Immigration, Acculturation and Cultural Diversity: Alex Mesoudi Is an Associate Professor of Cultural Evolution in the Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group at the University of Exeter

By Mesoudi, Alex | Geographical, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Immigration, Acculturation and Cultural Diversity: Alex Mesoudi Is an Associate Professor of Cultural Evolution in the Human Behaviour and Cultural Evolution Group at the University of Exeter


Mesoudi, Alex, Geographical


Few political and social issues generate as much passion and controversy as immigration. One of the most prominent concerns among anti-immigration campaigners is the idea that immigration breaks down the host society's cultural traditions and harms its cultural identity. But is that the case?

Central to these debates is what academics call acculturation'. This term refers to behavioural or psychological changes in immigrants (or their descendants) that follow migration. They are typically changes that make behaviour or ways of thinking more similar to members of the adopted society. Politicians such as Nigel Farage argue that immigrants do not adequately acculturate, at least at certain levels of immigration. But this is an empirical question and has been addressed by many economists and social scientists.

In a recent study, I reviewed the evidence on acculturation, including my own work with British Bangladeshis in East London. These studies typically measure behavioural or psychological traits in first generation migrants (who moved to another country after the age of 14), second generation migrants, and non-migrants who have been living in the host area for several generations. They look at whether people value work or family, whether people explain others' actions in terms of dispositions (laziness) or situations (lack of support), and prosocial acts such as giving to charity. Such traits often vary between the migrants' country of origin and their adopted country.

The evidence suggests that acculturation is common, but generational. While first generation migrants typically retain the values of their society of origin, later generations shift about 50 per cent of the way from their parents' values towards non-migrant values. This even occurs in communities that form large, cohesive minorities. British Bangladeshis make up 32 per cent of Tower Hamlets, yet second generation British Bangladeshis fall half way between their parents and non-migrants on psychological measures.

To explore these dynamics, I created a series of computer simulations to ask what level of acculturation is needed to maintain the host's distinct cultural traditions in the face of different levels of migration. I simulated multiple 'societies', each with distinct cultural traits, allowed a certain number of virtual 'people' to migrate from society to society, and specified a certain likelihood that they would 'acculturate', or switch from their original cultural trait to the most common cultural trait in their new society. …

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