Acculturation Research: Current Issues and Findings

Gerardo Marín, Pamela Balls Organista, Kevin M Chun. Handbook of Racial & Ethnic Minority Psychology. Editor: Guillermo Bernai. Sage Publications. 2003.

Acculturation is arguably the most important moderating variable or construct considered when conducting research or assessing the impact of interventions that involve ethnic minority individuals. As is true with other multidisciplinary concepts (e.g., culture, ethnicity), acculturation as a construct suffered from unclear and incomplete definitions, improper and ill-defined measurement approaches, and overextended applications. Nevertheless, during the past two decades, social scientists have renewed their interest in exploring the relation between acculturation and a person’s attitudes, behaviors, and values and better defining and understanding the construct and its implications. From early attempts at describing acculturation as a social process of change (e.g., Redfield, Linton, & Herskovitz, 1936; Social Science Research Council, 1954), the field has shifted to our contemporary concern for understanding acculturation as a psychological (and therefore more individual) process (e.g., Berry, 1980, 1997; Graves, 1967; Padilla, 1980b).

As can be expected from this increased attention to acculturation, the number of publications related to acculturation has exploded. Indeed, a number of reviews or analyses of acculturation have appeared since Padilla’s (1980a) seminal book, including a number of chapters and books (e.g., Berry & Sam, 1997; Chun, Balls Organista, & Marín, 2003; Kim & Abreu, 1995; LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996). Given the proliferation of recent publications, including the comprehensive analysis edited by Chun and his colleagues (2003), this chapter will not present an extensive review of the literature on acculturation. Instead, this chapter provides a summary of general themes centered on conceptualization, measurement, and application of acculturation paradigms, particularly within psychology.

History of Acculturation as a Construct

Initially, acculturation was a construct used by researchers to better understand the modernization and Westernization processes that various cultures and communities were undergoing during the 19th century. More recently, acculturation has become important in understanding the experiences of ethnic and cultural minorities as international migrations and political conflicts support the creation of multicultural societies.

In the United States, acculturation became a construct of significance toward the early part of the 20th century as social scientists tried to explain the process of cultural diffusion and personal change taking place as large numbers of immigrants reached the country from Europe, China, Japan, Mexico, and other countries. The rapid industrialization of the country and the need for agricultural workers and construction workers, together with politically and economically unstable foreign nations, gave rise to significant migratory currents into the United States. Whether arriving through Ellis Island or through Angel Island or walking across the Rio Grande, those early 20th-century immigrants found a nation with a relatively short history that exhibited a defined cultural set of values inherited, in part, from the colonizing nations of Europe. These more recent immigrants joined the large number of Africans whose physical and intellectual efforts have contributed to this country’s growth after enduring forced migration as slaves.

Defining Acculturation

Earlier researchers defined acculturation as “those phenomena which result 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). A few years later, a group of scholars meeting under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council (1954) suggested a more complex definition of acculturation

as cultural change that is initiated by the conjunction of two or more autonomous cultural systems. … Its dynamics can be seen as the selective adaptation of value systems, the process of integration and differentiation, the generation of developmental sequences, and the operation of role determinants and personality factors, (p. 974)

Thus, the “accomodational” experiences of some 20th-century European immigrants became the defining pattern for our early understanding of the acculturation process (Olmedo, 1980). This initial conceptualization gave rise to paradigms such as the “melting pot” to define “American” culture and to promote assimilation into the host culture as the end goal of the acculturative process. More recently, theorists (e.g., Berry, 1980, 1997, 2001) have argued that acculturation occurs along various dimensions rather than one dimension, moving from monoculturalism (of origin) toward assimilation. In particular, Berry’s (1980, 1997, 2003) conceptualization of acculturation as a multidirectional process has been an important contribution to the psychological understanding of acculturation.

Berry (1980) suggested that acculturation occurs when two fairly autonomous cultural groups come in contact with each other. He further argued that the process can be conflictual and difficult for individuals who face a variety of possible adaptation strategies. Furthermore, Berry stated that there are at least four types of outcomes to the acculturative process:

  • Assimilation (when the individual gives up the cultural identity of origin and wishes positive relationships with the host culture)
  • Separation (when the original culture is retained and no positive relationships with the original culture are desired)
  • Integration (when the individual desires to retain the culture of origin as well as maintain positive relationships with the host culture)
  • Marginalization (where there is no retention of the original culture and no desire to have positive relationships with the host culture)

Berry further suggested that as a dynamic process, acculturation must be viewed as a gradual change in a number of areas (or dimensions) that affect the individual (e.g., language, cognitive style, personality, identity, attitudes, and acculturative stress). In this sense, any of the acculturative outcomes (e.g., integration, assimilation) can be identified through changes in one of many influential areas (e.g., language use, personal identity).

