Orthogonal Theory

Orthogonal cultural identification theory argues that in a pluralistic environment, individuals may identify with more than one culture without necessarily sacrificing one cultural identity for another. The central element of this theory is that identification with any one culture is independent from identification with other cultures. Cultural identification can be distinguished from ethnic self-labels, or ethnic group categorizations, such as Latino/a, Mexican, American Indian, African American, and European American. Ethnic labels can gloss over the heterogeneity of cultural identification within ethnic groups because not all individuals who use the same label may identify with the culture in the same manner or to the same degree. Ethnic self-labels also may not accurately represent the way in which individuals identify with more than one culture. Generally, cultural identification is dynamic and complex and can be defined as following a culture’s way of life (e.g., participation in traditional activities, cultural behaviors, feeling successful within a culture, and/or family involvement in cultural activities). An example of the complexity of cultural identification is that within ethnic groups, individuals vary not only in their range of cultural identification (e.g., from strong to weak to nonexistent) but also in their identification with one culture, multiple cultures, or none. Orthogonal cultural identification theory argues that cultural identification is the result of the interaction between the individual and his or her environment, which may include family cultural identification, ethnic peers, and available traditional activities. Cultural identification is also distinct from cultural/ethnic identity, which can be defined as a social identity that represents the emotional value and significance of belonging to an ethnic group.

Orthogonal Cultural Identification Theory Importance

This theory made a significant conceptual contribution to both research and counseling, in that it acknowledged the influence of a pluralistic environment and normalized experiences of identification with multiple cultures. Previous acculturation theories assumed that developing a dominant majority cultural identification would result in loss of the ethnic minority culture. Thus, a significant advance of this theory is the conceptualization of biculturalism as a dual identification with more than one culture without any necessary loss of either culture.

Moreover, the improved quantitative assessment of cultural identification that resulted from this theory advanced the study of ethnic identity and acculturation beyond simple categorizations of individuals to capture more of the complexity inherent in cultural identification. As such, the theory reflects the dynamic and fluid nature of cultural identification of individuals within pluralistic societies by representing a wide range of combinations of cultural identifications. Identification with any one culture can range from “low” to “high” along a continuous dimension and is not necessarily dependent on identification with other cultures.

Eugene Oetting and Fred Beauvais developed an instrument that has been used frequently in the literature, wherein survey questions are phrased in this way: “Are you a success in the . . . (culture identified) . . . way of life?” Responses range from “a lot” to “not at all” in this instrument. Each set of questions is asked separately for different cultures. Typically, six items are used in this scale and include family way of life, personal way of life, family success, personal success, family cultural traditions, and personal cultural traditions. A total score can be created for each culture separately and then combined or used separately. Additionally, orthogonal cultural identification theory advanced the state of the study of cultural change by making the measurement more inclusive for both majority and minority cultures, whereas previous measures were specific only to certain ethnic minority groups.

Orthogonal Cultural Identification Theory Research

The prevalent “melting pot” analogy of the immigrant experience in the United States assumed that immigrants would “melt” or assimilate into the U.S. dominant culture by leaving behind their native culture. Researchers argued that living in an environment with more than one culture may be difficult due to negotiating more than one set of values, norms, and identities; thus, it was presumed that such individuals would experience more stress and often feel marginalized. Based on this model, it was assumed assimilation would result in the best mental health and adaptation because of the inherent stress in negotiating more than one culture. However, the reality of immigrants as well as native groups has been that individuals maintain aspects of their original culture while integrating the dominant culture. Researchers are continuing to find that maintenance of one’s culture of origin is not pathological; rather, it can be an adaptive approach that promotes mental health and well-being. Additionally, the orthogonal cultural identification theory demonstrates that maintaining one’s culture does not impede adaptation to the dominant culture, as had been assumed in melting pot theories.

Current cultural identification and acculturation models are based on the “cultural stew” analogy. In this analogy, individuals, like the vegetables or meats in a stew, contribute to the overall U.S. dominant culture; yet they may also retain their cultural integrity and can be identified separately. As such, individuals may maintain their cultural integrity while contributing to the dominant culture. The orthogonal cultural identification theory has contributed much to the understanding of the complexity of cultural change and cultural identification. Furthermore, this research has helped document that individuals can successfully integrate and maintain more than one culture. This theory is distinctive from other acculturation models in that it allows for change over the life span and more options for cultural identification with more than one culture.

The orthogonal cultural identification theory has improved understanding of biculturalism, where individuals identify with two cultures simultaneously. Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues have described bicultural individuals as those who are able to use behaviors and language at the appropriate times and contexts because they have experience and knowledge of both cultures. Researchers have argued that biculturalism is the most adaptive outcome for some minority groups, in part because the nature of their environment is bicultural. However, recent work suggests that being bicultural may be stressful and that successful integration of biculturality may be the most significant factor for mental well-being. Research has suggested that to understand how culture impacts mental health, it is important to assess the fit between the individual and the multicultural environment.

The orthogonal cultural identification theory has made  significant  conceptual  and measurement advances in the study of culture at an individual psychological level. The central aspect of this theory is that cultural identification is separate and independent when there is more than one culture. This theory more accurately reflects the pluralistic nature of culture. Additionally, it portrays individuals as active social agents who have the power to determine their own cultural identification with more than one culture. Multicultural individuals can be defined as those who identify with more than one culture simultaneously. This theory identified not only that assimilation to U.S. culture did not automatically indicate loss of ethnic culture but also that maintenance of ethnic culture may be a positive adaptive strategy for minority ethnic groups in the United States.

Orthogonal Cultural Identification Theory Implications for Counseling

Maintenance of a positive ethnic identity may be beneficial for minority and immigrant mental well-being. Counselors should be aware that biculturalism may be adaptive in certain settings; however, bicultural environments may also create stressful experiences for some individuals and successful integration for different identities may be necessary. The alternation model of acculturation may be helpful in understanding how bicultural individuals can switch between cultural frameworks based on situational cues and their bicultural competency. Counselors may integrate multicultural self-assessments into their practice to assist individuals in understanding how cultural context influences their personal histories as well as their current behaviors. Increasing awareness of cultural identities and resolving related cultural context stressors may be integral to improved therapeutic outcomes for some individuals. An example of bicultural identification is a Mexican American student who is successful in higher education (e.g., a task that may entail internalized aspects of cultural values characteristic of dominant U.S. worldviews) while at the same time successful in maintaining strong family ties (e.g., a value that may reflect Mexican ways of endorsing familismo). This individual would feel equally successful in both the U.S. and Mexican ways of life. Additionally, this example demonstrates that being successful in the U.S. way of life does not necessarily mean that one is not successful in the Mexican way of life. However, as noted by Manuel Ramirez, the potential conflict, contradictions, and stress that some individuals experience in negotiating more than one cultural way of life may be addressed within a counseling setting.


  1. LaFromboise, T., Coleman, H., & Gerton, J. (1993). Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 395—142.
  2. Oetting, E. R., & Beauvais, F. (1990-1991). Orthogonal cultural identification theory: The cultural identification of minority adolescents. International Journal of the Addictions, 25, 655-685.
  3. Phinney, J. S. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: Review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 499-514.
  4. Ramirez, M., III. (1998). Multicultural/multiracial psychology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
  5. Romero, A., & Roberts, R. E. (2003). Stress within a bicultural context for adolescents of Mexican descent. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 9, 171-814.

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