|Sam, D. L., & Oppedal, B. (2002). Acculturation as a
developmental pathway. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N.
Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit
8, Chapter 6),
Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University,
Bellingham, Washington USA.
This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."
UNIT 8, CHAPTER 6
ACCULTURATION AS A DEVELOPMENTAL PATHWAY
University of Bergen, Norway
Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Norway
This chapter looks at some developmental issues in the acculturation of children and adolescents with immigrant backgrounds. In addition to raising critical questions about this line of research, the chapter examines some underlying assumptions and their implications for the study of acculturation in younger people. It is argued that ambiguities in the final outcome of acculturation and differences in acculturation experiences of adults and children make it necessary to bring developmental perspectives closer into this line of research among children and adolescents in immigrant families. Against this background a modified developmental contextual model is suggested as an alternate perspective to the understanding of the acculturation of children and adolescents.
INTRODUCTION: DEFINING THE PROBLEM AREA
a relatively obscured research area within the broad field of cross-cultural
psychology (Berry, 1990), acculturation has in recent years become one of the
most widely researched areas in the field.
Nevertheless, these interest and research efforts have not sufficiently
attended to a number of questions central to the field: what is the role of
normal human developmental changes in the adaptation of children and adolescents
who are undergoing acculturation? Does
acculturation affect children and adults in the same way?
To what extent is acculturation a state or a life-long process?
These are some of the questions yet to be fully attended to in
this chapter however, our interest is on the former issues, i.e., how to
understand acculturation and developmental changes taking place among children
and adolescents with immigrant background. We prefer the term children and
adolescents with immigrant background or children and adolescents from immigrant
families to the term 1st or 2nd generation immigrant.
This is because many of these children are de facto not immigrants. Many
of them were born in the host country. It
is their parents who are immigrants. Our intention is to discuss the extent to
which the experiences of these children, and the changes they undergo are
developmental or acculturation in nature. We first examine the concept of
acculturation together with its possible links with human development.
We then raise some critical issues and some underlying assumptions in
acculturation research on children and adolescents with immigrant background.
Finally, we discuss how these critical issues and erroneous assumptions can be
met using ideas from developmental contextualism.
has classically been defined as "those phenomena which result when groups
of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first/hand
contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or
both groups" (Redfield, Linton & Herskovits, 1936, p.149).
The outcome may include not only changes to existing phenomena, but also
some novel phenomena that are generated by the process of cultural interaction.
To distinguish between individual and group level changes, Graves (1967)
introduced the concept of psychological acculturation as one that occurs at the
individual level. In this case the
term acculturation primarily refers to individual level changes in identity,
values, attitudes, habits and the like. Acculturation
changes are normally geared towards adaptation, i.e., to ascertain that the
individual is able to meet the challenges arising from growing up in the midst
of two different cultures.
concept of "development" has been defined variously, however, the
different definitions all point to a systematic and organized process entailing
enduring changes that are successive in character and take place throughout
one's life (Lerner, 2002). Thus,
change is one issue common to both acculturation and development.
Development also entails differentiation and structuring of previously
unstructured fields as well as restructuring of a previously structured field to
become more articulated (Vaslsiner, 2000).
The novel behavioral phenomena that are generated by the process of
cultural interaction (i.e., acculturation) may also be a result of this type of
differentiation and restructuring. From
an evolutionary point of view, developmental changes serve to make an individual
more adaptive in his or her eco-system. Consequently, both acculturation and
development serve the function of adaptation.
perhaps for social identity theory (Ward 2001), acculturation studies tend to
conceptualize individual changes either as a coping mechanism to a stressful
situation induced by the encounter with an unfamiliar cultural context (Berry,
Kim, Minde & Monk 1987); or as a need on the part of an individual to learn
specific cultural skills so as to thrive and survive in a given cultural context
(Furnham & Bochner, 1986). The reaction to the stress induced by
acculturation is suggested to result in learning of coping skills that are
adaptive and functional, otherwise the person is said to be maladapted (Berry,
Poortinga, Segall & Dasen, 1992). Acculturation
therefore basically entails learning to deal with a new cultural situation.
studies on the other hand normally conceptualize individual changes as arising
from either one or two processes, namely biological and maturational processes,
and environmental learning (i.e., the classical nature-nurture controversy in
psychology). As can be seen, while acculturation is basically conceived of as a
learning phenomenon, development entails both learning and maturation.
biology and maturation are also central to acculturation. Comprehensive
cognitive structures are central to the perception and understanding of abstract
cultural principles and symbols (e.g., role of maturation in language learning).
