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Culture, acculturation, biculturalism and cosmopolitanism

What this chapter will teach you

  • • What is acculturation?
  • • What are strategies of acculturation?
  • • What is biculturalism and how does it relate to acculturation?
  • • What is cosmopolitanism?
  • • What lies ahead for acculturation, biculturalism and cosmopolitanism?

Intercultural encounters

Today, more people travel to meet or speak online with people from other cultures than they ever have before. The twenty-first century has seen an acceleration of a process known as intercultural encounter. Whether through tourism, travel, migration, international study or involuntary displacement, the experience of encountering people and ideas from diverse cultures is ever more common for many people. In this chapter we discuss the experience of intercultural encounter with the use of three concepts what have been used by psychologists, and others researchers from beyond its borders. We will look at the characteristics of and relationships between concepts which can help us to understand the psychological consequences and characteristics of intercultural encounter. These include acculturation, biculturalism and cosmopolitanism.


Intercultural encounter. The

experience of encountering people and ideas from diverse cultures.


When groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous firsthand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups.

In an age when contact between and movement of people from different cultural groups is more common than ever, the need for psychologists to theorise these phenomena is ever more pressing. Many of us now claim identities and lifestyles that celebrate and borrow from the traditions of multiple cultures, though our language, tastes in music, clothes and food. Equally, our social and professional lives celebrate more cultural influences than before. This proliferation of intercultural encounter and experience heightens the need for a psychology of acculturation (Berry, 2006, 2017; Ozer, 2017). Acculturation was originally defined as:

when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups.

(Redfield et al., 1936, p. 149)

Inherent in the concept of acculturation is the notion of reciprocity (Berry etal., 2011), with bidirectional influences at play. This bidirectional notion of acculturation distinguishes the concept from the process of assimilation, wherein change and adaptation occurs in the form of an individual losing their original culture or heritage as they experience a new cultural context. Rather, for Berry et al. (2011), acculturation is regarded as a process whereby it is perfectly possible to identify with a new culture whilst at the same time maintaining markers of identity that signify an original culture. In short, we can be involved in more than one culture.

Acculturation, groups and individuals

As we can see from the definition above, acculturation was originally presented as a group phenomenon, inherited from anthropology. More recently, the concept has been understood at the individual as well as group level, with the term psychological acculturation having been coined (Graves, 1967). This acknowledges that even within groups who experience changing cultural circumstances, individual responses may vary. In other words, there are likely to be individual differences in acculturation.

At the group level, acculturation is an experience that is associated with people who fall into several categories that have arisen as a result of our living in an increasingly globalised world. International students, holidaymakers, economic migrants, indigenous peoples whose cultural space may be populated by people from different cultures, are all examples of groups who experience acculturation. In some of these cases, the experience of acculturation be entered into willingly, voluntarily and temporarily, as in the case of international students or those who travel abroad for leisure. Others experience acculturation involuntarily. They might regard the experience as a negative one. For example, it has been reported that amongst indigenous populations in regions such as Greenland, Russia, Alaska and Norway, involuntary contact with people from other cultures has been associated with acculturative stress, feelings of deculturation and self-rated health indices (Kvernmo & Heyerdahl, 2003; Eliassen et al., 2012). Involuntary acculturative stress can also be experienced by asylum seekers and migrants who have left their homeland, voluntary or otherwise. The experience of moving, or being moved, across cultures, can bring with it many uncertainties and feelings of rootlessness (Berry et al., 2011). In one study, Italian migrants living in English-speaking countries reported low scores on emotional stability, social initiative and attachment to their new culture, especially in relation to linguistic exclusion (Panicacci & Dewaele, 2017).

Berry et al. (2011) argue that to understand acculturation as both a culturally and individually experienced phenomenon, a twofold framework is required. Firstly, from a cultural or group perspective, ethnographic or community-level research is required to help us better understand the cultures that are coming into contact during acculturation, and how they change as a result of contact. Secondly, in relation to individual level, psychological acculturation, individual adaptations to acculturation can be researched by looking at well-being and self-rated health scores (Sam & Berry, 2010; Panicacci & Dewaele, 2017). Berry et al.’s twofold framework recognises the distinction between individual-level and cultural-level acculturation, as well as the relatedness between them, since each one can have a tangible effect on the other.

Acculturation is a process that operates on both cultures and individuals alike. It brings about changes in the norms, beliefs and practices at the group level, as well as in the psychological profiles of those who comprise those groups. These changes are deeply felt, attitudinal changes that also express themselves visibly and audibly in the way we dress, talk and live our daily lives. Acculturation is therefore a detectible form of social change.

