In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Acculturation and Health

  • Introduction
  • Types of International Migrants
  • Crisis Migration
  • The Immigrant Paradox
  • Foreigner Objectification
  • Biculturalism
  • Relations between Biculturalism Types
  • Acculturative Processes and Health Risk Outcomes
  • Acculturation Processes and Well-Being Outcomes
  • Parent-Adolescent Acculturation Discrepancies and Health Outcomes
  • Conclusion

Psychology Acculturation and Health
Seth J. Schwartz, Cory L. Cobb, Christopher P. Salas-Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0268


International migration has reached historic highs, with more than 240 million people currently residing in a country other than where they were born (United Nations, 2019). Migration is not random, and there are noteworthy migration flows from specific sending countries to specific destination countries. In most cases, migrants settling in postindustrial, Western nations in the “Global North” (North America, Western Europe, and Oceania) come from non-Western nations in the “Global South” (Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). The prevailing cultural contexts in Global North countries generally favor self-direction, independence, and self-expression over conformity and interdependence, whereas the reverse is true for many Global South countries. This means that the disparity in value systems between Western countries and the migrants who are moving to these countries serves as a “backdrop” through which to understand the adjustment process these migrants face. This entry will focus on this adjustment process—known as acculturation—and the relationships between acculturation and health outcomes. It will delineate who is acculturating, different patterns of acculturation, and links between acculturation patterns and health outcomes.

Types of International Migrants

When discussing acculturation, it is essential to delineate among types of international migrants. Steiner 2009 outlines four general types of migrants: voluntary immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and sojourners. Voluntary immigrants are individuals who relocate of their own volition, generally not under duress; asylum seekers flee civil wars, dictatorial governments, natural disasters, and other conditions that preclude remaining in the country of origin; refugees are involuntarily resettled in other countries as a result of natural or human disasters occurring in their countries of origin; and sojourners move to another country on a time-limited basis, such as international students and business executives relocated temporarily. Refugees and asylum seekers differ primarily in whether relocation is voluntary—asylum seekers request permission to settle permanently in the destination country, whereas refugees are resettled by governments and international aid agencies. The category of voluntary immigrants can be further subdivided into those residing in the destination country legally versus those who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visa. Golash-Boza 2012 outlines that undocumented immigrants often have few legal rights, little legal standing, and limited work and housing options. Undocumented immigrants also live in fear of deportation, and Armenta 2017 reports that right-wing populist parties in many countries have blamed undocumented immigrants for many social ills. Chavez 2013 finds that in the United States, Hispanics—individuals with ancestry in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas—have been labeled as a threat to US cultural heritage and identity. As Buchanan 2011 exemplifies, this perception of threat is especially applicable to undocumented Hispanics, whom some Americans view as “illegal invaders” who seek to take over US culture and society. Clearly, the various types of migrants are received differently in the destination country. Voluntary immigrants who bring professional skills and advanced degrees are likely to be viewed positively, whereas refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants are likely to be viewed negatively. Trounson, et al. 2015 reports that the adjustment experiences of these various types of migrants are often quite different—with refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, and voluntary immigrants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds subject to more discrimination and a more unfavorable context of reception compared to voluntary immigrants with greater socioeconomic resources. Compared to voluntary immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are more likely to have experienced trauma in their countries of origin—such as torture, malnourishment, and violent deaths of friends and family members (Salas-Wright and Schwartz 2019, cited under Crisis Migration). Li, et al. 2016 reports that refugees and asylum seekers likely experience additional trauma during and shortly after migration, including while being processed by government agencies upon arrival. Beiser and Hou 2016 finds that trauma occurring prior to migration, coupled with culturally related stressors following migration, is likely to lead to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

  • Armenta, A. 2017. Racializing crimmigration: Structural racism, colorblindness, and the institutional production of immigrant criminality. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 3:82–95.

    DOI: 10.1177/2332649216648714

    Argues that immigration enforcement promotes racist policies by weaponizing the police and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency against US Hispanics.

  • Beiser, M., and F. Hou. 2016. Mental health effects of premigration trauma and postmigration discrimination on refugee youth in Canada. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 204:464–470.

    DOI: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000516

    Documents the associations of trauma before migration, and discrimination following migration, on mental health among refugees.

  • Buchanan, P. J. 2011. State of emergency: The Third World invasion and conquest of America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    Provides an example of threatened responses to immigration, where immigrants are demonized as “invaders” who explicitly want to harm, steal from, and denigrate the United States.

  • Chavez, L. R. 2013. The Latino threat. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Reviews and debunks several myths about US Hispanics, including Hispanic immigrants as well as US-born Hispanics. Among these myths are that Hispanics refuse to learn English, that Hispanics are not loyal to the United States, and that Hispanics aim to reconquer the US Southwest and return it to Mexico.

  • Golash-Boza, T. M. 2012. Immigration nation: Raids, detentions, and deportations in post-9/11 America. New York: Routledge.

    Documents ways in which many of the post-9/11 homeland security measures that were intended to combat terrorism are instead used to harass, detain, and deport Hispanic immigrants.

  • Li, S. S. Y., B. J. Liddell, and A. Nickerson. 2016. The relationship between post-migration stress and psychological disorders in refugees and asylum seekers. Current Psychiatry Reports 18:Article 82.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11920-016-0723-0

    Provides evidence indicating that stressors occurring after migration, including government processing, can cause severe distress among refugees and asylum seekers.

  • Steiner, N. 2009. International migration and citizenship today. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203875544

    An excellent resource on types of international migrants and on how migrants are received in their destination countries.

  • Trounson, J., C. Critchley, and J. E. Pfeifer. 2015. Australian attitudes toward asylum seekers: Roles of dehumanization and social dominance theory. Social Behavior and Personality 43:1641–1656.

    DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2015.43.10.1641

    Demonstrates that many Australians view asylum seekers as a drain on the country and discriminate against them.

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