It seems therefore basic to ask if the learning and maturation is
qualitatively or quantitatively different in development as compared to
the absence of acculturation, all individuals undergo development, involving
biological and maturational changes and the learning of behaviors that are
culturally sanctioned through the interactions that take place in the social
environment. This latter form of
development is termed enculturation and socialization (Berry et al., 1992).
Human development is personally constructed within a specific
socio-cultural context. Different people, social and ideological institutions
may guide and give direction to the development, but they cannot determine
exactly how the individual deals with and internalize its experiences (Valsiner,
2000). In this sense we may say
that each human represents an individual culture that is expressed through its
behavior. Neither developmental nor acculturation theories discuss specifically
what happens to this culturally determined process of construction in children
and adolescents that are growing up in a multi-cultural setting, as to how they
relate to an environment with different, and sometimes mutually exclusive
cultural scripts. This issue is, however, reflected in some of the assumptions
underlying these theories.
Assumptions and Critical Issues in Acculturation Theories
though the classical definition of acculturation points to reciprocal changes in
individuals belonging to the two cultural groups in contact, attention has
normally been directed to the group with minority status. This focused attention
may seem to suggest that acculturation is relevant only to the minority group
member, or that acculturation is not a major source of psychological change in
the majority or host group. In line with this assumption, changes in the immigrant or
ethnic minority group members are often seen as a result of acculturation. This
conceptualization assumes that when a minority group member finds him or herself
in an acculturation situation, development stops, and acculturation takes over.
Obviously, this is an unsubstantiated assumption.
Stated in another way, development continues whether one experiences
acculturation or not. It may
therefore be inaccurate to conceptualize immigrant adolescents' adaptation
outcomes as arising only from an acculturation process without the developmental
component. Likewise it may be
inaccurate to study the development of children and adolescents without
including an acculturation perspective.
of the inherent stressful nature of acculturation, it is also assumed that once
adolescents with immigrant background report of psychological problems, the
antecedent factor is necessarily that of acculturation.
Concomitant with this assumption is the disregard for the possible
debilitating role of developmental transitions.
However, for non-immigrant adolescents, developmental transitions and
globalization changes constitute the basis of their adaptation problems.
Their adaptation problems are rarely seen as possible difficulties with
acculturation (perhaps because of the erroneous assumption that acculturation
happens only to the minority adolescent).
children and adolescents with immigrant background face different adaptation
challenges than their parents (Zhou, 1997), their adaptation experiences have
often times been attended to using theories developed for adult immigrants (Aronowitz,
1984) or indigenous groups (Berry, 1970; Berry & Annis, 1974).
This may pose a danger whereby acculturation researchers may overlook
some aspects of acculturation that might be unique to children and adolescents.
direct outcome of extending acculturation theories developed for adults to
children is the acculturation measures used on children.
In a number of cases, these measures include host language competence,
host national newspaper readership, and amount of time spent together with host
society friends as proxies for level of acculturation (Arcia, Skinner, Bailey
& Correa, 2001; Farver & Lee-Shin, 2000).
It is questionable how relevant these issues are as measures of
acculturation for children and adolescents, who through their enrolment in the
host national public schools learn the host language fluently and are in daily
interaction with members of the host society, at least at school.
Thus, it is equally questionable how Separation as an acculturation
strategy is a real option for them, as they have to relate to both the majority
and the ethnic groups as part of their everyday life. This might be the reason
why studies have almost invariably found this strategy to be the second most
preferred option after integration (Sam, 1999). Note: According to Berry's (1997) Acculturation strategy
model, Separation is a strategy in which an individual places a higher value on
holding on to his or her original culture and minimal interaction with other
groups, particularly with members of the host society.
it might be of importance for adults' socio-cultural adaptation to attend the
special intercultural training programs advocated for in the "behavior
shift" or "social skills" perspective in acculturation (Brislin,
Landis, Brandt, 1983; Furnham, 1986; Ward 2001), children do not typically need
these special training. The
national public school constitutes a natural arena for these training as these
skills may be learnt through the close daily interaction between teachers, host
and the children with immigrant background. Concerning children and adolescents,
socio-cultural skills should however, be operationalized in terms of
developmental tasks with different content depending upon age and setting, and
focused more directly in the education.
