Acculturation and Human Relationships: Essential Encounters of “Cultural Constructions of Reality”


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service


Acculturation is the key to understanding the dynamics and consequences of all human relationships. Acculturation, is in my opinion the most important “concept” for understanding the nature, meaning, and outcome of human being encounters and interactions, and perhaps, in a way yet to be determined, also for animal species.

Acculturation has been a popular topic of student among some social sciences (e.g. sociology, anthropology, social psychology) for many years, with more limited interest among related behavioral sciences (i.e., clinical and organization psychology, communication, and human relations).


Wikipedia (June 7, 2018, 11:59 AM) defines acculturation as:

. . . the process of social, psychological, and cultural change that stems from blending between cultures. The effects of acculturation can be seen at multiple levels in both the original (native) and newly adopted (host) cultures. Historically speaking, acculturation is a direct change of one’s culture through dominance over another’s culture through either military or political conquest. At this group level, acculturation often results in changes to culture, customs, religious practices, diet, healthcare, and other social institutions.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (on-line, June 7, 2018, 12:02 PM), offers a similar definition, emphasizing the process of borrowing traits from another culture as a result of contact:

  1. Cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture. The acculturation of immigrants to American life; also: a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact.
  2. The process by which a human being acquires the culture of a particular society from infancy.

Please note, emphasis is on “contact” among and between people from different national and ethnic-racial cultures, with special reference to acquisition of dominant culture characteristics.

The second Merriam-Webster definition addresses the long process of cultural acquisition via life-time socialization as individuals. Socialization occurs via micro institutional contexts like family, peers, media, and schools and is resistant to change. This resistance helps perpetuate native culture, and accounts for the apprehensions associated with culture contact.

A limitation in much of our current understanding is the fact acculturation often emphasizes political-power interactions of national cultures.  I believe more attention must be given to the interaction among “all” human relationships encounters. Every encounter of human beings is an “acculturation” encounter, because it involves encounters between “cultural constructions of reality.”


According to the Wikipedia entry on acculturation (June 9, 2018, 11:34 AM),

The  word was first used J.W. Powell in 1880; but there are also references to the topic in Sumerian inscriptions from 2370 B.C.   These inscriptions laid out rules for commerce and interaction with foreigners designed to limit acculturation and protect traditional cultural practices….

Plato also discussed acculturation, arguing that it should be avoided, as he thought it would lead to social disorder.   Accordingly, he proposed that no one should travel abroad until they           are at least 40 years of age, and that travelers should be restricted to        the ports of cities to minimize contact with native citizens.

Historical views suggest acculturation has long been considered a potentially dangerous, perhaps even malignant, process, threatening the personal stability of humans, cultures, and nations.

Over the course of centuries and decades, acculturation, studies of acculturation have proliferated. Recognized contemporary scholars include John Berry, Dina Birman, Eric Kramer, Floyd Rudmin, Bernard Siegel, Dana Ward.

Research by these scholars and others has identified states of acculturation and the results of a cultural encounter (Cultural Construction of Reality), including the perils of “culture shock.” Culture shock among international students involves both societal contact and personal contact, and in most instances is stressful. This too has been theorized to follow certain stages. All of this research applies to my proposal acculturation is present in all human relationships.


With students and colleagues, I explored acculturation among populations in Hawaii, using “acculturation” and “ethnic identification” measures. Decades ago, I proposed “ethnic identity” would become the new “independent variable” in research as comparisons became popular (Marsella, 1995).  The degree of attachment of an individual’s identity to a particular   cultural reality

Theory and research in these areas have made many advances in our understanding of the nature and consequences, and new directions are emerging. In my thinking, acculturation is a key concept for human relationships.

This is a function of my views on the “cultural construction of reality” (Marsella, 2018). I proposed realities are culturally constructed, and thus vary considerably across diverse cultural contexts; as a consequence, relationships are subject to “reality constructions,” difficult to negotiate.

In my opinion, human encounters and interactions are a meeting of different “reality constructions” essentially, different reality templates replete with stylistic, communication, value, and status differences.

This process, though capable of resolution, is, in fact, difficult. Realities, with all of their varying nuances and meanings, become serious sources of conflict resolution and negotiation. Too often, problematic conflicts end in antagonisms and violence.

I have written of the potential destruction of Traditional Native Hawaiian Culture following initial contact with Western missionaries, who in their total blindness of others beliefs, destroyed much of Native Hawaiian culture via acculturation pressures. The struggle continues today (McCubbin & Marsella, 2009).

At this moment, when the world awaits a North Korea and USA meeting between two different individuals with different cultural constructions of reality (world views), and different temperaments and perceived roles, it is essential acculturation as varying construction of realities be considered.

I am not sanguine! I hope I am wrong. I have written of cultural considerations in conflict resolution at national and international levels (see Marsella, 2015). Too often, the resolution results in dominance-submission roles.


