The concept of acculturation was coined in 1880 by American geologist John Wesley Powel in a report for the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. He defined it as the psychological changes induced in people due to cross-cultural imitation, resulting from the interaction with different cultures. At present, acculturation is defined as the process in which a person or group from one culture comes in contact with another culture, adopting the values and practices of the other while still retaining their own distinct identity.
The most prevalent use of the concept is in relation to the cultural exchange between a minority group, that migrates to a new society, with a predominant majority group. The concept became popular among American sociologists in the early 20th century as they analysed the integration of immigrants into American society. The study by W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki in 1918 on Polish immigrants in Chicago, resulted in a better understanding of the concept of assimilation — a process in which groups adopt a new culture that virtually replaces their original culture, leaving only traces behind. On the other hand, the study on Black Americans within white American society gave researchers insight into the concept of acculturation.
Sociologists understand acculturation as a two-way process, wherein the minority culture adopts aspects of the majority to fit in and the culture of the majority is also influenced by that of the minority. Acculturation affects various aspects of life, including dietary patterns, fashion, art, architecture, work culture, and literature. The process can occur at both individual and group levels, as well as between groups that may not be a majority or a minority in society.
Though used interchangeably by most, acculturation is different from the concept of assimilation. Assimilation is just one of the many eventual outcomes of acculturation. Depending on the strategies adopted by individuals or groups involved in a cultural exchange, acculturation may result in rejection, integration, marginalisation or transmutation. Moreover, since cultures are ever-evolving, the outcomes of the process may transform with time.
Assimilation refers to the process by which individuals or groups eventually become indistinguishable from the culture they came in contact with. It occurs when the importance given to one's culture is minuscule and where ‘fitting in’ is given high significance, deeming it necessary for survival in a new cultural space. This outcome is likely to occur in societies that are "melting pots" into which new members are absorbed.
Separation refers to the process wherein an individual/group comes in contact with a new cultural group, but does not embrace aspects of the new culture, as they wish to maintain their own unique identity without being ‘contaminated’ by the values and norms of another culture. The rejection of a new culture while maintaining one's own traditions and customs usually occurs in culturally or racially segregated societies.
Under integration, an individual/group adapts to a new culture while maintaining their original culture. Here cultural adoption is considered significant for the smooth functioning of society. Such a strategy is used in a multicultural society with a relatively high proportion of minority groups. Individuals or groups who use this strategy can switch between the values and norms of the different cultures they have absorbed to interact with groups from both cultures with ease.
Marginalisation occurs when individuals/groups barely interact with a new cultural group. This strategy results in the isolation of the person or group, pushing them aside to the corners of society, forgotten by the rest. In a society where cultural exclusion is practised, it becomes almost impossible to interact and integrate with a different cultural group due to the barriers created between the two.
Transmutation is the process in which importance is placed on both, maintaining one’s own culture while also adopting aspects of a new culture. But instead of integrating and switching between the codes and conducts of two different cultures, the cultures are amalgamated into creating a new one. Thus, a unique blend of two cultures creates a new one that is accepted by both individuals or groups.
India, with its distinctive fusion of various cultures, has archetypes that present us with a deeper understanding of the concept of acculturation and its outcomes. Persian culture, for instance, has influenced almost all aspects of Indian society. The origins of popular food items like biriyanis and faloodas and spices like saffron, and cumin seeds which have become part of our lives, can be traced back to Persian origins. The Urdu language, a blend of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindi, is a beautiful example of the amalgamation and transmutation of cultures.
There are interesting examples that portray the process of acculturation between the Hindu and Christian cultures in the country. The architectures of Christian Churches in Kerala like the Cheriapally (small church) in Kottayam or the Pazhaya Suriyani Pally (old Syrian church) in Chengannur have marks of Hindu architectural styles. Sculptures of Christian deities inside a lotus similar to that of Hindu deities, sculptures of animals like cows, elephants, and monkeys carved onto the church walls, and the use of nilavilakku or traditional temple lamps in churches are examples of the integration of Hindu and Christian traditions and cultures in Indian society.
Acculturation is an inevitable social process, as migration and interactions with different cultures have always been part of the evolution of civilisation. Such interactions have become a part of our daily lives due to the multi-cultural nature of present society. Acculturation allows us to learn and understand new aspects of various cultures and appreciate their differences. Resentment toward other cultures and the belief that one’s heritage is superior can result in the marginalisation and separation of different cultures, ultimately disrupting the functioning of a society. A harmonious exchange of cultures between various groups is imperative for a peaceful society.