Biculturalism refers to an individual’s ability to interact competently in two different or disparate cultural systems. Cultural systems are based on ideas, values, beliefs, and knowledge learned and shared by individuals within the same culture and can include those based on national origin and ethnic background. The meaning derived from cultural systems represents shared perspectives and expectations that serve as interpretative frames to influence individuals’ affects, cognitions, and behaviors. Research on biculturalism seeks to understand the processes and outcomes associated with individuals who have membership in two distinct cultures and engage in interactions in both cultures. To a lesser extent, the research also considers monocultural individuals participating in cross-cultural exchanges.
Research has determined that besides having other characteristics, culturally competent individuals (a) possess strong self-identities, (b) are knowledgeable of and have facility with the beliefs and values of their cultures, (c) display sensitivity to the affective processes of their cultures, (d) communicate effectively in the language of the target cultural group, (e) perform culturally and socially sanctioned behavior, (f) maintain active social relationships within the cultural group, and (g) effectively negotiate the institutional structures of the target culture. Cultural competence is not a categorical construct such that one is either completely or not at all competent. Indeed, the literature on biculturalism has found significant variance in the manner in which individuals experience and manage multiple cultural systems. However, it is generally suggested that the more levels in which an individual is competent within two cultures, the fewer problems he or she will encounter in operating effectively within those cultures.
Biculturalism scholars assert that individuals who live within and move between two cultural systems can possess dual cultural identities and engage in real-time cultural frame switching, whereby they move between different cultural perspectives in response to environmental cues. For example, research has shown that when primed with either Western or Asian cultural cues, Hong Kong and Chinese American bicultural people exhibit behavior characteristic of Western or East Asian people, respectively. In other words, bicultural people can access and switch between multiple cultural meaning systems and appropriate sets of behavior depending on the context. Recent research has determined that while some bicultural individuals perceive their cultural identities as compatible and perhaps even complementary, others perceive these identities as being in conflict with one another. The extent to which bicultural identities are integrated within an individual’s self-concept is referred to as bicultural identity integration, and the degree of this integration has been linked to cognition, attributions, and behavior.
Biculturalism research has emerged from the theorizing of scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois and the consideration of double consciousness, based on the experience of secondary cultural immersion experienced by various immigrant groups in the United States (e.g., African slaves, Chinese laborers). As of the writing of this entry, research on the impact of biculturalism on career and organizational outcomes is at an early stage and draws on research examining effects associated with biculturalism in the disciplines of anthropology, education, clinical and social psychology, and sociology. Research across these disciplines has tended to find positive associations between biculturalism and psychological well-being, and educational and professional motivation and achievement. Recent research has established that bicultural experiences can exert significant influence on career identity development among Black and White women in the United States, with implications for these women’s expectations and management of majority colleagues and their own career progression. Other career development research among bicultural women has found that Black professional women have complex life structures and that some include a high degree of compartmentalization to manage bicultural demands. In other words, to manage the stress of disparate expectations between their professional or mainstream cultures and their initial cultures, some women maintain clear barriers between their professional identities and interactions and their personal lives and nonprofessional identities.
Biculturalism may also be understood in contrast to other primary models of second-culture acquisition, including assimilation and acculturation. Assimilation and acculturation comprise processes whereby a new cultural identity based on the beliefs, values, and norms of the dominant or high-status culture supplants an individual’s initial cultural identity. These models assert that marginalization is a result of bicultural contact and identification until the individual is successful in achieving full assimilation or acculturation within the dominant or mainstream culture. Outcomes associated with these models of cross-cultural contact and cultural competence ideally include integration into the mainstream culture and society; however, social marginalization and generally negative economic and psychological effects on individuals have often been found.
Accordingly, at least two sources of conflict may arise for individuals attempting to assimilate or become acculturated in new or secondary cultures. First, they face the psychological and cognitive stress of monitoring and switching between cultures. Second, they face the likelihood of rejection from the dominant or majority cultures. These individuals may also be rejected by members of their initial cultures for exhibiting dominant-culture values, such as education and career aspirations, or because of other perceived violations of the initial cultures’ norms, which may include disparagement or suspicion of dominant cultures. The resulting marginalization, or awareness of partial membership in two cultural systems and a lack of full acceptance in either culture, is theorized to lead to psychological conflict and a divided self. Biculturalism scholars, however, assert that people who live at the juncture of two cultures do not inevitably suffer.
Of note to human resource professionals and others with an interest in organizational and career effectiveness are research findings indicating that in contexts in which different cultures are in intimate contact (i.e., multicultural contexts), biculturalism has been associated with favorable outcomes. Individuals with greater levels of bicultural competence have been found to exhibit less stress than those with less bicultural competence in cross-cultural and culturally ambiguous contexts. For example, biculturally competent and identified Asian American and Latin American students (including university students) have demonstrated motivation and achievement advantages, in addition to less psychological stress, relative to bicultural Asian and Latin American students who are nonidentified or choose to identify exclusively with either their initial/ethnic or the mainstream (U.S.) culture.
Other research examining outcomes associated with bicultural education and training initiatives has found greater improvement in cross-cultural skill level and efficacy among mainstream society members (e.g., Whites in the United States) than among societal minority members. These results are consistent with research in human resources that recommends bicultural training for expatriates and other individuals who cross cultural boundaries as a part of fulfilling their organizational roles. This includes host country language and cultural training related to social values and norms. Similar training has also been called for to develop skills associated with minority subcultures for mainstream students and rank-and-file organization members (e.g., White students and employees in U.S., Canadian, and Australian schools and organizations) who must work with, manage, and be managed by individuals belonging to societal subcultures. Increasingly diverse consumer and labor pools and the increasingly global nature of work may render bicultural competence a valuable asset for career development and progress.
- Culture and careers
- Diversity in organizations
- Gender and careers
- Globalization and careers
- Multicultural organization
- Bell, E. L. 1990. “The Bicultural Life Experience of Career-oriented Black Women.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 11:459-477.
- Bell, E. L. J. E. and Nkomo, S. M. 2001. Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
- Benet-Martinez, V., Leu, J., Lee, F. and Morris, M. W. 2002. “Negotiating Biculturalism: Cultural Frame Switching in Biculturals with Oppositional Versus Compatible Cultural Identities.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 33:492-516.
- Hong, Y. Y., Morris, M., Chiu, C. Y. and Benet-Martinez, V. 2000. “Multicultural Minds: A Dynamic Constructive Approach to Culture and Cognition.” American Psychologist 55:709-720.
- LaFromboise, T., Coleman, H. L. K. and Gerton, J. 1993. “Psychological Impact of Biculturalism: Evidence and Theory.” Psychological Bulletin 114:395-412.
- Thompson, R. H. 2003. “Basing Educational Anthropology on the Education of Anthropologists: Can Bilingualism and Biculturalism Promote the Fundamental Goals of Anthropology Better than Multiculturalism?” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 34:96-107.