Focusing for the moment on an individual psychological perspective, as perhaps many of us have experienced when travelling or meeting someone from another culture, the experience has an effect on our feeling, behaviours and thoughts. It may change the way we feel, eat, dress or think. In other words, acculturation can be experienced across several psychological domains, prompting emotional, behavioural and cognitive responses (see Table 10.1).

Acculturation strategies: how do we cope with intercultural encounter?

Flaving defined acculturation, identified some of its characteristics and domains, and considered whether it occurs at an individual or group level, we can now ask how does acculturation occur and how do we cope with the experience'? Arguably, when encountering a new culture, the strategies we employ for acculturation will depend on two dimensions, the so-called two-dimensional model of acculturation (Berry et al., 2011). Our survival strategy will depend, in a sense, on a two-part game of give and take.

  • 1 How much do we want to retain what we perceive as our own cultural heritage?
  • 2 How important do we perceive it to be to integrate or participate in another culture?

TABLE 10.1

Domains of acculturation

Emotional acculturation

When people encounter a culture which is new to them, affective patterns can change; this process is called emotional acculturation (De Leersnyder, 2017). For example, there may be a mismatch between affective patterns of first-generation minorities and those of the majority culture, as work with Korean Americans and Turkish Belgians has shown (De Leersnyder et al., 2011). These discrepancies were greater for females, and suggest overall that immigrant minorities face a cultural mismatch in affective experience following coming into contact with new cultural contexts. However, in some cases these effects disappeared or reduced over time. It appears that, as we might expect, changing culture of residence requires a period of adjustment whilst we learn to engage in social norms and emotional expectations.

Behavioural acculturation

During cultural transitions it is likely that people are required to learn skills for survival in a new setting (Berry et al., 2011). Culture-specific behavioural norms, such as greetings, respecting personal space, joking and eating, need to be recalibrated. Culturally specific social skills and norms of social interaction have been the focus of research into this area of acculturation theory. When encountering a novel cultural context, there arises a socially situated framework for learning and adaptation. This involves the acquisition of novel behavioural responses to help navigate the novel cross-cultural encounters of social life (Ward et al., 2010).

Cognitive acculturation

When experiencing a new culture there is a requirement to reappraise or process new information about our own group or the newly encountered group. These appraisals concern how we see ourselves in relation to our own ingroup, as well as the outgroup we do not regard ourselves as belonging to (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Arguably, a need to belong to a group, and to define oneself in relation to group membership, impacts our wellbeing. When processing information in relation to ethnic or national group membership, we are undergoing a process of psychological adaptation by categorising and recategorising ourselves. The task of making these cognitions can be more complicated when we consider that belonging to an ethnic group may not be concordant with belonging to a national group, as these two phenomena do not always map onto each other easily (Berry et al., 2011).

In short, do we want to retain our own cultural identity, or do we willingly want to integrate? We can understand acculturation as a bilinear process with multiple dimensions (Nguyen & Benet-Martinez, 2013). We can see the process of acculturation through the eyes of a person who engages with a new culture, perhaps because she is now living in a new country. She faces two set of questions, each one offering opportunities for acculturation. Firstly, she faces questions about acculturation, about how much to engage with the new, host or mainstream culture. Second, she faces questions of heritage, about how much to maintain engagement with her own culture. Questions of acculturation and heritage are played out in everyday life in multiple domains, including language, food, taste, dress, generational relations, beliefs, amongst others. In practice, the acculturating individual faces questions about whether to become involved in some, all or no practices they face in their new cultural setting.

Questions of acculturation and heritage can be viewed as two dimensions (integration versus maintenance) which have been used to formulate an influential model to explain the acculturation process. Using these two dimensions as a guide, Berry et al. (2011) identifies four common strategies for acculturation; assimilation, separation, integration and marginalisation.

Assimilation involves a rejection or moving away from one’s own cultural identity by adopting the values, beliefs and norms of another, newly encountered culture. (7 will embrace my new culture wholeheartedly’).

Separation is a strategy involving rejection of the values, beliefs and norms of another, newly encountered culture in favour of retention of one’s own cultural heritage. (7 want to retain the characteristics of my heritage culture’).

Integration is characterised by simultaneously retaining aspects of one’s own cultural heritage and engaging with aspects of another, newly encountered culture. (“Whilst retaining aspects of my heritage culture, I also want to embrace some aspects of my newly encountered culture’).

Marginalisation involves backing away both from one’s own cultural heritage and the values, beliefs and norms of a newly encountered culture (7 want to reject cultural influence and just be myself’).