Inherent in many of the models for acculturation described above is the notion that biculturalism is indeed possible and frequent among individuals exposed to two or more cultures. Indeed, a number of recent studies have shown that biculturalism is not only frequent but also quite beneficial to individuals (LaFromboise et al., 1993). Chapter 20 in this Handbook reviews recent literature on biculturalism.

Although definitions of acculturation have emphasized different aspects of the construct, a contemporary understanding of acculturation would probably include the following aspects: (a) continuous and long-term contact with one or more different cultures or subcultures; (b) continuity and change of attitudinal and behavioral patterns along multiple cultural/ ethnic dimensions; (c) fluidity of the acculturative process, implying that individuals are in constant movement along the cultural/ethnic dimensions; and (d) a process that involves various strategies and varied outcomes, including conflict and adaptation. In short, as Trimble (2003) suggested, acculturation is a “multidimensional process generating several definitive outcomes” (p. 7).

Assessment of Acculturation

To better understand the unique challenges and transformations that ethnic minorities experience as they are exposed to a new culture, one must have sound measures available to assess their acculturation status. In the past few years, as definitions of acculturation have improved (e.g., Berry, 1997; Padilla, 1980b) and the bi- or multidimensionality of acculturation has been acknowledged (e.g., Berry, 1990), measurement has become more sophisticated and grounded in theory (e.g., Cuellar, Arnold, & Maldonado, 1995; Marín & Gamba, 1996). However, there are still many challenges involved in assessing such a complex phenomenon. For instance, most published acculturation scales require respondents to choose among terms that assess the unidirectional movement of individuals from traditional culture to majority culture (Marín & Gamba, 1996; Zane & Mak, 2003). Although this problem is recognized by some researchers (Cuellar et al., 1995; Marín, 1992; Szapocznik & Kurtines, 1980), it remains a major difficulty plaguing most acculturation scales.

Researchers who are aware of unidirectionality and therefore try to produce bidirectional scales still propose scoring techniques (e.g., subtracting an “Asian” score from a “non-Hispanic White” score) that reflect an erroneous zero-sum perception of acculturation (Rogler, Cortes, & Malgady, 1991). Indeed, certain researchers (e.g., Choney, Berryhill-Paapke, & Robbins, 1995) state that this type of assessment represents a “deficit model” approach in which it is assumed that movement toward the White (or majority) culture represents health, whereas the other direction is more related to pathology.

Fortunately, there exists a new generation of acculturation measures, albeit small in number, designed to assess the various dimensions of acculturation by measuring two or more cultures independent of each other (e.g., Cuellar et al., 1995; Marin & Gamba, 1996). This type of approach assumes that one’s adaptation to the new culture does not negate the possibility of retaining all or part of one’s culture of origin.

Primary Indices of Acculturation

Several different indices are assessed by some of the most frequently used acculturation measures. The most popular index of acculturation is language, including assessment of primary language spoken or written (e.g., Cultural Life Styles Inventory [CLSI]) (Mendoza, 1989), language preference (e.g., Acculturation Rating Scale for Mexican Americans-Revised [ARSMA-R]) (Cuellar et al., 1995), and language proficiency (e.g., the Bidimensional Acculturation Scale) (Marín & Gamba, 1996). In addition, certain instruments measure language use within various social contexts (e.g., with family or colleagues at work).

Another popular index of acculturation is preference for social affiliation (e.g., CLSI) (Mendoza, 1989). These measures can include questions about people with whom the individual chooses to socialize or types of activities the individual likes to engage in while socializing with others. Related to social affiliation are other indices that tap into an individual’s association with his or her native culture or the host culture through self-identification, cultural pride, or perceived acceptance by a particular cultural group.

Cultural practices, beliefs, and values are also assessed by a small number of acculturation instruments (e.g., ARSMA-R) (Cuellar et al., 1995). A focus on engagement in cultural practices and knowledge about cultural beliefs and values may be particularly important for groups that present unique challenges in determining acculturation status. For example, many popular measures devised to assess acculturation in some ethnic groups (e.g., Asian Americans and Latinos) include questions about English-language use or proficiency, length of U.S. residence, immigration status, and observance of cultural holidays. Although some of these indices are appropriate measures for certain ethnic groups, these types of questions can be particularly difficult to apply to other sizable and diverse ethnic groups such as African Americans (Snowden & Hines, 1999) and American Indians (Choney et al., 1995).

