Migration and Acculturative Trauma: A Social Perspective

When migrants move from their countries of origin, they inevitably leave many anchors behind (Watson et al., 2021). Anchors may include material and emotional factors including cultural values and identity. 
It has been argued that migration is a cultural process (Watson et al., 2021) and the loss of cultural values and norms may be traumatic in the framework of a process of adjustment to the new culture (Ventriglio et al., 2015). Many authors have described acculturative issues among migrants with similar labels: cultural bereavement, cultural conflict, cultural shock.  Cultural bereavement refers to the loss of cultural values, social structures and cultural identity, characterized by four stages (Bowlby, 1980):  numbness or protest; yearning and searching, disorganization and despair and, finally, reorganization. Cultural shock, as defined by Oberg (1960), refers to a migrant’s traumatic experience related to moving to another culture. It may include a sense of loss, confusion in role expectations and self-identity, a sense/feeling of rejection by the new culture resulting in anxiety and a sense of impotence in not being accepted as part of the new culture. More recently, Bhugra et al. (2010) introduced the concept of Cultural Conflict, due to the interaction between the migrant’s personal cultural factors and those of the new culture. It is consequential that a migrant’s ethnic and cultural identity may become rigid and problematic with possible subjective distress. 

The occurrence of any problematic cultural adjustment depends on cultural congruity or consonance between the original and new culture. Cultural congruity is the range of similarity between the two cultures which may belong (or not) to the following categories: egocentric-sociocentric (collectivistic), masculine-feminine, distance to power, long-term orientation and uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede, 2010). When a migrant from a egocentric society (in which each individual looks after himself and his family) moves to a collectivistic society, there may be a good rate of adjustment whereas migrants moving from a collectivistic/sociocentric community (in which they are integrated into kinship-based structures) to an egocentric society, may experience a variable rate of cultural and social adjustment. Cultural consonance is also defined as the degree to which individuals in their own beliefs and behaviors approximate the shared expectations encoded in cultural models (Watson et al., 2015). Lower levels of cultural consonance lead to lower level of acculturation and higher rates of problematic adjustment among migrants.

Acculturation is the process of cultural/psychological adjustment and changes that may take place as a result of contact between cultural groups and their individual members (Berry, 1980). Thus, acculturation and related issues affect the individual cultural identity and may represent an attack to the individual  identity and integrity leading to mental illness (Watson et al., 2021). Berry (1980) described four possible strategies of acculturation. Integration occurs when there is an interest in both maintaining one’s original culture, while in daily interactions with other groups. Assimilation occurs when individuals do not wish to maintain their cultural identity and seek daily interaction with other cultures; Separation when individuals place a value on holding on to their original culture, and at the same time wish to avoid interaction with others. Marginalization occurs when there is little possibility or interest in cultural maintenance and little interest in having relations with others. Integration and assimilation are positive acculturative strategies, whereas separation and marginalization are related to a traumatic social and cultural adjustment (Ventriglio et al., 2015). Any cultural trauma impacts on cultural identity and ethno-cultural identity plays a role in the genesis of mental illness (Watson et al., 2015). It is of interest that cultural identity affects explanatory models of illness and health as well as affects help seeking. In 2017, Bhugra et al. argued that acculturation issues among migrants, even those belonging to second or following generations, may lead to identity confusion. The cultural trauma may be experienced as an individual assault as well as an assault to the social membership group. Thus, vulnerable people, especially those facing socio-economic issues, may take up fundamentalist ideologies in defense of their own identity (Bhugra et al., 2017). As religion is a key component of cultural identity, a religious coping may be employed to react to the identity assault with possible violent radicalization and religious fundamentalism. The following phases may include a self-identification with these fundamentalist principles, indoctrination, jihadisation (e.g. according to the Muslim culture) and terroristic thoughts and actions (Bhugra et al., 2017). 

Social interventions are needed to promote successful strategies of acculturation among migrants at individual and social levels such as employment and integration policies. Also, multicultural educational and public initiatives,  as well as multicultural modules in the school-setting, may assist in increasing awareness of the richness of a melting-pot society and cultural exchanges. Social policies promoting acculturation may improve well-being at individual level among migrants and may prevent social issues related to segregation, marginalization, possibly leading to dramatic processes such as radicalization and terrorism.


Berry,  J., W.  (1980) Acculturation as varieties of adaptation. In: Padilla AM, editor. Acculturation: Theory, models, and some new findings. Boulder, CO: Westview; pp. 9–25. 
Bhugra, D., Ventriglio, A., & Bhui, K. (2017). Acculturation, violent radicalisation, and religious fundamentalism. The lancet. Psychiatry, 4(3), 179–181. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30357-1

Bhugra, D., Wojcik, W., & Gupta, S. (2010). Cultural bereavement, culture shock and culture conflict:: Adjustments and reactions. In D. Bhugra & S. Gupta (Eds.), Migration and Mental Health (pp. 139-148). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511760990.013

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness and Depression. New York: Basic Books.

Hofstede, G.(1984). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills CA: SAGE Publications. ISBN 0-8039-1444-X.

Oberg, K.  (1960). Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology;os-7(4):177-182. doi:10.1177/009182966000700405

Ventriglio, A., Bhugra, D. (2015). Migration, Trauma and Resilience. In: Schouler-Ocak, M. (eds) Trauma and Migration. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-17335-1_6

Watson, C., Ventriglio, A.,  Bhugra, D. (2021).  Cultural bereavement, cultural congruity and identities,  in D. Bhugra (2021). Oxford Textbook of Migrant Psychiatry. Oxford University Press, 2021.