The term bicultural describes a state of having or inheriting two or more cultures (e.g., one of an ethnic heritage and one of culture lived in) or two or more ethnic traditions. Central to the discussion of biculturalism is the construct of culture. Culture can be defined as a learned system of meaning and behavior for a group that is defined by geographic boundaries; it includes the customs, values, and traditions that people learn from the environment, family members, peers, and the community or society in which people live. Individuals within a culture have common shared values, customs, habits, and rituals; systems of labeling, explanations, and evaluations; social rules of behavior; perceptions regarding human nature, natural phenomena, interpersonal relationships, time, and activity; symbols, art, and artifacts; and historical developments.

In 1980, Raymond Buriel and Delia S. Saenz defined biculturalism as an integration of the competencies and sensitivities associated with two cultures within an individual. Similarly, bicultural individuals were described as having had extensive socialization and life experiences in two or more cultures and as participating actively in these cultures. These descriptions apply to a growing population of people within the United States who have affiliations with other countries and cultures (e.g., given the predominance of immigration and the increased emphasis on ethnic pride). These individuals have feelings and experiences that contribute to their becoming both a part of and separate from the dominant American culture. This duality can be seen in the number of “hyphenated” Americans among ethnic and racial minority groups such as Vietnamese Americans and Dominican Americans as well as among dominant White American groups such as Italian Americans and Irish Americans.

Biculturalism also carries with it expectations regarding cultural practice, mastery, or competence. In essence, biculturalism can manifest in the state of being comfortable with, knowledgeable of, aware of, and competent with at least two distinct cultures. However, two dichotomous perspectives on what it means to be bicultural exist, and both have empirical evidence to support them. In the first, bicultural individuals perceive their dual cultural identities as compatible and complementary, whereas in the second, bicultural individuals describe them as oppositional and contradictory. Bicultural individuals also have been seen as either individuals who have a healthy balance of two or more cultures or individuals who are confused and conflicted. Clearly, being bicultural is not as simple as being on one or another end of a cultural spectrum. Biculturalism can involve feelings of pride, being special, being unique, and having a sense of community and history. It can also include identity confusion, dual or multiple expectations, and value clashes.

Bicultural individuals differ in how they subjectively organize their dual cultural orientations (i.e., variations in orientations are associated with different patterns of contextual, personality, and performance variables). In fact, although individuals want to maintain positive ties with both cultures, certain psychosocial pressures and individual variables lead to significant variations in the process, meanings, and outcomes. The experience of navigating the world as an individual with a hyphenated identity has been described by Alan Roland as walking on a “bicultural tightrope.” Bicultural individuals constantly face the challenge of integrating different cultural demands, messages, expectations, and issues of discrimination. In spite of the challenges, however, many bicultural individuals succeed at developing a bicultural identity. There are two types of bicultural individuals identified in the literature. In the first type, bicultural individuals identify with both cultures simultaneously but may do so at differing levels. They identify with being “both” (e.g., I am Haitian American). They do not perceive their ethnic minority culture and the dominant cultures as being mutually exclusive or conflicting. They integrate their cultures into their lives, are able to demonstrate competency in both cultures, and are able to switch behaviors depending on contextual demands. A second type of bicultural individual perceives the dominant and ethnic minority cultures as oppositional in orientation. Although these individuals also identify with both cultures, they are acutely aware of the discrepancies in their cultures and see these discrepancies as a source of internal conflict. Thus, these individuals keep their two cultural identities separate and often report that it is easier to be from their minority culture or from the dominant culture but hard to be both at the same time. For example, they may identify as being Korean or American as opposed to Korean American. They feel they have to choose one or the other because of the differing perspectives of their cultures.


