There’s Surprisingly Little Evidence Behind Common Beliefs About The Best Way For Immigrants To Adapt

By Emma Young

The world is full of migrants — not only refugees from places like Afghanistan and Syria, but also people who have travelled to study, or to work in another country. In fact, 281 million people live outside their country of birth or citizenship. They face all kinds of challenges, and adapting well to life in a new culture is a critical one.

Current thinking holds that what an immigrant does is important for how well they adapt both psychologically and socially. A combination of maintaining one’s own culture while also engaging in the mainstream culture is widely held to be the best strategy. This idea, known as integration or biculturalism, has informed advice and also policy-making. But a major study in Psychological Science now argues that it is wrong. In fact, report Kinga Bierwiaczonek and Jonas Kunst at the University of Oslo, there is only “miniscule” evidence that any culture-oriented strategy adopted by an immigrant affects how well they adapt. As the pair writes, with some understatement: “In a world in which virtually every modern society is culturally diverse, our findings have considerable implications.”

Psychologists have identified four “acculturation styles”: integration, assimilation (which entails giving up the heritage culture), separation (maintaining the heritage culture and not adopting aspects of the new culture) and marginalisation (neither maintaining the heritage culture nor adopting the mainstream culture).

The idea that integration is best dates back to the early 1990s. In 1997, John Berry, then at the universities of Bergen and Oxford, wrote a highly influential paper in which he concluded that psychological and sociocultural adaptation “are usually predicted by the successful pursuit of the integration acculturation strategy.”

However, the vast majority of studies supporting this idea are correlational, write Bierwiaczonek and Kunst. This leaves open the possibility that there could be other explanations — perhaps, for example, it’s more cognitively challenging to maintain aspects of one’s own culture while also adopting aspects of the new one, and more cognitively able immigrants also adapt better.

The pair also has concerns about the way some of the data has been analysed. An influential meta-analysis of mostly these correlational studies, which supported the integration hypothesis, used a statistical approach that Bierwiaczonek and Kunst feel could allow for misinterpretations.

When they re-analysed these 83 studies, on a total of more than 23,000 participants, they reached a different conclusion: “acculturation has a very limited association with adaptation”.

The pair then conducted a meta-analysis of 19 exclusively longitudinal studies on just under 7,000 people. (This included children and adolescents as well as adults who had moved to countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Hong Kong and Finland.) Because these studies included measures of acculturation and also adaptation (such as symptoms of depression, mood, school performance and social relationships) over time, they should in theory provide a clearer picture of any links between a strategy and adaptation. Bierwiaczonek and Kunst’s analysis did reveal some effects of acculturation strategy on adaptation — but they were “inconsistent and approached zero.” In other words, no helpful conclusions could be drawn from them.

Bierwiaczonek and Kunst argue that it might be better for policy-makers and support organisations to look to other factors known to influence an immigrant’s wellbeing, such as discrimination in the community, language barriers and social support. As they point out, “This generally puts more of the burden of successful adaptation on the receiving societies than on migrants themselves.”

The findings have implications for future research in this area, too. They suggest that further correlational studies would be of little help. “The field of acculturation should move on to primarily relying on investigations that utilize experiments as well as rigorous longitudinal methods,” Bierwiaczonek and Kunst argue. Given that the wellbeing of millions of people — including many vulnerable children and adults — is at stake, surely this can’t come too soon.

Revisiting the Integration Hypothesis: Correlational and Longitudinal Meta-Analyses Demonstrate the Limited Role of Acculturation for Cross-Cultural Adaptation

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest