A well-known model of acculturation comes from John Berry, a psychologist and theorist, famous for the four-fold model of acculturation strategies. He theorizes that immigrants and immigrant communities generally follow one of four strategies in adapting to their new community. They either assimilate, separate, integrate, or marginalize. Briefly, assimilation is when the immigrant or the person of a less dominant culture sheds his or her culture and adopts the new or dominant culture of a society. Separation is when the said person separates from the dominant culture, befriending only those with the same culture, same language, same religion, and without any involvement or with minimal involvement with the dominant culture, including media and social interactions. When we look at integration, this is where a person keeps some of his or her own cultural heritage, adopts some of the cultural characteristics from the dominant or host culture, and finds a balance. Finally, marginalization is when a person lets go of their own culture and similarly, does not adopt the dominant culture. They become marginalized from both groups.
Sometimes assimilation can be forced, and from both sides of the political spectrum. Some immigrants and children of immigrants, as well as other sub-cultures are pushed to accept certain actions or social issues as norms, without too much care being given to diversity. The right wing of the political spectrum in the United States often will voice concern about different languages being used by citizens, or names that sound too ‘foreign’, and this pushes immigrants to either have an ‘American’ name, or to shed some of their cultural ‘baggage’ so that they may thrive. On the other end, the left wing touts liberation from culture, while speaking about the need to accept one another. Oftentimes, they mean they will only accept a given immigrant or culture if the culture does away with beliefs or practices that do not mesh well with being ‘progressive’. If a said culture has the belief in family structure, gender roles, or other traditional values, these things come under attack from some on the left side of the aisle. If a said culture endorses a different style of clothing or look, these people will come under attack from some on the right side of the aisle. In both situations, acculturation strategy is artificially pushed toward assimilation (or marginalization).
Separation is interesting. In the United States, we have examples such as the Amish, who separated from the mainstream culture a long time ago, and have continued in their separation up until today. This is an extreme example of separation, but a more practical example is that of my grandmother (God bless her soul). When she came to the United States in the 1980’s, she moved to Dearborn, MI. She came to a community with a large Arab American population, and with many people who also immigrated from the village that she lived in when she was in Lebanon. Although she faced difficulties like any immigrant does, she found solace in old friendships, an Arab routine of cooking, mid-day socializing through regular visitations to friends’ and regular friends visiting her, and with her many Lebanese neighbors. She did not feel the need to assimilate or integrate, but she was also not marginalized as she had her social supports, Arabic was all she needed to know, and she basically maintained her culture from Lebanon to the United States without too much change or alteration. Now this model may have worked well for her, but for someone younger or a child or descendant of immigrants, separation is unlikely to work out so well!
Integration is what many people ideally seek or rhetorically support as ‘healthy’, although as mentioned previously, depending on the person and circumstance, other options or strategies may be more effective, or in the case of my grandmother, healthy. Integration is when a person accepts aspects of both his or her original culture and the dominant culture. I think of myself as someone who is integrated, not in a gloating fashion. I am Arab, and more specifically, very Lebanese and Egyptian. I speak and read Arabic, I visit my ancestral homelands whenever I can, I am even a Pan-Arabist to some extent. With that said, I also like standing in a straight line rather than a huddled group when waiting at a restaurant or a bank, more or less hallmarks of the United States rather than of Egypt. I enjoy my individuality, and over time, I’ve learned to be clearer with my communication. The Middle East has some aspects of Eastern cultures regarding saving face and speaking in ways that are not too direct so as not to hurt someone’s feelings or to shame others. I have some face saving, especially in my private life, but I learned that in the academic and the real world, in the United States, I had to be more direct, okay with competition, and okay with promoting myself more confidently. Another even better example of integration is my wife, who unlike me, actually came here from another country, and came here as a refugee. She came from Iraq, after the Gulf War, as a child of course. But she learned the English language quickly, and adopted aspects of the dominant culture, specifically independence, strong will, and direct communication. Nonetheless, she kept true to her Iraqi heritage, her religion, her original language, and love for her homeland. She also maintained the idea that a mother should not feel ashamed to take care of her children during their infancy and toddler years, and at the time of writing this piece, she’s caring for our children, while also preparing to go back to school, after attaining a Master’s in Public Health.
Finally, marginalization is when someone discards both their original culture and the dominant culture. This may occur in cases of refugees who are placed in areas where there is not much cultural competency, educational initiatives, and where the refugee may have trauma from the country that they’ve escaped. This is merely an example, as there is a multitude of examples we can use for marginalization within the framework of acculturation. But we can see how marginalization is very different from separation, as the marginalized has no community, may even be bitter toward their original culture and the host culture, and these are probably the most at risk for mental health problems, and even physical ailments that may go untreated. Even in strong nit communities, there may be people who feel marginalized by both the dominant and the culture of origin.
It’s important to provide environments of inclusion, of open dialogue about various culturally important topics, and not push away people based on the strategy of acculturation that they choose to follow. I have heard people poke fun or push away those who have assimilated, or call those who have willfully separated as insignificant people or ‘outdated’. I’ve also heard criticism from some who have either assimilated or separated against those who have integrated as too traditional or too Americanized, depending on who is casting the critique. The marginalized may always equate the culture of origin as backward, while also insisting that the host culture is not any better, and they find themselves in a split world. The integrated may look down upon others as too ideological or uncompromising. These are all expected reactions to a sensitive topic, but what is more important is to hear one another out and to keep an eye out for those with ideas that may not fully match our own, and to treat those ideas with respect, even when the ideas are about something as divisive as acculturation.