Acculturation can be described as cultural change associated with social group movement, be it movement within or across nations, that results in persons who have different cultures intersecting. Since the 1990s, the immigrant population in the United States has increased by more than 13 million people. More than half of this immigrant population is from Mexico, where the Spanish language is dominant, and approximately one fifth of the children of immigrant households speak a language other than English in their home. Rates of migration from other Latin American and Pacific Rim nations to the United States also are increasing, as is immigration throughout most developed nations worldwide. These trends underscore the great impetus in understanding the processes of immigrant adaptation and all its components.

As persons from multiple social groups and cultures intersect, it would be expected that their thoughts, attitudes, values, behaviors, and (in most cases) language would be influenced. Until recently, the prevailing assumption within U.S. popular culture, as well as for most Western mental health scholars, has been that when persons from different cultures interact, one culture is dominant. However, within the United States and across the world, there is increasing cultural, social, and economic diversity, as well as the formation of dominant minority communities within larger majority communities (e.g., ethnic enclaves). The development of such communities challenges more traditional acculturation models that have guided social/behavioral scientists, educators, practitioners, and even popular culture, where cultural change is believed to solely and linearly occur within minority group members.

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Conceptual Origins and the Prevailing Assimilation Model

Acculturation has been defined by Robert Redfield and colleagues as the “phenomenon that occurs when two independent cultural groups come into first hand contact over an extended period of time, resulting in changes in either or both groups” (1936, p. 149). References to acculturation by social scientists in the 1940s included that of Mischa Titiev titled “Enculturation.” Enculturation was described as the process of teaching a child to be a member of the society in which he or she will live, whereas acculturation was described as the process of incorporating aspects of the mainstream (host) culture into each individual’s repertoire of behaviors.

Despite a clear emphasis in the original definitions on cultural exchange and mutual influence, the majority of early theory, research, and practice on acculturation focused on unidirectional cultural change. This is best represented in the assimilationist model, where the minority traditional culture is assumed to conform over time to the majority culture, and the majority culture remains static. It was thought that external acculturation, such as changing food habits and styles of clothing, as well as learning and/or adapting to the majority language, tended to take place first, followed by internal acculturation, or the adoption of cultural beliefs, values, and more complex patterns of behaviors. Assimilation models assumed that, over time, behavior patterns, attitudes, and beliefs of an immigrant population would come to resemble more closely those of the culture they entered than those of the culture they left behind. The process of acculturation then included dropping, modifying, and adopting cultural traits and was thought to occur at different rates over several generations for every person individually. From this perspective, acculturation also could be assessed in terms of the distance from the culture of origin to the majority culture, reflecting either movement toward acculturation or movement away from the majority culture. Also, it was thought that acculturation could be conceptualized primarily from consideration of factors such as place of origin, language preferences, and preferences for social contacts. The assimilation model of acculturation also was reflected in the philosophy that the United States had been founded on the notion of “the melting pot.” This perspective suggested that multiple immigrant groups could be welcomed and integrated into the general U.S. society, while slowly breaking all ties to their past culture and not affecting their new society. In other words, immigrants would gradually conform into the existing society norms, values, language, and all other elements characteristic of U.S. culture, while the U.S. culture itself remained uninfluenced by their entry.

However, behavioral scientists within the past 2 decades have shown empirically more closely to what previous anthropologists and many sociologists had described. Namely, the melting pot metaphor in describing the processes of immigration for most immigrants arriving in the United States, as well as in other industrial nations, was incomplete and inaccurate. For example, one assumption underlying the assimilation model was that culture change was inherently stressful, and the quickest path to eliminate this stress was complete assimilation. In other words, the healthiest way of life was for people to put behind them all aspects of their culture of origin. Many research findings indicate that the acculturation process is not inherently stressful (although parts of it may be at times) and that assimilation may result in increased stress or worse physical health for immigrants or their descendents. Furthermore, researchers continue to provide evidence that losing functioning in individuals’ original culture often is harmful to their well-being.

Another guiding assumption of assimilation-related models was that complete acceptance into the new society was thought possible for all immigrants; however, many minority ethnic groups (including immigrants and later generations) in the United States report experiencing discrimination or being treated unfairly as a result of their ethnic group membership, language, phenotype (i.e., physical features, including skin color), or other socially recognizable characteristics. In fact, contrary to assumptions underlying the assimilation model, discrimination often is felt more strongly for later generations, who are citizens and speak English fluently, as they become more knowledgeable about the customs of their new society and interact more often with societal institutions. In short, the current social and behavioral science findings suggest that the experience of many immigrants and later generations is not reflective of the melting pot metaphor, or its extension, the assimilation model of acculturation.

