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Acculturation and Adaptation Among Immigrants and Refugees

Psychologist Says Ethnic Culture Links Essential

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J.W. Berry Lectures, "Acculturation and Adaptation Among Immigrants and Refugees"


John W. Berry, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, discussed his research concerning the social, psychological and academic adaptation of immigrants in a new culture.  He spoke at Hamilton on April 14.

Acculturation, according to Berry, describes the induction of a new culture into a pre-existing culture in a given area. Many assume acculturation describes only the effects felt by the "new" culture; however, Berry explained, acculturation occurs when two groups come into contact and both groups change. The change can be either positive or negative, but when a new group introduces culture to a new area, the area changes because of the contact between the two groups.

In cross-cultural psychology "no human behavior can be understood without understanding culture," Berry explained. "Unfortunately, most people ignore that."

The changes that occur during acculturation, according to Berry, are psychological and socio-cultural. The psychological changes range from simple, every day behavioral changes that are easy to make to what Berry referred to as "culture shock," or changes that pose either difficulty or stress to the given person. These individual changes, Berry warned, can have negative effects without proper coping mechanisms.

Acculturation can morph into adaptation, a long-term form of acculturation, given a stable environment. However, to see if this has occurred, both psychological and socio-cultural trends must be examined.

"One must look at the maintenance of cultural identity and the relationships sought among groups when studying acculturation and adaptation," Berry said. "Depending on what is important or unimportant to a given immigrant group, the group could integrate, assimilate, separate or marginalize themselves." Similarly, he explained, the existing dominant group affects how well the immigrant group assimilates; the dominant group can either allow for a multicultural society, a melting pot society, a segregated area, or an exclusionary area.

Using specific case studies to explain his acculturation models, Berry discussed the findings of the ICSEY project (the International Comparative Study of Ethno-cultural Youth). The project examines how first- or second-generation immigrants or refugees between the ages of 13 and 18 manage the changes they incur as immigrants. The study also shows what types of nations or societies accept or reject immigrant groups. It was found, out of the 13 countries studied, that most adolescent immigrants opt for integration, valuing both their ethnic culture and the culture of a given nation.

Although many immigrants held their ethnic identity in higher esteem than their national identity, it was discovered, through the ICSEY project, that immigrant or refugee adolescents respected their national identity in nations that have experienced immigration more than nations that have only recently experienced immigration. Berry explained this is most likely an effect of reciprocity; the nations that have been dealing with immigration longer are used to it, and thus more accepting of new cultures and people, while nations that do not have high immigration rates historically tend to reject immigrants.

Berry concluded by explaining how successful settlement and adaptation can occur. According to Berry, it is better to maintain links to one's ethnic culture after immigration. However, societies need to accept and encourage different cultures. Berry emphasized that the goal for immigrants or refugees is not to assimilate and give up all elements of ethnic culture, but rather to integrate into a society, avoiding marginalization.

The lecture was sponsored by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

Emily Lemanczyk '05

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