Acculturation as a Literary Theme Summary


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

“Acculturation” is not a common term in literary studies; it has been used mainly in sociological and anthropological studies. The term did not find its way into The Oxford English Dictionary until 1989; it first appeared in the writings of an American geologist and ethnologist, John Wesley Powell, in 1880. Despite the fact that study of cultural modifications is international, the term is still primarily American. The study of acculturation has gone beyond the realm of cultural anthropology, and numerous studies have been conducted to define and conceptualize cultural adaptations between a subculture and the dominant culture. In a sense, acculturation is not a recent phenomenon in human history, nor is it a rare theme in literature. With the rise of the multidisciplinary approach to research and, particularly, the development of the concept of multiculturalism, acculturation has been a constant theme in scholarship.

Scholars and critics differ in defining the types, levels, and aspects of acculturation, but agree that acculturation occurs on two levels, individual and group. There are also three types of operation. In the first type, people of different cultures voluntarily adopt culture traits from one another because of prolonged contact. In the second type, the dominant culture imposes its ideas and values upon the people of nondominant cultures. In the third type, people from different cultures respect and appreciate one another’s cultures. It is essential, however, to make a clarification between “acculturation” and “assimilation.” “Acculturation” means a voluntary or forced acquisition of the culture of the dominant group. “Assimilation” indicates the disappearance of group identity through such actions as friendship and marriage outside the subgroup; such actions require a mutual effort of the dominant group and the subgroup. Although the term “acculturation” is often thought to refer to cultural modification, it more specifically refers to a process of cultural adaptation by minority people toward the majority people’s culture.

It is true both in sociocultural studies and literary writings that acculturation is seldom, if ever, explored in reference to European American acculturation into a culture not their own. People of non-European American origin, however, are typically expected, in North America, to acculturate themselves to the American way of life. As a literary theme, therefore, acculturation has always been explored within the context of Americanization.