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A critical examination of acculturation theories


Ngo, Van Hieu (Hieu Van Ngo)
PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary



Using an anti-oppressive and social justice lens, this paper critically examines the prominent theories of unidirectional, bidimensional and interactive acculturation. The analysis reveals that all three theoretical schools of thought have omitted to critically examine acculturation in relation to dominant-subordinate oppression, mutual transformation of immigrants and the receiving society, formulation and reformulation of identities, and issues of social justice.


I wish to thank Beth Chatten, Avery Calhoun, David Este, Catherine Worthington, Tim Pyrch, Lloyd Wong and Amal Umar for their thoughtful feedback and support. I appreciate the helpful comments of the anonymous reviewers and editor.


The concept of acculturation, conceived in the fields of anthropology and sociology early in the 20th century (see Park & Burgess, 1921; Redfield, Linton & Herskovits, 1936), has been used to explain dynamics involved when people from diverse cultural backgrounds come into continuous contact with one another. Throughout the years, theories of acculturation have evolved from the unidirectional school of thought with an emphasis on assimilation to bidimensional and interactive perspectives which posit various acculturative outcomes (see Berry, 1980; Castro, 2003; Chun, Organista & Marin, 2003; Gordon, 1964). Acculturation theories could potentially offer insights into multifaceted and often versatile interactions between immigrants and the dominant culture. The processes of acculturation are, however, complex and have often been dealt with in the literature in confusing and inconsistent ways (Berry & Sam, 1997). The interchangeable use of the terms assimilation and acculturation in many acculturation theories also points to the persistent melting pot discourse. Furthermore, many acculturation theorists have not explicitly reflected upon their ontological and epistemological orientations and biographies, and how these impact their work. These contexts call for the use of an anti-oppressive and social justice lens to critically examine the prominent acculturation theories and their usefulness to understanding of interactions between immigrants and the dominant culture.

Locating the Critical Lens

The anti-oppressive and social justice perspective has served as a critical lens for feminists, critical race theorists, queer theorists, and proponents of the rights of persons with disabilities, among others, to examine social structures that favor certain groups in society and oppress others along social divisions of class, race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and so forth. Philosophically, proponents of the anti-oppressive and social justice view position themselves in the transformative paradigm (Mertens, 2004), also known as the structuralist or socialist-collectivist paradigm in social work literature (see Payne, 1997; Poulter, 2005). They reject the notion of consensus in the nature of society, and attempt to deconstruct apparently democratic notions of “will” and individualized power as convenient illusions which mask a more complex reality in which some are more able than others to exert influence (Tew, 2006). Instead, they see society as changing and evolving not through cooperative endeavour, but through conflicts of interest, power and resources (Howe, 1987).

According to the anti-oppressive and social justice perspective, complex, multifaceted oppressive relations at the personal, institutional, cultural, local, national, and global levels permeate all physical, psychological, cultural, economic, political and spiritual domains of humanity (see Dominelli, 2002). Oppressive relations divide people into dominant and subordinate groups along social divisions. The dominant culture uses allocative and authoritative resources to exercise power over others, to systematically devalue attributions and contributions of those deemed inferior, and to exclude them from opportunities for material and social resources (Dominelli, 2002; Tew, 2006). It also exerts, reinforces and defends its status quo through various oppressive mechanisms, such as normalization of dominant values and priorities, curtailing activities of subordinate groups with social control systems, attacks on formation and reformation of identity, “othering” aimed at dehumanizing people and ascribing to them a subordinate status, creating myths of superiority and inferiority, and cultural alienation and annihilation (Dominelli, 2002; Freeman, 2006; Mullaly, 2002).

With respect to social justice, the anti-oppressive perspective is critical of conventional notions of distributive/redistributive social justice, which focus solely on the distribution and redistribution of income and other resources, often defined in terms of some kind of social minimum (Mullaly, 2002). Rather, it advocates for procedural justice with greater emphases upon social structures, processes and practices (see Duetsch, 2006). As a profession, social work has articulated its commitment to social justice and human rights (see Abramovitz, 1998; CASW, 2005; NASW, 1999). The anti-oppressive and social justice perspective is congruent with the philosophy and practice of social work and an important lens through which to examine complex intergroup relations.