Progress in Theories and Methods and the Emergence of Orthogonal Models

The study of acculturation began through anthropologists’ explorations of indigenous and immigrant groups immersed within a dominant culture. Researchers employed qualitative methods of inquiry that relied on their personal contact with these groups. Often anthropologists would learn about new cultures by becoming everyday members of new societies, recording their observations, and providing rich descriptions of participants’ experiences. This research was insightful and critical to the philosophical and scientific advancement of the study of acculturation, though there were questions about the efficacy of this research to generalize to other participants.

In the past 25 years, there has been major advancement of quantitative approaches to the study of immigration and culture exchange, with aims to provide more objective research as well as generalizable theories and methods. This area of inquiry into acculturation includes economists, sociologists, linguists, psychologists, and other social and behavioral scientists. Researchers from these disciplines have relied heavily on quantitative methods and statistical analyses, along with increasingly precise and generalizable measures of language and, later, increasingly sophisticated assessments of cultural attitudes, knowledge, values, and behaviors. Additionally, the utilization of large federal surveys with massive sample sizes, such as the U.S. Census, has allowed sociologists and economists to investigate variations among ethnic groups on such factors as family size, income, education, and language preference. Finally, cultural psychologists have explored individual perceptions and cross-cultural interactions through the use of highly controlled laboratory experiments and small-scale surveys with measures developed to assess precisely defined cultural factors.

Within the fields of counseling and clinical psychology, acculturation began to attract substantial interest in the 1970s. During this time, acculturation theory within the behavioral sciences progressed from a single-dimension theory to a multidimensional theory. Assessment of acculturation also moved from employing ethnic categories or labels, and perhaps only a single language domain, to reflecting multiple domains including attitudes, values, identities, and social network characteristics. One of the most widely used initial measures was Israel Cuellar and colleagues’ Acculturation Rating Scale for Mexican Americans (ARSMA). This scale included items assessing preferences for language, associations, entertainment and food, ethnic identification, generation, and bilingual abilities. In reviewing current multidimensional and bilinear acculturation measures, most include language and behavior items, yet only a few instruments assess elements of cultural change that include values, knowledge, or cultural identity.

Most current acculturation models emphasize cultural exchange between cultures. Two of the most widely used scales for U.S. Latinos/as, the most widely studied group regarding acculturation, include the Bidimensional Acculturation Scale (BAS) and the ARSMA-II. A commonality of these two scales is that they emphasize the orthogonal nature of acculturation; that is, one does not have to lose one culture to gain another. Such models of acculturation have demonstrated that individuals can adhere to more than one culture independently and come from a theoretical tradition from the study of ethnic identity where some individuals of color were maintaining their culture of origin. It is important to note that there are significant differences between the BAS and ARSMA-II. The BAS is designed as a relatively brief measure for use with Latinos/as more generally, and it is primarily centered on language (although as it is orthogonal, it is assumed that one need not give up proficiency of, and exposure to, English or Spanish). The ARSMA-II targets immigrants of Mexican descent in particular and includes multiple identities (American/Anglo, Mexican, and Chicano/a) as well as additional domains such as cultural values and traditions. Scales for other immigrant and indigenous groups within the United States and other nations have been developed, as well as scales that can be used with multiple ethnic groups, such as Zea and colleagues’ Abbreviated Multidimensional Acculturation Scale. Although more generic acculturation scales have their utility for examining general cultural change patterns across multiple cultural groups and may yield broad acculturation classifications for many individuals, it should be understood that this can occur at the cost of expressing cultural richness, cultural nuance, and cultural specificity.

Acculturation, Acculturative/ Cultural Stress, and Health

Throughout the acculturation literature, there have been controversies about the effects of acculturation on health. Some researchers posit that there is a negative relationship between acculturation and mental health, where unacculturated clients experience poorer mental health due to the lack of adequate social networks and stress from exposure to unfamiliar cultural dynamics. However, others suggest that those who are more acculturated experience a greater degree of psychopathology, due mainly to the stress caused by rejection from the dominant culture within the society in the form of racism and discrimination. Also, there is some evidence that more-acculturated Asian Americans experience depression and anxiety at higher rates than less-acculturated Asians and Whites. Furthermore, higher acculturation status among native-born Mexican Americans has been associated with higher lifetime prevalence of phobia as well as alcohol/drug abuse and dependence.

