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Multi/Biculturalism: Socio-cognitive processes and individual differences

Project Participants: 

Veronica Benet-Martinez (Pompeu Fabra University, Spain)

Biculturalism: Theory and Measurement

In today's increasingly diverse and mobile world, more and more individuals describe themselves as multicultural or bicultural. For example, one out of every four individuals in the U.S. has lived in another country before moving to the U.S., and has presumably been exposed to and is familiar with more than one culture (U.S. Census, 2002). That is, 20% of the US population is, in all likelihood, bicultural. These impressive statistics do not include U.S.-born ethnic and cultural minorities (e.g., descendants of immigrants) for whom identification and involvement with their ethnic cultures in addition to mainstream culture is also the norm (Phinney, 1996). Such individuals are faced with the challenge of negotiating between multiple, and sometimes conflicting, cultural identities and values in their everyday lives. Surprisingly, despite the importance that understanding these issues has for society, there is very little empirical work on the topic of biculturalism. To fill this gap, we have developed psychological models for how biculturals process cultural information, how they integrate their different cultural identities, how they alternate between different cultural behavioral scripts, and how they maintain competing loyalties between different ethnic/cultural groups. The basic overarching question guiding our studies in this area is: What are the specific social, cognitive, and personality processes involved in developing and maintaining a successful bicultural identity?

In exploring the above issues, we follow a dynamic-constructivist approach to culture (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martínez, 2000). The dynamic-constructivist approach makes the following assumptions: (1) culture can be seen as an associative network of ideas, values, beliefs (i.e., cultural meaning systems) that guide an individual's interpretation of his/her social world, (2) multicultural individuals possess more than one cultural meaning system and shift between these systems in response to cultural cues in the environment (a process called cultural frame-switching), and (3) a given cultural meaning system influences behavior to the extent that it is cognitively accessible (it has been recently activated) and applicable (it is relevant to the situation).

An important objective in our biculturalism work is to bridge the dynamic-constructivist approach to culture (which is heavily rooted in social and cognitive psychology) with a personality perspective that is sensitive to individual differences in the bicultural experience. A key finding in this line of work, which relies on both questionnaire and interview methods, is that there are reliable differences among biculturals in the way they cognitively and affectively organize their two cultural identities, a construct that we call Bicultural Identity Integration (BII). Biculturals high on BII tend to see themselves as part of a hyphenated culture (or even part of a combined, "third" emerging culture), and find it easy to integrate both cultures in their everyday lives. Biculturals low on BII, on the other hand, perceive a high degree of tension between the two cultures and feel as if it would be easier just to choose one culture. Interestingly, these two types of biculturals do not differ on their endorsement of Berry's integration strategy. In summary, biculturals high and low on BII identify with both mainstream (i.e., American) and ethnic (e.g., Chinese) cultures but differ in their ability to create a synergistic, integrated cultural identity. Our work shows that differences in BII impact biculturals' overall levels of adjustment and moderate the cultural frame-switching process.

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