The term culture has been variously defined, but there is general agreement that, whatever the concept entails, it serves as (1) the “glue” which keeps groups of individuals together as distinct entities, and (2) the means by which individuals adapt to the group and maintain a sense of identity and psychological stability. Cultural disintegration, then, can have a dual impact: it can cause a cultural entity to cease to exist and can also have a disruptive effect on the emotional adjustment of the individual.
There is not further consensus that cultures are static; cultures arise to enable a group to adapt to the demands of their surroundings and, as the context changes, the form and content of culture will also change. In the normal course of events these changes are slow and likely may not even be recognized within the lifetime or cultural memory of individuals. Thus, while there may be an appearance of sameness, over the longer course, substantial changes can occur with the culture remaining substantially intact and individuals retaining a sense of belonging and good psychological health.
Cultures rarely exist in isolation for any great length of time. With increasing worldwide population and mobility, the opportunity for contact between cultures has increased substantially, thus increasing the potential for more rapid cultural change. In the Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology (Boston, 1997, Vol. 3) John Berry and David Sam described four adaptational strategies that can be employed by individuals when cultural groups are faced with change (the usual paradigm of change occurs when a smaller group encounters or becomes immersed in a larger, more dominant cultural group). Integration occurs when individuals retain a value for their traditional culture but also desire participation in the dominant society. Assimilation comes about when there is a desire to become a member of the dominant culture and there is no attachment to the original culture. Separation is the opposite of assimilation, where the total commitment is to the original culture and a rejection of the dominant culture. Lastly, marginalization occurs when the traditional culture is lost and there is no attachment to the dominant culture. The first two of these strategies involve the least stress on individuals, while the latter two would be expected to result in some psychopathological sequelae.
The term acculturative stress has been used to describe the psychological effects that occur whenever an individual encounters cultural change. This stress is assumed to operate on a continuum and its intensity is linked to a number of factors in the cultural change process including (I) the circumstances of change (e.g., voluntary or forced); (2) the level of similarity between the original and assumed cultures: ( 3 ) the psychological stability of the individual in the process of change; and (4) the acceptance of the host culture of cultural differences. Using this model one would expect to find a wide range and intensity of emotional disorders that are related to either acute or chronic stress.
Other models of cultural adaptation do not posit an inherent stress factor. In particular, models that incorporate the possibility of bicultural (or multicultural) modes of functioning avoid the inevitability of stress. In fact, individuals who can successfully navigate the demands of two or more cultures are seen as cognitively more complex and to have better overall psychological adjustment. There are several requirements for the development of biculturalism (LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, Psychological Bulletin, 1991, 114, 395- 412): (1) an adequate knowledge of cultural beliefs and values of both cultures: (2) positive attitudes toward both cultures; (3) trust in one’s ability to function in both cultures; (4) language competency in both cultures; (5) behavioral repertoires appropriate to each culture: and (6) supportive social networks in both cultures. The more of these qualities one possesses the lower the likelihood that stress will accrue.
Cultural disintegration implies a circumstance at the extreme end of the acculturation process and thus is likely to have the most profound negative effects on individuals. Disintegration is more likely when (1) the impetus for change is external to the group: (2) the change is exceptionally large: (3) the change is rapid: and (4) the cultural group has little control over the change process. A contemporary example wherein all of these conditions are present is the removal of all of the inhabitants of Bikini Island in the South Pacific. In the late 1940s the US government wanted the island for use as a nuclear test site and relocated the island’s population. The government made the decision, the move was to a totally new environment, it occurred in a very short period of time, and the Bikinians had no choice in the immediate or subsequent attempts to ameliorate the ensuing problems. The result was a substantial loss of the original culture, serious demoralization among the people, and a great deal of stress with which individuals continue to cope with varying success.
A range of emotional disorders have been associated with extreme degrees of acculturation stress accompanying the disintegration of a culture. The more recent literature describes varying levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as being common among those that have been displaced or have experienced severe trauma due to war or natural disasters. In these instances individuals must not only deal with the physical and psychological effects of trauma but also with the possible loss of cultural surround that would normally provide coping strategies and a basis of support. Numerous studies of children who have experienced a wide range of traumas have concluded that the variable that determined whether or not children will develop PTSD was the continued presence of a strong cultural base during and following the traumatic events. Viktor Frank1 (Man’s Search for Meaning, New York, T984) focused more on the inner strength of individuals as the key factor in determining psychological survival both during and following extreme cultural trauma: those who are able to maintain a sense of “meaning in life” can endure extreme conditions. Ultimately, however, this sense of “meaning” is determined by one’s cultural learning and values and the degree to which the individuals are identified with their culture.
