Immigrants Fitting In: Challenging the All-Or-Nothing View of Acculturation

Buckminster Fuller once famously observed that people don’t have roots. Trees have roots. People have feet, and one result of this human reality is that migration, including international migration, has always been a fundamental fact of life for our species. Are immigrants dangerous? Are they indigestible foreign bodies who somehow pose a threat to ordinary Americans and their way of life? Or are they, like most of our own ancestors who also arrived as immigrants, trying to transform themselves into Americans? What will they look like if they succeed in such efforts? And even more importantly, what if such efforts fail, and some immigrants become marginalized, ghettoized, angry outcasts? These questions become more critically important every day in our present world.

These are also the questions addressed by a thriving area of sociological research dealing with the topic of acculturation—literally, fitting into a culture. Acculturation is something that we all do, but for most of us we call it socialization and we do it as little children, picking up language, table manners, prejudices, hopes and dreams as we grow up. But when you move half-way around the world to start a new life in a strange foreign land, this process of trying to fit in is called acculturation. Researchers who studied the last great wave of immigrants to America, writing two or three generations ago in the mid-20th century, tended to give an either-or answer to this question. You could be either German or American. You could be either Chinese or American. We often assumed that becoming an American meant giving up on being German or Chinese. Measures of acculturation back then even forced this explicit choice. Researchers used a scale with American at one end and your foreign origin at the other end, and if you put yourself close to one choice, you automatically distanced yourself from the other.

Recent research in the Center for Demography and Population Health at FSU, conducted by visiting doctoral student Abdurrahim Güler from Turkey and FSU sociology professor Woody Carlson, challenges this “assimilationist” either-or perspective and provides new support for an alternative theory of acculturation that has been emerging in recent decades. According to this new perspective, we need to measure attachment to an origin society (say, Turkey) separately from involvement with the destination society (say, the United States). When you do this, it turns out that immigrants can remain strongly attached to their culture of origin, and at the same time become strongly attached to American life. It is equally possible that they can fall between the chairs, and lose touch with their original culture but fail to replace it with attachment to their new home. Güler and Carlson even find that the level of involvement with one culture tends to be higher when it is also higher with the other—a sense of heritage can be an asset in becoming a better American. They have revived a measurement technique first suggested over thirty years ago by Jose Szapocznik and colleagues, but largely forgotten until now, that allows new insights into measuring and studying this critically important aspect of exactly how immigrants acculturate or fail to acculturate in any new social setting. The research appeared in the International Journal of Migration and Integration in the Spring 2018 issue under the title “Cultural Involvement and Preference in Immigrant Acculturation.”

CarlsonDr. Woody Carlson is the Charles B. Nam Professor in Sociology of Population. His research examines generational cycles in populations, social determinants of infant and reproductive health, and working-age mortality in Europe, the Middle East, and America.


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