Zane and Mak (2003) recently conducted a content analysis of 19 of the most frequently cited measures used to assess acculturation among three major ethnic groups in the United States—specifically, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans. Their analysis revealed that the majority of scales focused on the acculturation process among Hispanic Americans, with fewer scales available for measuring acculturation among Asian/Pacific Islanders and even less designed for African Americans. In addition, there appeared to be significant variation in the areas that the acculturation scales measure. Although some scales overlapped in terms of the areas assessed, other scales showed little or no overlap in content. This variation raised the concern as to whether the measures tap into similar characteristics of acculturation across the various ethnic groups. Even when Zane and Mak (2003) analyzed measures designed to assess the same ethnic groups (e.g., Hispanics or Asian Americans), they still noted a lack of content overlap.

Challenges for Future Assessment of Acculturation

It is common for acculturation scales and indices to include demographic indicators or correlates of acculturation (e.g., generation of respondents) as part of the acculturation scale, which may spuriously increase the validity of the scale. An additional limitation of most acculturation scales is the reliance on one or very few domains or dimensions of acculturation to measure a complex multidimensional process. In some cases, the use of one type of variable or index has been dictated by data reduction techniques (e.g., when language use explains a large proportion of variance), whereas in other studies, researchers have simply chosen to use proxy measures (e.g., language of interview, place of birth, generational status). Although it seems certain that language-related dimensions are powerful correlates of acculturation, researchers often have failed to acknowledge the fact that some accuracy has been sacrificed by limiting the number of indexes measured.

Other problems with most acculturation scales include the fact that most investigators seldom use data reduction techniques to psychometrically derive their acculturation scales (Marín & Gamba, 1996). Often, researchers use items that are assumed to measure a given acculturative dimension (e.g., language use, patterns of media use, peer’s ethnicity), and the scores derived from these items are used as if the items actually formed a scale. In most of these cases, the reader is not provided information on the internal consistency of the “scale,” and likewise, validity indicators are often missing or not reported.

As stated earlier, certain ethnic groups such as African Americans and American Indians remain underresearched in the acculturation literature. To rectify this limitation, researchers must direct more attention toward the formulation of theory that will guide the construction of measures. Greater attention must be given toward identifying central themes that comprise these diverse ethnic groups’ values, beliefs, and traditions. These issues must be addressed to advance the field toward larger scale, more sophisticated and inclusive studies that will lead to greater insight into the relationship between acculturation and psychological distress and adjustment.

One final comment regarding current acculturation scales is in order: There are very few appropriate acculturation scales for children. One effort is Marín and colleagues’ Short Acculturation Scale for Hispanics (SASH) (Marín, Sabogal, VanOss Marín, Otero-Sabogal, & Perez-Stable, 1987) that has been adapted for youth—SASH-Y (Barona & Miller, 1994). The SASH-Y shows excellent psychometric characteristics but produces unidirectional acculturation scores. Research in the near future should produce better acculturation scales that are appropriate for research with children.

Acculturation in Relation to Psychological Distress

The scope of topics in acculturation research has grown in tandem with the development of new measures and investigative strategies. In particular, an increasing number of studies have examined acculturation processes in relation to risk for psychological distress and the experience and expression of symptoms. As noted earlier, much of the acculturation research on psychological distress focuses on new immigrants and refugees and their potential risk for psychological symptomatology and disorders. To this end, researchers have attempted to identify single indices or composite measures of acculturation that predict anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental illnesses. Various status indices (e.g., English-language proficiency, language preference, years of residency in the United States, generational status) and cultural participation and affiliation indices (e.g., desire to return to one’s homeland, participation in one’s culture of origin, ethnic composition of social networks) have received considerable attention in the literature as possible correlates of psychological distress. Past findings, which are mostly based on Asian American and Latino immigrant and refugee populations, have generally pointed to three distinct paradigms—immigration stress, social stress, and selective migration—that highlight the complex relationship between acculturation and psychological distress.

Often, investigations of psychological distress begin with an a priori assumption that recently arrived immigrants encounter significant acculturative stress that predisposes them to psychological problems. This notion, which forms the basis of the immigration stress paradigm, was first widely discussed as “culture shock” by such notable sociologists as Park (1928) and Stonequist (1935) in the early half of the 20th century. An impressive body of studies has since offered empirical support for this paradigm by showing a negative relationship between acculturation levels and psychological distress, psychosocial dysfunction, and physical health problems (Chun et al, 2003; Lee & Zane, 1998; Myers & Rodriguez, 2003). The most poignant illustrations of these relationships are witnessed for Southeast Asian refugees, beginning with pioneering studies of the Vietnamese (e.g., Lin, Tazuma, & Masuda, 1979), Cambodians (e.g., Kinzie et al, 1990), Hmong (Westermeyer, 1989), Laotians (Kroll et al., 1989), and other early comparative analyses of these refugee communities (e.g., Gong-Guy, 1987; Mollica, Wyshak, & Lavelle, 1987; Rumbaut, 1985). These and subsequent studies have generally supported the notion that acculturative stress may exacerbate or increase one’s risk for various disorders and adjustment difficulties. In particular, low English-language proficiency has been identified as one of the most consistent predictors of anxiety and depressive symptoms for these groups.

