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Strengths and Weaknesses of Selective Acculturation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5325 words Published: 7th Sep 2021

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The United States is becoming increasingly diverse and it is crucial to understand how the young population of the second generation will adapt socially and economically as they make up the the future of the country (Portes and Rumbaut xviii). It is also important understand their adaptation in order to gain knowledge on how to organise a society so that it can provide equal life chances to all.

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In this paper I will discuss the acculturation strategy developed and suggested by Portes and Rumbaut called “selective acculturation” and will use case studies to show it’s strengths as a logical, valuable and applicable acculturation strategy and it’s weaknesses in it’s lack of recognition of the complexities of acculturation experiences and identity, such as the intersections of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion.

In order to put “selective acculturation” in context, I will first briefly outline the paradigms of immigrant incorporation, such as multiculturalism, that have given rise to the theory of segmented assimilation. I will outline the theory of segmented assimilation and discuss it’s resulting modes of acculturation, which include selective acculturation. After a discussion of selective acculturation, I will briefly discuss the correlation between acculturation and identity and then zoom into the field of cross-cultural psychology, which has a parallel theory to selective acculturation, and is referenced frequently in articles that discuss identity and acculturation.

With the context of selective acculturation set up, I will then outline it’s strengths and weaknesses as evidenced by four case studies relating to the identities of Asian-Americans (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Pakistani) of the second generation in the United States. Two of these case studies highlight the strengths of the selective acculturation and the other two focus on the weaknesses.

Outline of paradigms

One of the first theories relating to immigration was classical assimilation, developed from the 1920s to 1960s. Classical assimilationist theory encourages the shedding of a migrant’s home country culture as they were seen as disadvantages (Child 1943, Warner and Strole 1945, Wirth 1925/1956, cited in Zhou 1997). Multiculturalism was partly reaction to and desire to right the wrongs of classical assimilation and its oppressiveness (Joppke 1996). Multiculturalism can be referred to as a paradigm of which the components are that people from “ethnic minorities” should be encouraged to participate fully in civic life as an “ethnic minority” (Faist 09).

Segmented Assimilation

In a context of American multiculturalism, Portes and Rumbaut did a longitudinal study from the early to mid 1990’s on second generation immigrant youth from a variety of groups, spanning Asian, Latin American and Caribbean countries. From their findings they developed the theory of segmented assimilation. They theorised that because of various factors, groups either assimilated downwards into poverty, into the mainstream “white” middle class, or upwards but within their ethnic group.

The factors that influence these patterns are plenty, but include socio-economic status before and after migration, location of residence in the new country (for example, in a middle class or poor suburb or an inner city with a concentration of co-ethnics), family composition, parents’ education and occupational status, presence of a strong ethnic community, mode of reception into the receiving country (for example, welcoming or hostile both informally and institutionally) and levels of discrimination experienced. Different groups of immigrants have assimilated into the trajectories marked by Portes and Rumbaut.


Portes and Rumbaut define five types of acculturation processes and outcomes which depend on how much the children and parents engage in the home culture and the culture of the receiving society, which in these models is American society. They outline five modes of acculturation that show the tensions or lack of across the generation between parents and children. These modes are not necessarily static, but could change over time depending on the speed at which customs and language are learned by children and parents. The modes help to explain why some groups or families end up taking the various paths defined in the segmented assimilation theory.

The first is consonant acculturation, where both the children and the parents engage in and learn the customs and language of the receiving society and do not participate in the home culture and ethnic community. Consonant resistance to acculturation is when the children and parents involve themselves only in their ethnic community. There are two types of dissonant acculturation, the first of which is when the children engage and take up the customs of American society but their parents remain isolated in the ethnic community. This creates parent child conflict and instils fears in the parents that their culture is not being carried forward. The second type of dissonant acculturation is when children take up the customs of American society, and parents neither participate in American society or an ethnic community and are therefore marginalised. This situation often leads to a role reversal where the children, fluent in American customs and English, come to hold more power in the family because of their knowledge of the society compared to their parents. The fifth mode is the focus of this paper: selective acculturation. It is when both the children and the parents learn the customs and language of American society and also maintain the customs and language of the original culture and a place in the ethnic community. This translates into the second generation children being bi-cultural and ideally bi-lingual (Portes and Rumbaut, 44-54).

