Culture


 Research, no matter from which discipline, provides us with rich data to help us develop our understandings about the world we live in, the way we live, our own selves and so on. Humans are often described as natural scientists, that is, from the moment we are born we are curious and we yearn for knowledge and understanding.

 There are many theories about knowledge, as the philosophy of epistemology explores. Epistemology wonders: ‘how do we know what we know’ or perhaps even: ‘how do we know what we think we know?’ Some theories of knowledge, such as those from the natural sciences, assume that there is always a truth ‘out there’ to be discovered and as long as we have access to the appropriate tools we can discover it. Other theories, such as the theory of social constructionism, view the world as a collection of negotiated understandings created via culture and language; that there is no one real truth to be discoverd; we simply reach agreements about things we decide to name truths.

 In western society we are educated to particularly value scientific knowledge and to pursue objective facts through quantitative research. We are most often convinced by statistics and scientific fact. However, whilst enjoying the fruits of research and valuing academic endeavour, it is vital that, in the spirit of academic rigour, we always retain a critical stance towards our pursuit for knowledge.

 For example, in an analysis of American Psychological Association (APA) research journals between 2003 and 2007, it was found that 68% of psychological research participants were from the US and 96% were from Western industrialised countries, mainly North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett, 2008). This means that 96% of psychological samples came from countries with only 12% of the world’s population. Arnett raises concern that “the result is an understanding of psychology that is incomplete and does not adequately represent humanity… the majority of the world’s population lives in conditions vastly different from the conditions of Americans [who are the vast majority of psychological research participants].”

 A philosophy of science that emphasises fundamental processes and does not give significant weight to cultural context would not find this state of affairs troublesome. However, I believe it does raise the question: how culturally valid is our research in Psychology? That is, are we taking enough care to ensure that we are realistic about the generalisability and validity of our research findings?

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555043_flying_geese_3Perhaps only migrating birds know–
Suspended between earth and sky–
The heartache of two homelands.
—Leah Goldberg, 1970
 
 Leah Goldberg’s
poem ‘Pine’ poignantly captures the ambivalent position of many Olim caught between two countries and two identities. For many, negotiation of a more complex, integrated identity that sits between two cultures is realisable. For others, finding a comfortable way to be is more difficult.

  
 Research shows that when we are able to create a multi-faceted identity, which integrates the original and new identities, we are more likely to feel well both mentally and physically (e.g. Berry & Kim[1]). Living in a new culture is always a challenge. It brings with it the exhilarating and the exasperating. Garza-Guerrero[2], says that one of the main difficulties is that the continuity, confirmation, and consistency of our sense of self become threatened. In other words, without the feedback we were used to in our old cultures, we can become less sure of who we are and feel less good about ourselves.

  So how can we try to create a healthy, multi-faceted identity? Walsh and Shulman’s research[3]with young Russian immigrants in Israel gives us some interesting ideas. After interviewing each participant twice, with a year interval in between, about their Aliyah experience, they found that immigrants who tried to form a complex identity early on were less comfortable, functioning and satisfied one year later.

  What does this mean? Perhaps we can hypothesise that although trying to integrate ambivalence between two cultures is helpful in the long-term, in the short-term it seems to be important to hold on to ambivalence. It seems important to experience the conflict of leaving home and settling into a new culture. As Pianta and colleagues note[4], we need to give ourselves the space to mourn the losses and learn a new reality in order to allow an integrated and coherent story to emerge. Despite the rich and often wonderful culture, heritage and opportunities that Israel offers, each Oleh will have lost: people, language, music, food, cultural norms and so on.

  We can probably all think of the days when we have had enough of ‘using our elbows’ or dealing with the humidity; the days when we miss our loved ones, a favourite TV show, or a bar of Dairy Milk. There are also the days when we are relieved we don’t have to bear our own culture’s annoying habits; or we are moved to tears by a national ‘tekes’ or by our bravery for simply doing this. At the start these, often quite dramatic, splits and even shifts between the old or new culture being ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ are normal, even healthy, according to the research. Then, as time goes on, we can more easily accept that neither our old home nor our new one is perfect. We then somehow find a way to join the culture more fully and re-create ourselves as an Anglo Israeli – or is it an Israeli Anglo?


[1]Berry, J. W., & Kim, U. (1988). Acculturation and mental health. In P. R. Dasen, J. W. Berry, & N. Sartorius (Eds.). Health and cross-cultural psychology: Toward applications (pp. 207–236).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
[2] Garza-Guerrero, A. C. (1974). Culture shock: It’s mourning and the vicissitudes of identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 22, 408–429.
[3] Walsh, S. D. & Shulman, S. (2007) Splits in the Self following Immigration: An Adaptive Defense or a Pathological Reaction? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24, 2, 355–372
[4]Pianta, R., Marvin, R., Britner, P., & Borowitz, K. (1996). Mothers’ resolution of their children’s diagnosis: Organized patterns of caregiving representations. Infant Mental Health Journal, 17, 239–256.