Still, it is often difficult to discern the actual contribution of acculturative stress to psychological problems due to the lack of information on premorbid functioning for study samples. This can be highly problematic because most Southeast Asian refugees have experienced multiple premigration, migration, and encampment stressors and traumas that may heighten the negative effects of acculturative stress. This is particularly true for the Hmong and Cambodians, who have endured extensive loss of life and material possessions, persecution and torture, and life-threatening escape from their native countries (Abueg & Chun, 1996). Also, certain sociodemographic variables (e.g., age, sex, educational background, socioeconomic status) and personality traits (e.g., hardiness) often moderate the effects of acculturative stress, leading to varied adjustment patterns. Therefore, it is not surprising that researchers have yet to identify robust and consistent predictors of distress (with the possible exception of English-language proficiency) across diverse refugee and immigrant groups. For instance, past findings show that limited years spent in the United States and foreign birth both predict greater psychological distress (Abe & Zane, 1990), whereas other findings indicate that this relationship is insignificant when socioeconomic status is controlled (Ying, 1988). Such conflicting findings may also result from methodological variance, as witnessed by the use of different assessment tools and multiple operational definitions of acculturation and psychological distress. In addition, past research indicates that acculturation may differentially affect distinct measures of psychological distress and adjustment. For example, Sue and Zane (1985) found that recently arrived Chinese immigrant students report higher levels of anxiety yet surprisingly show higher academic achievement compared to Chinese students who have been U.S. residents for longer periods. Sue and Zane thus cautioned that multiple measures of adjustment and psychological distress are required when examining the effects of acculturative stress.

The social stress paradigm also has received wide attention in the literature, particularly for Latino populations. According to this paradigm, higher levels of acculturation are associated with psychological distress and mental health problems. As noted in previous literature reviews (e.g., Balls Organista, Organista, & Kurasaki, 2003), this phenomenon may stem from the gradual erosion of “traditional Latino culture” or supportive family networks that guard against distress. In addition, Latinos who are long-term U.S. residents may be more susceptible to mental health problems due to prolonged exposure to racial discrimination and social stratification and new cultural norms that may encourage substance use.

Support for the social stress paradigm is found across a broad range of studies. Most notably, investigations using epidemiological data from the Epidemiologic Catchment Areas (ECA)-Los Angeles study (Burnam, Hough, Karno, Escobar, & Telles, 1987), the National Comorbidity Study (Ortega, Rosenheck, Alegria, & Desai, 2000), and the Mexican American Prevalence and Services Survey (Vega et al., 1998) report a positive relationship between acculturation levels and psychological distress. Burnam and his colleagues (1987) found that U.S.-born Mexican Americans evidence higher lifetime prevalence rates of psychiatric and substance use disorders than their Mexican-born counterparts. Likewise, Ortega and his colleagues (2000) more recently reported high prevalence rates of psychiatric disorders and substance use for more acculturated Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and “other” Hispanics. In this latter study, variables related to proficient use of the English language proved to be the most consistent predictors of psychological distress.

Recent studies of cognitive expectancies for alcohol use provide further insights into the social stress paradigm. For instance, Marín (1998) found that more acculturated Mexican Americans (as measured by language preference and use) tended to report more positive and fewer negative expectancies for drinking compared to their less acculturated counterparts. Such changes in expectancies may partially explain past reports that highly acculturated Hispanic women are more likely to drink compared to those who are less acculturated (Caetano, 1998). Still, researchers have cited a number of important caveats to these findings; namely, acculturation and substance use should not be reduced to a simple linear relationship but should instead be viewed as a complex interaction between individual characteristics and sociocultural and historical factors (Caetano & Clark, 2003).