Another issue is the common assumption that the process of acculturation is a
stressful one (see e.g., Berry, 1997), and researchers constantly discuss the
situation of ethnic minority and children and adolescents from immigrant
families against this stressful background (Bashir, 1993).
While acknowledging that migration and acculturation may be debilitating
(Bashir, 1993) we question the underlying assumption that acculturation is an
inherently stressful experience. In
his acculturative stress model, Berry (1997) Berry, et al, (1987) point out that
acculturative stress does not necessarily result in health problems, and that
improved health can result following, for instance, better nutrition and access
to better health care.
an acculturation model, based on the stress-dysfunction perspective (Berry,
1990) was not found to have a better predictive power than an ethnic identity
perspective with respect to psychological adaptation of adolescents with
immigrant background. (Sam, 2000). The ethnic identity perspective possibly had
a better predictive power because identity formation is a major developmental
task for adolescents.
Further, new research on children and adolescent with immigrant background
contend that these youth adapt well, and in some cases even better than their
host counterparts (e.g. Fulgini, 1998; Phinney, Horenczyk, Liebkind & Vedder,
2001; Virta & Westin, 1999). It
is difficult to reconcile the fact that the majority of children with immigrant
background adapt very well (Fulgini, 1998) if the process of acculturation is
generally difficult and demanding. Thirdly, the older studies that found
children with immigrant background to be poorly adapted have been criticized as
being flawed on a number of methodological grounds (Aronowitz, 1984) one of them
being that paradigms developed on adult subjects were implemented without
further analysis on children and adolescents (Sam, 1995). The new research
findings that ascertain good adaptation among children with immigrant background
are based on theories that have been developed specifically to deal with the
situation of these kids (Sam, 2000; Sch”npflug, 1997).
many of the present theories, in our opinion are far from adequate. One issue
where we claim present theories have not sufficiently attended to, is the
failure to distinguish between developmental and acculturation changes.
Throughout the life-span acculturation and developmental processes
invariably occur simultaneously, and in close interaction with each other,
making it difficult to identify their independent roles.
This problem is compounded by the fact that cross-cultural psychologists
while concerned with acculturation fail to bring developmental issues into their
framework. At the same time
mainstream psychologists concerned with development, fail to bring acculturation
into their theories. Failure to
attend to these issues may limit our theorizing of the adaptation of children
and adolescents with immigrant background.
acculturation refers to more than cultural changes (e.g., biological changes,
political changes) psychological theories of acculturation focus primarily on
psychological changes such as changes in attitudes and mental health that may be
linked to the meeting of two cultures (Berry, 1990).
This line of theorizing may be subject to post hoc ergo propter hoc
fallacy. As is common in
cross-cultural psychology, assessing acculturation involves examining different
aspects of culture to get information about which and how these aspects make a
difference in psychological outcomes (Phinney & Flores, 2002).
For one thing it is difficult to identify which aspects of culture that
may be responsible for an observed change since culture is more than an
independent variable impinging on the acculturating individual.
From a cultural psychological point of view, culture is part and parcel
of the individual and therefore cannot be isolated in order to examine its
independent effect on human behavior.
is also ambiguity in the criteria for a successful acculturation as in some
theories, acculturation means assimilation (i.e., being competent in the host
culture - Gordon, 1964), while other scientists conceive of successful
acculturation in terms of integration or bi-cultural (i.e., being competent in
both cultures - Birman, 1994). However,
an individual who does not learn about the new culture is often seen as not
being acculturated, even though this individual may be quite competent in his or
her ethnic culture (i.e., separated in Berry, 1990 terminology).
to this, recent research findings have made it clear that it is important to
recognize the two-dimensional nature of acculturation where individuals may
change along two dimensions; i.e., the degree of retention of original culture,
and degree of involvement in the new society (Berry & Sam, 1997).
However, how the individual may develop along these two dimensions are
yet to be discussed.
developmental theories usually underscore the important role of culture in the
developmental context of children. To
illustrate the importance of culture in human life, it is often depicted in the
outmost circles of the model as exemplified by the ecological model of
Bronfenbrenner (1979) and the developmental contextualism of Lerner (1986,
2002). However, the theories usually lack more specific information about ways
that developmental processes are affected by culture. Further, they are typically based on an assumption that there
is only one culture embracing the context, which is of course very often not the
case. Because of the way culture is
positioned on the periphery of the context, separated from behavior and social
interaction, and because of the mono-culture assumption, it is not readily given
how one should accommodate acculturation into these theories.