These four strategies are not mutually exclusive categories. Rather, they are variations on patterns of behaviour which reflect, to varying degrees, attraction to, rejection from, or indifference towards, newly encountered cultures. These strategies can vary across individuals and groups. Importantly, too, they can vary within an individual or group over time. For example, one Finnish longitudinal study exploring attitudes towards refugees entering Finland (Nshom & Croucher, 2018) found that adolescent participants from Finland mellowed with age, becoming more integrationist, less assimilationist. Female participants were also more supportive of integration. Any of us can become more or less integrationist with more exposure to other cultures. Acculturation strategies are continually being reappraised in the light of positive and negative experiences with other cultures.

At a time in our global politics when nationalism and intergroup conflict are common, and when contact between cultures is ever more normal, studying preferences for acculturation strategies is pertinent in psychology. For example, a study of integrationist strategies of acculturation suggests that identifying as a pro-European integrationist can at the same time be compatible with experiencing feelings of national identity, amongst Romanian participants. This is a clear indication of an integrationist strategy (Bluic et al., 2018). Overviewing studies of strategic preferences in acculturation, Berry et al. (2011) identify integration as the most popular strategy across the literature, with marginalisation the least common. Instances of preference for separation have also been identified in some samples too, as is the case for assimilation, though these two strategies underscore integration.


Assimilation. A

rejection or moving away from one's own cultural identity by adopting the values, beliefs and norms of another, newly encountered culture.


Simultaneously retaining aspects of one's own cultural heritage and engaging with aspects of another, newly encountered culture.

Being critical however, it is worth reflecting that when it comes to stated preferences for acculturation strategies, there is likely to be a discrepancy between word and deed. Social psychology is well versed in understanding the difference between attitude and behaviour and this may be a factor in identifying our acculturation preferences. In further evaluating the two-dimensional model of acculturation, we can see that it clearly provides a useful framework for understanding the albeit fluid experience of cultural encounter. However, we should be careful not to essentialise or simplify concepts such as integration. After all, embracing a new culture may take many forms, from merely making contact with new people to adopting their beliefs and norms. These are all variations of engagement with a new culture. To avoid simplification, and since integration itself has been identified as the most common acculturation strategy in the literature, we will now examine it further, using a closely related concept known as biculturalism.

Bicuituralism: a strategy for integration

As a strategy for orienting towards two or more cultures, biculturalism is consonant with the integrationist strategy for acculturation, outlined above. It can be defined here as:

an umbrella term to refer to any case in which a person endorses at

least one heritage culture and at least one receiving culture.

(Nguyen & Benet-Martinez, 2013, p. 3)

When encountering people from another culture and thus experiencing intercultural encounter, the adoption of an integrationist acculturation strategy is a form of adjustment in emotional, behavioural and attitu- dinal domains. Such an adjustment has been associated with positive outcomes such as the learning of cultural flexibility, new behavioural repertoires, another language, extended social links and so forth (Ozer, 2017). The term bicultural has been used to describe individuals who endorse both their cultural heritage and the culture of the receiving society. We can say that a bicultural individual endorses multiple cultural backgrounds (Shwarz, et al. 2016).

Early research in this area suggested that integrationist strategies such as biculturalism could carry an element of negative affect. It was argued that engagement with multiple cultures could be burdensome and even correlate with stress, isolation and identity confusion (Rudmin, 2003). More recently, biculturalism has generally been viewed more positively in recent literature, with early portrayals being more likely to regard it as a marginal state of cultural indecision (Nguyen & Benet- Martfnez, 2013). This change in attitude towards biculturalism owes something to changes in the way we experience multiple cultures. The onset of global communication through the internet means that engaging with more than one culture is now possible, even normal, for those minded to do so. As we are exposed to more cultural influence, wholeheartedly rejecting one’s heritage culture and replacing it with the dominant culture is no longer the most common strategy of acculturation (Schwartz et al., 2016). For example, a person who migrates from one nation to another can now more easily continue to engage in the language, culture and media of their heritage culture, as well as with their contacts back home. In the context of acculturation theory, we can therefore argue that in the twenty-first century, integrationist strategies of adjustment to a new culture are more easily and commonly pursued than are assimilationist strategies (Berry, 2011; Schwartz et al., 2016). Another way of putting this is to say that biculturalism has today become mainstream.

The impact of biculturalism; a meta-analysis

An integrationist strategy to acculturation or migration has been identified as having a positive effect on individuals in relation to adjustment and wellbeing. In research conducted with adolescent migrant populations, it has been concluded not only that biculturalism is the most common acculturation (Berry, 2017), but also that biculturalism usually yields the most favourable psychological outcomes (Schwartz et al., 2016), such as high levels of openness to people from other cultures (Lee, 2010).