Finally, researchers also have considered the selective migration paradigm to explain the relationship between acculturation and psychological distress. This paradigm holds that newer immigrants inherently possess unique, adaptive personal traits that guard against mental illness. Consequently, it is hypothesized that newer immigrants represent a particularly resilient group and therefore experience less psychological distress than their American-born counterparts. This paradigm was offered as a possible explanation to the aforementioned early ECA findings that showed higher lifetime prevalence rates of psychiatric disorders among U.S.-born Mexican Americans relative to those who were foreign born (Burnam et al., 1987). However, more recent reports showing comparable prevalence rates of distress for Mexican American immigrants and Mexican nationals refute the selective migration paradigm (Balls Organista et al., 2003). Also, past studies with Asian Americans generally show that newer immigrants and refugees are at greater risk for adjustment difficulties than U.S.-born Asian Americans as previously noted.

The experience and expression of psychological distress have also been investigated in relation to acculturation. In regards to experience, past findings suggest that acculturation affects cognitive and emotional interpretations of distress. For instance, Ying (1990) found that newer Chinese American immigrants held distinct explanatory models or emic constructions of major depression that included both physiological and emotional components. According to Ying, such models are embedded in Chinese health beliefs that implicate both somatic and psychological processes in the etiology of this disorder. However, these cultural health beliefs may transform during acculturation. This was evidenced for a community sample of Chinese Americans who did not frequently cite biological or organic factors as possible causes for mental disorders (Loo, Tong, & True, 1989). Interestingly, the majority of Chinese Americans in this latter study had resided in the United States for a much longer period of time (10 years or more) compared to those in Ying’s study (an average of 2.7 years). Finally, acculturation may shape experiences of social distress as well. In this case, Okazaki (1997) found that less acculturated Chinese American college students were more likely to report greater avoidance of and higher distress in social situations than their peers with higher acculturation levels. Okazaki posited that Asian Americans with lower acculturation levels are more likely to endorse interdependent self-construals that increase their sensitivity to social situations.

Symptom expression may also vary according to acculturation levels, as witnessed by somatization and culture-bound syndromes. Past studies of somatization have shown that newer immigrants and refugees may initially report more physical symptoms such as headaches, mild abdominal pains, physical tension, and general malaise when experiencing psychological distress (Chun, Eastman, Wang, & Sue, 1998). This is not entirely surprising given that they may hold both somatic and psychological interpretations of distress as previously noted. Somatization may also represent a culturally acceptable way to express distress, especially in cultures where shame and stigma are attached to mental illness. Still, it is important to note that somatization is not solely associated with “traditional” health beliefs and cultural values among newer immigrants. Instead, treatment settings (i.e., medical vs. psychotherapeutic) (Cheung, 1987) and methods of diagnostic inquiry and assessment (e.g., structured vs. open-ended interviews) (Lin, 1989) may also contribute to somatic symptom presentations.

Finally, the relationship between acculturation and the expression of psychological distress can also be seen in culture-bound syndromes. Inclusion of these syndromes (e.g., hwabyung among Koreans, kotos among Malaysians and Chinese, and ataques de nervios among Puerto Ricans) in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), along with new research on these disorders, attests to their growing significance in the field. Moreover, they clearly demonstrate how symptoms may be intimately tied to unique religious and cultural belief systems that are often overlooked by current Western diagnostic nosology. Instances of sudden nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS) underscore this point. The cause of this syndrome, which is mostly seen among young adult Hmong men, still defies clear scientific explanations. Interestingly, researchers have suggested that acculturative stress may play an important role in this disorder given that most who are inflicted with SUNDS have spent relatively few years in the United States and have faced significant postmigration stressors (Adler, 1998). Thus, acculturation figures prominently in symptom expression when considering its potential to elicit stress reactions and influence cultural health beliefs.

Despite the growing number of acculturation studies pertaining to psychological distress, some fundamental questions remain: What are the exact mechanisms involved with increased risk for psychological distress? Why do past findings support the social stress paradigm for Mexican Americans but not for Asian American groups? Alternatively, why is there more support for the immigration stress paradigm for Asian American populations than for Latinos? Are certain cultural health beliefs more salient than others in shaping the experience and expression of psychological distress? Do developmental skills and abilities mediate the relationship between acculturation and psychological adjustment?


Despite several current limitations highlighted in this overview, researchers are ideally poised to make significant strides in understanding the influence of acculturation on people’s behavior and consequent adjustment: Conceptualizations and measures are more refined, and patterns of acculturation’s effects are becoming more distinct. As our world cultures continue to come in closer proximity and convergence, efforts must continue to document the importance of this construct as a testament to psychology’s commitment to human welfare. Any future effort in this regard must nevertheless use appropriate measurements and culturally appropriate theories to properly identify the relationship between acculturation and people’s behaviors, attitudes, and values. Continued use of faulty measures and monolithic theoretical constructs can only delay our understanding of the phenomenon by producing spurious relationships and results of limited validity and generalization.