Immigrant acculturation and wellbeing in Canada: John Berry and Feng Hou

Another informative study by John Berry and Feng You showing that an acculturation and integration strategy that involves a strong sense of belonging both to Canada and the country of origin tends to result in higher levels of well-being:

Consistent with much of the research on acculturation strategies, we found that the integration strategy (in the present case, a strong sense of belonging to the two countries) was by far the most preferred strategy. This general preference for integration has been found in many previous studies (reviewed by Berry, 1997). This preference for integration is observed even when the assessment of these strategies is operationalised in very different ways (Berry & Sabatier, 2011; Snauwaert, Soenens, Vanbeselaere, & Boen, 2003). However, both these authors also found that that these differing operationalisations provided varying estimates for the extent of preference for each strategy. In the present study, even when using only the two dimensions of sense of belonging, and having only one question for each dimension, this approach seems to have provided results that are consistent with much of the research literature: integration is by far the most preferred strategy.
The relationship between the two belonging dimensions was examined by a simple correlation. We found this to be .13, which, while significant, does not indicate that they assess the same phenomenon. Berry et al. (2006), using two cultural identities (ethnic and national) in their study of immigrant youth, found a similar positive correlation between these two identities. In the 13 countries in the sample combined, the overall correlation was .17, ranging across societies of settlement from highs of .32 to a low of .28. The overall pattern was for positive correlations to be in “settlement societies” (such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) and negative in all other societies. This is a well-established finding in the acculturation literature, particularly in traditional immigrant-receiving countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States (e.g., Benet-Martinez, 2011; Berry, 1997; Berry et al., 2006; Costigan, Su, & Hua, 2009; Snauwaert et al., 2003).
Having created these four acculturation strategies, we attempted to assess what factors might be related to each of them. With integration taken as the control, we found patterns of demographic and social factors that are associated with each of the other three strategies.
  • Those in the assimilation group: had resided longer in Canada, had immigrated earlier in their lives, were more likely to be in the labour force, had lower bonding with their own cultural community, and were more likely to be divorced or separated. These latter two associations seem to represent a way of living in Canada that is one of living alone, and not being linked to their cultural community.
  • Those in the separation group resided in Canada for a shorter period of time; this could well represent a lag in coming to learn about and feel part of their new society. Previous research has shown this phenomenon both longitudinally (Ho, 1995) and cross-sectionally (Berry et al., 2006). Those pursuing separation were also more likely to have experienced discrimination; this finding may be an example of the phenomenon of “reactive identification” (which was referred to earlier), where individuals who feel rejected reciprocate this feeling and reject those who are the source of discrimination. This seems to represent a way of living in Canada of turning inward toward one’s own group, at least in the short term.
  • Those in the marginalisation group were more likely to be underemployed and have a lower income, were very likely to have come to Canada in the family or dependent class, and more likely to be widowed or never married. This seems to represent a way of living in Canada that, while being initially tied to a family, they now are more alone in both their economic and family situation. These patterns of association between acculturation strategies and demographic and social factors are the most common ones to be found in the literature (see Sam & Berry, 2016 for an overview).

The main focus in this study is on the wellbeing of immigrants, and whether their wellbeing can be associated with their acculturation strategy, as well as with these demographic and social factors.

First, we found that in keeping with much of the previous literature, including numerous individual studies (e.g., Berry et al., 2006) and a metaanalysis (Nguyen & Benet-Martinez, 2013), the integration acculturation strategy was associated with higher levels of wellbeing (both life satisfaction and mental health) compared to the other three strategies. This remained the case when the scores were adjusted for the demographic and social control variables that also have impact on wellbeing.

Also in keeping with much of the research literature, marginalisation was associated with the poorest levels of wellbeing.

This pattern adds to the growing evidence that when immigrants remain attached to their heritage culture, and also become involved in their new society, they achieve a greater level of wellbeing. In sharp contrast, when they are disengaged from both cultures, lacking bonding and bridging capital, they have poorer outcomes.

The present study confirmed that integration is associated with higher wellbeing. This pattern shows that being involved in both the heritage culture and in the larger society (by way of integration) promotes life satisfaction.

The research carried out on the relationship between social interactions and wellbeing in a variety of samples (Jetten, Haslam, Haslam, & Branscombe, 2009; Jetten et al., 2015) provides a broader context within which to interpret this relationship: Being engaged in and identifying with many social groups provides a basis for wellbeing. This consistent finding with immigrant samples seems to be a specific example of this general pattern.

Of particular important is the finding that the effects of acculturation strategy was larger than the social and demographic factors that are often held to account for wellbeing (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2016).

Immigrant acculturation and wellbeing in Canada


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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