Acculturation of the Self-Concept Move the Body, Change the Self: Acculturative Effects on the Self-Concept

Move the Body, Change the Culture?

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Move the Body, Change the Culture?

The acculturating individual provides one perspective by which to view the mutual constitution of self and culture. When individuals participate in a novel cultural environment, their self-concept appears to change accordingly. The self is shaped by cultural experiences.

However, cultural influences on the self-concept represent only one side of the relations between self and culture hypothesized by cultural psychologists (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Shweder, 1990). Cultures arise from the interaction of the individual selves that make them up. As new individuals move into a culture, changing the composition of the culture’s membership, it follows that the culture should change as well. Cultures are shaped by individual selves. How are cultures affected by the incorporation of new members from different cultural backgrounds?

The impact of immigrating selves on a culture would appear to hinge on the model of cultural integration that is dominant. It seems that there are at least two models by which cultures incorporate new members. One potential model is sometimes referred to as a “melting pot (e.g., Sidanius, Feschbach, Levin, & Pratto, 1997).” New cultural members assimilate themselves to fit into a single, dominant cultural framework, regardless of the individuals’ original cultural backgrounds. The incongruities of the individual’s heritage culture and the host culture are resolved by the individuals “melting” away the cultural idiosyncracies from their heritage culture. In this model, it would appear that the host culture does little to accommodate the new selves. The adjustment largely occurs in the immigrants’ selves, whereas the dominant culture would continue to persist, largely unchanged.

That aspects of cultures often are relatively stable, despite the great influx of new members, provides support for the notion that sometimes acculturating individuals are assimilating into, rather than changing, the cultures. For example, Vandello and Cohen (this volume) provide compelling evidence that a culture of honor persists in the Southern US, despite that the original basis of this aspect of the culture (a herding-based economy) is no longer dominant. It appears that people who migrate to the US South, whether they are from other states or other countries, are socialized to believe that defending one’s honor is an important way to earn others’ respect. Even if every individual member of the culture is ultimately replaced by subsequent individuals who join the culture either by birth or migration, each of the new individuals must adjust themselves to the prevailing cultural worldview, and adopt thoughts and behaviors that are associated with perceived greater rewards in that worldview. Such cultural persistence would seem to be more prevalent in cultures in which a clear dominant model is identifiable, tangible, and desirable to the acculturating individuals.

A second way by which cultures integrate new members can be described as an “ethnic pluralism” model, which is sometimes referred to as a “salad bowl” (e.g., Sidanius et al., 1997). This model refers to the coexistence of a number of ethnic subgroups within a society, each preserving their own distinctive cultural heritages. Although acculturating individuals tend to learn the ways of the host culture, they do not shed their cultural backgrounds. In such a model, a dominant cultural framework would appear to be somewhat weak and intangible; the culture consists of the collective sum of the individual subcultural elements.

For individuals acculturating into an ethnically pluralistic culture characterized, in contrast to those acculturating into a melting pot, the impact of the migration would appear to be considerably greater on the culture. To the extent that a dominant cultural model is not as tangible or stable in pluralistic societies, there would appear to be less pressure for individuals to assimilate. Rather, the host culture itself must change to accommodate these new individuals. Ethnically pluralistic societies would appear to have less persistence of cultural ways, as the influx of people with different cultural backgrounds would change the perception of what thoughts and behaviors are normative, or are associated with benefits and costs.

In the concrete example of self-esteem change among acculturating individuals it would seem that self-esteem change should be more pronounced to the extent that a melting pot model is in operation. Low self-esteem individuals moving to a culture characterized by higher self-esteem, for example, would tend to learn a culturally-congruent form of self, and their self-esteem would subsequently increase to that of the cultural norm, leaving the cultures’ perceived norm for largely intact. In contrast, low self-esteem individuals acculturating into an ethnically pluralistic society would likely assimilate less, as their self-concept is not divergent from their subculture’s dominant view of self. Ethnically pluralistic societies should be more likely to preserve the self-concept of immigrating individuals, and the overarching culture would adjust in response to the change in the proportions of the various subcultures.


In this age of globalization, a growing number of bodies are moving back and forth across cultural boundaries. Such migrations are likely to leave their tracks both on the selves of the individuals that are acculturating, and on the cultures that are exchanging the selves. Individual selves need to assimilate to new cultural environments, and cultures need to accommodate the new selves. The effects of this self-concept assimilation and cultural accommodation are only beginning to be examined. A number of questions have appeared in the literature, but thus far scant research has explored them. Is there a sensitive period for the acquisition of a cultural meaning system (e.g., Minoura,1992) as there appears to be with language acquisition (e.g., Newport, 1991)? Do multicultural individuals consistently maintain multiple selves (e.g., Hong et al., 2000), or is there an inevitable blending at some point? Do all aspects of the self-concept assimilate in the same ways that we observed in the acculturation of self-esteem? Questions regarding how cultures accommodate new members and new ideas are legion, and this volume sets the stage for much future work.

Finding the culture in the self is a pursuit compromised by many methodological challenges. Conventional cross-cultural and cultural psychological methodologies each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and we suggest that research on acculturative effects on the self-concept provides another tool with which to identify the cultural components of human nature. To the extent that evidence from these different approaches converges, the cultural foundation of the self will come into fuller view.

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