Health and Behavior Research Agenda for Hispanics
M. Gavina and J. Arana
Simon Bolivar Research Monograph No. 1
STRESSORS: MIGRATION AND ACCULTURATION TO
RACQUEL E. COHEN, M.D., M.P.H.
Department of Psychiatry
addresses the complex life events affecting Hispanic populations that have
exchanged their habitual and physical environment for new, uncharted and
unfamiliar settings in the
Migration to the
addresses the complex life events affecting Hispanic populations that have
exchanged their habitual social and physical environments for new, uncharted
and unfamiliar settings in the
In this paper
Hispanic populations are defined as the variety of Ibero-American
individuals who have citizenship in another country before arriving in the
Literature on Migration
The literature on
migration links migration with different levels of stressors and stress
responses. Several authors have investigated the causes and effects of
migration, suggesting that stressors can stimulate migration or that migration
can produce stressors along the continuum of transitional stages that the
individual faces, concretely or figuratively. The individual may go through
several countries before arriving in the
Studies on the impact of migratory events focused on such issues as coping with changes produced by traveling across internal rural-urban settings within continents, a few miles between two countries, or across narrow waterways (8).
The events described in these studies vary in many ways, including characteristics of the native country, population, transitional stages of travel, type of host country and population. Findings are further confounded by the different research methodologies, designs, theoretical orientations and dependent variables. The lack of a precise definition and the differing dependent variables researched are related to the ambiguous and conflicting results reported in the literature.
A social psychiatry framework is used to organize the substantial data accumulated on migration and acculturation. Social psychiatry primarily concerns itself with forces in the social environment that affect the ability of groups or individuals to adapt, adjust, or to change the self or the environment. It focuses on issues affecting family and society as they interact in social settings. It attempts to clarify, identify and increase understanding of how groups of people adapt and to define the processes and social structures that damage or enhance adaptive capacity (9).
The human services community and the general public have become increasingly concerned about stressful aspects of contemporary society and about the ways stressful experiences may affect human lifestyle, morbidity and mortality. Recent research suggests that under a combination of life conditions, response to stress may decrease the body's ability to combat destructive psychological or biological forces, thus making humans vulnerable to a variety of disorders (10).
Despite recognition of the usefulness of the operational construct, stress is a difficult concept to define precisely. In this presentation, the concept of adaptation has been chosen as a useful framework from which to approach a working definition of stress response. In acculturation studies, individual self-esteem has been reported as an outcome of adaptation (11).
Theoretical explanatory approaches to understanding human behavior under the stress associated with migration and acculturation are organized as a group of building blocks of knowledge. The basic theoretical body of knowledge addressed here includes:
l. The concept of the individual as a bio-psycho-social system interacting within a changing environment (12). This model is modified by the addition of the "culture" system as an added interactive component because it provides a broader Conceptual base of knowledge for elucidating the phenomenology of migratory and acculturation behavior (13).
2. The theories of interacting stressors (stress responses promoting coping adaptive mechanisms within trans-cultural settings) assist in analyzing some of the research findings on migration and acculturation (14-18).
In an effort to develop a conceptual frame of reference that relates migration and acculturation to the trans-cultural study of stressor-stress response, it is helpful to define terms.
Definition of Stressor-Stress Response
1. Stressors (activators) are events or conditions that elicit physical or psychosocial reactions (in particular individuals under specific conditions). These vary in intensity, quantity and temporal pattern relations.
2. Reactions are biological or psychosocial responses of an individual to a stressor and may vary in intensity, effectiveness or appropriateness of response within temporal patterns.
3. Consequences are physical or psychosocial results of prolonged, cumulative effects of the reaction (some are positive/ favorable).
4. Mediators are filters and modifiers that define the context in which the stressor reaction - consequences sequence occurs, thus producing individual variations. They can be biologic, psychologic and/or social.
Several other concepts should also be clarified.
l. Life events: These are events in the course of daily living that vary in their impact on an individual according to occurrence, timing, sequence, the motivational factors that precipitated the coping resources available for their management, the cognitive appraisal of their significance, and their adaptational outcome (20).
2. Coping behaviors: Coping behaviors are complex psychosocial behaviors that are effective responses to a group of stimuli and they set up "internal" goal-oriented reactive mechanisms. Coping goals are accomplished by. 1) containing the sense of distress within limits that are personally tolerable; 2) maintaining self-esteem; 3) preserving interpersonal relationships; and 4) meeting and managing the conditions of the new circumstances (21).