 

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1158075_paper_emotions_-_ease
 It has been widely researched and assumed since the work of American Psychologist Paul Ekman in the 1970’s,  that human facial expressions are universal. That is, no matter where you grow up and who you encounter, you will always be able to recognise the six basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust on the face of another.
 
 Ekman famously found that tribespeople in Papua New Guinea, having never been in contact with Westerners before, were able to recognise facial expressions from photographs. From this he concluded that these facial expressions must be universal.
 
 Also interesting to note is that Ekman furthered his research into what he termed  ‘microexpressions’ and other verbal signs, which he said could detect lying. He claimed through this he was able to tell that Clinton was not telling the full truth about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
 
 New research from England,however, by Rachel Jack has found that East Asian research participants frequently confuse fear for surprise and disgust for anger. The researchers noticed that whilst Caucasian participants look at all facial features for cues, Asian participants focus on the eyes. 
 
 Jack explains that this does not mean that people from East Asian countries don’t notice facial expressions of fear and disgust, but that they may be perceived and conveyed in a different way. She notes that in East Asian cultures showing negative emotions  in public is usually avoided. Perhaps people have learnt to pay close attention to eyes to try to find emotional clues?
 
 Interestingly, the East Asians’ focus on eyes can even be seen in their ’emoticons’. In the West we are used to seeing ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘surprise’ virtually expressed like this:

: )     : (      : o

 Asian emoticons for ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘surprise’ focus more on the eyes instead of the mouth and look like this:

(^_^)    (T_T)   (*_*)

 

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 Making Aliyah and the years that follow bring with it a rollercoaster of different emotions and experiences, some liberating and exhilarating and some more complex and stressful. So how can we better acclimatise to a new culture? What predicts a softer landing and an easier ‘settling in’? When are we more likely to adapt in a relatively straightforward way and when are the changes necessary too much for us?

 What does the research say?

 Moving to a new country can potentially be a positive experience; an opportunity for personal growth and self-development [i]. In fact in 2006, Berry and his colleagues found that in the thirteen countries they studied, immigrant adolescents were just as well adapted as their peers and even reported slightly fewer psychological and behavioural difficulties.

 However, as a result of the sudden loss of the “average expectable environment [ii]”, immigration can also potentially be a negative experience, with harmful effects on one’s identity and self-esteem. For example, Berry writes that the loss of one’s own culture (‘culture shedding’) can result in heightened levels of depression and that uncertainties about how to live within the new culture (‘culture learning’) can result in heightened levels of anxiety. Walsh and Horenczyk [iii]found that English-speaking olim, often lose their sense of feeling competent and belonging. Ben-David (1996) found that Russian Olim were less confident in their external environment and their own internal resources. Walsh and her colleagues [iv]found that the stress of Aliyah impacted significantly on the ability of young Russian olim to make independent decisions.

 What is acculturative stress?

 In the past, the term ‘culture shock [v]’ was used to describe the process of moving to a new society. Shock, however, implies that only difficulties arise from contact with a new culture. These days the term ‘acculturative stress’ is preferred (e.g. Berry [vi]). ‘Stress’, as opposed to ‘shock’, is a term that is likely to generate coping strategies rather than helplessness. The term ‘acculturative’ takes into account that stressful experiences lie in the interaction between cultures rather in one culture or the other.

 Furnham [vii]describes six common aspects of acculturative stress:

  1. The strain of making necessary psychological adaptations
  2. A sense of loss of friends, status, profession and possessions
  3. Being rejected by and rejecting members of the new culture
  4. Confusion of roles, values, feelings and self-identity
  5. Surprise, anxiety, disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences
  6. Feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment.

 Stress is worsened when there is a culture clash, in particular when there is a scarcity of resources, such as jobs or education. Just as stressful, however, can be a clash of values or cultural behaviours. Which, when very different, may lead to uncomfortable internal, psychological conflict. For example, ways of interacting, conceptions of courtesy, expressing points of view, getting needs met and so on may not fit in the new society – so waiting in an orderly queue for help may be culturally appropriate in the UK or the States, but may not get you very far at an Israeli shuk!

 What factors affect acculturative stress?

 Berry explains that the level of experienced stress depends upon an interaction between: the society of origin, the society of settlement and personal characteristics – in a sense the balance between ‘push and pull factors’. So, for example, the political, economic and demographic situation of the society of origin relative to the society of settlement will shape experience and affect motivation to migrate and settle. If the society left was perceived to be in a worse situation this is a ‘push factor’ to migrate. If the new society values multi-culturalism and provides social support this may be seen as a ‘pull factor’.

 This makes an interesting situation for the typical English-speaking oleh/olah. On the one hand the political and economic situation is easier and status higher in the country of origin; on the other, Israel, its Ministry of Absorption and the various olim agencies offer Jewish immigrants wide-ranging support and a ‘Kibbutz Galyuot’.