Also, within many contexts, immigrants and indigenous groups who retain some traditional cultural practices are protected in mental health domains. Mexican immigrants who retain traditional cultural practices report lower divorce rates and more positive perceptions of their family. Still other data have suggested that the balance between adjusting to the host society and holding on to traditions and beliefs of the culture of origin may lead to the best mental health status.

Although the relations of acculturation to mental health are complicated and mixed, there also has been interest in examining acculturation and physical health. Typically, rapid acculturation to American values and behaviors is associated with negative health outcomes for Latinos/as. An important framework that aims to more specifically link acculturation to health is the acculturation stress perspective, which seeks to examine the components of acculturation that lead to distress or poor health. This framework assumes that living in an environment with more than one culture present might generate stress due to negotiating more than one set of values, norms, and identities. People of color and immigrants who experience acculturative stress tend to report greater mental health problems.

As with most acculturation measures extant before the mid-1990s, however, few acculturative stress measures are consistent with orthogonal models (that differentiate bicultural from marginalized persons, the latter most strongly associated with poor well-being). In a study from a nonmajority community using an orthogonal measure, these stressors were most strongly reported by Latino/a and Asian American youth than non-Latino/a White youth, consistent with positions that minority ethnic groups experience more pressure to assimilate because of less power and lower status. However, non-Latino/a Whites also experienced these stressors, which were significantly associated with more negative mental health markers and health risk behaviors across all groups. Likewise, bicultural conflict has also been positively associated with depressive symptoms in Chinese Americans. This bicultural stress paradigm, with its underpinnings from the cultural exchange premise of acculturation, potentially contributes to the understanding of a wide range of persons’ health outcomes (immigrants and nonimmigrants, minority and majority) as they navigate through multiple cultures.

Implications for Psychotherapy and Counselors

As previously discussed, there are various conflicting theories as to the relationships among acculturation, psychological problems, and health status. However, cultural context and the acculturative process cannot and should not be left out of the therapeutic context. The question then becomes how to address acculturation and cultural beliefs in therapy. Before exploring this topic, it is important to note that acculturation issues are primarily recommended to be addressed in therapy when cultural exchanges are identified by the client as a source of incongruence and/or distress.

Clinicians and counselors should take considerable responsibility to study the available scholarship about their clients’ cultures, their intersections, and clients’ individual responses. Most of the literature that focuses on psychotherapy with clients from diverse ethnic backgrounds highlights the importance of cultural competency, including understanding acculturation processes. The term cultural competency in this case refers to the degree to which a clinician is knowledgeable about the culture of the client. However, cultural “competence” seems to suggest that providers can study a particular culture until a certain level, and once this level is achieved, they have sufficient knowledge of the culture to competently treat an individual from that culture. Just as practitioners can never know everything about a client, they also will never have a complete understanding of ever-evolving cultures. Furthermore, practitioners may have a fairly large knowledge base about a particular culture, but that does not mean cultural ascriptions of what an individual client is experiencing are accurate. Finally, because individuals may be uniquely situated among multiple cultures, their cultural experiences may be adequately understood not by focusing on any of the cultures that influence them but rather by looking at the multiple cultures as a whole, unique, cultural context for those individuals.

Thus, the best way to learn about clients’ cultural context and acculturative experience is from clients themselves. This is not to say that practitioners should rely solely on clients’ self-report. Rather, while it is important that clinicians obtain a sufficient knowledge base in their clients’ culture(s) from credible scientific or perhaps from nonscientific sources (history, narratives, and case studies), they also must recognize their clients’ unique experiences and be cautious to avoid overgeneralizations and stereotypes represented in various public literatures and media. Also, it should be understood that clients are not their culture; rather, their cultural contexts and acculturative processes influence who they are and how they view and experience the world they live in.

Understanding clients’ cultural context and acculturative process requires more than attaining culture competence or cultural knowledge. It requires awareness and acknowledgment of clients’ personal experiences along with cultural context in attempts to develop empathy. Most importantly, practitioners should always inquire and avoid assumptions about clients’ personalized experiences based on limited information about the person or broad cultural understandings. At times, the difference between cultural interaction processes most detrimental to mental health and those most adaptive may be subtle.