This process and outcome is the desired one for many reasons. Portes and Rumbaut found from their longitudinal study that the preservation of the home culture and language was repeatedly linked with higher self-esteem, educational and occupational expectations and achievements (Portes and Rumbaut, 274-275). It also reduces parent-child conflict and maintains parental authority. Also, because it encourages knowledge and appreciate of the home culture it helps second generation children to develop a confident identity and develop the valuable skills of bi-culturalism and bi-lingualism.

It is important to point out that selective acculturation is greatly hindered by a society which has strong anti-immigrant or pro-assimilationist sentiments. Anti-immigrant attitudes are likely to spark discrimination and racism, which not only affects self-esteem, but also encourage reactive ethnicities. Reactive ethnicities form when a group or individual forms an identity in opposition to the mainstream culture. Pro-assimilationist ideologies and policies are also destructive because they encourage immigrants to shed their own backgrounds, cultures and languages, which first and foremost could cause immigrants to abandon the cultural capital that they held from their home country, but also it causes intergenerational conflict and a decrease in both children and parental self-esteem, all increasing the chances of downward mobility and marginalisation, rather than actual assimilation (Portes and Rumbaut pg 270- 273). Converse to what hinders selective acculturation, there are also factors that enable it. Selective acculturation hinges on supportive co-ethnic network. Ethnic communities vary in their strengths and effectiveness across different immigrant groups, but they generally provide social capital which in turn can increase economic opportunities for members of a group, enforcement the norms of the home culture, which in turn maintains parental authority and it provides a protection from discrimination (Portes and Rumbaut, 64, Zhou 2006).

To sum up selective acculturation in a simple way, it an be described as taking the best from each culture and using it to enhance life chances and quality of life.

It is important to talk about the relationship between identity and immigrant integration into a society. The relationship is clearly shown in in Portes and Rumbaut’s longitudinal study. This study used second generation migrants’ self-identification labels as an indicator of how integrated they felt themselves to be i.e. how much they identified with American culture and how much they identified with their parents’ culture. The self-identities were linked to various modes of acculturation, for example the identity of “American” was linked to an assimilated identity, whereas identifying by parents’ national origin, for example “Filipino” was linked to a possible reactive identity. (Portes and Rumbaut, 160). Identities are influence by many factors including nation of parents’ origin, gender, economic status, family structure, language, phenotype, race, ethnicity, self-esteem and experiences of discrimination. (Portes and Rumbaut, 147 – 191). This is not an exhaustive list of the factors that Portes and Rumbaut give for affecting identity and identity formation, but as discussed later in my paper, it has been criticised for missing out some important factors, and therefore for not recognising the complexity of identity.

Looking closer and further into identities gives insight into the reasons why people do or don’t feel integrated or do or don’t integrate into the actual structures of the society. Additionally, by starting with an individual, we might be able to gain understanding of a group. I will now look at four case studies which show the strengths and weaknesses of selective acculturation. Three of these case studies look at individual identities and one of them looks at an institutional example of selective acculturation and it’s relation to identity formation. These case studies will show the strengths and weaknesses of selective acculturation.

Cross-Cultural Psychology Theory of Integration

There is another theory from the field of cross-cultural psychology that is based on the same principles as selective acculturation, developed by Berry (Berry 1987). Similar to Portes and Rumbaut’s theory, there are two recognised central issues for the migrant and those are the level of commitment to the migrant’s ethnic community and the level of participation in the receiving society.

