Acculturation Contexts: Theorizing on the Role of Intercultural Hierarchy in Contemporary Immigrants' Acculturation Strategies

By Stephens, Cristina S. | Migration Letters, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Acculturation Contexts: Theorizing on the Role of Intercultural Hierarchy in Contemporary Immigrants' Acculturation Strategies


Stephens, Cristina S., Migration Letters


Introduction

In the light of the unprecedented transnational mobility of the 21st century, the concept of acculturation has developed into a distinct and well-recognized field of study. Although the construct carries a primarily psychological connotation, it cannot be divorced from macro-level phenomena, including socio-cultural, political, historical and international determinants. Invitations from crosscultural psychologists to anchor the concept into larger structural realities, have resulted in an articulation of various contexts of acculturation (Berry, 2006a; Schwartz et al., 2010; Samnani et al., 2013). The efforts aim to explain how demographic differences among migrants conspire with the receiving society's orientation towards immigration to shape the acculturation experience. Conspicuously absent from this expanded interdisciplinary theoretical framework has been the context of inter-cultural hierarchy and the relations of economic and cultural dominance that continue to exist between contemporary receiving and sending societies. Drawing on critical theory, I delineate this previously under-explored context of acculturation by proposing that immigrants' perceptions of global cultural hierarchies and globally-dominant cultural narratives play an important role in the acculturation-mental health link by shaping long-term psycho-social adaptation to host culture.

Theoretical background: agency and structural constraint in the acculturation process

Prompted by the early waves of European migration to the US, cultural psychologists originally conceptualized acculturation as a straightforward process of adaptive change that immigrants undergo as a result of permanently settling into their country of destination. The expected outcome was complete assimilation of immigrants into the dominant society. Berry's (1980) seminal work on acculturation strategies challenged this conceptualization when he proposed a bi-dimensional theoretical model that simultaneously considered immigrant's orientation towards home culture and receiving culture, thus accounting for practices of biculturalism and resistance. The intersection of these two dimensions, towards which immigrant formulates accept/reject responses, yield four distinct acculturation paths which Berry termed "strategies", thereby conveying a sense of agency: assimilation (embrace host culture, shed home culture), integration (balance home and host culture), separation (maintain home culture, reject host culture) and marginalisation (reject both home and host culture). The doubly-negative attitudes of the latter point to increased risk of psychological maladjustment; however, because individuals cannot maintain a sense of self outside a group, marginalization is a relatively rare outcome (Schwartz and Zamboanga, 2008).

Recognizing that immigrants may also adopt an "a la carte" approach to acculturation, domain specificity theory proposes that strategies may vary across life domains, as immigrants retain and reject select aspects of both cultures, such as seeking assimilation in organizational culture while opting for separation in family and gender-related matters (Keefe and Padilla, 1987; Arends-Toth and Vijver, 2006). This process of negotiating culture learning and shedding results in various degrees of acculturative stress, ultimately giving way to long-term adaptation, which may or may not reflect a healthy degree of fit with the receiving culture (Berry, 2006b). It soon became important to distinguish between two long-term outcomes of acculturation: socio-cultural competence, that is, the ability to manage daily life in the country of destination, and psychological well-being as a reflection of life satisfaction (Ward and RanaDeuba, 1999; Arends-Toth and Vijver, 2006; Berry, 2006b).

Although Berry's acculturation model is informed by a rational choice approach, he signaled early on that immigrants do not enjoy unlimited freedom in how they engage in intercultural relations (Berry, 1974). …

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