In an influential meta-analysis looking at the impact of biculturalism, Nguyen and Benet-Martinez (2013) reviewed literature looking at the effects of integrationist acculturative strategies on three indicators of adjustment and wellbeing:

  • Psychological adjustment; measures of psychological and emotional wellbeing, including life satisfaction, positive affect, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness.
  • Sociocultural adjustment; measures of behavioural competence, including academic achievement, career success, social skills, delinquency risk behaviours.
  • Health-related adjustment; measures of somatic symptoms, including headaches, back pains, physical activity, diet.

In taking an holistic, multidimensional approach to assessing the impact of biculturalism on individuals in psychological, sociocultural and health domains, this large scale study, including 159 separate samples of participants across multiple cultural regions, generally supported the view of biculturalism as a positive acculturative strategy. They uncovered a significant, strong, positive association between biculturalism and adjustment. Across domains, participants who were registered as more bicultural tended to be better adjusted. Correspondingly, better adjusted participants tended to present as being more bicultural. Furthermore, bicultural individuals tend to be significantly better adjusted than ones who identified with only one culture. Equally, individuals who were better adjusted were most likely to be bicultural, rather than identifying with only one culture. Overall, all these findings suggest that an integrationist strategy is associated with better levels of psychological adjustment, as compared with strategies of separation or assimilation (Nguyen & Benet- Martinez, 2013).

Evaluating the meta-analysis

However, there are methodological limitations associated with metaanalyses. Firstly, such research does not take account of the unknown number of studies that do not reveal significant findings and may thus not have been published. Secondly, like so many international metaanalyses, this study over-represents research from particular regions, with many of the studies using samples drawn from Latin American and Hispanic samples in the US. This said, the findings from the study do endorse more recent thinking on acculturation and biculturalism, which suggests that in an increasingly digitally connected world where global communication is habitual for many of us, the experience of movement across cultures no longer requires us to make a binary choice between identification with host or heritage culture. Rather, cultural engagement is becoming a bicultural, multidimensional practice.

This chapter has so far introduced and reviewed key research ideas relating to intercultural encounter: the experience of encountering people and ideas from diverse cultures. Specifically, we have discussed strategies for acculturation, and in more detail the integrationist strategy of biculturalism. To conclude, we will now relate these concepts to a third idea which has concerned scholars from within, but more often outside the culture of psychology. In other words, we will conclude, appropriately perhaps in view of our subject matter, by crossing the disciplinary border of psychology, to explore the concept of cosmopolitanism. Besides, acculturation and biculturalism, the interdisciplinary concept of cosmopolitanism also considers the experience of identifying with more than one culture.

Cosmopolitanism; an interdisciplinary approach to cultural openness

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to studying the experience of migration and acculturation (in effect crossing borders between disciplines), we can see that geographers and social anthropologists, so accustomed to studying places and how we experience them, have coined the term cosmopolitanism (Monks-Wood, 2017). As with acculturation, this term refers to a strategy for adjustment when encountering different cultures (Hannerz, 1990). Cosmopolitanism has been defined as: a state of identity without borders that is accessible to those able to engage in voluntary migration across multiple cultures.

Sobre-Denton (2011, p. 80)

More than a behavioural repertoire, or a set of attitudes, cosmopolitanism is a broad-ranging moral philosophy. It states that humanity belongs to a unified, single global community, which transcends other allegiances, such as national identity (Binnie et al„ 2009; Burcu Bayram, 2018). A cosmopolitan individual identifies with multiple fragments of different cultures, which therefore coexisting in an individual (Waldron, 2000). When encountering new cultures, through their own adjustment process the cosmopolitan individual develops

an ability to incorporate the manners, habits, languages and social customs of cities throughout the world.

(Scruton, 2007, p. 146)

In this definition we see parallels with the concept of biculturalism. In cosmopolitanism however there is greater emphasis on a coming together in one individual of multiple cultural repertoires, rather than just two. Whilst bicultural individuals are engaging with a process of movement between (usually two) cultures, cosmopolitans have been described as ‘citizens of the world’ (Grinstein and Wathieu, 2012, p. 237). They seek to embrace patterns of behaviour and consumption that dip into multiple cultures through their tastes, experiences and consumption patterns. The cosmopolitan may live in a multicultural city. He or she may sample and strive for the tastes of foods and music from many nations. Their social circle is likely to comprise of representatives who are drawn from many national groups. She or he is an inevitable product of a globalised world in which the existence of discrete, bounded cultural groups is less pronounced. Cosmopolitanism is an inevitable consequence of living in a world where global travel and communication have accelerated.