Based on these two dimensions, there are four modes of acculturation: assimilation, separation, marginalisation and integration. I will focus on integration, which occurs when there is involvement and participation with both the home culture and the wider receiving society. Berry asserts that these modes, although experienced in slightly different ways, are basically universal modes that are experienced in varying degrees by all immigrant groups. Later in the paper, there is much criticism of this assumed simplicity.

I draw a parallel between these psychological modes of acculturation to the more sociological consonant and dissonant modes of acculturation outlined by Portes and Rumbaut, with integration being based on the same principles as selective acculturation, and being recommended as the ideal way forward for an immigrant. Later in this paper, I will outline an article about identity that criticises the psychological models for not recognising the complexities of identity and acculturation and for assuming that they are linear, straight-forward processes with a finished outcome. Despite the fact that selective acculturation takes into account more complexities than the above theory, there criticisms of both theories are similar. I assert that a criticism of the psychological modes, is also essentially a criticism of selective acculturation, and therefore exposes its weaknesses, which is the goal of this paper.

Strengths – Case Study 1 – US Born Indian Americans

In her article “Committed to Ethnicity, Committed to America: How Second Generation Indian Americans’ Ethnic Boundaries Further their Americanisation”, Dhingra discusses US born Indian Americans and shows how these immigrants are using selective acculturation to integrate. They are taking what they like most from each of their cultures and using it in a positive way. For her study, she conducted interviews with second generation Indian Americans who were an equal amount of men and women, between the ages of 22-33, all in white-collar professions and living in Dallas, Texas.

Dhingra points out that although it was previously thought that forming networks of co-ethnics or shared identity as part of a diaspora would signal certain separation and lack of assimilation (Gordon cited in Dhingra), she notes that there has been a lot of research showing that second generation immigrants are actually using their ethnic identities to become more American and to integrate.

Asserting their identity allows them to embrace the American ideal of individualism and personal freedom. Having grown up in the United States they are proficient with mainstream American norms and with an assured ethnic identity they can freely and comfortably interact in mainstream American spaces ‘while remaining proud of their distinct way of life’ (Dhingra 2008). By asserting their identity like this they are pro actively integrating whilst helping to normalise their culture to the mainstream and open up dialogues with peers that could break down prejudices and decrease cultural distances.

As Americans they also felt they had guaranteed rights to freedom of religion and cultural diversity, which allowed them to express their ethnicities and to practice them by joining ethnically based associations. By appreciating and embracing these rights, they are mindfully taking part in one of the cornerstones of American culture and ideology, which are the above mentioned civil liberties of personal freedoms. Many subjects in her study did admit that they recognised there were limits to the expression of ethnicity, as part of the framework of civil liberties is that one can express and practice personal freedoms only to the extent that they don’t impose on others’ personal freedoms. Some felt, that the freedom allowed to ethnic groups was smaller than that given to the mainstream culture, but nevertheless, they fully appreciated these civil liberties, and felt essentially, that they had the ‘American right to be Indian’ (Dhingra 2008).

The informants in her study did find it necessary to join or participate in ethnic organisations due to discrimination in the wider society and expressed a distaste for assimilating into mainstream American culture, which they mentally separated from it’s civil liberties, but they still exhibited a faith in and felt they had full and equal rights to these civil liberties.

It could be argued that these individuals, who participated in ethnic organisations, lived in city with many other Indian-Americans and held white-collar jobs had the elements that make selective acculturation possible, like a strong ethnic network, within fairly easy reach. However, they still demonstrate selective acculturation by their faith and commitment to aspects of each culture. Also, this use of bi-culturalisim to try to make the mainstream culture more accepting, clearly shows the strengths and positive aspects of selective acculturation.

Strengths – Case Study 2 – US Born Chinese and Korean Americans

My second case comes from Min Zhou’s 2006 article titled “Community Forces, Social Capital, and Educational Achievement: The Case of Supplementary Education in the Chinese and Korean Immigrant Communities”.

