Contemporary anthropology has developed a consistent interest in the study of modes of circulation of people, objects and ideas associated with current cultural globalization. This interest is usually presented as a new development in anthropological theory and its possible predecessors, such as diffusionism and acculturation theory, dismissed as irrelevant. Focusing on the works of Melville Herskovits and Roger Bastide, this article argues for a less biased imaged of acculturation theory and stresses the ways in which some of its achievements can inspire current approaches to cultural globalization. This interest is expressed in the recent development of the anthropology of globalization as an important sub-disciplinary field. But it is also reflected in a renewed interest in processes of creolization, hybridization and syncretism, which are an important part of globalization.

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If it is concerned only with primitive peoples, this is not because it is held that the forces at work among primitive folk are different from those operative in contacts between literate peoples; but merely that the writer, as an anthropologist, has felt it to be the part of wisdom to discuss those data which fall in the field of his competence.

HenFe th6ugh we will here be primarily concerned with problems of anthropological research, it is none the less hoped that what is said will be of use to workers in other social sciences, especially to historians, sociologists and psychologists. I am grateful to the Social Science Research Council for having made possible a period of reflection and reading on the problems discussed here that I needed to point the concepts that had been forming in my mind during the past years while working on: Negro research-essentially an acculturation problem; and to my colleagues on the Council's sub-Committee on Acculturation, Dr.

Ralph Linton and Dr. Robert Redfield, for the many stimulating discussions that helped further to clarify these problems; similarly, it is a pleasure to express my gratitude to Dr. Donald Young, who participated in many of these discussions. I am also indebted to Dr. George Herzog for bibliographic suggestions in the fields of music and linguistics.

Melville J. Herskovits New York, 27 August In research having to do with human physical form, for example, analyses of racial mixture are taking their place at the side of those more conventional studies in classification whose aim is to describe and differentiate racial and sub-racial types.

In an analagous manner, the attempt to understand the nature and operation of human civilizations through the study of "uncontaminated" primitive societies is having more and more to share its place in the attention of ethnologists with that other approach which frankly assumes that, since culture is constantly changing, a comprehensive program of research must recognize the value inherent in the study of peoples whose traditions have been or are today being influenced by the customs of other folk with whom they are in contact.

This book, however, will only deal with the effects of contact as they are operative in the field of culture. The biological aspects therefore may be passed by without further comment, except in such cases as that of the Eurasians of the Far East, or in certain aspects of contact between Negroes and Europeans in the New World, where the fusion of culture is intimately associated with the crossing of the physical types involved.

The word acculturation, which best designates studies of this sort, has a respectable history, and by it had attained such ethnological currency that Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defined it as "the approximation of one human race or tribe to another in culture or arts by contact.

One of its earliest uses was by Powell, who in I 88o wrote "The force of acculturation under the overwhelming presence of millions has wrought great changes. Holmes, in discussing Spanish Pue lo art, employed the word as a matter of course: "The arts pass from place to place and from people to people by a process of acculturation so that the peoples of unlike origin practise like arts, while those of like origin are found practising unlike arts.

For such reasons the early methods devised for civilizing the Indian tribes largely failed The triumphs of civilization, the power of prosperity, the wonders of industrial art, all made a deep impression on the Indian and from them he learned much, but from the school and books he learned little.

Acculturation of the various tribes has had the effect that the plane and the character of the culture of most of them is the same; in consequence of this we find also that myths travelled from tribe to tribe and that a large body of legends belongs to many in common. Mason closes a somewhat critical discussion of similarities in culture The invention is at first individual, but when an invention is accepted and used by others it is accultural Ehrenreich was one of the earliest German students to take up the term.

It is found in his discussion of South American mythology, 1 Boas , p. A more systematic treatment of the theme, but one that is entirely divorced from other than cursory supporting data, followed three years later when Vierkandt, in analyzing the processes of cui tural change, some attention to the phenomenon and its significance in the field of cultural dynamics.

The discussion, not based on any field study of cultures where change was taking place or had occurred has, however, perhaps because of its deductive nature, quite failed to stimulate students to field In the United States, though the past decade or two have seen the word acculturation pass into the ethnological vocabulary, it has only been toward the latter part of this period that specific field studies of the results of cultural contact have been made.