Basic Research Themes
It is postulated that the process of coping and adapting to stressors helps explain the individual differences found among migrants in their reaction to stressor events. Lazarus' approach (22) to the study of stress focuses on the individual being taxed by stimulus demand up to the limit of potential ability to adapt.
Lazarus (22) proposes that stressor stimuli have an effect on cognitive processes which, in turn, trigger emotional and behavioral reactions. His cognitive-phenomenological theory is useful for conceptualizing migration and acculturation stress responses. He links many of the processes of coping and adapting to the individual's appraisal system which can recognize threats and so strengthen the individual's survival probability. Appraisal (orientation) is an important warning process of survival. The individual makes a cognitive analysis of the potential threat or stress-provoking force of the "activators," evaluates the level of risk involved, and estimates his/her ability to cope with it.
Horowitz (23) notes "evocation of a stress state requires that the person register and interpret incoming stimuli as clues of threat." Culture is a powerful determinant in the evaluation of stimuli as stressors. It also determines the culture-bound expression of affects which are labeled and programmed by traditional language and customs (24).
This theoretical framework assists in setting up the trans-cultural understanding of the coping and adaptation methods available to the Hispanic migrant in his/her acculturation efforts: that is, his/her culture not only determines the characteristics of his/her appraisal judgment, but also programs his/her awareness of what affect s/ he is manifesting.
Cassel's (25) contributions to our understanding of immigrants' behavior rests on his theory that the most important aspect of man's environment for man - from an adaptive ethological point of view - is the presence of other members of his/her species. Evidence supporting this comes from animal studies.
Changes in group
membership and the quality of group relations have been shown to be accompanied
by changes in behavior.
When behavioral patterns fail to accomplish their intended, expected result - that is, to lead to predictable responses on the part of another individual - repetitive, ineffective interactions result. This becomes a source of stress for the immigrant when these actions which serve as feedback processes are designed to modify the individual's relationship to the host social group with whom s/he interacts.
A second postulate
Taking all these principles into account, not all consequences of novel and stressful social interactions between a migrant and a host-country member will affect all immigrants in the same manner. These consequences will depend on: 1) the importance and salience of the relationship- whether disordered or functional; 2) the position of the individual experiencing such a new relationship in the status hierarchy which s/he has entered as a consequence of migration; 3) the degree to which the migrant population has been unprepared, has strong value conflicts, and believes as threatening the situation in which s/he finds him/herself, and 4) the nature and strength of the effective, available group support. These points may allow us to conclude that we cannot assume that only one methodological source of stressors produces maladjustment in migrant individuals.
Migration and Stress: Basic Concepts
involve a dynamic, synergistic interaction of elements that include the
characteristics of the event and of the individual within a social, structural,
and cultural resource setting. Cultural factors program, support, and transmit
systems of belief that give the migrant an internal source of explanation and
meaning for the events in his/her new American setting. That is, the migrant
will process novel configurations of stimuli psychologically using his/her
internalized, culturally-guided mode of interpreting events, the actions of
At a socio-psychological level, the migrant may be handicapped by a group of vulnerability factors which evolve over time and produce an internal and external sense of personal dysfunction. This subjective sense of vulnerability is added to the experience of "being different," of being ignorant of the "rules of the game," of not having effective negotiating skills. All these form a dynamic retrogressive loop, affecting the range of stimuli viewed as threatening. This, in turn, produces the effect and conviction that either: 1) one can perform the acts necessary for effective coping (efficacy expectation); or 2) the environment will be responsive to those efforts (outcome expectations) (26).
the migrant's experience can be a time of human disaster or desolation or a
time of adaptation and growth into new capacities. This is the philosophy that
I would like to impart in this presentation on migration and acculturation to
The World Health Organization has identified uprooting as "the common factor in a number of psychological high-risk situations, such as migration, urbanization, resettlement and rapid social change" (27). Thus changes produced by uprooting produce different effects on different Hispanic population groups, depending on the individual's developmental stage, personality structure, acquired social skills, level of psychological health, and experience in successful crisis resolution. These changes also depend upon the availability and appropriateness of the individual's support systems. In the field of behavioral sciences, including psychiatry, what can be culled out of our knowledge base and applied to the socio-psychological event of migration and acculturation? The following principles aid in guiding our thinking:
1. Migration as an expression of uprooting has to be conceptualized as a complex group of behaviors that appear as expressed outcome of multiple systems, with consequent impact on the individual, the family, and the community.
2. The integrative framework has to include a multidisciplinary integration of such fields as behavioral biology, anthropology, sociology, developmental and social psychology, psychiatry and public health.