Examining Prominent Acculturation Theories

Mapmakers and Mapmaking

Gans (1997), in examining the making of acculturation theories, stated that “we, the people who are doing the actual research, are often left out of the analysis because the field still retains remnants of the inhuman positivism, once dominant in the social sciences, which tried to ignore the fact that human beings were doing the research (p.883)”. In a similar vein, Pyrch (1998), building upon American philosopher Ken Wilber’s distinction between maps and mapmaking, drew attention to the prevalent acceptance of the map of the empirical world (expert knowledge) without due attention to the mapmaker who might bring something of him/herself to the picture. It is, thus, necessary to put a spotlight on the theorists’ ontological and epistemological orientations and histories before delving into the theories.

Ontologically, many influential acculturation theorists, including Milton Gordon and John Berry (see Gordon, 1964; Berry & Sam, 1997), have firmly planted their philosophical roots in realism, which posits an objective, knowable and universal reality (Williams & Arrigo, 2006). Berry and Sam (1997), for example, insist that although there are substantial variations in the life circumstances of the cultural groups that experience acculturation, the psychological processes that operate during acculturation are essentially the same for all the groups. They go on to state explicitly that “we adopt a universalist perspective on acculturation” (Berry & Sam, 1997, p.296, italics in original). Such an empirical, universalist stance on acculturation has been responsible for a significant body of theoretical work that denies historically, politically and socially situated realities facing immigrants and fails to explain varying experiences in immigrants’ lives. Bhatia & Ram (2001) contend, “to suggest that such a process is universal and that all immigrants undergo the same psychological processes in their acculturation journey minimizes the inequities and injustices faced by many non-European immigrants” (p.9).

Many acculturation theorists hold the epistemological position of objectivism or empiricism (see Bhatia & Ram, 2001; Gans, 1997), which links closely to their ontological orientation. They are concerned with certainty, facts and quantification (Wiliams & Arrigo, 2006). Acculturation theorists, particularly in the field of cross cultural psychology, often draw upon their dispassionate, etic and empiricist ethnographic work to develop their theoretical frameworks of acculturation, and then systematically formulate psychometric instruments to measure acculturation. Commonly, these measures have reduced complex socio-psychological processes of acculturation to concrete, compartmentalized constructs, such as language use and preference, social affiliation, daily living habits, cultural traditions, communication styles, cultural identity and pride, perceived prejudice and discrimination, generational status, family socialization and cultural values (see Zane & Mak, 2005). These measurements overwhelmingly overlook structural issues. This compartmentalization of acculturative experiences offers no insights into processes and interactions involved in acculturation.

Finally, theorists’ own histories also play an important role in theoretical development. The field of acculturation has been dominated by white males of European descent, who often do not speak immigrant languages (Gans, 1997). Yet, these scholars do not readily discuss their limitations with respect to their understanding of languages, cultural nuances and histories. They seldom offer a critical account of the effect of their own biographies, worldviews and ideologies on their work with people of diverse cultures and on their own theoretical development. Further, they often do not articulate their awareness of the social, political and cultural contexts in which they are living, and how these impact their work. Consequently, their analyses of acculturation have been ahistorical, gender-neutral, and apolitical. Most ironically, their views on culture have been rather monolithic, overlooking diversity within cultural groups.

In summary, the existing body of knowledge related to acculturation theories has been bounded by the prominent theorists’ relatively uniform ontological and epistemological orientations and histories. It is important to keep these limitations in mind as we proceed with a critical examination of the prominent acculturation schools of thought, namely unidirectional, bidimensional and interactive acculturation.