Radin , also published two short papers on culture-contact among the Winnebago. These are commented on in the next section of this discussion. Mead , p. I 79 2 Lesser I , p. This implies some relative cultural equality between the giving and receiving cultures.

Assimilation, however, is the process of trans- forming aspects of a conquered or engulfed culture into a status of relative adjustment to the form of the ruling culture.

The problem of acculturation, when we are considering the American Indians in relation to their adjustment to European culture, is a problem of assimilation.

Both give and take. As a result it is a valid problem to consider what is adopted and what not, and the whys and wherefores. In assimilation the tendency is for the ruling cultural group to enforce the adoption of certain externals, in terms of which superficial adjustment seems to be attained. The adopting culture is not in a position to choose.

It is perhaps unnecessary to point, in passing, how the quotation which follows, when compared with the passages just cited from Lesser, demonstrates the terminological confusion found among studies of this kind: "In this book my task is to convey the insight which I got among the Zapoteca into the ways in which the traits of an old culture may perish or survive, and the traits of a new culture be adopted or rejected.

For the most part, the analysis is concerned with accul- turation, with what the Indian took from the Spaniard rather than with assimilation, which is a reciprocal process and would include 1 Loc.

The interchange specified in Lesser's statement makes it difficult to include under the rubric "acculturation" many of those situations found in the world at the present time as the result of the impact of European culture on native peoples. For Europe may influence very considerably the culture of an island in the South Seas, let us say, which can in no conceivable fashion reciprocate with any inter- change,2 yet there are few who would not consider these folk to be undergoing a process of acculturation.

The case of the Indians discussed in Lesser's work is somewhat different, for there has been some interchange between them and the whites; yet, granting the fact that these Indians "have not met a culture of the same order of complexity or technical advancement" as their own, and that "in the methods which have been used to assimilate the Indian, neither technically nor collectively as tribal groups were the natives brought into direct contact with our culture as such," does this preclude us from classifying the resulting change in the culture of the Indians as acculturation?

The methodological principle implied by Lesser in differentiating acculturation from assimilation is one which, at best, can only be used with the greatest caution. For just when are a people free or not free to choose one or another aspect of a culture being forced on them by 1 Parsons , pp.

Does not the answer to this rest entirely with the judgment of the student who concerns himself with a particular case? In Lesser's own monograph, it is pointed out that the Pawnee, in their early contacts with white authority, were moved to a reser- vation from their aboriginal habitat with a consent on their part that obviously was but engendered by despair.

Here they were taught agriculture, and they seem to have eagerly accepted the opportunity to become farmers and thus repair their damaged fortunes. That they did not succeed is aside from the point; the pertinent question is whether or not the invasion of their hunting patterns by this new technique-which was introduced by the whites, but which they willingly took over to the best of their ability-is acculturation or assimilation. For though the subjective element inherent in Lesser's approach does not enter into her application of the terms to Mexican culture, the differentiation of the two words on the basis of whether the borrow- ing involved in contact is a one-way phenomenon or represents an interchange is inadvisable.

The definition presented in an Outline on Acculturation published 1 A further difficulty presented by Lesser's modification of his definition of ac- culturation is seen where he speaks of it as "the ways in which some cultura] aspect is taken into a culture and adjusted and fitted to it," since he neglects to distinguish between the concepts of acculturation and diffusion.

This point will be discussed shortly, but the question must here be asked whether diffusion can be thought of as anything but a process by means of which some aspect of a given culture is taken over by a group wfto previously did not have it. It excludes the ap- plication of the term to the manner in which an individual acquires a working knowledge of the skills and traditional modes of thought of his own culture, which, as has been stated, would make "accul- turation" synonymous with "education" as used in its broadest sense; it indicates that, because of the nature of the contact specified, th,e cultures concerned are taken over on a generous scale, and thus, by implication, excludes those situations where only a single aspect of a culture is transmitted; while, finally and most importantly, it is entirely colorless concerning the relative complexity of the two cultures involved, and whether one is dominated by the other or contact takes place on a plane of comparative equality.