For many years, it was thought that living in two cultures has a negative impact on the development and lives of individuals. In fact, one common assumption has been that individuals who try to engage in two cultures experience identity confusion and even marginal-ity. To help diminish this assumed confusion, parents of bicultural children were often encouraged to have their children speak only one language, most often the dominant one (e.g., in the United States, English). There are a number of colloquial expressions that highlight the negative perceptions of bicultural individuals. For example, Indians born in the United States may be called “ABCDs” which stands for American Born Confused Desi (of the Indian subcontinent). This term implies that because these individuals are U.S. born and not born in India, they do not really understand or accept their roots. It was thought that being born into or developing competence in one culture leads to the loss of identification with the other. Similarly, negative terminology has developed that is used to imply that racial and ethnic minorities may appear a certain way but have internally identified with and adopted values, norms, and behaviors of White U.S. culture. For example, African Americans may be referred to as “Oreos” (black on the outside, white on the inside), East Asian Americans may be referred to as “Bananas” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), Latinos/as (and South Asians) may be referred to as “Coconuts” (brown on the outside, white on the inside), and Native Americans or American Indians may be referred to as “Apples” (red on the outside, white on the inside). Although the stereotypes are still deeply embedded in our cultures, it is known now that being bicultural gives individuals an opportunity to access more than one culture, and being bilingual or multilingual is often an advantage (e.g., research has found that being multilingual promotes brain development).

Ethnic Identity

There are many definitions of ethnic identity, some of which put it in relation to other terms such as biculturalism and others that define ethnic identity independently. Ethnic identity has been defined as the totality of individual’s feelings about the values, symbols, and common histories that identify one as a member of a distinct ethnic group. It has also been defined as a social identity based on the culture of one’s ancestral group or groups (national or tribal), as modified by the culture in which one’s group currently resides. The dimensions on which ethnic identity vary are self-identification, knowledge of one’s culture, and preferences toward an ethnic group. Ethnic identity can be divided into two parts—an external ethnic identity and an internal ethnic identity, whereby external ethnic identity refers to observable social and cultural behaviors and internal ethnic identity includes cognitive, affective, and moral domains. For ethnic minorities, ethnic pride, or a positive ethnic identity, can help individuals cope with the demands of the dominant culture. A number of models of ethnic identity development apply to various ethnic groups in the United States. These models typically incorporate various developmental stages or statuses that follow individuals’ progression from lower levels of ethnic pride to higher levels of pride and ethnic self-appreciation.

The psychological literature has alluded to a connection between ethnic identity, biculturalism, and acculturation, and these terms are sometimes (incorrectly) used interchangeably. Whereas biculturalism and ethnic identity can be seen as states of being, acculturation is a process. Furthermore, whereas an individual with an ethnic identity is not necessarily bicultural, a bicultural individual will have at least one ethnic identity.

Ethnic Belongingness

Included in models of ethnic identity is the concept of ethnic belongingness. This construct refers to the state of feeling affiliation with or connection to those belonging to the individuals’ own ethnic group. The feelings and perceptions that individuals have about their own ethnic group are also likely to impact the degree to which these individuals feel belongingness to their ethnic group. For bicultural individuals, this process is complicated by awareness of stereotypes, assumptions, and judgments that the dominant group has toward individuals’ own ethnic group and that their ethnic group has toward the dominant group. Thus, the very awareness (of bias) that often accompanies biculturalism can either facilitate or hinder individuals’ ethnic belongingness.

Bicultural Models

Bicultural models describe how members of racial and ethnic minority groups go through an adaptive process whereby they learn two or more behavioral repertoires. An important bicultural model is the bicultural “alteration model,” which outlines the process of second culture acquisition experienced by individuals. The model suggests that it is possible for individuals to gain competence in two cultures without having to choose one culture over another or lose their original cultural identity.

In opposition to the assumption that living in two cultures is confusing or problematic for individuals, biculturalism and the ability to develop and maintain competence in both cultures is actually psychologically beneficial to individuals. Moreover, negative psychological impact from contact with both cultures can be reduced through the development of bicultural competence. In turn, bicultural competence and second culture acquisition are facilitated by the presence of a strong personal identity. It is important to note, however, that the acquisition of culture and achievement of bicultural competence tend to occur at varying rates for individuals.