The article discusses a study of language schools in Southern California for the children of Chinese and Korean immigrants, where they are taught their parents’ languages and culture, such as traditional art, sport and dance. The schools also offer tutoring in school subjects, high school aptitude tests and college entrance exams.

These schools teach children and adolescents about their parents’ language and culture, and in doing so, the schools are fostering respect and understanding for their parents’ ways, which serves to decrease children’s embarrassment of their parents and tension and conflict (acculturative dissonance). They are also giving the young people safe space for them to relate to other children who may be sharing similar experiences both at home and in the outside world. In these two ways, the schools are trying to encourage the formation of a confident ethnic identity in a world that where they may experience discrimination, prejudice or even invisibility and help to keep the parent-child balance healthy.

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Although the author does not mention selective acculturation specifically, I assert that these schools are actively practising this strategy. Zhou includes the schools’ advertisements as found in local newspapers, in her article. One reads: ‘Our goal is to teach our children born and raised in the United States Korean culture and language so that they grow up being proud American citizens.’ Another reads, ‘We strive to encourage students to cherish Chinese culture and heritage, foster and enhance friendship among Chinese-American Community.’ (Zhou 2006)

This shows that the owners of the schools have a level of understanding that maintaining the home country culture does not just gratify the parents’ wishes to uphold tradition or have their children succeed educationally, but also that having knowledge and respect for the culture will help the children to be secure and proud of who they are. This shows the strength of selective acculturation, as it is actively used by citizens as strategy of healthy acculturation.

There is a downside to these schools is that the parents have high ambitions and expectations of academic achievement for their children, and although success in this area will increase the social capital of their children and the ethnic community, sometimes the pressure can be too great or a young person may not be able to perform to the standards. This could cause acculturative dissonance signified by conflict with the parents and rebellion and could result in vulnerability to gangs or suicide. Despite this, it is argued that there would be teenage rebellion with or without the schools, so it is better to send children to them and hope that they at least succeed academically.

Zhou stresses that these schools are an example of “ethnic social structure”. They are “tangible” structures that support the “intangible” elements of the ethnic community. These ethnic social structures are vital for the ethnic community’s to make any substantial advancement in society and can account for the academic achievement of many second generation Chinese and Koreans. Additionally, the schools are founded by the adults supposedly for the young generation, but they also give the adults as well as the children a safe space to engage in their own culture and build ties, thus enhancing the ethnic community (Zhou 2006). Zhou is also careful to note that Chinese and Korean immigrants have also been helped by their pre and post migration middle to high socio-economic standing and human capital. However, this example shows the applicability of selective acculturation as a workable acculturation strategy, and shows especially that the strategy depends on the existence of strong ethnic community. Zhou 2006, Portes and Rumbaut 2001,

Weaknesses – Case Study 3 – US born South Asian American Women

My next case study discusses the previously reviewed cross-cultural psychology theory by Berry, which is based upon similar principles as selective acculturation. The article “Culture, Hybridity and the Dialogical Self: Cases from the South Asian Diaspora” by Sunil Bhatia and Anjali Ram criticises the former model, but I will only bring up criticisms that could also potentially apply to selective acculturation as well. These authors use two South Asia woman authors, Sayantini DasGupta and Surina Khan’s own writings as the focus of their study, and assert that for South Asian second generation women, acculturation is a dynamic process, rather than outcome, and moves back and forth between many different “voices”, rather than giving rise to a single, even if multifaceted identity.

To start, Bhatia argues that the four types of acculturation outcomes (assimilation, marginalisation, segregation and integration) and their supposed universal quality are an over-simplification that miss out the multiplicities and fluidities of identity and identity formation. These criticisms could also be made of selective acculturation strategy, as although it does take into account many variables, including the factor of time (that identities are not static, but change over time (Portes and Rumbaut, 154-157), the strategy does not take into account such things as sexuality, non-nationally bound cultures, multiple-layer issues such as the combination of gender and race, the non-linear, non-chronological nature of acculturation, the heterogeneity of the home culture or the fact that many second generation immigrants will have several cultures, either deriving from their parents coming from different cultures, or from the multitude of youth cultures that mainstream America offers (Bhatia and Ram 2004). I will address two of these factors.