 When it comes to individual characteristics, the most successful immigrant is flexible in personality, somewhat of an extravert [viii] and has a sense of self efficacy and competence [ix]. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger immigrants, particularly children, make a smoother transition to a new culture (Beiser [x]). Perhaps this is because earlier on there is less embedded culture to ‘shed’, or perhaps we are simply more able to be flexible and adaptable in our younger years. Immigration later in life, after many years of living in one cultural setting, may be more difficult (Beiser [x]). Of note, acculturation can be somewhat problematic during adolescence, perhaps due to the compounding pressure of ordinary developmental identity formation with cultural transition. 

 High status in the country of origin coupled with devaluation of credentials in the country of settlement has a big impact on wellbeing, often leading to depression [xi]. Interestingly, Kim [xii] found that Koreans who emigrated to Canada with high ‘push’ factors tended to have problems with psychological adaptation to the new environment. Immigrants with high ‘pull’ factors, however, tended to have just as many difficulties settling in, but were more able to adapt psychologically. Perhaps this was related to unrealistic expectations of the country of settlement.

 Cultural distance between the old and new societies impacts on acclimatisation, as it leads to a greater culture conflict and ‘shedding’, both resulting in poorer adaptation. For Jewish immigrants cultural distance may be bridged by shared religious and Zionist ideologies, values and perhaps even language. For non-Jewish immigrants, however, the cultural distance may be vast.

 How can we cope with stress?

 One of the most important processes in settling into any new culture is ‘cultural learning’. That is, learning a new behavioural repertoire appropriate for the new cultural context. Learning about the culture even before arriving, the language, history, norms and values can act as a kind of ‘pre-acculturation’. In fact, education in general is a protective factor against Aliyah stress, in that it promotes problem analysis and solving skills. In addition, keeping physically healthy also positively correlates with successful acculturation.

 It is important to try to be flexible in your thinking and behaving and to try and ‘get out there’ and be sociable. Social support is an excellent way of coping with stress. Some find support from those of the original culture the most beneficial [xiii]. Others find relationships with members of the new society most important [xiv]. Supportive relationships with both cultures, however, is most predictive of psychological adaptation [xv].

 What can I do if I am finding it difficult to cope?

 If you are finding it difficult to cope with the process of acculturation there are a number of things you can do. Your focus may be on problem-solving in which case the Ministry of Absorption  or any of the support organisations for olim may be able to help you. If your focus is more on coping with the emotional aspects of Aliyah then it may be helpful to speak to a psychologist or attend one of the support organisations’ Aliyah support groups. If you would like more information please feel free to contact me here.

 Concluding thought 

 This article highlights the inevitable ‘bumps’ of any big transition. I began by comparing Aliyah to a rollercoaster. Perhaps, having made this cultural leap, we can take some wisdom from the grandmother character in the 1989 film Parenthood:

    “when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster…Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!…It was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around…I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it. 


     
    [i] Sam, D. L. & Berry, J. W. (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology (pp. 452–468). New York, NY
    [ii] Hartmann, H. (1950). Comments on the psychoanalytic theory of the ego. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 5, 74–96
    [iii] Walsh, S., & Horenczyk, G. (2001). Gendered patterns of experience in social and cultural transition: The case of English speaking immigrants in Israel. Sex Roles, 45, 501–528.
    [iv] Walsh, S. D., Shulman, S., Feldman, B., & Maurer, O. (2005). The impact of immigration on the internal processes and developmental tasks of emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 413–426.
    [v]Oberg, K. (1960). Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177–182.
    [vi] Sam, D. L. & Berry, J. W. (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology (pp. 452–468). New York, NY
    [vii] Furnham, A. (1990). Expatriate stress: The problems of living abroad. In S. Fisher & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), On the move: The psychology of change and transition (pp. 275–301). London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd
    [viii] Ward, C. & and Kennedy, A. (1993) Where is culture in cross-cultural transition? Comparative studies of sojourner adjustment. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 24, 221-249.
    [ix] Schwarzer, R., Hahn, A. & Schroder, H. (1994) Social integration and social support in a life crisis. American Journal of Community Psychology. 22, 685-706.
    [x]Beiser, M., Barwick, C., Berry, J. W., et al (1988) After the door has been opened: mental health issues affecting immigrants and refugees. Ottawa: Departments of Multiculturalism and Health and Welfare.
    [xi]Beiser, M., Johnson, P. & Turner, J. (1993) Unemployment, underemployment and depressive affect among South East Asian refugees. Psychological Medicine, 23, 731-743.
    [xii] Kim, U. (1988) Acculturation of Korean immigrants to Canada. Unpublished doctoral thesis: Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.
    [xiii] Vega, W., Kolody, B., Valle, R. & Weir, J. (1991) Social networks, social support and depression among immigrant Mexican women. Human Organization, 50, 154-162.
    [xiv]  Berry, J. W. & Kostovcik, N. (1990) Psychological adaptation of Malaysian students in Canada. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
    [xv]  Kealy, D. (1989) A study of cross-cultural effectiveness: theoretical issues, practical applications. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 13, 387-428

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