3. Basic research findings in the above-mentioned areas offer an organizing group of themes to assist in understanding the phenomenology of migration.
A special quality of being uprooted is that the need to change is faced at the same time one is separated from familiar social, cultural and environmental support systems. Uprooting is a subjective reality in which the continuity of shared traditions, social relations, and valued interpersonal linkages play a key role on adaptive success. These culturally valued patterns of behavior are difficult to change because one's sense of identity, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships may be dependent upon them. The new setting - the United States - produces severe difficulties in communication, both at the verbal and nonverbal levels, as the Hispanic interacts with the United States citizen. The identity of being a minority increases the loss of self-confidence arid intensifies the anxiety of becoming a functional illiterate.
Disorientation to the sensory world extends beyond the auditory understanding of an unfamiliar language to include changes in the customary sense of time. Visual stimuli that match internalized memories of streets, sky or sea are associated with powerful emotions that may constrain successful acculturation to a new land. All the past learned configurations of the lost world act as guideposts, offering continuity of patterned behavior, with its associated neurophysiologic infrastructure of memory and emotions. All these lessons have to be changed, abandoned or readapted in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable rates by the uprooted person.
How do we modify all these skills to mesh them with the new and necessary acquisition of American customs? How does this process of integrating and assimilating occur in the brain? What gives meaning to the everyday cues and how do we understand signs emoted by individuals of this country? Which of these translate into the needed sensations of intimacy and friendship, of comfort in the sense of belonging? If the dependence and independence needs of an individual are modified within the new setting, is adaptation to the new culture feasible? If not, can this lead to such desolating consequences as the inability to cope with loss of family, friends, home and country? What does it take to link the individual with a set of new opportunities offering freedom for evolution of new and constructive patterns of lives?
Transitional Stages between Migration and Acculturation
Migration, transitional experiences and finally acculturation into a new setting comprise the set of events associated with the process of acculturation. Immigration as a current social process is well-documented and attracts the attention and energy of all types of public systems.
Although much has been written about mass movements of large populations from their land of origin and about experiences during the uprooting and displacement process, the majority of research appears to focus on the adjustment necessary to survive in the land of destination. The departure or entry of groups requires readjustments in each of the two affected social systems. The greater the proportion of the migrant population relative to the host population, the more far-reaching the social adaptation required of the receiving social system that s/he leaves and the one s/he enters.
The social strata
into which the migrant individual enters has an ongoing influence on the level
of stressors. The specific degree of readjustment that needs to take place
within different strata will be influenced by the racial, ethnic and religious
characteristics of the subgroup the immigrant enters into in the
An immigrant's entry into the American environment is a gradual process, and the relationship between the variables of time, lifestyle and opportunities are relevant to acculturation. The transitional process is dynamic and varies with the shifting behavior needs and time frames of the immigrant and the American subgroup entered. Although all these complex system interactions have to be taken into consideration when focusing on individuals, most of the remaining presentation deals with psychological process of stress responses, adaptation, and cross-cultural interactions among Hispanics who are in the process of becoming acculturated to this host country.
Acculturation and Stress: Basic Concepts
A conceptual and methodological limitation of several studies on acculturation patterns pertains to the manner in which the "cultural variable" was defined. Generally in the investigation of cultural differences, culture is defined qualitatively in terms of ethnic group membership - Chicano vs. Anglo - thus ignoring within-group variability in cultural characteristics. It is difficult to measure the impact of the continuous acculturation process on values, traditions and behaviors. These ongoing processes of reshaping personality expressiveness adapt more effectively in the new environment. There appear to be considerable differences in the extent to which given individuals share the socio-cultural and psychological characteristics of the larger society in which they are imbedded.
construct for analyzing levels of acculturation should address: 1) language
use, 2) generational levels, 3) amount of schooling in the
These findings (29) indicate that to be successful within a host culture, one must learn the behavior associated with success within the host culture, while at the same time remaining loyal to the culture of origin.
adjustment and upward economic mobility seem to be predicated on the Hispanic
imitating and engaging comfortably in behaviors that are part of mainstream
American culture. The combination of different value orientations between
Hispanics - cooperation and loyalty versus such Anglo values as competition -
can coexist, yet present a challenge and dilemma to adaptation goals. These
goals are mediated by the individual's constant readjustment of a traditional
Hispanic value orientation and ability to engage in strategies that are associated
with success in the
Different stages in the process have different characteristics, and issues that are important at one stage may disappear at another. These stages and issues include increased familiarity and knowledge of usual social interaction patterns, opportunities for experimentation, expected barriers to hoped outcomes, different modalities of negotiating and of using strategies in competing, conflict resolution and accommodation, and changes across time frames.