This definition 1 Redfield, Linton, and Herskovits, This outline is reproduced as an appendix to the present study. THE PROBLEM II is likewise noncommittal as to whether an interchange of culture occurs between the two groups party to the contact, or whether the process is a matter of one of them borrowing from the other without any interchange at all resulting-if, indeed, this is ever possible.

In addition, as the matter has been put: "It plainly does not dif- ferentiate contacts between historic and non -literate folk from those between two primitive peoples. Nor does it touch upon the motiv- ations behind studies of these cultures For the moment, it can however be assumed that culture does not exist apart from human beings, and that where contact between cultures is mentioned a certain human contact must be taken for granted as the only means by which culture can spread from people to people or from generation to generation.

Yet, while it is desirable to emphasize that culture is no mystical entity that can. This is seen most plainly where the studies of secondary effects of contact, such as contra-acculturative movements, are made. It would be difficult to designate the Ghost Dance of the Indians of North for instance, as anything but a phenomenon of acculturation; yet, especially in earlier manifestations of this as analyzed by Spier, Gayton and others, the actual presence of groups of whites among the Indians is difficult to discern; while in Lesser's study of one phase of the Ghost Dance movement, it is the role of the Hand Game as affording the Indians a new interest in life and a point toward which they might direct this interest that is significant, rather than any incorporation of phases of the culture of the whites with whom they were, indeed, in "continuous first-hand contact.

Is the visit of the mission boat once or twice a year, and the work of a single missionary a native of another island and not himself a Eu- ropean! Certainly this person is not a "group of individuals," nor can it well be maintained that recurring visits of those on the mission boat constitute "con- tinuous" contact.

In his discussion of diffusion, Kroeber defines it as a "process. And though both of these "rest largely on the same psychological basis : imitation," yet "as a technical and It is pointed out that there are "grades and grades" of assimilation, and that the process is not restricted to the historic cultures alone, but that in contacts between European and native societies, or between native cultures with one another, the repercussions of contact also involve the assimilation of the culture introduced by those to whom it has been presented.

That these three words do not have identical meanings, then, is obvious; it is equally apparent, however, that the significance of each 1 Kroeber, Yet the difficulty we have in distinguishing between these concepts is, in the last analysis, of no different order than that experienced by the taxonomist in distinguishing different units in the biological series. In the social sciences as well, differences of opinion must mark all attempts to define too closely terms which denote processes of cultural change as similar to one another as those labelled acculturation, diffusion, and assimilation.

It would therefore be wisest to draw definitions that are more rather than less flexible, and not attempt to delimit the significance of each term too rigidly. The important fact is that these terms merely represent phases of a single process by means of which either isolated traditions or considerable blocs of custom are passed on by one human group to another; by means of which a people adapt themselves to what has been newly introduced and to the consequent reshuffling of their traditions as these were aligned before the new elements were presented.

Now it is evidently useful for purposes of as- sorting different types of data, to distinguish in this general field those cqntacts which are brief and involve no prolonged association between an individual and folk of a different culture-as for example, a trait of Polynesian culture is taken over by a Melanesian group visited once by some voyagers from an island far removed-from those other types of diffusion that take place when a people are exposed over a long period of time to a culture different from their own.

On the basis of the investigations into culture contact discussed 1 Bartlett , p. For though both represent aspects of the process of transmission of culture from one group to another-with the difference that diffusion applies to all such instances of transfer, while acculturation has to do with continuous contact and hence implies a more comprehensive interchange between two bodies of tradition-the term acculturation has further come to be restricted to those situations of contact over which there is historic control.

And from the point of view of method, this is perhaps the crux of the matter, for while conventional studies of diffusion have assumed historic contact between peoples on the basis of the existence of similar traits in their cultures, the nature of a given contact between two folk, details of the manner in which it was achieved, and the degree of its intensity are all beyond the power of the student to establish. Not so with acculturation. The historic contacts of the peoples concerned are known and the problem is one of adequately applying the historian's technique, of employing documentary materials, and of gathering information in the field concerning the contact from those who tbok part or are taking part in it.