In reference to the intersection of gender and race, the authors argue that South Asian American women face ethnicity based discrimination in the wider society and gendered inequality in their own community (Mani 1994, cited in Bhatia and Ram 2004). One of the authors on whom this study was wrote, DasGupta, wrote that growing up as a “brown” girl in a mostly white community, she faced the multiple difficulties of not being able to attain to white standards of beauty, being racialised and also being perceived as both exotic and repressed. She internalised and struggled with being both “ugly” and “exotic” (DasGupta 1998, cited in Bhatia and Ram 2004). Her identity is constructed through the often painful struggle, competition and negotiation of these various cultural “voices”. The many messages she receives from the outside world and her own community make it impossible for an identity to take shape by merging the best parts of each culture together (Bhatia and Ram 2004). Additionally, Bhatia and Ram argue that acculturation should not be measured as an achievable outcome but be seen as an ongoing process. It could be argued from the point of view of selective acculturation theory, perhaps this identity formation would have been smoother if the author had had a strong ethnic community to help guide her through the pain of the racism she experienced.

The other author in the study, Surina Khan, is from a Pakistani background and throughout her formative years embraced being American as much as possible, and tried to rid herself of her Pakistani culture. In her early adulthood she came out to her mother as a lesbian, which was greeted with a non-acceptance and even warned her that she may be met with violence if the ethnic community should find out. This pushed Khan to completely sever ties with her Pakistani self and to see her lesbian identity as intertwined with her American identity. Bhatia and Ram suggest that the movement between her American, Pakistani and lesbian identities show that culture and identity can be seen as moving, mixing and fluid (2004).

Most importantly, this shows the weakness of selective acculturation, because for some people it is just not possible to take the best of both cultures because sometimes the cultures completely conflict and are not at all compatible. The first subject in Bhatia’s study, her ethnic identity could not bloom easily because of all the negativity thrust upon it by the prejudices of the outside world that she internalised and thus had a complicated path to her identity formation. For the second subject, a huge part of her identity was in direct opposition and conflict to her home culture and therefore her multiple identities could be not merged or used to her advantage.

Weaknesses – Case Study 4 – US Born Indian Americans

The final case study echoes Bhatia’s argument that identity is more complex than selective acculturation suggests. Kurien’s article “Being, Young, Brown, and Hindu: Identity Struggles of 2nd Generation Indian Americans” talks about identity in the context of religion.

Kurien notes that Indian Americans are an understudied group but more attention needs to be focussed on them as they are in a unique position among other immigrant groups (Kibria 2002, 3 cited in Kurien.)They are classified as Asian American but often don’t fall under that umbrella term in other contexts as it is usually reserved for East Asians and their racial identity is more ambiguous than other groups.

Religion, often ignored in selective acculturation literature plays an important role in providing young people with knowledge and value of their parents’ home culture and providing an ethnic community, both of which contribute to the process of identity formation. Furthermore, first generation Indians often identify by their religion rather than an ethnic or racial identity but second generation Indian Americans must come to terms with all three of these markers. Additionally, Hinduism is a religion which is little understood by mainstream Americans (Kurien 2005).

Kurien notes that reactive ethnicity when combined with religion can lead to radical or puritanical stances on the religion. She notes that it is important to see how multiculturalism affects identity formation as it requires people, especially on American university campuses, to have a public self-identity. Multiculturalism encourages selective acculturation which in turn ‘legitimises the expression of “heritage preservation” and “ethnic pride” but also of “ethnic victimisation”‘ (Kurien, 2005).