Although some of the psychodynamic components of acculturation have been analyzed, it is essential that acculturation be viewed as a multidimensional process. Acculturation may be considered a group of sub-processes, each focusing on different aspects of life in the total adaptation effort. Immigrants use a variety of pathways and mechanisms to enter into new social interactions, affecting their role behaviors. This points to the multiple conceptual dimension which is helpful because of the lack of knowledge of large areas of human behavior. Newcomers are generally not presented with a coherent set of customs to which they should adhere. The reality of the host society, in terms of ethnic, socioeconomic class and regional setting, results in a variety of norms to which immigrants are expected to adapt. Immigrants channeled into a random subgroup of this country's pluralistic population may learn the norms of one group, but they remain ignorant of the norms of many others (30).
If that subgroup happens to consist of immigrants from the same place of origin, as happens in Miami, Los Angeles or New York which are home to large groups of first- generation Hispanics, this separation may intensify feelings of isolation, and decrease his/her social adaptive skill.
Whichever dimensions of integration are considered, the process is an interactive dynamic exchange between the immigrant and the host society. There is a mutual process of adaptation through which immigrants and American citizens respond to each other with natively acquired social patterns. Each side has an effect on the other and each may change in response to an accommodation need. This is a social process of vital importance to the life events of a group.
The host country –
in this instance, the
Characteristics of the American society, in terms of openness, are expressed by
traditions, rules, and regulations within its public and legal agencies and
with the granting of privileges, rewards and punishments as well as the
informal attitudes expressed by different subgroups in the regions of the
To conceptualize exchange between the migratory experience as a stressor and the acculturating, adaptive process as a group of stress responses, the following body of knowledge has been selected.
Acculturation and Adaptation
All studies have presented acculturation processes and outcomes as complex, multileveled, multivariable reverberating human systems, encompassing communication styles, scales of values, and behaviors expressed across different social rules. A wide variety of studies focus on broad manifestations of behavior categorized as adaptive and functional with more or less problems and conflicts. Padilla (1) describes the admixture of identifying with the dominant American societal culture and permanent values as encompassing two elements: cultural awareness and ethnic loyalty.
Szapoznic and Kurtines (29) categorize multiple constellations of adaptation as acculturation, bicultural, psychological adjustment and under-acculturation. These studies and many others discussed the phenomenology of behavior observed among individuals having different cultural guidelines for their behavior and for their understanding of behavior exhibited by members of the host country.
The concepts of stressor-stress response, crisis resolution and adaptation serve as a conceptual bridge to organize observations on immigrants and comprehend the process of acculturation.
Engel’s theories (31) on the socio-cultural behavior, reactions and thinking of a person can be used in defining how individual adapts to the new conditions presented in the host country. In summary, Engel proposes that “the single individual (person) is the highest level of the organism hierarchy and at the same time the lowest unit of the social hierarchy.”
Each system is given distinct qualities and relationships for the level of organization and each requires criteria for study and explanation unique to that level. Engel points out that the same methods for labeling, measuring and drawings scientific conclusions cannot be used to identify and characterize the components of each system (bio-psycho-social-cultural) with their reverberating feedback controlling and modulating loops. Cell, organ, person, family - each indicate a level of complex integrated organization about the existence of the universe. Different approaches are required to gain an understanding of the guidelines of forces responsible for the collective order of each system.
To understand an
individual, we make many judgments about his/her experiences and behavior. We describe many of the biological influences
on behavior but to understand them, we need the input of many we need the input
of many social systems influencing individual, such as how the cultural
components of the systems influence the individual because the culture
components of the systems are specific and powerful. These socio-cultural concepts offer a
theoretical structure to enhance the “Engel” model and incorporate the feedback
loops between biological, psychological and socio-cultural systems, incorporating
the role of meaning, experiences and behavior of individuals living in the
This group of concepts assists in uniting several conceptual psychosocial theoretical propositions with the human behavior phenomenology observed in the resolution of crisis-reactions post-stressors (immigration) followed by adaptation- bicultural guidelines of behavior (acculturation).
According to Luhmann (33), the individual's psychobiological systems are partially controlled and directed by the processes of experience and actions; these groups of processes build up to the child's developmental stages and experience to form systems of channeling meaning to incorporate or discard random stimuli in the environment.