In this way the student insures the accumulation of relevant information as to how long the contact took place, or the circumstances that brought it about, and, in some cases, even the character of the individuals who were instrumental in influencing the changes that resulted. This use of real history thus characterizes studies of acculturation, rather than assumptions of historical contact based on reconstructions made by working out distributional analyses.

This is the case whether these students are concerned, as are most of them, with an analysis of the effects of contact between natives and whites, or whether they are concerned with the contacts of native tribes with other natives; it is true whether their work is directed toward the ends of pure science, or whetJ:ler they are primarily concerned with making more efficient the task of those who govern native peoples.

Thus Spier, commenting on the fact that "the problems of culture growth among primitive peoples can only rarely be answered at the hand of dated information," and employing the "dated information" available to him to analyze the Ghost Dance of among the Klamath, seems to regard this study as one of acculturation rather than of diffusion.

Yet what is it that differentiates this work, or that distinguishes his more inclusive study of the same dance, 2 from his summary analysis of the Sun Dance which, in its various forms, is "diffused" among the Indians of the Plains? Or does the distinction lie in the fact that the contacts involved were different? The difference is only one of 1 Spier , pp. The strategic value of employing known history in studying contacts between cultures, and the need to exploit this advantage is even admitted by those who commonly are most reluctant to allow any importance to an understanding of historical processes for students of culture, and who, in all cases, set their faces immovably against any type of historical reconstruction.

Yet the exigencies of under- standing African cultures, for example, where the contact between African and European peoples has been such an important factor in recent years, has caused those who take such an anti -historical position to recognize that in research of this kind the utilization of historical data is a sine qua non. The following passage may be quoted to make the point: "Any anthropologist working in Africa at the moment is really experimenting with a new technique.

Anthropological theory was evolved very largely in Oceania, where the relative isolation of small island communities provided something like 'typical' primitive social groups The anthropologist who embarks for Africa has obviously to modify and adapt the guiding principles of field work from the start He has to exchange his remote island for a territory where the natives are in constant contact with other tribes and races.

More important still, he has arrived at a moment of dramatic and unprece- dented change in tribal history. Melanesian societies, it is true, are having to adapt themselves slowly to contact with white civilisation, but p1ost of the tribes of Africa are facing a social situation which is, in effect, a revolution.

Indeed, the entire symposium on Methods of Study of Culture Contact 1 from which the quotation just cited is taken, is filled with point after point of emphasis on the need for recognizing the back- ground of the changing societies being studied; while the need for reconstructing these cultures as they existed prior to the contact is not only admitted but stressed..

There is, however, one special point of field technique that must be considered. For where European and native cultures under contact are being studied, the elements from the student's own culture tend to be taken more or less for granted by him. Hence this must be carefully guarded against lest the resulting ethnographic description be thrown badly out of focus. The proper emphasis on this point has been well laid by Schapera in discussing those special aspects of ethnological method that apply to studies of the results of contact between Europeans and natives in South Africa.

This symposium, in the main, consists of con- tributions by students of Malinowski, an analysis of whose papers on the subject of culture-contact, consisting mainly of discussions of the need for and methods to be used in studying the problems of "practical anthropology" is to be found in Herskovits, In practice it is sometimes difficult to apply, not so much because of technical obstacles as because of the outlook engendered by the training that most anthropologists receive before going into the field.


Herskovits, Melville J. (1938) Acculturation: The Study of Culture Contact

Although other disciplines, particularly psychology and sociology, have dominated the field of acculturation research more recently, they mostly have done so with a narrow focus. The Memorandum, funded by the Social Science Research Council, put forth a coherent framework for social science research on acculturation. And then acculturation largely disappeared from the anthropological literature [ 3 , 4 ]. It was also due to the applied nature of the term and its negative association with colonial projects, especially British Anthropology in Africa and American Anthropology among American Indians [ 3 , 4 ].


Acculturation and Its Discontents: A Case for Bringing Anthropology Back into the Conversation

The study of acculturation is the study of one aspect of culture change. The two processes are related but are not identical. Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF. Skip to main content.


Acculturation: Definition and Context


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