To navigate two cultures effectively, individuals need to acquire competence in six dimensions:

  1. Knowledge of cultural values and beliefs such as awareness of history, rituals, and everyday practices for each cultural and ethnic group with whom one has contact
  2. Positive attitudes toward the goal of bicultural competence and toward both groups with whom one has sufficient contact (but not necessarily equal regard)
  3. Bicultural efficacy, or the belief that one can live in an effective and satisfying way within more than one group
  4. The ability to appropriately and effectively communicate verbally and nonverbally in each culture
  5. Knowledge of, and competence to perform, a range of situationally appropriate behaviors and roles for each cultural group
  6. Existence of a sufficient social support system in both cultures that provides a source of practical information

This model can be seen as applicable to immigrants and second-generation bicultural individuals, as well as interracial, interethnic, intercultural, and transracial individuals. It can also be seen as valuable for multicultural individuals or those affiliated with more than two cultures.

Assimilation, Acculturation, and Biculturalism

Some experts believe that the development of a bicultural identity occurs through acculturation. Research on bicultural individuals has focused predominantly on the process of acculturation. Acculturation is the process of cultural change and adaptation that occurs when different cultures come into contact within an individual. More narrowly, acculturation refers to the adaptation process of one group to the rules and behaviors of another group. For many years, the assimilation model was the only acculturation model. This model was built on the idea that the United States is a “melting pot.”

Biculturalism is an important aspect of acculturation because the preexistence of a minority community can lead to the process in which individuals retain the culture of origin while also acculturating to the host culture. Acculturation and biculturalism can be differentiated by recognizing that acculturation refers to a cultural shift in which elements of the majority culture progressively predominate, whereas biculturalism refers to a cultural orientation in which elements of both minority and majority cultures are increasingly found in equal proportions. For example, a man from Senegal might begin to acculturate and strive to live, act, and speak as Americans do, so that in seeking to be more “Americanized,” he might give less time and attention to retaining his Senegalese culture. Were this same man to be considered bicultural, he would have equal skills, knowledge, and comfort in both American and Senegalese cultures so that he would not subvert one to learn the other.

Bicultural Unidimensional Scales

Quantitative methods, primarily through use of scales, have been used to study these variables. Unidimensional and multidimensional models of biculturalism and acculturation have emerged. Unidimensional or unilinear bicultural models conceptualize acculturation along a single, linear continuum, with one end reflecting high adherence to the indigenous or ethnic minority culture and the other end reflecting high adherence to the dominant culture. There are a number of biculturalism scales used to measure biculturalism unidimensionally, including

  • the Acculturation and Biculturalism Scale (ABS) that was developed using a Latino/a sample and includes Acculturation and Bicultural subscales; and
  • the Bicultural/Multicultural Experience Inventory (B/MEI) that was developed using a Mexican American sample and measures the behavioral dimensions of acculturation and cultural identity.

Critics of these unilinear models argue that they are unable to truly represent biculturalism, which includes adherence to both indigenous and host cultures. The limitations in these models lead to more complex conceptualizations of biculturalism.

Bicultural Multidimensional Scales

Bidimensional, bilinear, or multidimensional models conceptualize acculturation along two or more dimensions, each representing higher or lower levels of identification with a culture (e.g., the culture of the indigenous/ethnic minority and the dominant culture). In these models, the bicultural identity is often seen as the optimal identity. John Berry, Joseph Trimble, and Esteban Olmedo’s acculturation framework is one such model. The authors present four degrees of acculturation (i.e., bicultural, traditional, assimilated, and marginal) that take into account both identification with an ethnic group and identification with the dominant group. Individuals who strongly identify both with the dominant group and with their ethnic group are considered to be acculturated, integrated, and bicultural. These bicultural individuals are considered the ideal, and biculturalism is the goal for those who are in the process of acculturation. If individuals identify strongly with their own ethnic group and minimally with the dominant group, they are considered traditional, or ethnically embedded, separated, and dissociated. Traditionalists do not adapt in any way to their new culture. If, on the other hand, individuals identify strongly with the dominant group and weakly with their ethnic group, they are considered to be assimilated. With assimilation, there is a loss of ethnic or cultural identity. Finally, if they identify with neither group, they are considered marginal.

