Given the ongoing dramatic racial/ethnic diversification of the United States, the need for counselors to understand the unique cultural backgrounds of their clients presents an important challenge. A useful construct in this effort is enculturation.

Construct Definition and Clarification

In 1948 Melville J. Herskovits first described enculturation as the process of socialization into, and maintenance of, the norms of one’s indigenous culture, such as the salient values, ideas, and concepts. It includes learning the cultural characteristics, such as language and traditions and customs, which distinguish the members of one group of people from another.

A term that often is confounded with enculturation is acculturation. The term acculturation has been used to describe the process of contact between members of two cultural groups, particularly when groups of people migrate from their countries of origin to other countries. John W. Berry and his colleagues described acculturation as consisting of (a) contact and participation and (b) cultural maintenance. The process of contact and participation is reflected in the extent to which people become involved in other cultural groups or remain primarily among themselves. On the other hand, the process of cultural maintenance is represented in the extent to which cultural identity and characteristics are considered important and maintained.

However, the latter part of the acculturation definition is problematic because it largely overlaps with the definition of enculturation. Although the characterization of acculturation in terms of cultural maintenance may work well for migrants who have been socialized into their indigenous cultural norms before arriving in a new country, it may not accurately describe the experiences of all racial/ethnic minority individuals, particularly those who were born in the new country. These persons, particularly individuals who are several generations removed from migration, may never have been fully enculturated into their ethnic group’s cultural norms by their parents and family, who also may have been born in the new country. For these persons, the application of cultural maintenance process may be inappropriate because they might never have been completely socialized into their indigenous cultural norms in the first place. In addition, these persons may be socialized to their indigenous cultural heritage more fully later in life and, hence, engage in the process of enculturation during this time. For these reasons, the term enculturation better captures the diversity of racial/ethnic minority persons in the United States in terms of their generations since migration and the resultant variability in levels of adherence to the norms of their ancestral cultures, in comparison to the cultural maintenance concept within the acculturation construct.

Hence, enculturation is now used to describe the process of (re)socializing into and maintaining the norms of the indigenous culture, whereas acculturation is used to describe the process of adapting to the norms of the dominant culture. Within the field of counseling, enculturation (and acculturation) has been used to study clients’ help-seeking attitudes and behaviors and their participation in the counseling process.

Construct Dimensions

In describing enculturation, it is also important to consider the dimensions on which the construct can be observed and assessed. Originally, enculturation (and acculturation) had been characterized as involving changes in two personal dimensions: behaviors and values. The behavioral dimension of enculturation includes language use and participation in various cultural activities (e.g., food consumption), whereas the values dimension reflects relational style, person-nature relationships, beliefs about human nature, and time orientation. Definitions of enculturation (and acculturation) have continued to grow progressively more comprehensive and integrative. Currently, enculturation is described in terms of changes at three levels of functioning: behavioral, affective, and cognitive.

In 2001 Bryan S. K. Kim and Jose M. Abreu reviewed the item contents of 33 instruments designed to measure enculturation (and acculturation) and proposed a set of dimensions along the conceptual framework described earlier. Kim and Abreu proposed that enculturation (and acculturation) consists of the following four dimensions: behavior, values, knowledge, and identity. Behavior refers to friendship choice, preferences for television programs and reading, participation in cultural activities, contact with ancestral culture, language use, food choice, and music preference. Along the cognitive level of functioning, Kim and Abreu proposed two dimensions: values and knowledge. The value dimension refers to attitudes and beliefs about social relations, cultural customs, and cultural traditions. The knowledge dimension refers to culturally specific information, such as names of historical leaders in the culture of origin and significance of culturally specific activities. Along the affective level of functioning, Kim and Abreu proposed the inclusion of identity, which refers to attitudes toward one’s cultural identification, attitudes toward ancestral groups, and level of comfort toward people of ancestral groups.

Psychological Implications

To understand the psychological experiences of racial/ethnic minority individuals as they engage in the process of enculturation within the context of acculturation to the dominant U.S. cultural norms, it is helpful to consider a model proposed by Berry and his colleagues. These scholars theorized the following four acculturation “attitudes” based on combining either high or low levels of enculturation and acculturation: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization. Integration occurs when individuals are proficient in the cultures of both their indigenous group and the dominant group. Hence, people in this status are both highly enculturated and strongly acculturated. Separation occurs when an individual maintains and perpetuates the culture of origin (high enculturation) and does not absorb the culture of the dominant group (low acculturation). Assimilation occurs when an individual absorbs the culture of the dominant group (high acculturation) while rejecting the indigenous culture (low enculturation). Finally, marginalization represents the attitude of an individual with no interest in maintaining or acquiring proficiency in any culture, dominant or indigenous (low acculturation and low enculturation). Marginalization is perhaps the most problematic of the four statuses because marginalized individuals will lack sense of belongingness in either culture.

On the other hand, the integration (or bicultural-ism) status may be the healthiest status for individuals. The literature on biculturalism suggests that people who can effectively function in both indigenous and dominant cultures may exhibit increased cognitive functioning and better mental health. Described as having bicultural competence, these individuals tend to have high degrees of (a) knowledge of cultural beliefs and values of both cultures, (b) positive attitudes toward both groups, (c) bicultural efficacy, or belief that one can live in a satisfying manner within both cultures without sacrificing one’s cultural identity, (d) communication ability in both cultures, (e) role repertoire, or the range of culturally appropriate behaviors, and (f) a sense of being grounded in both cultures.

Future Directions

In the late 1980s a Delphi study was conducted to examine the future prospects for enculturation (and acculturation) as a construct of interest among scholars in counseling. The results revealed a consensus among these experts in predicting that the construct of enculturation (and acculturation) would play an increasingly important role in counseling theory, research, and practice during the 1990s, as the numbers of racial/ethnic minorities in the United States continue to rise rapidly. At the time of this writing, a search of the PsyclNFO database using “enculturation” as the keyword yielded 290 citations, with 236 references having the publication date of 1990 or later. Hence, it appears that there is a trend toward an increased focus on enculturation. However, more research work in counseling seems needed for this prediction to be fully realized.


  1. Chun, K. M., Organista, P. B., & Marin, G. (Eds.). (2003). Acculturation: Advances in theory, measurement, and applied research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Kim, B. S. K., & Abreu, J. M. (2001). Acculturation measurement: Theory, current instruments, and future directions. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 394-424). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. LaFromboise, T., Coleman, H. L. K., & Gerton, J. (1993). Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 395-412.
  5. Segall, M. H., Dasen, P. R., Berry, J. W., & Poortinga, Y. H. (1999). Human behavior in global perspective: An introduction to cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

See also: