Understanding Acculturation and Why It Happens

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Sept 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Acculturation is the process by which a culture adopts the customs and ideas of another culture. It is a process of learning and adopting the values, behaviors, and traditions of another group or society.

This can happen on an individual level, such as when someone moves to a new country and adopts the customs of their new home. It can also happen on a larger scale, such as when a country is colonized by another country and adopts its customs (Fort, Crema, & Madella, 2015).

Key Points

  • Acculturation is the process by which groups or individuals adjust the social and cultural values, ideas, beliefs, and behavioral patterns of their culture of origin to those of a different culture.
  • Acculturation is the process of cultural change and adaptation that occurs when groups come into contact with one another.There are many different ways to measure acculturation, but it generally includes changes in language, dress, food and other aspects of culture..
  • Acculturation can be a positive experience that leads to increased understanding and tolerance of different cultures. It can also result in negative outcomes such as prejudice and discrimination.
  • Berry proposed four modes of acculturation: assimilation, integration, seperation, and marginalization.

Berry’s Acculturation Model

There have been more than 100 different theories of acculturation developed by academic researchers across fields. Berry’s model of acculturation has been widely used to understand the acculturation experiences of immigrants and minority groups.

Berry's model of acculturation categorizes individual adaptation strategies across two dimensions.

The first dimension is the degree of maintenance or change in one's own culture. A question under this dimension would include whether it is considered to be of value to maintain one’s identity and characteristics.

The second dimension is the degree of involvement or disengagement in the host culture, asking the question of whether it is considered to be of value to maintain relationships with the new, larger society (Berry, 1992).

The model delineates four ideal strategies for acculturation: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization.


Assimilation is when individuals or groups adopt the dominant culture to the exclusion of their own, often resulting in loss of cultural identity.

Individuals who acculturate often see the dominant culture as superior to their own and view assimilation as a way to improve their social and economic status. In forced acculturation situations, assimilation is often the only option for survival (Berry, 1992).


Integration is the maintenance of one’s own culture while also participating in the dominant culture. This strategy is often successful when the dominant culture is accepting of cultural diversity. Individuals who integrate often have a strong sense of identity with their own culture and are also able to participate fully in the dominant culture.

For example, many lighter-skinned immigrant groups in the United States were able to integrate more easily into mainstream society because they “passed” as white.

Irish immigrants, while not considered "white enough" when they came to the United States in the 19th century, eventually rose to the higher echelons of American society, with their descendants amassing wealth and even becoming president. Simultaneously, the religious and cultural practices of Irish immigrants — such as Catholicism and St. Patrick's Day — has become embedded in American culture (Berry, 1992).


Separation is the rejection of the dominant culture and preservation of one’s own cultural identity.

In this quadrant, individuals maintain their own cultural values and traditions while keeping a distance from the host culture. They may view the dominant culture as a threat to their own cultural values and traditions.

For example, in some communities, Hasidic Orthodox Jews have chosen to separate themselves from the larger society in order to maintain their religious and cultural traditions.

They live in insular communities, often separated by the lines of a neighborhood, dress conservatively, and follow different social customs than those of their mainstream cultural counterparts (Berry, 1992).


Marginalization, finally, is characterized by powerlessness and isolation from both the dominant and home cultures. Here, the individual disengages from both the individual’s own culture and the dominant culture.

This often occurs when individuals feel they do not belong to either culture. Marginalized individuals may experience poverty, unemployment, and poor mental health.

Acculturational research has suggested that integrated acculturation tends to lead to the most favorable psychological outcomes (Nguyuen et al., 2007) while marginalization leads to the least (Berry, 1992).

Regardless, researchers have criticized Berry's acculturation model for having a lack of predictive validity. People may skirt different categories, and situational determinants — such as traveling with family and prior familiarity with the language — as well as environmental factors can impact the availability, advantage, and selection of acculturation strategies (Zhou, 1997).

How Does Acculturation Work At A Group Level?

When acculturation spreads to entire groups, the widespread adoption of the values, practices, forms of art, and technologies of another culture.

This can happen when groups are in close contact with each other, such as when one group moves into the territory of another.

It can also happen when there is a large-scale movement of people from one place to another, as happened during colonization (Berry, 2006).

Acculturation can lead to changes at the political, cultural, biological, and physical levels. Politically, it can lead to changes in the way that power is distributed among different groups.

Often, these divisions can fall upon racial and ethnic lines. For example, the colonization of central and South America from the 1600s on led to the mixing of European, indigenous, and African populations. With this came the emergence of various racial categories, such as "mulatto" and "metizo".