Paying close attention to subtleties and individuals’ cultural context within therapy has been termed by some researchers as cultural naivete, which reflects humility and respectfulness in individuals’ unique, culturally influenced spaces without practitioner anxiety or self-consciousness. Data suggest that immigrant clients and clients of color care more about clinicians’ attitudes and reassurance that the client will be treated respectfully than they do about clinicians’ skills or perceived knowledge of clients’ cultures. Furthermore, clients who have experience with a culturally responsive clinician tend to experience higher levels of satisfaction, increased trust and self-disclosure, and decreased rates of attrition. Thus, it may be more beneficial for both clients and clinicians if clinicians are focused more on being culturally responsive, which includes a high degree of openness in addition to a strong foundation of culturally relevant knowledge.

Under the assumption that it would lead to cultural competence in therapy, the costs and benefits of using client-therapist acculturative or ethnic matching in considering treatment options has been examined. Findings on the effects of client-therapist matching in mental health treatment studies have been mixed. There is some evidence that ethnic matching for Latinos/as, African Americans, Asian Americans, and White Americans is related to lower rates of early termination, increased participation, and greater treatment outcomes. However, no single culture is homogenous, and a client from China can be matched with a therapist from Korea based on the fact that they are both of Asian descent as marked in a database—but they may have little else in common besides a pan-ethnic label. Furthermore, a mismatch ignoring class, gender, education, acculturation, and their intersections could lead to greater misunderstanding and poorer treatment outcomes than if no matching was attempted. A second concern about acculturative matching follows the concept of cultural naivete. Often, it might be beneficial to avoid ethnic or acculturative matching to further facilitate inquiry and discovery. If a client and a clinician are acculturatively matched, there may be less exploration due to the assumption that they understand each other because of their similar cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, even with ethnic or acculturative matching, a client and therapist may differ greatly in the expectations and practices of therapy as most clinicians are immersed in Western cultural norms of psychotherapy, which may interfere with the therapeutic process and therapeutic alliance.

In summary, it is essential that counselors remain empathic by being culturally responsive and by paying close attention to how their own cultural context influences their actions within the therapeutic context. When working with clients who present concerns related to acculturation, it is important to remain open and respectful, and strive to understand clients’ cultural context, experiences, and level of distress most strongly guided by clients’ own insights.

Future Research and Practice

All research efforts and delivery of service where acculturation is relevant specify what is meant by acculturation and the ways in which acculturation might influence well-being, health, and behavior. Generally speaking, language or generational status reveals little about individuals’ cultural context. More than likely, acculturation factors reflecting family relationships/dynamics, beliefs about health and disease, beliefs about personal responsibility, cultural conflict, and social networks will be more insightful in the quest to understand clients from immigrant populations. Likewise, it is vital to recognize that cultural change and cultural intersections may lead to mixed outcomes—at times leading to stressors such as family, social networks, and identity disturbances, but also to important strengths and resiliencies in terms of identity and adjustment. A growing area of research has identified positive cultural buffers, such as a positive and bicultural ethnic identity, that promote health and well-being. It is particularly critical for therapists and prevention program developers to recognize sources of resilience that promote well-being that many immigrants have before they transition to a new area, but that may be hard to sustain when immersed in multiple cultures or within a pervasive dominant culture.

Finally, although not widely examined in North America, researchers in other nations are examining dynamics of acculturation that are both migrant and dominant (host) culture specific. One example is the exploring of the potential match or mismatch in cultural characteristics among the interacting cultures and the associated social and health consequences. Such models may be useful if extended in the United States as well. For instance, one would expect Mien immigrants (from rural Laos) and immigrant Mexicans from Distrito Federal (an urban area including Mexico City and representing almost 20 million inhabitants) to experience different acculturation stressors depending on the urbanity and other local cultural characteristics within a particular U.S. community. Just as one should not view immigrant groups as monolithic, host communities should not be viewed that way either, because both influence the acculturative process and outcomes for the interacting groups. This gap in North American research paradigms also further reinforces the importance of counselors recognizing the complexity of cultural exchanges and the limitations of inferring clients’ particular cultural contexts and experiences from an extant literature not fully developed.


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