Culture Shock A Phenomenon Fundamental to Anthropology and a Health Concern

The immersion in a culture different from one's own alternates periods of excitement and exhilaration with periods of great stress and exhaustion. This is true for anthropologists visiting another culture as much as for immigrants or visitors to a new culture. The various experiences involved in encountering a new culture, only partially encompassed by Kalervo Oberg's (1950) term "culture shock," are at the heart of the anthropological experience. They have been well described by novelists: E. M. Forster's Passage to India, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and Laura Bohannan's Return to Laughter, to mention just a few. This process of adaptation to another culture is also of importance to medical anthropology: culture shock may be a major precipitant of emotional and psychological breakdown. Perhaps this is one reason why many of the people writing about culture shock have been psychotherapists and psychoanalysts (Antokoletz, 1987; Desai & Coelho, 1980; Garza-Guerrero, 1974; Ticho, 1971). The Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi described his own culture shock on coming to the United States (Doi, 1973, chapter 1). But it has also, particularly recently, been an issue discussed by anthropologists with an interest in psychoanalysis (Bateson, 1968; Briggs, 1970, esp. chapter 6, Kracke, 1987, 2002). William Caudill (1961) has written of the process of adapting to another culture as one of "resocialization," going through childhood socialization again in the new culture. Garza-Guerrero (1974) stressed the mourning of one's own culture and the formation of a new identity in the new one, a model which Desai and Coelho (1980) apply to their therapeutic work with Indians having difficulty in adapting to the United States. I have argued (Kracke, 1987) that the experience of encountering a new culture can be likened to an analytic experience, with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the new environment and the relationships formed in it promoting regression and transferences to the new culture. The experience puts one at risk of emotional distress, but also offers the opportunity for deep personal change in adapting to the new culture.

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