Where the loss of culture is more gradual, or does not involve traumatic events, the expression of psychological problems is less clear and more difficult to characterize. A major problem in this regard is the definition of emotional disorders across cultures: what may be seen as problematic in one culture is not so in another. Since most of the research in this area has been done from a Western perspective, most of the labels that are used have distinct Western psychological flavor. With this caveat in mind, various expressions of anxiety and depression disorders have been found where cultures have been disrupted, especially in refugee populations. Similar to the findings from the PTSD research, the presence of a supportive ethnic cultural community has been found to ameliorate the intensity of anxiety and depression disorders. To the extent that refugee populations exist in sufficient numbers and conditions allow the expression of traditional values, beliefs, and behaviors, individuals will fare much better from a psychological standpoint.
Identity disorders or problems are another potential outcome of cultural disintegration. One’s personal identity is developed within and supported by the cultural milieu, and when the milieu is disrupted or the person is rapidly removed from it, the central sense of one’s self may be in jeopardy. This is more likely among the young or those who have not developed a strong sense of identity in their traditional culture.
During periods of rapid cultural change some individuals may become marginalized (see Berry and Sam’s typology above). These are people who have been only somewhat successful in their traditional culture and who cannot (or choose not to) make the transition to the demands of the new culture. In Robert Merton’s terms (Social Theory and Structure, Glencoe. IL, 1957) these people are in a state of anomie. Such individuals lack the means to achieve success in either culture and are prone to resort to deviant means to meet their basic or perceived needs. Further increasing the chance of deviance is the lack of identification with either culture. Thus there is nonadherence to norms and the sanctions applied against deviance from either culture, which are now meaningless. A similar, but not necessarily pathological, condition can occur when one’s traditional culture has been eradicated (by war or other disaster), and thus cannot meet one’s needs, and access to success is blocked in other cultures. Forced emigration, including slavery, with subsequent prejudicial treatment, are examples. In these instances people may have strong allegiance to their traditional culture and may make more or less successful attempts to recreate that culture, including maintenance of norms and the invocation of sanctions against deviant individuals.
The destruction of an intact culture often results in the deterioration in a variety of health and social indicators among those affected. Health status may decline, leading to a shorter lifespan, educational and other training opportunities may be restricted, thus reducing employability, and deviance, including alcohol and other substance abuse disorders, may increase (once again, the caveat of the dangers of cross-cultural definitions must be invoked in these circumstances). To the extent that these conditions deviate from what was present in the original culture, they can be attributed to the absence or removal of functional cultural elements. For example, in all cultures mechanisms are developed to address injury and disease and these become acceptable and familiar to members of a culture. When these approaches no longer exist (e.g., traditional medicine people or medicines are not available), there is a reluctance to seek out, or engage in, the medical practices of a new culture. Thus general health care will decline. Likewise, immersion in a new culture may bring circumstances or customs, which the traditional culture had no experience with or social controls for. The indigenous populations of North America and their experience with alcohol provide an example. When the indigenous cultures were supplanted by colonization, alcohol was introduced, a substance with which the tribal cultures had little or no experience. There were no customs regulating alcohol use, no beliefs about moderate use, and no sanctions for abuse. The subsequent toll taken on the indigenous peoples of North America is a well-known story.
The term culture shock is often discussed in the literature on extreme culture change. This concept shares some of the elements of cultural destruction but contains an important difference. Culture shock describes the individual’s response to a rapid and total immersion in another culture. However, it is usually reserved for those circumstances where an individual voluntarily moves to another cultural environment and has the freedom to return to their original culture. Missionary work, the Peace Corps, or short-term employment are typical circumstances where culture shock can occur. While the immersion is voluntary in nature, the effect on the individual can be quite intense and may resemble what occurs among individuals in more coercive situations. Familiar values, beliefs, and behaviors are no longer applicable, the usual support systems and coping strategies are not available, one’s sense of identity comes into question, and emotional responses of anxiety, depression, and anger may emerge. While the situation may be time limited, there is a perception of permanency about it. With time, however, the many strategies discussed previously can be employed to adjust to the new cultural environment.
In summary, culture is the means by which groups of individuals survive in and make sense out of their environment. Additionally, culture provides a means of survival and nurturance for the individual. Clearly, major disruptions of culture, or cultural disintegration, can have a serious and lasting impact on the quality of life, or even life itself for the individual. The extent of the impact is dependent upon the nature, degree, and rapidity of conditions that radically alter an individual’s cultural context, the cultural integrity and psychological health of the individual, and access to the use of a variety of coping strategies.
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