On the other hand, as we have already underscored, acculturation theories
and models do not typically specify the relation between culture and human
development. Neither do they
describe the role of culture in the assumed changes that take place during the
There is a need for a theoretical perspective that can integrate the contextual psychological theories with theories of acculturation. This is possible when we modify some existing theories and expand on the assumptions behind them, as illustrated in the Figure.
Figure 1: A developmental perspective on Acculturation.
Interaction characterized main by dominant culture
Interaction dominated mainly by ethnic culture
The general view from developmental cultural psychology is that both human
beings and the context are culturally constituted, and are interdependent on
each other. Human beings exist in a context, and contexts exist because
they are constructed by humans (Valsiner, 2000).
Developmental contextualism (Lerner, 1986, 2002) integrates knowledge from
biological and social psychological theories, and is based on the defining idea
of a continuous, reciprocal, and dynamic interaction between the organism and
the context. The model illustrates a child's developmental niche,
within a multi-cultural-ecological setting.
In accordance with Lerner, the "Context" is depicted as
comprehensive scenery that first of all includes the developing person and his
or her parents, family and extended family.
Further, the context includes various social components, physical
setting, and everyday life events that take place, in addition to changes in
these variables. One of the
fundamental principles in the theory is the reciprocal and mutual influence of
these environmental settings and social systems on each other. Further, they all
influence on and are influenced by the developing child, either directly or
indirectly through for example other family members.
The child is seen as an agent acting on the environment, thereby
producing novel behavioral outcomes. Building
on this, the life span developmental psychology perspective emphasizes the
individual's potential for change across life.
Due to the relations between the individuals and the context,
developmental changes may run along a variety of possible trajectories (Valsiner
& Lawrence, 1997). Acculturation - or bicultural development - is one
natural pathway for immigrant children and other children growing up in a
the model (see the figure), the child - family dyad is separated from the
surrounding context, to mark the superior importance of this relation especially
in early development. As illustrated by the permeable walls around the dyad and
the two-headed arrows, the interaction and mutual influence of the primary
socializing unit with other social elements in the context, gives direction to
changes in or adjustments of the behaviors within all these systems .
The various social components of the developmental niche may be classified
either as institutional (e.g. schools, work places, health care institutions) or
as individual (friends, neighborhood etc).
In the model institutional components are clustered together in one part
of the circle, and the personal units in another. This is to stress that the
activities within the systems may be characterized by different cultural
origins. However, as indicated by
the two-headed arrows between the systems, there is an ongoing interaction also
between the different types of units.
considering culture both in terms of shared beliefs, values and habits
surrounding the developmental context, as well as an integrated part of everyday
practices such as social interactions, we may say that the interactions between
all the constituents of the context are "saturated" with culture.
Culture is situated in the activities, at the interface of the individual and
his or her context, as a main ingredient in the everyday experiences of the
childrearing practices that are the basis for the interaction within the child -
family dyad is an expression of the family's cultural beliefs and traditions,
thus inculcating in the child the ethno-cultural inheritance of their group.
This primary cultural learning we call enculturation. Through this process the
child learns necessary skills to be competent in and adapt to its own ethnic
the individual level, each person's activity is mostly an expression of its
personally constructed culture. On the institutional level, however, the
activities are to a larger extent a manifestation of values, beliefs and
traditions that are shared on a group level (ethnic, societal, national group
level). In a multi-cultural society, these will typically represent the host
national culture. In the health care institutions e.g. the activities are guided
by laws, knowledge, values and beliefs about health and health behavior that are
shared between the majority of the host group members, even if there may be
individuals within the system that may hold contrasting personal cultures. This
is true also for other institutions as schools, workplaces and mass media: even
if the persons within the systems may be representatives of a variety of
cultures, their activities within this setting is determined by a superimposed
group culture (i.e., the majority culture). This may be different within the
personal networks in the local communities, among friends, etc. in which the
interaction is dominated by the personal culture of the various network members.
contact with the social units outside the family is the defined arena for the
child's acculturation first of all through the interaction within the
institutions that constitute his or her context, such as preschools and schools.
