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When integration can be a two-edged sword for children



A longitudinal study into acculturation reveals that minority group children who have an ‘integrationist’ approach to acculturation show the greatest increases in peer acceptance and self-esteem, yet may still experience some mild negative emotional outcomes as well.

Professor Rupert Brown, an expert in intergroup relations, provides an overview of his research and recent paper on the subject of acculturation.

According to UN figures, over 200 million people now live in a country other than the country that they were born in. Here in the UK, around 8% of the population (4.6 million people) consider themselves to belong to an ethnic minority group, according to Office for National Statistics data. A key question for social psychologists is to understand how people manage to live, if not in harmony, at least without conflict, in countries like the UK that consist of many different ethnic groups. It is obvious that some mutual accommodation between groups is required, and this is referred to in social psychology as ‘acculturation’.

A dominant acculturation perspective is that of Canadian psychologist John Berry. He suggests that there are two important acculturation challenges facing members of both minority groups: how far do they wish to (or are permitted to) retain aspects of their heritage culture? This is known technically as the desire for Culture Maintenance (CM). The other challenge is how much contact and engagement do they wish to (or are allowed to) have with the dominant majority culture? This is called desire for intergroup Contact (DC). It is possible for people to score high or low on each of these dimensions independently and, consequently, individuals can fall into one of four categories:


High CM

Low CM

High DC



Low DC



Berry suggested that individuals in the ‘integration’ group – ‘integrationists’ – who are high on both CM and DC will generally have the highest levels of well-being, although this may also depend on the attitude of the majority culture. Forty years of research have produced findings largely consistent with this, but there are several contrary findings in the literature as well. Another gap has been that most acculturation research has been cross-sectional in nature, usually a single snap-shot of associations between acculturation preferences and well-being. Such research makes it difficult to draw conclusions about what is causing what. To understand that better, one needs to do longitudinal research in one tracks the outcomes of people with particular acculturation preferences over time.

In this study, we addressed some of these deficiencies. We interviewed 215 South Asian children in Britain (aged between 5 and 11 years) at three time points over a year. Using specially designed child-friendly measures, we ascertained their acculturation preferences and also took various well-being measures like peer acceptance and social self-esteem. In addition, we asked teachers to rate each child for how much they displayed negative emotional symptoms (e.g., “many fears”, “easily scared”).

The key results were these:

  1. A clear majority (77%) of all children had an ‘integration’ attitude, but this was especially true for older children (8 – 11 years; 86%). A ‘separation’ attitude was endorsed by only a minority of children (11%), and was a bit more likely among younger children (5 – 7 years). The ‘integrationist’ attitude became stronger over time.
  2. Children who started out with an ‘integrationist’ attitude showed the greatest increases in peer acceptance and self-esteem over time. By the end of the study, they were clearly outscoring all other children on these two measures, showing the clear benefits of an ‘integrationist’ outlook. This was evidence in support of Berry’s supposition.
  3. However, an ‘integrationist’ approach did not wholly protect children against negative outcomes. We found that those children with an integration strategy at the first time point had more emotional symptoms at a later time point. This might have been because children adopting an integration strategy would have been more likely to seek out majority peers to play with, and hence potentially exposed themselves to more situations in which name calling and social rejection could occur.

In conclusion, the majority of the ethnic minority children in our study favoured an ‘integrationist’ orientation, suggesting that they felt comfortable engaging with the majority culture whilst simultaneously maintaining their own cultural heritage. The psychosocial effects of doing so are both positive and negative. Thus, the challenge for parents, teachers and community leaders alike will be to find ways of promoting the former outcomes and overcoming the latter.

This work has just been published online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:

Brown, R., Baysu, G., Cameron, L.,  Nigbur, D., Rutland, A., Watters, C., Hossain,R.,      LeTouze, D. & Landau, A. (2013) Acculturation Attitudes and Social Adjustment in British South Asian Children: A Longitudinal Study. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi:10.1177/0146167213500149 (

For a broader discussion of acculturation research, see:

Brown, R. & Zagefka, H. (2011) The dynamics of acculturation: an intergroup perspective. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 129-184.