Social Processes Underlying Acculturation: A Study of Drinking Behavior among Immigrant Latinos in the Northeast United States

Article excerpt

Study Goals: To identify social processes that underlie the relationship of acculturation and heavy drinking behavior among Latinos who have immigrated to the Northeast United States of America (USA). Method: Community-based recruitment strategies were used to identify 36 Latinos who reported heavy drinking. Participants were 48% female, 23 to 56 years of age, and were from South or Central America (39%) and the Caribbean (24%). Six focus groups were audiotaped and transcribed. Results: Content analyses indicated that the social context of drinking is different in the participants' countries of origin and in the United States. In Latin America, alcohol consumption was part of everyday living (being with friends and family). Nostalgia and isolation reflected some of the reasons for drinking in the USA. Results suggest that drinking in the Northeastern United States (US) is related to Latinos' adaptation to a new sociocultural environment. Knowledge of the shifting social contexts of drinking can inform health interventions.

Key words: Latino, alcohol consumption, acculturation, focus groups.

Acculturation refers to the cultural and psychological processes and outcomes that result from prolonged intercultural contact between two culturally distinct groups (Berry 1997). As a framework to identify and understand patterns in drug and alcohol use, its main thesis suggests that the longer an immigrant group has been in the country, the more its behavior resembles that of the mainstream (Room 2005). Acculturation has been helpful in alcohol research to identify profiles of at-risk drinkers among Latinos who immigrate to the US. For example, increased acculturation has been associated with increased substance abuse (Cherpitel & Borges 2002; Gil, Wagner & Vega 2000), alcohol use (Gil, Wagner & Vega 2000; Polednak 1997), and problems associated with use (Cherpitel & Borges 2002; Grant, Stinson, Hasin, Dawson, Chou & Anderson 2004). In a comprehensive review, Gil and associates (2004) concluded that adults of Latino origin at "medium" to "high" acculturation levels are more at risk for problematic alcohol use than those who are less acculturated. This acculturation finding appears to be robust in that it has been observed over time (Caetano & Clark 2003), across independent epidemiological studies (e.g. Burnam, Hough, Karno, Escobar, Timbers & Telles 1987), and in a clinical sample of patients from a hospital emergency room (Cherpitel & Borges 2002).

Though helpful, the limitations of acculturation as a model need to be addressed to better understand what about acculturation might be related to increased drinking problems (Gutmann 1999; Hunt, Schneider & Comer 2004; Room 2005). First, acculturation is typically perceived as assimilation, a uni-directional process of change whereby immigrants are assumed to shed their cultural practices and adopt the cultural norms of the host society. However, acculturation needs to be understood more broadly as a process that does not follow a single sequence. Assimilation is only one strategy to acculturation (Berry 1997; Cortes 2003). In the case of drug and alcohol use, identified as markers of ethnic identity and acculturation, it hasbeen documented that many trajectories of drug and alcohol use are possible within a single immigrant group (Gutmann 1999; Hunt et al. 2004; Room 2005) following migration to a new country. For example, some immigrant groups practice abstention from alcohol as part of their cultural practice even after generations of living in the US (Room 2005).

A second critique of acculturation is that it needs to be more broadly studied, extending investigative analyses to peoples' social and physical worlds (Hunt et al. 2004; Gutmann 1999). Acculturative change is usually located exclusively within the individual (Gutmann 1999; see Hunt et al. 2004, for a review). In fact, external factors such as limited access to resources can also influence acculturation (Kleinman 1995; López 2003; Hunt et al. …