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Enculturation, Assimilation and Appropriation

Updated on August 20, 2016
photo by Devanath. CC0 Public Domain
photo by Devanath. CC0 Public Domain | Source

Human cultures have always intermixed. Every culture in human history (and prehistory) has been influenced by neighboring or incoming cultures. By our nature we adopt new ideas from other groups of people, incorporating those ideas into our own cultures and eventually making them our own.

In the modern world, this process is happening faster than many of us are able to keep up with on a personal scale. Access to global media, the internet, has set a precedent in human history for such fast-paced cultural intermixing which rapidly changes by the year, even the month. Centuries ago, cultures would often pass hundreds of years of generations without significant contact with outside groups. Now, it is impossible to ignore the emerging cultural changes of a global world. This is both a delight and a difficulty to many people. “Cultural appropriation” has become a hot issue recently due to well-meaning concerns over protecting some smaller cultures from exploitation. Yet, this also does not recognize that human cultural life is continuing as it always has. In an interconnected time, we will all eventually adopt aspects of cultures not immediately our own, while giving up parts of our ancestral cultures we may currently consider indispensable.

Enculturation and Assimilation

Enculturation is a person's process of acclimatizing to their own culture(s), the one(s) they are mainly raised within. This includes learning what values and behaviors are expected of us, which laws or taboos not to transgress lest we risk punishment, what is normal to wear, to eat, to think, to do with one's life. As fundamentally social animals, it is absolutely normal and healthy to be enculturated, so that we may live in social harmony with others. A growing awareness of the need for conscientiousness in this process has developed in the Western world, which values individualism, yet the process remains essential. The West engages in a humorous tension with itself when we complain about how conformist we are, when in fact we're the most individualistic society the world has ever known.

Assimilation, on the other hand, involves multiple cultures, and is less innate to each of us. When a person or group from one culture adapts into another culture, taking on new ways of being whether consciously or unconsciously, this is assimilation. One common example is the experiences of immigrants in America. Initially a person will experience culture-shock, but gradually they and proceeding generations let go of former values and practices from their native countries, assimilating into American cultural life. Soon, an given immigrant group, after several generations, may not be recognized as a distinguishably separate group at all. European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries are a famous case of this. The immigration and assimilation of Scandinavian, Germanic, Celtic, Mediterranean and Eastern European peoples were a social challenge over a century ago. Yet no one now, their progeny included (myself being one) thinks of these groups as at all distinct from mainstream American culture. Seldom do we hear anyone identifying as Swedish-American anymore. The same will eventually happen with Hispanic immigrants, the largest currently incoming group to the US. This is absolutely healthy and normal. It should not be expected that people will artificially maintain all old customs in new places. Neither does it mean that adopting new customs means that the dominant culture is therefore an aggressor. Assimilating into the larger culture around you is both an advantage for oneself as well as a nod of respect for the wider social environment.

Assimilation only becomes a human rights problem when one culture is violently forced upon another, such as through war or colonial conquest. But this is very different from patterns of immigration, natural assimilation, or adopting practices from foreign cultures on a tiny round planet. Assimilation does not necessarily imply aggression, dominance or ill-will by or against a given group.

photo by wahyucurug. CC0 Public Domain.
photo by wahyucurug. CC0 Public Domain. | Source

Appropriation and the Emergence of Subcultures

The loss of unique cultures, and what wisdom and practical knowledge they carry is one issue of globalized civilization, and an understandable aspect of the argument against cultural appropriation. Too much homogenization can cause societies to be ill at ease, as we are evolved to live in small tribes with a unique village identity. There is an innate drive in society to birth subcultures that balance the prevailing homogenization. Such sameness from city to city, from country to country is psychologically unnatural and compels us to create new tribal distinctions within a larger society.

Being a part of subcultures has a significant, mostly positive impact on people's lives. One of the most successful subcultural movements of recent decades is that of Permaculture. Permaculture is an ecologically-oriented sustainable farming practice founded to improve the health, resilience and community relationships of modern industrial people. It provides a sense of identity and purpose in this time when many seek to be active in mending the world's wounds. The social aspects of permaculture emphasize great respect for indigenous and hunter-gatherer societies who have demonstrated their long-term sustainability. Naturally, through this admiration of indigenous peoples, ideas are adopted and incorporated into modern subcultures from these long-standing earth-focused societies. Practices such as the sweat lodge, goat-herding, weaving cloth, songs and chants, rite of passage ceremonies and living in close-knit community are all incorporated into permaculture communities. Some of these were also originally practiced in Europe, the “Western world” in centuries past. An effort is made to give credit to the original cultures which practices are borrowed from, but over generations into the future these practices will inevitably blend together to create a new traditional culture. By the natural process of new generations of people living daily these adopted indigenous practices which they experience as normal, they become normalized and personal. Soon, they can no longer be said to be artificially borrowed. This, too, is natural acculturation.

photo by NakNakNak. CC0 Public Domain
photo by NakNakNak. CC0 Public Domain | Source

The urge to borrow practices from non-Western cultures may speak to the poverty of cultural depth which many Westerns mourn in their own lineage. Traditional practices such as herbalism, Pagan spirituality, mysticism, midwifery, primitive hunting, rite-of-passage rituals, folklore and folk music were, for a long time, ridiculed or repressed in Europe and its colonies while new modernist , scientific trends became dominant. Now, interest in these old practices is making a comeback as modern people realize the value of what has been lost. Yet, Westerners of European ethnic descent are sometimes confronted with accusations of “racism” or “cultural supremacy” against others when they draw proudly on their own heritage, are accused of “appropriation” when they adopt practices from non-Western cultures, and are accused of a lack of depth or seriousness when new practices are invented whole-cloth in an attempt to avoid the first two accusations. One wonders what is expected of people who strive to live with a renewed sense of cultural integrity.

Yet there are arguably more practices held in common from culture to culture than there are significant differences. We are one species with the same basic needs in all times and places. The roots of our cultures are in the shared human biology we all carry. One of the most omnipresent features of all cultures is the use of handheld tools. Our pliable hands require tools of assistance, contributing to the creation of our first artistic and technical cultures as unearthed in paleolithic caves and burial sites. We have a need to wear clothes in cold climates and so we will adopt the best ideas for staying warm in cold places. The first African peoples arriving in Europe forty thousand yeas ago, who became the ancestors of modern Europeans, surely appropriated the wearing of heavy animal skins from the native Neanderthals who got to the continent first. Even the use of certain colors as symbols with emotional and social connotations are rooted in our species' ability to see a certain range of visible light and attach philosophical meaning to color.

A Tiny Round Planet

The benefits to globalized modernization are numerous. We have the medical technology to prevent unnecessary death from curable or preventable diseases. We can access heretofore unknown knowledge about our fellow human beings on the other side of the globe, or long ago in prehistory. As mentioned before, we're on a tiny round planet. We can appreciate the similarities shared across all human cultures, and the needs which arise in cultures lacking certain integral practices. If modernization and homogenization are to continue, for better or for worse, we may need to rapidly develop a new, united identity based not upon tribal differences, but as one hominid species. This will inevitably involve enculturation, acculturation and appropriation is all sorts of directions. We are social animals who are blessed with the capacity for self-reflection and stewardship.

photo by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain
photo by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain | Source


Akhtar, Salman. Immigration and Acculturation: Mourning, Adaptation, and the Next Generation. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, 2011.

Berry, John W. Cross-cultural Psychology: Research and Applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ingold, Tim. Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology Humanity, Culture and Social Life. London: Taylor and Francis, 2002.

Gamble, Clive, and Clive Gamble. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ritzer, George. Globalization: A Basic Text. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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