These personal referential points, by delineating only certain alternatives as possible, already negate certain others. The role of reality testing, logical thinking and attributional judgment appears to be embedded in a theoretical construct. “Meaning” reduces the complexity of the stimuli in the environment by selecting certain experiences and actions as possible and eliminating others as impossible. This process is linked to child development, parental rearing and continuous socialization. We incorporate the systems’ meaning of our cultural background through other individuals who already perceive the world in terms of the social cultural characteristics of their world. We acquire a perspective on things that are culturally system-bound and traditional. Our actual experiences and actions refer only to those possibilities that pertain to a particular system in our cultural.
Contemporary work and cognitive science has shown that people strive to construct a coherent and satisfying interpretation of events around them in everyday life. People often tried to accomplish this by organizing events to perceive according to schemata of cause and effect. People often try to impute causal relations between temporarily contiguous events, even though the relations were not strictly causal but simply incidental (for example, premonition of events). We use different causal schemata to assist us in the process of making casual inferences about the past and about the future. These frames are reference assistance us in locating the search for cause within certain culturally-dependent meaningful domains. The choice of a particular frame of reference – Hispanic – is crucial to coping adapting for migrants of that extraction since it directs attention to a group of variables identified by the value system, thereby excluding others. Building on this, Hispanics create attributable reasons for behavior and events. These schemata have cultural repertories, with emotional values attached to them.
Jasper (34) distinguishes the meaningfulness of the individuals experience and behavior in relation to how an event affected him or her versus the objective, realistic characteristics of the event as judged by observers. He points to the need to evaluate between causal and meaningful processes by describing both descriptions in terms of selection, negation and the deduction of complexity. The concept of understanding guides us through the process of how we make "sense" of other individuals. It assists us in our everyday social interaction with other people. We grasp and interpret behavior by observable signs and values. These manifestations are based on objective givens - programmed and interpreted according to socio-cultural internalized "blueprints."
ideas [Schwartz and Wiggins (32), Luhmann (33), and
Jasper (34)], we can build a conceptual bridge between immigration as a
stressor and acculturation as a manifestation of stress response. We can
conceptualize the interactions between migrant experiences, acculturation
processes and the new environment as a complex, dynamic and fluid system force
affecting the Hispanic individual's adaptation outcome in the
Using this broad system's interactive and theoretical conceptualization to understand the immigrant's behavior, we can apply the theories to guide our thinking about the stressor effect on an individual immigrant and the influential role the constant effort to lower stressor effects plays in developing acculturated behavior.
Our first observations about the mythical migrant are on the person-system (31) and take place within a two-person, face-to-face system (for example, immigration agents, customs or jobs). The inner experience of the immigrant - his/her feeling, thoughts, behavior - will be an amalgamation of his/her experiences and skills. With the system's hierarchy, with Engel as a guide, we need to consider the individual's age, gender, past and present residence, marital and family status, past and present occupation, whether s/he is employed or jobless, and his/her citizenship status. Each immigrant will present a group of psychological reactions, styles and conflict expression behaviors as s/he orients him/herself and his/her family in the new setting; locks for housing, a job and income; and develops human relationships and ethnic identity re-enforcers. Lazarus' research findings (22) support the supposition that many of these interactions could be catalogued as "hassles," while Eisdorfer (35) calls them different stressors, varying reactions and outcomes. During the sequence of critical events in the immigrant's adjustment to daily novel experiences, s/he will build micro-adaptive skills according to the interplay between events, the individual's characteristics, and the context in which events occur.
Using the multiple hierarchical components, we can postulate that coping and adapting, as a function of acculturation will depend on the interrelationship of the individual with his/her internalized "world of origin" and the American receiving environmental characteristics. The experience of crisis and crisis resolution as first experiences in acculturation plays an important guiding "blueprint" for avoiding the threat of disruption. The process of integrating and regulating inner experiences and behavior require daily adaptive processes. The immigrant's psychological response oscillates between the initial crisis response - alarm - and increased awareness of coping procedures at his/her disposal which, when functioning effectively, return his/ her coping abilities and increase his/her sense of self-esteem. These coping abilities are founded on a scale of personal values, including responsibility, dependence-independence, loyalty, and control of the environment.
We can theorize that psychological stabilization and regularities of behavior observed during interactions between Hispanics and Americans may be the outcome
of a set
of stimuli that tend to force the human organism to equilibrate his/her
adaptive functions to a new setting. The member of the host country (
emerge as one wonders what elements exist between Hispanics and Americans which
might be conducive to successful adaptation to a "different"
needs to be given to the role that social and political factors play in the
state of adaptation and acculturation within the
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that although multiple studies have been published about multiple effects of human adaptation to new settings, none of them seems to capture the resilience, creativity and amazing capacity to survive that is inherent in human nature.
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