Unidirectional Acculturation

In the unidirectional tradition, acculturation is synonymous with assimilation, or absorption of subordinate groups into the dominant culture. Early in the 20th century, Robert Park drew upon the hallmark ecological framework of the Chicago school of sociology to describe the process through which ethno-racial groups “apparently progressively and irreversibly” experience contact, competition, accommodation and assimilation (Park, 1950, p.138). Building upon his mentor’s work, Gordon (1964, 1978) proposed an assimilation model that describes the gradual process of absorption of immigrants and members of ethnic minorities into the dominant culture at the individual and group levels. Gordon classified assimilation into seven types and their sub-processes: (1) cultural assimilation and acculturation (change of cultural patterns to those of dominant culture); (2) structural assimilation (large scale entrance into institutions of dominant culture); (3) marital assimilation or amalgamation (large scale intermarriage); (4) identificational assimilation (development of sense of peoplehood based exclusively on the dominant culture); (5) attitude-receptional assimilation (absence of prejudice); (6) behavoural-receptional assimilation (absence of discrimination); and (7) civic assimilation (absence of value and power conflicts).

According to Gordon’s theory, cultural assimilation and acculturation is the first step of the absorption process that would take place and that would continue indefinitely even when no other type of assimilation occurred (Gordon, 1964). Gordon’s vision for intergroup harmony, however, rests in the centrality of structural assimilation. He states, “once structural assimilation has occurred, either simultaneously with or subsequent to acculturation, all of the other types of assimilation will naturally follow” (Gordon, 1964, p.80-81, italics in original). Gordon rationalized that structural assimilation would facilitate opportunities for interethnic relationships, which in turn provide opportunities for interethnic marriages. Marital assimilation then would result in the loss of ethnic identity of minority groups, promote stronger ties with the receiving society, and over time reduce prejudice and discrimination. Gordon made it clear that the “core culture,” in the American context, that represents the direction and eventual outcome of assimilation is the “middle-class cultural patterns of, largely, white Protestant, Anglo-Saxon origins” (Gordon, 1964, p.72). Acculturation, in his view, would require the extinction of any form of ethnic identity in favor of an exclusively national identity.

Subsequent efforts, notably by Gans (1973) and Sandberg (1973), addressed Gordon’s somewhat static formulation of assimilation with their explicit elaboration of the notion of “straight-line assimilation.” Again, immigrants and members of ethnic minorities would be involved in a sequence of intergenerational steps, progressively stepping away from ethnic “ground zero” and moving toward assimilation (Alba & Nee, 1997). Portes & Zhou (1995), conscious of the importance of socioeconomic factors in immigrant adaptation, challenged the notion of homogeneous acculturation, and offered a segmented assimilation theory. They outline several distinct forms of adaptation, including: (1) acculturation and integration into the white middle class, (2) assimilation into the underclass, and (3) preservation of ethnic cultural traditions and close ethnic ties through social networks in the community.

From the anti-oppressive and social justice perspective, the unidirectional acculturation school of thought is pervasively and devastatingly oppressive. Its assimilation framework, both as a social process and an ideology, mirrors the deliberate colonization of the so-called “Third World” nations and cultures by European imperialism over the course of hundreds of years. It involves the sociopsychology of superiority and domination of Eurocentric ways of being, the assignment of inferiority and otherness to non-European people, and the gravitation toward expansion, exploitation and subjugation. The prevalent assertion among the unidirectional acculturation theorists that the ultimate aim for acculturation of immigrants is their assimilation into the dominant culture, involving their eradication of any form of ethnic identity in favor of an exclusively national identity (Gordon, 1964), is parallel to the final act of appropriation in the chronology of imperialism (see Smith, 1999).

Theorists of the unidirectional school of thought gravitate toward an existentialist-functionalist orientation, putting a strong emphasis on social equilibrium, stability, and free will. They have not adequately and justly examined the structure of the dominant receiving society and its role in the social construction of socioeconomic inequities facing immigrants. Specifically, they fail to position acculturation in the larger social, political and economic contexts of intergroup relationships and interactions, to question the role of power and domination in the marginalization of immigrants in the assimilation process, and to understand the historical influence of colonization and imperialism in modern day immigration. Even some progressive segmented assimilation scholars, such as Portes & Zhou (1995), have only discussed the issues related to social class in deterministic, consensual terms. Unidirectional theories, then, view acculturation as a one way, psychological process relevant only to immigrants in their journey toward cultural shedding, behavioural shifting and eventual full absorption into the dominant culture. Embedded in this view is the inflated notion of free will exercised by immigrants, and undeclared structural determinism with respect to the dominant culture. Psychosocial and economic struggles of certain groups of immigrants are, thus, viewed as their failure to shed their cultural inferiority and to acquire the aspired-to Eurocentric, middle class norms and standards.