Through the inculcation of the majority culture in the child, he or she may
acquire the skills and competencies necessary for a successful adaptation
outside the family, in the larger society. The individual components may also represent majority
culture, to a smaller or larger extent. Most
likely, however, they will represent and be supportive of the enculturation
process of the family.
separate contexts in which the different cultures are acquired also provide
different support systems. If the host nation's culture is inculcated on an
immigrant child so that he or she develops skills and competence in the majority
culture, the support of the networks of these institutions may be more readily
available for the child. Likewise, as a result of the enculturation into one's
own ethnic group, one may be better able to make use of the support sources in
the ethnic networks.
should be noticed, however, that because of the ongoing interaction and mutual
influence of the various social systems within the developmental niche, it
appears inappropriate to conceptualize acculturation merely as a secondary
cultural learning. As the experiences in the extra-familial networks and
situations will affect interaction also within the child-family dyad, the
acculturation arena should be defined to include the activities in all the
social components that constitute the child's social ecological environment.
Following this line of thought, acculturation includes both the primary cultural
experiences within the family, (enculturation) and the secondary cultural
experiences outside the family.
a setting of an acculturative pathway, and assuming culture as an integral part
of everyday interaction, we argue that the changes that occur along the way as a
result of cultural encounters are best perceived of as developmental in nature.
Rather than being a process that parallels life span development, it is an
integrated part of it, with differing meanings and challenges at different point
in the individual's life. Thus for children and adolescents growing up in a
multi-cultural society, acculturation is to be understood as the developmental
process towards adaptation and gaining competence within more than one cultural
setting, in addition to the creation of novel individual cultures.
corollary of this line of reasoning is that individuals are capable of
developing different cultural scripts to guide their behavior under different
cultural circumstances. An important part of this learning includes an
understanding of when it is appropriate to switch between the different scripts.
spite of theories of the detrimental effects of growing up within a context of
contradictory cultural experiences, it has been demonstrated that individuals
with high level of competence in both own ethnic and majority group culture
report of better psychological adaptation than those low on competence in one or
both of them. This demonstrates the important potential of the acculturation
developmental pathway: as a resource both for the individual and for society.
Lackland Sam is a Ghanaian who migrated to Norway in 1984 as a student.
He has a Ph.D in psychology and was a Visiting Fulbright Scholar to
California State University in Los Angeles in 1997.
He is now professor of cross-cultural psychology at the University of
Bergen, Norway where he divides this position between the Schools of Psychology
and of Medicine. As an immigrant,
one of his research interests has been the psychology of acculturation where he
has published extensively and is currently completing a large-scale comparative
study of the acculturation of ethnocultural adolescents. E-mail: David.firstname.lastname@example.org
Oppedal is project manager at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health,
division of epidemiology, where she is doing research on adolescents' mental
health. She obtained a graduate degree in Educational Psychology in 1983 from
the University of Oslo, Norway. She also has extensive cross-cultural clinical
experience both as a as a school psychologist in Norway and as a family
therapist among Latin-American immigrants in USA. Her current research interest
is on the prevalence of anxiety and depression and other social-emotional
problems in immigrant and domestic adolescents, and the effect of acculturation
on risk and protective factors of these disorders. She is currently a visiting
scientist at Tufts University, Department of Child Development. E-Mail:
Note: The second author's contribution to this chapter is as much as that of the first author.
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questions below will require consulting additional sources of literature)
In what ways are acculturation and human development similar to, and in what
ways are they different from, each other?
What is acculturative stress? How
may acculturative stress be a source of adaptation problem for children and
adolescents with immigrant background?
Design a research study where it will be possible to distinguish acculturation
changes from developmental changes.
In what ways are the acculturation experiences of an adult immigrant different
from that an adolescent with an immigrant background?
In what ways can acculturation be a source of problem and a source of enrichment
for a host national adolescent?
Review the ecological model of Bronfenbrenner (1979) and Developmental
contextualism of Lerner (1986; 2002) and discuss how either one or both can be
used to understand the acculturation of adolescents with immigrant background.
Acculturation may impinge on affective, behavioral and cognitive development in
a lot of different ways, dependent upon the specific social and ecological
context. Discuss potential idiosyncratic vulnerabilities and protective
resources related to the development along an acculturative pathway.
Developmental tasks may be perceived of as cultural expressions of normative
age-specific goals and standards the children have to deal with. Parental
childrearing practices are not only a manifestation of their own values and
traditions, but they also reflect the roles the adolescents are expected to
fulfill in their society as an adult. Discuss
developmental task within in an acculturation framework. What do you think would
be the particular developmental tasks characteristic to this trajectory?