Because the European culture dominated, people from these different racial groups were ascribed varying amounts of rights and privileges. Generally, lighter-skinned people were given higher status. This lead to cultural and economic divides that still drive inequality today.

Culturally, acculturation can lead to changes in language use, family structure, and gender roles. For example, the arrival of Westerners in Japan and South Korea, and their tremendous economic influence following the Second World War, brought with it the spread of the English language and cultural shifts from collectivist, family-based cultures to more individualistic, achievement-oriented ones.

In some cases, it can also lead to changes in religious beliefs and practices. Christian missionaries, for example, have spread Abrahamic beliefs to areas far-flung from where the religion originated, such as the Philippines (Berry, 2006).

How Does Acculturation Work At An Individual Level?

Acculturation can happen both at the individual and societal level. At the smallest level, acculturation is the adoption and assimilation of an alien culture by an individual. As the individual "ingests" different aspects of a culture, they come to incorporate them into how they live their daily lives.

This process can also alter psychological and physical well-being. Thus, acculturation can lead to changes in values, attitudes, abilities, motives, and personal identity. Values are a set of basic convictions that a person has about what is good or bad, right or wrong. They guide one's actions, decisions, and judgments.

Attitudes are predispositions to respond favorably or unfavorably to certain people, objects, ideas, or situations. Like values, they guide behavior. Abilities are the learned capacity to perform certain kinds of tasks or functions. Motives are the underlying reasons that drive people's behavior–the “whys” behind what they do. And finally, personal identity is who people think they are–their sense of self (Berry, 2008).

For one instance of how acculturation could change one's values, attitudes, abilities, and motives, consider someone who moves from a highly religious community to a highly secularized one. While this highly religious community may shun, for example, alcohol consumption as morally wrong, the secular community may view it as morally neutral. Initially, the person moving between cultures may be predisposed to viewing people who consume alcohol as immoral. T

his dissonance between one's own values and that of their surrounding culture can lead to psychological distress. However, over time, as they are exposed to alcohol consumption, the person may learn that people in an alien culture consume alcohol in specific social situations to bond and socialize.

The observer may themselves may change their attitude toward alcohol consumption to be less negative and even learn when and how to consume alcohol responsibly themselves, motivated by a desire to "fit in" in social situations (Berry, 2008).

How do individuals acculturate?

One of the most visible signs that someone is acculturating to a new culture is when they learn the language of that culture.

Language learning can happen in different ways and to different degrees. It can happen formally, through classes or other instruction, or informally, simply by listening and speaking with people who already know the language.

It can also happen at varying speeds–some people may learn a new language quickly, while others may never fully master it. The speed at which someone acquires a new language depends on a variety of factors, both innate and intentional.

Children, for example, tend to pick up new languages more quickly and with fewer accent barriers than adults. Even if they have pre-existing knowledge of a culture's language, immigrants and other individuals who come into contact with a new culture may still go through a process of linguistic accommodation, which is when they change the way they speak to match the way native speakers do.

This can involve changes in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and even body language. For example, someone who is acculturating to a new culture may take up slang or change the way they gesture when they speak (Berry, 2008).

Of course, not everyone who comes into contact with a new culture will learn the language of that culture. In some cases, individuals may resist learning the new language, either because they feel a strong attachment to their native language or because they stay within the immigrant community.

In others cases, factors such as differences in the pronunciation between one's native and target language and grammatical structure can provide additional barriers to language acquisition, and thus immersion in the new culture.

What Is Acculturative Stress?

When people are exposed to a new culture, they may experience acculturative stress, which is the psychological distress that can come from the process of acculturation.

This distress can come from a number of sources, including language barriers, loss of social support, and feeling like an outsider. When individuals are not able to communicate effectively in the new culture's language, they can feel isolated and alone.

This isolation can lead to anxiety and depression. In addition, language barriers can make it difficult for immigrants to access services or find employment. Tasks as simple as shopping for groceries and navigating small talk can become time consuming and frustrating (Berry et al., 1987).

In addition to language barriers, immigrants may also face a loss of social support when they move to a new culture. Family and friends may not be accessible, and individuals may not have the same community ties that they did in their home country.

The rules of meeting and creating new connections may also be different. For example, a Canadian who is used to strangers being friendly and talkative, but relegated to the realm of acquaintances and light social touches, may be put off by a culture where strangers are standoffish, but quickly open up in extremely vulnerable and "inappropriate" ways when they are befriended. Immigrants may feel like they do not belong in their new culture.

They may feel isolated, lost, and alienated. This can lead to feelings of loneliness. Additionally, immigrants may compare themselves to those, who say, appear to be assimilation more rapidly, and feel like they are falling behind.