With a few exceptions (see Portes & Zhou, 1995), the unidirectional acculturation school of thought perpetuates the pervasive myth of equal opportunities. Immigrants are assumed to be able to achieve a good life, similar to that of the dominant culture, once they shed their cultural identity, norms and practices and achieve full assimilation. This myth serves two purposes. First, it reinforces the myth of fairness in an unfair society in order to justify the status of the dominant culture. Second, it masks the fact that social position and resources will give some people preferred access to these so-called “opportunities” (Mullaly, 2002). The myth of opportunity, therefore, helps to put blame on immigrants who fail to achieve Eurocentric, middle class life patterns. Those who experience socioeconomic hardship are seen as people of inferior, inassimilable cultural groups who fail to take advantage of the equal opportunities available to all citizens. The myth of equal opportunities, of course, has been proven untrue. It has been well-documented that immigrants do not have equal access to opportunities in various aspects of their lives, including education (Ngo, 2007; Watt & Roessingh, 2001) and employment (Statistics Canada, 2001), and that second and third generation children of immigrants have experienced differential rates of poverty and social alienation (Portes & Zhou, 1995; Reitz & Banerjee, 2007). If there were such a thing as equal opportunity for immigrants, it would be the equal opportunity of becoming unequal.

Finally, the monolithic view of culture, inherent in the unidirectional acculturation school of thought, refuses to examine the diversity within cultural groups in terms of gender, age, sexual orientation, ability and so forth. It further attacks the very identity formation and reformation of immigrants. By presenting Eurocentric middle class cultural patterns as the goal, the monolithic view has reinforced “otherness,” inferiority and subjugation of non-European immigrants by the dominant culture. Unidirectional acculturation theories ignore the devastating impact of the extinction of ethnic cultural identity in the process of assimilation on the wellbeing of immigrants, and its potential role in creating bleak socioeconomic realities for some immigrants. Unfortunately, the oppressive intent behind the unidirectional school of thought has often escaped scrutiny in the existing literature. Many scholars, particularly those who focus on measurement of acculturation of immigrants, have uncritically incorporated the established unidirectional acculturation theories into their research efforts. They have contributed to the imperialistic discursive field of knowledge that pathologizes the complex and often unjust experience facing immigrants (see Cuellar, Harris & Jasso, 1980; Padilla, 1980; Szapocznik, J. Scopetta, Kurtines, Aranalde, 1978; Wong, 1999).

Bidimensional Acculturation

Criticism of unidirectional acculturation theories led to the development of the bidimensional acculturation school of thought. Prominent, and perhaps most influential, in this school of thought is John Berry, a Canadian scholar of cross-cultural psychology. Berry (1974, 1980) proposed a quadric-modal acculturation model outlining acculturation strategies that individuals and groups use in their intergroup encounters. Central to this model is the concept that there are two independent dimensions underlying the process of acculturation of immigrants, namely maintenance of heritage, culture and identity, and involvement with or identification with aspects of their societies of settlement (Berry, 1980). Projected orthogonally, an acculturation space is created with four sectors within which individuals may express how they are seeking to acculturate: assimilation, separation, marginalization and integration (see figure 1). According to this model, assimilation occurs when there is little interest in cultural maintenance combined with a preference for interacting with the larger society. Separation is the way when cultural maintenance is sought while avoiding involvement with others. Marginalization exists when neither cultural maintenance nor interaction with others is sought. Finally, integration is present when both cultural maintenance and involvement with the larger society is sought. Other scholars have also proposed similar bidimensional acculturation models (see Phinney, 1990; Bourhis, Moise, Perrault & Senecal, 1997).

Dimension 1:
Is it considered to be of value to maintain cultural identity and characteristics?
Dimension 2:
Is it considered to be of value to maintain relationships with other groups?

