Acculturation: A Framework For Defining Integration

Besides refugees who migrate to avoid persecution, immigrants move to another country in search of opportunities to better their lives. To that end, integration is crucial for the upward socioeconomic mobility of immigrant populations. Integration, also known as biculturalism, is a form of positive acculturation. By definition, acculturation refers to the cultural and psychological that occurs when members of two or more distinct cultural groups interact (Berry, 2005). Hence, integration occurs when immigrants retain some cultural practices from their heritage and simultaneously adopt some host countries’ cultural traditions that they have settled.

Some people mistakenly use the word assimilate when they mean integrate. In essence, those two words mean two different things. To better explain the differences, I will use John W. Berry’s acculturation model. Berry is a prominent Canadian sociologist who studies how cultures change upon immigrants’ settlement. Berry’s model looks like a pie with four quadrants, each explaining an acculturation process contingent on the extent to which ethnic minorities can maintain their own cultural identities and can also adopt the mainstream culture (see figure 1).

Various forms of Acculturation

Assimilation occurs when an immigrant fully embraces the cultural norms of the dominant or mainstream culture (Cohen, 2011; Habecker, 2017). Immigrants who have assimilated as almost indistinguishable from the ‘local’ people in that region in their speech and mannerisms. Another form of acculturation is integration or biculturalism. Integration occurs when immigrants adopt the dominant culture while simultaneously retaining aspects of their heritage culture (Avenarius, 2012; Berry, 2005; Cohen, 2011; Wachter et al., 2015; Ward, 2008; Ward & Kus, 2012).

Separation or segregation is the form of acculturation that occurs when immigrants reject the dominant culture and choose to maintain their heritage culture (Berry, 2005; Ward & Kus, 2012). People who have segregated usually make little effort to learn the language or norms of their surrounding culture. Another form of acculturation is marginalization. By definition, marginalization occurs when immigrants reject both their heritage and mainstream society’s culture (Berry, 2005; Cohen, 2011; Ward & Kus, 2012). Marginalized immigrants feel ‘lost’ because of their inability to relate to people from their places of origin and may show little motivation to connect with others in their present environment. 

Of these acculturation forms, biculturalism or integration (López & Contreras 2005) is the most beneficial. Biculturalism provides an individual with a vast repertoire of social skills or appropriate behaviors to allow them to live harmoniously with others in society (Berry, 2005). Additionally, integration reduces acculturation stress because one knows how to behave in any given social context or appropriate help-seeking behaviors.  Following these explanations, one can see how different assimilation is from integration. Assimilation requires one to forget who they were and adopt a new identity, but integration only requires that immigrants adopt cultural practices to help them live harmoniously with others in their new environment. (Berry, 2005; Cohen, 2011).

The Nexus between Integration and Empowerment

Integration is critical for the empowerment of African immigrants. Empowerment is both a process and an outcome ( Rodrigues et al., 2017). It is the mechanism by which people and groups understand their socio-political environments (Powell & Peterson, 2014) and exert influence on the issues that were important to them (Christens et al., 2011; Wahid et al., 2017).  Many immigrants may have felt powerless by being away from their ‘natural’ habitat and find themselves in a new environment. Immigrants also face racism and discrimination, which are disempowering and can have a negative health on their health and mental health. Integration provides the bridge towards empowerment. Immigrants who feel comfortable navigating their social and political environments have more opportunities to meaningfully participate in their community, build social capital  and access to resources to improve their lives. Without integration, many immigrants face hurdles in being self-sufficient or making significant contributions to their families and communities.

Benefits of Integration to Society

Worldwide, many cities facing urban flight or a declining aging population have been revived by integrated immigrants.Integrated immigrants are typically productive individuals that revitalize the economy of the region they settle in by participating in the labor force, building businesses and providing markets for existing goods and services (Jawetz, 2019). Integrated immigrants also enrich the culture of a locale by introducing new ideas and customs and exporting knowledge to their countries of origin that may help to address contemporary issues (McCarthy, 2018). Hence immigrants are a key component to cultural pluralism in any society. Moreover, many immigrants remit money to their countries of origin thereby facilitating the flow of foregin exchange which grows the global economy.

Attaining Integration

Various factors facilitate an immigrant to attain integration. These include (a) the age of the individual at immigration, (b) cause of migration (whether migration was voluntary or involuntary), (c) education level, (d) socioeconomic status and, (e) length of stay in the new society (Agbemenu, 2016; Simbiri et al., 2010; Wachter et al., 2015; Ward, 2008). Some would argue that those who migrate as children are far more likely to assimilate. However, younger people integrate faster and easier than older people. People who migrated voluntarily are likely to be better prepared to deal with expectations of a new environment than those who are compelled to leave their country. 

Generally, people with higher education and social-economic status integrate easier in a new setting than those with less education or socioeconomic status. However, from personal experience highly educated, relatively wealthy, second-language learners or racial minority immigrants to the US sometimes have challenges accepting their minority or less privileged status – which poses an impediment to their integration. Lastly, the longer an immigrant stays in a country, the more likely they are to learn to speak local languages, understand socially acceptable behaviors, learn to navigate their environments – all critical components of integration. 

Some cultural aspects such as language use, choice of social activities, and cultural retention provide clues into acculturation that one inhabits (Berry & Welsh, 2010). In the US, one can assume that African immigrants with a good command of American English, who observe American holidays, have American friends, and engage in ‘American leisure’ activities have either assimilated or integrated. However, some research shows that diasporans display varying acculturation types depending on where they are and who is around them. For example, it is not uncommon for African immigrants to speak African languages and ;act African’ around other Africans, then use English and ‘act American’ around other Americans. In this case, they engage in linguistic and cultural code-switching, a form of performance, to displaying mannerisms deemed appropriate for their audience (Habecker, 2017).

Cultural Identity is Dynamic

Among immigrants, cultural identity is not static (Hall, 2005). Instead, one’s cultural identity contingent on the privilege it confers at a specific point in time (Bourdieu, 2005; Butler, 2001; Habecker, 2017). It is not uncommon for African immigrants in the US to sometimes identify as  African, Kenyan, Nigerian, Ethiopian or African American depending on their perception of the privileged cultural identity in that prevailing context. Hence, immigrants gravitate toward identities that hold some benefit and away from those that do not (Butler, 2001). 

 Identification with Heritage (Kenyan) CultureHIGHIdentification with Heritage (Kenyan) CultureLOW
Identification with Host (U.S.) Culture HIGHIntegration(Biculturalism) Assimilation
Identification with Host (U.S.) Culture LOWSeparation  Marginalization

Figure 1: Acculturation outcomes as proposed by Berry’s model.


Immigrants’ integration is a critical component of empowerment and socioeconomic mobility. Because integration requires retention of heritage cultures and adaptation of host societies’ culture, governments and community practitioners should invest in efforts to affirm and preserve immigrants’ cultures, such as festivals and cultural centers. Ensuring continued interpretation services at public institutions ascertains access for immigrants with limited language proficiency. Importantly, governments should invest in the inclusion of immigrants within the public sector to inform policies that affect their communities. The media sector can facilitate integration by ensuring that they show an accurate representation of the changing demographics by including positive portrayals of immigrants. 


There are numerous benefits of immigrant integration to the immigrants themselves, the countries they originate from, and the countries they have settled in. The current COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted immigrants. Therefore all efforts to control incidences and infection rates should be public health efforts towards immigrants communities. Similarly, all other development efforts should focus on immigrants communities because, as we have learned from the pandemic, we are all interconnected, and no one is safe until everyone is safe.  


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