Assimilation (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
An aspect of adaptation proposed by French psychologist Jean Piaget.
In the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget, assimilation is one of two complementary activities involved in adaptation, the process of learning from and adjusting to one's environment. Assimilation consists of taking in new information and incorporating it into existing ways of thinking about the world. Conversely, accommodation is the process of changing one's existing ideas to adapt to new information. When an infant first learns to drink milk from a cup, for example, she tries to assimilate the new experience (the cup) into her existing way of ingesting milk (sucking). When she finds that this doesn't work, she then changes her way of drinking milk by accommodating her actions to the cup. The dual process of accommodation and assimilation leads to the formation and alteration of schemas, generalizations about the world which are formed from past experience and used to guide a person through new experiences. According to Piaget, cognitive development involves the constant search for a balance between assimilation and accommodation, which he referred to as equilibration.
In the context of personality, the term "assimilation" has been used by Gordon Allport (1897-1967) to describe the tendency to fit information into...
(The entire section is 257 words.)
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Assimilation (Encyclopedia of Public Health)
Assimilation is the process by which individuals from one cultural group merge, or "blend," into a second group. The concept of assimilation originated in anthropology and generally refers to a group process, although assimilation can also be defined and examined at the individual level.
CONCEPTS REGARDING ASSIMILATION
The term "assimilation" describes a change in individual or group identity that results from continuous social interaction between members of two groups such that members of one group (often a minority culture group) enter into and become a part of a second group (often a majority culture group). In this process of assimilation, the minority group or culture may disappear by losing its members to the larger and more dominant cultural group. One of the more extreme forms of assimilation involves intergroup marriage (e.g., interracial marriage). Consider, for example, an immigrant Spanish-speaking Mexican woman who is Catholic marrying an English-speaking Anglo-American Protestant male. If the woman learns English, changes her maiden name and religion, and later becomes a U.S. citizen, she will have assimilated into mainstream American culture. While she does not necessarily need to change her religion and citizenship as the result of her marriage, if she were to make these changes while abandoning her native cultural ways, then this would be a case of full assimilation. In this case, entering another cultural group via marriage has resulted in a woman relinquishing most or all important aspects of her native identity. As part of this full assimilation, this person would undergo psychological changes in her cultural orientation (i.e., beliefs, attitudes, values), and in her cultural behaviors (i.e., customs, traditions) as well as in her personal identity, to the point of losing all or most of the traditions of her original native culture. A health-related question arises as to whether such an assimilation is socially and psychologically healthy. A century ago, scholars regarded such a complete change in identity and behaviorhe "melting pot" notions a natural and necessary aspect of immigrant adaptation to life in the United States.
Historically, the melting pot notion has not progressed in its entirety within U.S. society, due in part to the presence of structural barriers, including prejudice and discrimination, that have limited some immigrant and native-born minority persons from significant access to the resources and privileges of the dominant social group. Moreover, within the United States some ethnic people have actively chosen not to "give up" their native heritage and identity, despite their desires to participate successfully within the American economy.
The process of assimilation is facilitated by education, and by conformity to the linguistic and most prevalent cultural norms that are valued within the dominant society. Within the United States, the dominant society (the "Anglo Saxon cultural value system") includes the values of individuality, freedom, democracy, and achievement orientation, efficiency and practicality, and science and technology. Thus, for immigrants coming to the United States, learning English is one of several adaptive changes necessary for successfully entering and participating in the social institutions of the dominant culture.
Historically, some ethnic minority groups have experienced a threat to their culture by the imposition of forced assimilation, resulting from governmental policies and programs that used education as a means of assimilating minority people. The classic case of this involves American Indians. Beginning in the 1890s, American Indian children were removed from the reservation and transported to Indian boarding schools where they were forced to learn English while they were also prohibited from speaking their native language. This effort to inculcate mainstream or dominant cultural ways and to eliminate minority culture, or "Indian ways," operated as a form of forced assimilation. Nonetheless, in the case of American Indians, this effort at "Anglo-Saxon conformity" failed to convert these American Indian children and their parents to dominant cultural norms, and subsequently these policies for the educational assimilation of Indians were discontinued. One question that arises, of course, is whether forced assimilation is detrimental to mental health.
Assimilation is to be distinguished from the related concept of acculturation. Both assimilation and acculturation refer to the process by which individuals undergo changes in their way of life through adaptation to pressures to conform to the lifeways of a new society. Acculturation, however, refers to changes in beliefs and behaviors that occur as an individual adjusts to life in a new culture. Level of acculturation has typically been measured by way of acculturation scales. Such scales typically consider: (1) the individual's level of proficiency in language (e.g., in speaking only Spanish, only English, or both); (2) prior life experiences within his or her native country; (3) current preferences regarding friends; (4) preferences regarding television and radio programs broadcast in English or in their native language; and (5) other aspects of cultural involvement.
While both assimilation and acculturation share a common process of adaptation, assimilation constitutes a more extreme form of change compared with acculturation. In other words, while acculturation involves changes in the individual's pattern of living in adapting to the new society, under acculturation the person often maintains some aspects of his or her original cultural ways and identity. As noted previously, with full assimilation the individual blends entirely into the new society losing most or all aspects of his or her previous cultural identity. By contrast, some immigrants develop a bilingual/bicultural identity, which involves the integration of language, beliefs, and behaviors learned from each of two cultures. This integrated bicultural identity is seen by some as a more mature and healthy resolution to the acculturative stress that affects many immigrants.
ASSIMILATION, ACCULTURATION, AND HEALTH
Public health research has examined the relationship between acculturation and health status. The results of these studies provide a mixed picture as to whether successful acculturation, and perhaps successful assimilation, can improve or denigrate health status. Generally, many studies have shown a positive relationship between a high level of acculturation and an increased number of health-risk behaviors that are prevalent in the dominant society. In other words, racial and ethnic minority populations have often observed a greater number of health-compromising behaviors as they acculturate into U.S. society. However, as many of these studies are cross-sectional in design, rather than longitudinal, this conclusion involving the apparent ill effects of acculturation has been inferred rather than observed directly.
In one line of health researchhe Hispanic Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (HHANES) survey study of health status, which was conducted from 1982 to 1984esults generally showed the aforementioned association between levels of acculturation and various health problems. The association was stronger among women, although it was also apparent among men. Among Hispanic women, higher rates of health-compromising behaviors have been observed across levels of acculturation for cigarette smoking and for alcohol use. Moreover, for both males and females, a greater level of acculturation has been associated with higher rates of illicit drug use, particularly marijuana and cocaine. However, this general trend, when examined in greater detail, shows that the relationship between assimilation or acculturation and health status is very complex. For example, via the process of acculturation, individuals also tend to improve in socioeconomic statushich means better jobs, better insurance coverage, better access to health services, and, therefore, a greater likelihood of having better health.
Research on the influences of acculturation status on mental health and substance use further demonstrates the complexity of this relationship. For example, some researchers suggest that the occurrence of deviant youth behavior and subsequent substance abuse are prompted by the occurrence of acculturation stress among the parents coupled with subsequent parent-child relationship problems. Such problems often occur because immigrant children acculturate at a faster rate than their parents. Among adult immigrants, acculturation stress occurs as the result of the pressure toward conformity to dominant cultural ways that many immigrants experience in their effort to survive within a new country.
Others have argued, however, that the strong family orientation that is characteristic of Hispanic and other minority families serves as a protective factor against delinquency and other types of anti-social behavior. A clearer interpretation of these apparently contradictory findings will require greater depth of analysis regarding the sociocultural and familial factors that may add risk or protection to the lives of immigrants as they adapt to life within a new society.
A recent study of the lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders among various Mexican-American migrant laborers in California revealed some important relationships between acculturation and rates of psychiatric disorder. In comparisons of migrant laborers having a low level of acculturation with those having a high level, those having the highest levels of acculturation exhibited higher rates (adjusted odds ratios) of diagnosed mood disorders (depression) and of diagnosed drug abuse or dependence (addiction to illegal drugs). In addition, those migrant laborers who lived in the United States for less than thirteen years exhibited the lowest levels of any psychiatric disorder (lifetime prevalence rates), with higher levels observed for those who had lived in the United States for over thirteen years. Moreover, the highest levels of psychiatric disorder were observed among those who were native-born Mexican Americans. These results suggest that some process involving acculturative stress and/or adjustment to the normative living conditions within the United States increases the risk of depression and of illicit drug use among Mexican-American migrant laborers. Further developmental and longitudinal research is needed to clarify the mechanisms that may produce these effects.
From a different perspective, young immigrants who engage in deviant behaviors (including substance abuse) cannot be characterized solely as being of either high or low acculturation status, but instead can be seen as outcasts or "marginalized," because they do not "fit into" either group. Such individuals do not relate to either the dominant culture or to their native cultural group. In other words, these are persons who have failed to assimilate into the society. Such members of racial or ethnic minority groups may enter into socially deviant lifestyles in efforts to obtain coveted goals (e.g., economic rewards) that are otherwise blocked via conventionally sanctioned mechanisms (e.g., school achievement). These alienated youth may not only isolate themselves from the mainstream culture, but they may also become alienated from their native reference group. Isolated from both cultures, they may choose to become members of street gangs as a means of obtaining mainstream goals. While joining a street gang may serve as an adaptive form of survival in ghetto or barrio environments, it may be unhealthy in the long run, as these youth face greater risks of being victims of violence and of developing drug dependence. Similarly, minority youth who are alienated from the mainstream culture may develop a radical identity that avoids the mainstream culture but that expresses strong loyalty toward their native culture (i.e., separatists). These youth may or may not belong to a street gang, but they do exhibit strong cultural loyalty and adherence to certain traditional cultural traits such as (among Hispanic groups) family bonding (familism), respeto, and machismo.
As the above discussion suggests, acculturation (of which assimilation represents an extreme form) is a complex process. Many immigrants to the United States exhibit improvements in lifestyle as they acculturate and move up in socioeconomic status. However, as they do, some of these immigrants may also exhibit greater rates of unhealthful behavior, reflecting the prevailing or normative unhealthful behaviors that are prevalent within certain sectors of conventional U.S. society. These more complex patterns of change in lifestyle and in risk for various diseases and disorders due to acculturation and assimilation require further study to clarify which life changes are indeed healthful (and why they are healthful), and which increase the risk for disease or antisocial behavior.
FELIPE GONZALEZ CASTRO
(SEE ALSO: Acculturation; Cultural Factors; Ethnicity and Health; Immigrants, Immigration; Migrant Workers)
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