Figure 1a: Quadric-modal acculturation model (Berry, 1980; 1984)

Like its unidirectional acculturation predecessor, bidimensional acculturation theory gravitates toward the functionalist perspective. In a recent publication, Berry, Phinney, Sam & Vedder (2006) stated, “ we seek to avoid the extra baggage that often accompanies terms such as mainstream, majority, dominant, minority, non-dominant and host society” (p.11). This is as much a declaration of their apolitical, ahistorical and overall functionalist stance in viewing intergroup relations as a statement about their choice of terminology. Without a willingness to engage in critical examination of domination and institutionalized oppression (legitimizing the dominant group’s power through established social structures in all social, political, economic and cultural domains), bidimensional acculturation theorists focus solely on how immigrants, in a one way process, acculturate themselves into the dominant culture. Even though the bidimensional school of thought offers various acculturation outcomes, its notion of acculturation, with a strong focus on changes of identity, life patterns and adaptation of immigrants, carries remnants of the assimilation school of thought.

Without being grounded in social justice, bidimensional acculturation theories have faced some serious conceptual limitations. At issue are the two foundational dimensions, namely maintenance of cultural identity and characteristics and relationships with the dominant culture. In the context of intergroup relations, identity is a site of struggle that involves ongoing negotiation, creation, deconstruction and re-creation (Dominelli, 2002). Depending on their dominant-subordinate experiences and subsequent effects, struggles and resilience, immigrants may view their cultural identities differently at various points in life, and at times even experience a false sense of identity, as in the case of internalized oppression. The conceptual focus, therefore, should take into consideration factors and players that have been involved in the formation and reformation of multiple identities (e.g. race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and so forth) among immigrants. Similar dynamics also challenge the construction of the second dimension of immigrants’ relationship with the dominant culture in the bidimensional framework. A sole focus on immigrants’ perception of their relationships to the dominant culture as individuals possessing free will undermines the dominant-subordinate interactive processes that involve “othering”, exclusion, negotiation, acceptance, accommodation, and so forth, and have varying impacts on immigrants’ relationships with the dominant culture. Without a deeper understanding of social justice involved in formation and reformation of multiple identities of immigrants and their interactions with the dominant culture, the bidimensional acculturation theories at best cannot provide a holistic explanation of inequitable socioeconomic realities facing some immigrants, and at worst pathologize a marginalized population.

Finally, the language attached to various acculturation modes requires analysis. In the consensual perspective, the bidimensional acculturation theories assume horizontal hierarchy in power relations among groups. This unexamined and biased assumption is in direct contradiction to the mounting evidence of racial and ethnic disparities across the globe (see Cummins, 1994; Beiser, Noh, Hou, Kaspar & Rummens, 2001; Reitz & Banerjee, 2007). Integration, in the context of power differential intergroup relations, would more likely mean absorption of the subordinate groups, and thus comes much closer to assimilation. In the same vein, the notion of segregation, in power differential intergroup relations, is not so much a conscious choice of free will as an outcome of marginalization. Therefore, explanation of adaptation difficulties facing immigrants should move beyond resorting to the marginalization mode for peripheral, arbitrary insights, and instead unmask meaning and the dynamics involved in the other acculturative modes.

Interactive Acculturation

Both the unidirectional and bidimensional acculturation traditions have primarily dealt with how immigrants assimilate or acculturate into the dominant culture. Recognizing the need to explain more clearly the interactive nature of the immigrant and the dominant cultures, Bourhis et al. (1997), working from a social psychological perspective, proposed the Interactive Acculturation Model. Central to this theoretical framework are three components: (1) acculturation orientations adopted by immigrant groups, (2) acculturation orientations adopted by the dominant culture towards specific groups of immigrants; and (3) interpersonal and intergroup relational outcomes that represent combinations of immigrants’ and the dominant culture’s acculturation orientations. Bourhis et al modified Berry’s quadric-modal acculturation model to describe acculturation orientations adopted by immigrant groups in the dominant culture (see figure 2a). Specifically, they re-conceptualized the marginalization mode into two variants, namely anomie and individualism, in order to accommodate idiocentric individuals who do not necessarily lose their identities, but who experience cultural alienation or simply reject group ascriptions per se (Bourhis et al, 1997). Additionally, they devised a model of the dominant culture’s acculturation orientation on the basis of two dimensions, namely their acceptance of immigrants maintaining their cultural identity and acceptance of immigrants adopting the cultural identity of the dominant group. Projected orthogonally, the acculturation orientations of the receiving community include integration, assimilation, segregation, and exclusion and individualism (see figure 2b).