Acculturation is the key variable in all human relationships, including marital, parental, familial, social classes, race, age, institutional (education, occupation, religion, justice) and national and international levels. Acculturation is omnipresent.

  1. Marriage and Acculturation

Consider marriage! A marriage of two individuals is a cultural encounter, although we speak of it as a gender or age or status encounter. Initially, a marital couple may be willing and able to disregard their cultural differences amid the throes of love and sexual activity.  In time, especially after the first few years, tolerance for irritations, annoyances, displeasures, frustrations, dissipate.

Unless the couple is truly concerned, the marriage may begin to unravel, leading to separation and divorce.  Note that marriage at this point is a legal and regulatory situation.  It should also be clear that many marriages remain for many years in spite of “acculturation” problems, because of practical needs: children, finances, in-laws, social disapproval.

While accurate estimates of divorces in the USA and across the world are impossible because of confounding variables, some media figures suggest 58% of marriages end in divorce. Because any couples are now living together without marriage, yet may separate, these may not be counted. More important, however, is the marriages which remain amid turmoil, hurting each partner and family members.

  1. Brotherhood and Sisterhood

Long-term friendships with same sex members are a fascinating topic for exploration. There is the “brotherhood” network, possibly begun in high school or college, and the “sisterhood” network, beginning in similar settings. What is fascinating, is how the “differences” in “chumship” values, roles and personalities are permitted/encouraged to exist and tolerated. The cry: “Honey, I am going to go on a trip with my high school friends. We will be gone for two weeks. I’m sure you will be able to get along without me.”  I’ll send you contacts once we get where we are going.  Secret for now!”

  1. Other Examples:

 Police Arrests

Parent-child, teacher-pupil, shopper-clerk, neighbor-neighbor, doctor-patient are examples of human relationship interactions in which “acculturation” dynamics and forces are at play. An encounter drawing much attention today is “Police-Citizen Arrest” dynamics.  The “Black Lives Matter” socio-political movement arose over decades (centuries) of perceived police arrest violence and abuses.

Age Relationships

While the “norm” seems to be marry or establish a relationship with someone of a proximate age, this is no longer the case. This, of course, does not always occur (Permit me to speak apart from the LGBT nexus because of the number of combinations. I acknowledge the importance of age in the LGBT situation and in all of the situations I discuss).

There are older males and younger females, older females and young males, younger males and females, and elderly males and females. For the latter, the limitations imposed by age on mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of a relationship can pose serious problems because of “time” constraints.  At eighty, entering a relationship poses challenges about variations in the “cultural construction of reality.  All of this is occurring amid the biases of “ageism.”

Often, age reduces flexibility in thought and accommodation to existing differences, including perceptions of gender-role expectations and functions.

“Well see, my previous wife used to not do things this way. She is     Chinese and I am Swedish.” So, I would prefer this way of doing things. Is that too much to ask.”

Well, yes, it is I am uncomfortable with that way of doing things, and would prefer my way.”  Accommodation?

Concluding Thought

The “cultural construction of reality” requires us to recognize all human encounters, interactions, and relationships are subject to acculturation dynamics and pressures.  They are meetings of different world views. Inclinations toward power, dominance, and rigidity in personal role, styles, and identity, are often arbiters of the outcome.

The fact many human relationships, in constant states of acculturation, last for decades with a willingness and sensitivity to differences, deserves praise and study.  Acculturate!  😊


Marsella, A,J. (1990).  “Ethnocultural identity: The new independent variable for cross-cultural psychology.” Focus: Newsletter of the Division 45, American Psychological Association Division on Ethnic Minorities, 4: 14-15. Reprinted in Hawaii Psychological                      Association Newsletter, Winter, 1991.

Marsella, A.J (2005). Culture and conflict: Understanding and negotiating different cultural constructions of reality.  International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, 651-673.

Marsella, A.J (2011). Culture and conflict. In D. Christie (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology.  NY: John Wiley

Marsella, A.J. (2015). Reflections on the cultural contexts of conflict resolution via truth and reconciliation processes.  In M. Galluccio (Ed.) Handbook of international negotiation. (Pp. 287-296). NY: Springer SBM. 

Marsella, A.J. (2018). Reflections on the Cultural Construction of Reality. Assumptions, Issues, Directions. Transcend Media Service April 23, 2018. 

McCubbin, L., & Marsella, A.J. (2009).  Native Hawaiian culture and behavior:  The cultural, historical, and situational context of knowing and being.  Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15, 374-387.

Yamada, A., Marsella, A.J., & Atuel, H.  (2002).  Development of a cultural identification battery for Asian and Pacific Islanders. Asian Psychologist, 3, 65-76.

10 June 2018


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jun 2018.

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