This can lead to feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem (Berry et al., 1987). Acculturative stress can also happen when an immigrant returns to their native culture. They may find that they have lost touch with their cultural roots and feel like outsiders in their own country.

They may also find that they no longer fit in with their family and friends, or have trouble readjusting to the pace of life in their home country. This can be especially true if they have been away for a long time or if they have assimilated to the new culture.

This form of acculturative stress is often called reverse culture shock. Individuals who are experiencing acculturative stress can lighten its effects through seeking out social support and finding ways to cope with the challenges they are facing.

Some effective coping strategies include maintaining ties to one's home culture, finding a supportive community in the new culture, practicing self-care, and seeking professional help if necessary (Berry et al., 1987).

What Are Behavioral Shifts?

Behavioral shifts, as suggested by Berry, refer to psychological change resulting from cultural contact. Virtually every behavior can change as a result of one's involvement with other cultures.

For instance, immigrants may change their clothing to better fit in with the dominant culture. They may also alter the way they speak to sound more like native speakers of the target language. Additionally, they may adopt new gestures and body language cues that are common in the new culture (Berry et al., 1994).

Other changes may be more subtle, such as shifts in values and attitudes. For instance, an individual may begin to value punctuality and timekeeping more highly after moving to a culture where these things are emphasized.

They may also adopt the dominant culture's beliefs about appropriate gender roles and start to think of themselves as belonging to a certain race or ethnicity. These behavioral shifts do not necessarily need to occur among members of different ethnic groups.

To provide another example, consider someone who begins to spend a significant amount of time around people who are much. younger than them. They may begin to adopt their slang and music tastes. This is also a behavioral shift!

Behavioral shifts can occur both at the individual level and at the group level. When groups of people interact with each other, they may start to adopt each other's behaviors in order to fit in and feel like they belong. This process is known as convergence.

Divergence, its opposite, occurs when groups move apart from each other and adopt different behaviors. While. convergence is associated with assimilation and integration, divergence is associated with separation and marginalization (Berry et al., 1994).

What is a criticism of acculturation?

A criticism of acculturation is that it can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation in immigrants.

Additionally, immigrants may compare themselves to those who appear to be assimilating more rapidly, and feel like they are falling behind. This can lead to feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem.

Acculturative stress can also happen when an immigrant returns to their native culture. They may find that they have lost touch with their cultural roots and feel like outsiders in their own country.

They may also find that they no longer fit in with their family and friends, or have trouble readjusting to the pace of life in their home country. This form of acculturative stress is often called reverse culture shock.

What are the differences between acculturation and assimilation?

Acculturation refers to the changes that occur in individuals as a result of contact with another culture. These changes can be behavioral, cognitive, or psychological.

Assimilation, on the other hand, is a process by which immigrants adopt the dominant culture's values and behaviors. They may also give up their native language and customs. While acculturation is generally considered to be a one-way process, assimilation can be seen as a two-way one.

Assimilation refers to how both the minority and majority culture changes in response to their continued contact, while acculturation refers to how the minority culture itself changes while maintaining unique markers of language, food, and customs.

What is the difference between acculturation and enculturation?

Enculturation is a process by which individuals learn the values and norms of a society through experiencing it directly. This usually happens during childhood, as parents and other adults socialize children into the ways of their culture.

However, it can also happen later in life, for instance if someone moves to a new country and is exposed to a different culture.

While enculturation involves acquiring rules, norms, and values to become part of a new society, acculturation implies the process of transforming one's own cultural beliefs and customs by adopting those of a different culture (Kim, 2007).

What is biculturalism?

Biculturalism is the ability to identify with two cultures. This can happen when individuals are raised in two different cultures, or when they have a strong connection to their heritage culture even if they live in the majority culture.

Bicultural individuals often feel like they belong to both cultures and are able to move between them easily. They also tend to see the world from multiple perspectives and are more flexible in their thinking.

While biculturalism has many benefits, it can also lead to feelings of confusion and isolation. Biculturals, for example, may feel like they do not fully belong to either culture and can struggle to find a balance between the two (Nguyen & Benet-Martinez, 2013).

What is cultural resistance?

Cultural resistance is a term used to describe the various ways in which people resist the dominant culture. This can happen when individuals try to keep their own cultural values and traditions alive, or when they adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to challenge it.

Resistance can also take the form of art, music, or other forms of expression. Cultural resistance can be a positive force, helping marginalized groups to maintain their identity and fostering pride in their culture.

It can also be a negative force, leading to further alienation and separation from the mainstream (Duncombe, 2002).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Sept 23). Understanding Acculturation and Why It Happens. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/acculturation-definition.html


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