Similarly, bilinear or multidimensional scales were designed to measure the adaptation process on two continua—one that reflects adherence to the indigenous or ethnic minority culture and the other, adherence to the dominant culture. Two such measures include (1) the Bicultural Involvement Questionnaire, which was developed for Cuban Americans and measures the behavioral dimension of acculturation and has Hispanicism and Americanism subscales; and (2) the Bicultural Scale for Puerto Ricans.

The unilinear and bilinear scales used to assess biculturalism are not able to capture the complexity of this construct (though the latter appears to be a better measure than the former). Increasingly, researchers use qualitative measures either to complement quantitative measures or as the primary means of data collection.

Culture as Frame and Navigating Biculturalism

Individuals have culturally specific meaning systems (i.e., learned networks of ideas, values, beliefs, and knowledge) that are shared with others within the same culture. These meaning systems are interpretive frames that affect feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Given the pervasive nature of culture as the lens or frame through which individuals filter, understand, and internalize the meaning assigned to experiences and interactions, bicultural individuals’ navigation through culture can be thought of as doubly complex.

Because one’s cultural identity is influenced by language, generational/immigration status, sociopolitical climate, and situational cues, bicultural individuals often have dual cultural identities that they must navigate between and which become of greater or less salience depending on the environment, situation, and goal that is of concern.

Biculturalism and Frameswitching

More recently, the idea of cultural frameswitching has emerged, or the process in which cultural meaning systems guide individuals’ sociocognitive processes. Research suggests that for bicultural individuals, this frameswitching allows bicultural individuals to move between two different culturally based interpretive system lenses (i.e., in response to situational cues) that are rooted in their dual cultural backgrounds. Thus, bicultural individuals have access to multiple cultural meaning systems and switch between culturally appropriate behaviors depending on context. For example, Chinese American individuals possess both

Asian and Western cultural meaning systems, and each system can be independently activated by culturally relevant icons or primes. There is much variability, however, in how bicultural individuals manage and experience these meaning systems.

Bicultural Identity Integration

Differences in bicultural identity affect how cultural knowledge is used to interpret events. Veronica Haritatos and Jana Benet-Martinez discussed a construct they call Bicultural Identity Integration (BII), which is the way bicultural individuals organize their two cultural identities. Bicultural individuals high on BII describe their two cultural identities as compatible (i.e., fluid and complementary), whereas bicultural individuals low on BII experience their two identities as oppositional (i.e., conflicting and disparate). Cultural frameswitching is moderated by BII or the perceived compatibility (vs. opposition) between the two cultural orientations. In Haritatos and Benet-Martinez’s research, Chinese Americans who perceived their cultural identities as compatible (high BII) responded in culturally congruent ways to cultural cues. They made more external attributions (more Asian behavior) after being exposed to Chinese primes (e.g., picture of a Chinese dragon) and more internal attributions (more Western behavior) after being exposed to American primes (e.g., picture of an American flag). On the other hand, Chinese Americans who perceived their cultural identities as oppositional (low BII) demonstrated a reverse priming effect. That is, individuals with a low BII had more external attributions (Asian behavior) after being exposed to American primes and more internal attributions (Western behavior) after being exposed to Chinese primes.

Variations in BII, however, do not define a uniform phenomenon. Instead, the variations encompass two separate independent constructs: perceptions of distance (vs. overlap) and perceptions of conflict (vs. harmony) between an individual’s two cultural identities.

