leaders within a culture make a conscious decision to adopt the technologies or practices of another for reasons associated with efficiency and progress.

At the individual level, acculturation may involve all the same things that occur at the group level, but the motives and circumstances may differ. For example, people who travel to foreign lands where the culture differs from their own, and who spend extended periods of time there, are likely to engage in the process of acculturation, whether intentionally or not, in order to learn and experience new things, enjoy their stay, and reduce the social friction that can arise from cultural differences.

Similarly, first-generation immigrants often consciously engage in the process of acculturation as they settle into their new community in order to succeed socially and economically. In fact, immigrants are often compelled by law to acculturate in many places, with requirements to learn the language and the laws of society, and in some cases, with new laws that govern dress and covering of the body. People who move between social classes and the separate and different spaces they inhabit also often experience acculturation on both voluntary and required basis. This is the case for many first-generation college students who suddenly find themselves among peers who have been socialized already to understand the norms and culture of higher education, or for students from poor and working-class families who find themselves surrounded by wealthy peers at well-funded private colleges and universities.

How Acculturation Differs from Assimilation

Though they are often used interchangeably, acculturation and assimilation are two different things. Assimilation can be an eventual outcome of acculturation, but it doesn't have to be. Also, assimilation is often a largely one-way process, rather than the two-way process of cultural exchange that is acculturation.

Assimilation is the process by which a person or group adopts a new culture that virtually replaces their original culture, leaving only trace elements behind, at most. The word means to make similar, and at the end of the process, the person or group will be culturally indistinguishable from those culturally native to the society into which it has assimilated.

Assimilation, as a process and an outcome, is common among immigrant populations that seek to blend in with the existing fabric of society. The process can be quick or gradual, unfolding over the years, depending on the context and circumstances. Consider, for example, how a third-generation Vietnamese American who grew up in Chicago differs culturally from a Vietnamese person living in rural Vietnam.

Five Different Strategies and Outcomes of Acculturation

Acculturation can take different forms and have different outcomes, depending on the strategy adopted by the people or groups involved in the exchange of culture. The strategy used will be determined by whether the person or group believes it is important to maintain their original culture, and how important it is to them to establish and maintain relationships with the greater community and society whose culture differs from their own. The four different combinations of answers to these questions lead to five different strategies and outcomes of acculturation.

  1. Assimilation. This strategy is used when little to no importance is placed on maintaining the original culture, and great importance is put on fitting in and developing relationships with the new culture. The outcome is that the person or group is, eventually, culturally indistinguishable from the culture into which they have assimilated. This type of acculturation is likely to occur in societies that are considered "melting pots" into which new members are absorbed.
  2. Separation. This strategy is used when little to no importance is placed on embracing the new culture, and high importance is placed on maintaining the original culture. The outcome is that the original culture is maintained while the new culture is rejected. This type of acculturation is likely to occur in culturally or racially segregated societies.
  3. Integration. This strategy is used when both maintaining the original culture and adapting to the new one are considered important. This is a common strategy of acculturation and can be observed among many immigrant communities and those with a high proportion of ethnic or racial minorities. Those who use this strategy might be thought of as bicultural and may be known to code-switch when moving between different cultural groups. This is the norm in what are considered multicultural societies.
  1. Marginalization. This strategy is used by those who place no importance on either maintaining their original culture or adopting the new one. The result is that the person or group is marginalized — pushed aside, overlooked, and forgotten by the rest of society. This can occur in societies where cultural exclusion is practiced, thus making it difficult or unappealing for a culturally different person to integrate.
  2. Transmutation. This strategy is used by those who place importance on both maintaining their original culture and on adopting the new culture — but rather than integrating two different cultures into their daily lives, those who do this create a third culture (a blend of the old and the new).