Dimension 1:
Is it considered to be of value to maintain cultural identity and characteristics?
Dimension 2:
Is it considered to be of value to maintain relationships with other groups?

Figure 2a: Revised bidimensional model of acculturation (Bourhis et al, 1997).

Dimension 1:
Is it considered to be of value to maintain cultural identity and characteristics?
Dimension 2:
Is it considered to be of value to maintain relationships with other groups?

Figure 2b: Bidimesional model of the dominant culture’s acculturation orientations (Bourhis et al, 1997).

Bourhis et al then orthogonally projected the relational outcomes from the acculturation orientations of immigrants against those of the receiving community. Three different relational outcomes would emerge depending on the concordance or discordance between immigrants’ strategies and the receiving community’s orientations, namely consensual (intergroup harmony), problematic (partial agreement) and conflictual (intergroup conflict) outcomes (see Figure 3).

Host Community Immigrant Community
Integration Assimilation Separation Anomie Individualism
Integration Consensual Problematic Conflictual Problematic Problematic
Assimilation Problematic Consensual Conflictual Problematic Problematic
Segregation Conflictual Conflictual Conflictual Conflictual Conflictual
Exclusion Conflictual Conflictual Conflictual Conflictual Conflictual
Individualism Problematic Problematic Problematic Problematic Consensual

Figure 3: Relational outcomes of acculturation orientations: The Interactive Acculturation Model (Bourhis et al, 1997).

Bourhis et al did not elaborate in any detail implications of the 25 possible outcomes on immigrants’ wellbeing. Their assignment of the relational outcomes was rather arbitrary, vague and incoherent. The model would require much more theoretical refinement in order to coherently link the possible outcomes to various social issues.

At first glance, the interactive acculturation model promises innovation. Rather than examining only immigrants’ acculturative strategies, as demonstrated in unidirectional and bidimensional acculturation theories, Bourhis et al put the spotlight on the interaction between the dominant culture and immigrants. A closer look at the model, however, reveals an emperor of the bi-dimensional acculturation school in his new clothes. Even though Bourhis et al (1997) proposed a bidimensional model of the acculturation orientations of the dominant culture, the conceptual dimensions focus on what the dominant culture thinks immigrants should do with respect to maintenance of their cultural identity and their relationship to the dominant culture. In other words, it is still immigrants who would have to acculturate into the dominant culture. An anti-oppressive perspective would advocate for two way acculturation, in which the dominant culture would also ask itself what to do with respect to the maintenance of its own cultural identity and adoption of cultural identities of immigrants. Without explicit articulation of two way street acculturation, the so-called interactive acculturation model remains incomplete and misleading. Like its bi-dimensional acculturation predecessor, the interactive acculturation model is subject to the same critiques related to a lack of critical examination of oppressive societal structures, dominant-subordinate power differential, formation and reformation of multiple identities, conceptual limitations, and contradictions in the language assigned to various modes of acculturation (see the critical analysis of bidimensional acculturation). Overall, this model fails to interrogate the role of the dominant structures in the construction of inequitable socioeconomic realities facing many immigrants, and remains focused on the failure of immigrants to successfully acculturate into the dominant culture.


Through a critical anti-oppressive and social justice lens, this paper has examined the three major acculturation schools of thought with respect to usefulness in understanding interactions between immigrants and the dominant culture. All three theoretical schools of thought have omitted to critically examine acculturation in relation to dominant-subordinate oppression, mutual transformation of immigrants and the receiving society, formulation and reformulation of identities and issues of social justice. Consequently, they have overlooked the social construction of inequitable socioeconomic realities facing immigrants, particularly in the context of power differential intergroup relations. Worse, they risk pathologizing a marginalized population. This analysis urges educators, researchers, practitioners and policymakers to engage in critical reflections in their uses of the existing theories of acculturation in their works, as well as to challenge unexamined public discourses on acculturation. It further points out a unique opportunity for the development of an anti-oppressive and social justice-based theory of acculturation.


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