Culture and Transracial Adoption

Transracial adoption, or the practice of placing (for adoption) children of one racial group with parents from another racial group, by its very nature, has long been expected to result in multiple forms of biculturalism as well as bicultural conflicts. In fact, common expectation for transracial adoptees is for them to demonstrate some degree of biculturality. However, many transracial adoptees are raised by adoptive parents who are racially different from the child, typically rearing them within the adoptive parents’ own cultural traditions. These parents often do not practice, identify with, or subscribe to the values, beliefs, and traditions found in the adoptees’ birth culture. Moreover, the separation (physical, environmental, and social) from the birth culture often results in little, if any, familiarity or real affiliation and identification with the birth culture. As a result, the culture with which the transracial adoptee often identifies is that of his or her adoptive parents. Furthermore, for transracial adoptees to truly become bicultural, they must become competent in, knowledgeable about, aware of, and competent within their birth culture—achievements that are even less likely to occur when the adoptions are international. Thus, for many transracial adoptees biculturalism is difficult to achieve. Because the adoptees often do not have adequate or full access to their birth culture and because they are reared by parents with cultural values, beliefs, and traditions from a culture other than their birth culture (often the dominant culture), they are most often described as assimilated rather than truly bicultural. Biculturalism, however, is sought by many adult transracial adoptees. It is achieved by visits to their birth countries and immersion into their birth culture and birth communities. Thus, the process of becoming bicul-tural is often one that reverses the target culture in the acculturation process; that is, the birth culture (often nondominant) becomes the target culture.

Current Issues in Biculturalism

A bicultural framework often does not take into account multiple identities, such as socioeconomic status, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, and gender. For example, studying ethnicity and gender as separate variables would result in reductionism and denial of the full experience of ethnic women. Also, it is simplistic to assume that ethnicity is a combination of heritage and modification. Ethnicity cannot be summed up as something simply passed on from generation to generation, taught and learned. Rather, it is dynamic and has to be inclusive of many components of one’s identity.

Although bicultural identities have been discussed in relation to immigrant and ethnic minority groups, it has been posited that biculturalism can be applied to globalization as well. Because of international travel and communication through media technology (e.g., television, the Internet), modern youth have developed a global identity in addition to their local identities (e.g., ethnic, cultural identities). This global identity gives them a sense of belonging to a worldwide culture that includes an awareness of global events, practices, and information. Biculturalism has also become more globally prominent. Modern conceptualizations of identity incorporate ethnic origins and heritage as parts of individuals.


  1. Arnett, J. J. (2002). The psychology of globalization. American Psychologist, 57(10), 774-783.
  2. Benet-Martinez, V., & Haritatos, J. (2005). Bicultural Identity Integration (BII): Components and psychosocial antecedents. Journal of Personality, 73(4), 1015-1050.
  3. Benet-Martinez, V., Leu, J., Lee, F., & Morris, M. W. (2002). Negotiating biculturalism: Cultural frameswitching in biculturals with oppositional versus compatible cultural identities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(5), 492-516.
  4. Hong, Y. Y., Morris, M., Chiu, C. Y., & Benet-Martinez, V. (2000). Multicultural minds: A dynamic constructivist approach to culture and cognition. American Psychologist, 55, 709-720.
  5. LaFramboise, T., Coleman, H. L. K., & Gerton, J. (1993). Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 395-H2.
  6. Padilla, A. (Ed.). (1980). Acculturation: Theory, models and some new findings. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  7. Park, R. E., & Burgess, E. W. (1921). Introduction to the science of sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  8. Phinney, J. S., & Devich-Navarro, M. (1997). Variations in bicultural identification among African American and Mexican American adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 7, 3-32.
  9. Szapocznik, J., Kurtines, W. M., & Fernandez, T. (1980). Bicultural involvement and adjustment in Hispanic-American youths. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 4, 353-365.
  10. Triandis, H. C., Kashima, Y., Hui, C. H., Lisansky, J., & Marin, G. (1982). Acculturation and biculturalism indices among relatively acculturated Hispanic young adults. Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 16, 140-149.

See also: