LaBrack - Theory Reflections Cultural Adaptations Culture...

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Theory Reflections: Cultural Adaptations, Culture Shock and the “Curves of Adjustment” 1 By Bruce La Brack 2 The Rise and Fall of an Iconic Model of Intercultural Adjustment One of the most powerful, practical, and productive concepts in the field of international educational exchange is that of “culture shock,” described as the physical, psychological, and behavioral reactions that often occur when individuals are attempting to live, work, or study in unfamiliar cultural contexts. Culture shock remains a core concept within the fields of anthropology, psychology, and intercultural communication, and is almost universally referenced in orientation and reentry training in both education abroad (Church 1982) and corporate contexts (Black and Mendenhall 1991). The “U” and “W” curves of adjustment models emerged and evolved alongside the “culture shock” concept, usually accompanied by visual illustrations that attempted to describe and even predict a “typical” trajectory that such stressful encounters would produce. While culture shock remains a viable and useful theoretical and explanatory tool, the “curves” have not held up nearly as well, in spite of their almost iconic status among trainers and the general public. In short, “curves” have not withstood empirical testing and research. How and why did this delinking occur? And, even if they are no longer considered accurate, how could one use them to prepare students for cultural adjustment? How would you need to context them, and what cautions about applying them too literally would you need to convey to students? The Emergence of Culture Shock As a Theoretical Category Culture shock is a relatively recent theoretical idea even if the behaviors associated with the discomfort of crossing cultural boundaries can be found as far back as classical Greek literature. In 1951, anthropologist Cora DuBois first publicly used the term “culture shock” to describe the disorienting experience that many anthropologists face when entering different cultures (Paige 1993), although fellow Columbia University anthropologist Ruth Benedict may have been the original source. In 1954, Kalervo Oberg used and expanded DuBois’ term to be applicable to all people who travel abroad into new cultures in his classic article on “Culture Shock”. He created a generalized “honeymoon-crisis-recovery- adjustment model” and termed culture shock an “occupational disease” that international travelers face, complete with symptoms (e.g., feeling of helplessness, home-sickness, irritability, etc.).
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