Cosmopolitanism as an adaptive strategy, with similarities to biculturalism



An outlook stating that that humanity constitutes a unified, single global community which transcends other allegiance, such as national identity.

As in the case of acculturation, cosmopolitanism reflects a survival strategy in the face of difference and change (Datta, 2009). And again, as with acculturation, strategies for cosmopolitanism may vary in degree and type between individuals as they face different cultural worlds (Szerszynski & Urry, 2002). In other words, cosmopolitanism is not an all or nothing state of being. Some individuals embrace cultural difference more than others. The cosmopolitan, like the bicultural individual, employs the adaptive strategy of cosmopolitanism as a means of navigating through the challenges of encountering a new place (Stevenson, 2017). A characteristic of the cosmopolitan identity is an enhanced ability for adjustment to other cultures (Kosic, 2002), an effect that echoes findings in relation to the bicultural individual (Nguyen & Benet-Martinez,

2013). Oikonomidoy and Williams (2013), for example, identified an enhanced tendency towards identification with newly experienced cultures in international students, albeit following initial periods of integration, or cultural adjustment.

As with biculturalism, cosmopolitanism represents a chosen strategy of adaptation in the face of diversity. For example, on encountering new cultures, perhaps following migration of extended periods of travel, or merely through inhabiting a culturally diverse city, an individual may orient towards what has been termed purposive cosmopolitanism, as opposed to so-called xenocentrism (Cleveland & Balakrishnan, 2019). These two strategies can be seen as alternative orientations in relation to cultural outgroups. A little like the integrationist we discussed in the previous section on biculturalism, the purposive cosmopolitan harbours an openness to cultural diversity, an ability to navigate diverse culture environments. Contrastingly, a strategy of xenocentrism manifests as a strategy in which an individual reserves their most pronounced feelings of allegiance for one particular cultural groups that has been newly encountered. From a social identity point of view, an important characteristic of cosmopolitanism is the openness to more than one cultural influence. This can be seen in contrast to the focus on one group in both the xenocentric strategy and the strategy of isolationism we discussed in the previous section on acculturation.

Evaluating cosmopolitanism

As an interdisciplinary analytical tool, with its roots in geography and social anthropology, cosmopolitanism is less well explored in psychology. Nevertheless, we can see from this short discussion that is serves well to help us understand the experiences of those who encounter cultural diversity. Nevertheless, there is a danger in allocating the label of ‘cosmopolitan’ to individuals, in that we run the risk of ignoring the fluidity and plasticity of identity (Gillespie et al., 2010). Indeed, there is a danger not only in labelling well-travelled or culturally experienced individuals as cosmopolitans, but also as being somehow ‘more experienced’ than those who lack the opportunity to mix with outgroups (Gillespie et al., 2010). In short, cosmopolitanism has, for some, acquired elitist connotations that are problematic, since not all individuals have access to travel, or indeed the internet.

Another point of contention surrounding cosmopolitanism as a label for describing individuals has emerged in relation to its compatibility, or otherwise, with national identity. Allegiance to a national identity is an important constituent of social identity for many. Yet it has been argued that to be cosmopolitan, and thus inherently open to difference and cultural diversity, is incompatible with strong feelings of national identity (MacIntyre, 1984). Countering this stance, if we see identity as multidimensional and fluid, responding to differing circumstances and social contexts, we can also regard cosmopolitanism as compatible with nationalism and allegiance to nation (Burcu Bayram, 2018). It is, after all, possible to spend the afternoon cheering on our national team in a stadium, and our evening sampling culturally diverse company, food and music.


In this chapter, we have focused on an experience that is common for more people than it has ever been before; inter- cultural encounter. To do so we have deployed concepts that have been used within and on the margins of psychology; acculturation, biculturalism and cosmopolitanism. The aim here has been to unpack the experience of intercultural encounter at a time in our history when it is increasingly common (although far from universal). Acculturation strategies are clearly diverse, and can vary at both individual and group levels. It has been argued here that an integrationist strategy (e.g. biculturalism) has been identified as a common (though again not universal) one that is associated with wellbeing and positive psychological adjustment. We have also presented an interdisciplinary variation of biculturalism (known colloquially as ‘cosmo’), which we intend here to be seen as a complement to biculturalism. Hopefully, these concepts have helped us to understand the experience of intercultural encounter. There is however plenty of scope to explore questions that have not been covered here. For example, there is a need for more research into the psychological antecedents and consequences of less integrationist, more separatist, strategies that are adopted in the face of intercultural encounter. We hope that students of cultural issues in psychology will be minded to pursue these and some of the other questions that have been raised here.



Match up the definitions on the right with the terms on the left (see p. 212 for answers)


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