Culture is defined as the social customs, institutions, and achievements of a particular group of people. Cultures can be unique to specific regions, religious groups, ethnic groups, or families, to name a few. Acculturation occurs when one group adopts some or all the customs of another group. There are many ways in which this can occur.
As social creatures, human beings crave a sense of belonging in whatever culture they find themselves. Consciously and subconsciously, people look to those around them for cues regarding acceptable behavior. Habits, actions, and vocabulary are adopted to gain this acceptance. In fact, every action seen by others has the potential to pollinate new ways of thinking in others. As established residents demonstrate their culture’s desirable behaviors, they plant seeds of similar thinking in the people around them. As newcomers adopt those behaviors, they are rewarded with the approval and acceptance of the culture within which they find themselves and, in turn, pass those behaviors on to the people around them.
Acculturation can occur either randomly, through martial law, or by the active teaching of strangers by receptive, seasoned residents. The active cultivation of culture through “leading by example” is critical to the successful development of a new society. Just as farmers have, for generations, cultivated specific characteristics of various plants and animals to produce desirable results, active acculturation can be used to consciously and purposefully create a new culture that benefits everyone. While desirable new cultural traits can add life blood to this emerging culture, the social ideals of the group at large help newcomers unlearn “bad” habits and adopt the group’s more positive social ideals.
When one nation overpowers another, as in the case of China taking over Tibet, acculturation is forced upon the conquered people through force. Torture, brainwashing, and death are commonly used tools in this oppressive form of acculturation.
The global marketplace, and organizations such as Burning Man, bring together people of many different cultures, with differing views, habits, and lifestyles. When people of these different cultures come together, a variety of things can happen: one group can battle for supremacy, the two cultures can remain separate and intact, or the seeds of a new and improved culture can emerge. Acculturation is a critical aspect of finding or creating this new and improved mutual ground.
Adopting a new culture
Adopting new social ideals and political, economic, and religious beliefs can only occur through tolerance, understanding, and mutual respect. When newcomers arrive and observe habits different from their own, they must decide for themselves whether, or not, they are comfortable adopting these new behaviors. For example, a neat freak attending a heavy metal concert may be appalled at the trash thrown on the ground, whereas a dyed in the wool litterbug will find themselves shunned and the recipient of reeducation efforts at a Leave No Trace (LNT) event.
Acculturation can be an oppressive, violent means of spreading the culture of one group, or it can be used as a tool by which negative behaviors, ideas, and habits can be transformed into positive, productive, liberating social ideals.