Immersion Definition: Cultural, Language, and Virtual

Margaret Mead with children of Manus Island, circa 1930s
Margaret Mead with children of Manus Island, circa 1930s. Fotosearch / Getty Images

Immersion, in sociology and anthropology, involves a deep-level personal involvement of an individual with an object of study, whether it is another culture, a foreign language, or a video game. The primary sociological definition of the term is cultural immersion, which describes a qualitative way in which a researcher, student, or other traveler visits a foreign country, and becomes entrenched in the society there.

Key Takeaways: Immersion Definition

  • Immersion refers to the deep-level personal involvement of the researcher with the object of study. 
  • A sociologist or anthropologist conducts research using immersion by actively participating in the subjects' lives. 
  • Immersion is a qualitative research strategy that takes months or years to set up and perform. 
  • Two other forms of immersion include language immersion, in which students speak only in their non-native language and video game immersion, which involves the experiences involved in virtual realities. 

Two other forms of immersion are of interest to sociologists and other behavioral sciences. Language immersion is a learning method for students who wish to pick up a second (or third or fourth) language. And video game immersion involves a player who experiences a virtual reality world designed by the manufacturer. 

Immersion: Definition

Formal cultural immersion is used by anthropologists and sociologists, also called "participant observation." In these types of studies, a researcher interacts with the people she's studying, living with them, sharing meals, even cooking for, and otherwise participating in the life of a community, all while collecting information.

Immersion Research: Pros and Cons

The pros of using cultural immersion as an investigative tool are immense. There simply is no better way to understand a different culture than to go and share experiences with the people. The researcher gains considerably more qualitative information about a subject or culture than through any other method.

However, cultural immersion often takes months to years to set up and then to carry out. To be allowed to participate in the activities of a particular group, a researcher must have the permission of the people who are being studied, must communicate the intent of the research, and obtain the trust of the community that the information will not be misused. That, in addition to completing professional ethics responsibilities to the university and permits from governmental bodies, takes time.

Furthermore, all anthropological studies are slow learning processes and human behaviors are complex; significant observations don't happen every day. It can also be dangerous, as the researcher is almost always working in an unfamiliar environment.

Origins of Immersion Research

Immersion as a professional tool of the social science researcher arose in the 1920s when the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) wrote that an ethnographer's goal should be to "grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world." One of the classic studies of the period is that of American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978). In August of 1925, Mead went to Samoa to study how adolescents transitioned to adulthood. Mead had seen that transition as a period of "storm and stress" in the United States and wondered whether other, more "primitive" cultures might have a better way.

Mead stayed in Samoa for nine months: The first two were spent learning the language; the rest of the time she collected ethnographic data on the remote island of T'au. While she was in Samoa, she lived in the villages, made close friends, and was even named an honorary "taupou," a ceremonial virgin. Her ethnographic study involved informal interviews with 50 Samoan girls and women, ranging in age from nine to 20 years. She concluded that the transitions from childhood to adolescence and then to adulthood were relatively easy in Samoa, compared to those struggles seen in the United States: Mead argued that was in part because Samoans were comparatively sexually permissive. 

Mead's book "Coming of Age in Samoa" was published in 1928, when she was 27. Her work prompted westerners to question their sense of cultural superiority, using so-called primitive societies to critique patriarchal gender relations. Although questions about the validity of her research emerged in the 1980s after her death, most scholars today accept that she was well aware of what she was doing, and not, as she had been accused of, hoaxed by her informants.

Further Examples

In the late 1990s, an immersion study was conducted of homeless people by British anthropologist Alice Farrington, who acted as a volunteer helper at a night homeless shelter. Her goal was to learn about how people structure their social identities to ease isolation in such a situation. During two years of volunteering at a homeless shelter, Farrington served and cleared food, prepared beds, gave out clothing and toiletries and chatted with residents. She gained their trust and was able to ask questions for a total of 26 hours over a three month period, learning about the difficulties that homeless people have building a social support network and how that might be bolstered. 

More recently, investigations of how nurses support the spirituality of their cancer patients were undertaken by Dutch healthcare worker Jacqueline van Meurs and colleagues. Paying attention to a patient's spiritual needs in addition to physical, social, and psychological needs is considered important for patient health, well-being, and recovery. In her role as a medical chaplain, van Meurs systematically studied four nurses in their interactions with patients in an oncology ward in the Netherlands. She participated in the health care of the patients by wearing a white uniform and performing simple actions, and she was able to observe patient-nurse interactions; then she interviewed the nurses later. She discovered that while the nurses have opportunities to explore spiritual issues, they often do not have time or experience to do so. Van Meurs and her co-authors recommended training to enable nurses to provide that support. 

Informal Cultural Immersion 

Students and tourists can engage in informal cultural immersion when they travel to a foreign country and immerse themselves in the new culture, living with host families, shopping and eating in cafes, riding mass transit: In effect, living an everyday life in another country. 

Cultural immersion involves experiencing food, festivals, clothing, holidays, and, most importantly, the people who can teach you about their customs. Cultural immersion is a two-way street: As you experience and learn about a new culture, you are exposing the people you meet to your culture and customs.

Language Immersion 

Language immersion is when a classroom full of students spends the entire period of that class only speaking a new language. It is a technique which has been used in classrooms for decades, to enable students to become bilingual. Most of these are one-way, that is, designed to give native speakers of one language experience in a second language. Most of these programs are in language classes in middle and high schools, or as English as a Second Language (ESL) courses taught to newcomers to the United States or another country. 

The second form of language immersion in the classroom is called dual immersion. Here, the teacher provides an environment in which both native speakers of the dominant language and non-native speakers attend and learn one another's language. The purpose of this is to encourage all the students to become bilingual. In a typical, system-wide study, all two-way programs begin in kindergarten, with a high partner-language balance. For example, early classes might include 90 percent instruction in the partner language and 10 percent in the dominant language. The balance gradually shifts over time, so that by the fourth and fifth grades, the partner and dominant languages are each spoken and written 50 percent of the time. Later grades and courses may then be taught in a variety of languages. 

Dual immersion studies have been conducted in Canada for over 30 years. A study of these by Irish language arts professor Jim Cummins and colleagues (1998) found that the Canadian schools had consistently successful results, with students gaining fluency and literacy in French without apparent cost to their English, and vice versa. 

Virtual Reality Immersion 

The final type of immersion is common in computer games, and it is the most difficult to define. All computer games, beginning with Pong and Space Invaders of the 1970s, have been designed to draw the player in and provide an appealing distraction from everyday concerns to lose themselves in another world. In fact, the expected outcome of a quality computer game is the ability for the player to "lose herself" in a video game, sometimes called being "in the game."

Researchers have found three levels of video game immersions: Engagement, engrossment, and total immersion. Engagement is that stage in which the player is willing to invest time, effort, and attention to how to learn to play the game and become comfortable with the controls. Engrossment takes place when the player may become involved in the game, being emotionally affected by the game and having the controls become "invisible." The third level, total immersion, occurs when the gamer experiences a sense of presence so that she is cut off from reality to the extent that only the game matters. 


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Crossman, Ashley. "Immersion Definition: Cultural, Language, and Virtual." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Crossman, Ashley. (2021, February 16). Immersion Definition: Cultural, Language, and Virtual. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Immersion Definition: Cultural, Language, and Virtual." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).