The Concept of Acculturation in Health Research: Assumptions about Rationality and Progress


Linda M. Hunt

Document Id: OC-69

An earliery version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C. in November, 1997. Recent research designed to explain differences in health and illness among ethnic minorities often focuses on cultural influences on behavior and lifestyles, viewing individual behavioral choices as based on cultural beliefs and traditions. Commonly, ethnic culture is operationalized and measured as "level of acculturation," which is then correlated with various health outcomes. In this paper, the conceptual basis of "acculturation" in health research is examined. It is argued that the notion of culture is poorly articulated in this research, relying instead on "common-sense" ideas about the origins of valued and disvalued ideas and behaviors. As a result, acculturation health research is driven by a priori evaluative assumptions about the sources of rational and irrational behaviors. While failing to explicitly define ethnic and "mainstream" culture. ethnic culture is implicitly concieved as foreign, exotic, and antithetical to rationality; at the same time "mainstream" culture is viewed as its opposite. The model is rife with historical and conceptual difficulties. It is derived from folk wisdom about rationality and progress, which is galvanized in the ostensibly scientific construct of "acculturation."

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