Indian Americans in her study were drawn to the Hindu clubs on their university campuses either in response to racism in the broader society, to build a sense of community with other Hindus, or to simply learn more about Hinduism. The subjects of the study adopted either a tolerant multicultural approach of Hinduism or a militant, nationalistic approach (Kurien 2004, cited in Kurien 2005). Kurien found that the pro-Hindu subjects in her study had often experienced discrimination, but they had also been brought up in households where they were educated about their religion and culture, and this early exposure had made their religion emotionally significant and central to their identity. Thus, if they later experienced negative attitudes towards their religion , it produced a religiously-based reactive identity. The moderate students had grown up in families that did not go out of their way to teach cultural and religious ways and the students did not report feelings of marginalisation or racialisation, and in fact joined the Hindu groups in order to learn more about their religion and interact with other Hindus.

Those in her study that were well educated in their own culture, were quicker to see discrimination and feel marginalised than those who were not taught explicitly about their religion at home. It could signal that actively being taught about culture could almost increase the chances of a reactive ethnicity. However, it is not the keen sense of discrimination that is the problem, is is the discrimination itself. Kurien stressed that the multicultural society needs to address the structures of inequality and racism or there will continue to be reactive, nationalist factions of the society (Kurien 2005.)

This study shows how religion, as a huge factor in identity formation, can compound the already difficult process of identity formation based on two nationhoods or cultures to choose from, and can also provide another form of reactive identity. It also shows how variation can exist in identity formation, based on the cultural education received at home from a young age. This study shows the weaknesses of selective acculturation as a strategy because Portes and Rumbaut did not take account of religion or the levels of family education of culture.


I have described the the main acculturation strategies that come out of the segmented assimilation theory and how they fit into the paradigm of multiculturalism, and have described selective acculturation and it’s surrounding politics in detail. I have also touched upon a comparative theory in a different discipline. Using a range of case studies, I have shown the strengths and weaknesses of the acculturation strategy recommended by Portes and Rumbaut: selective acculturation.

The main strength of selective acculturation is that it is a workable strategy and can be institutionalised as seen in the case of the language schools and practically incorporated into an outlook and identity such as seen in the article about Indian Americans using their ethnicity and their individuality.

It’s main weakness it’s lack of recognition of complexities in identity formation. Although Portes and Rumbaut discuss issues of socio-economic class (2001) they do not address the multiple layers of discrimination, such as the intersections of race, gender, ethnicity and religion. Nor does selective acculturation take into account the possibilities that identity is non-linear, fluid and dynamic and that it could be seen as a process, rather than an achievable outcome.

The case studies also show the importance of a strong ethnic community. In each study, the presence of lack of a community had a great impact on the ability or inability or degree of difficulty in using selective acculturation. For example, we see the importance of a strong ethnic community helping selective acculturation to work successfully in the case of Chinese and Korean second generation’s supplementary education. However, in the case discussed in Bhatia and Ram’s article, an South Asia woman who grew up in a mainly white community was challenged severely by racism and did not have a protective community “normalise” her self-image or guide her through.

The most important outcome of comparing these diverse case studies show that the strategy of selective acculturation works best if a person has two cultures that have some degree of compatibility to each other. The Korean and Chinese language schools work because they celebrated academic achievement and advancement in life which is appreciated by both their home and American cultures. Likewise, Dhingra’s article, “Committed to Ethnicity, Committed to America” shows how Indian Americans are embracing and combining what they perceive as the best of both their cultures, their Indian ethnicity and American individualism. In contrast, Kurien’s article about Hindu Indian Americans showed that religious identity complicated the theory and use of the strategy. Finally, the strategy is shown to be almost useless in the case of the Pakistani-American woman who was not able to disclose let alone express her lesbian identity to her own family and ethnic community, making her two cultures incompatible and thus causing severance of her home culture. The success of selective acculturation therefore depends on a strong ethnic community and how the aspects of your identity are accepted by both cultures.


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