What is “enculturation?”

Travis DixonSocial and Cultural Psychology

Enculturation is an umbrella term that refers to how an individual attains the cultural norms of their heritage culture.

One of the changes in the new IB Psychology course is the addition of two new concepts in the socio-cultural approach to understanding human behaviour:

  • Enculturation


  • Acculturation

In this short post I’ll briefly outline the concept of enculturation and provide some general guidance as to how it can be taught in the course.

What is enculturation?

To quote the new guide, “enculturation is the process by which people learn the necessary and appropriate skills and norms in the context of their culture.” 

So enculturation is an umbrella term that encompasses all the possible ways that people might learn the cultural norms of their heritage culture (the culture they are brought up in). Another similar term is cultural transmission, which refers to any process that transmits cultural norms.

Simply put, enculturation is how we attain our cultural values and understand the norms of our culture. It’s an important process because if we want to be a successful member of society, we need to understand (and abide by) cultural norms.

How does enculturation affect behaviour?

For the new course (first exams May 2019), students have to be able to explain “the effect of enculturation…on human cognition and behaviour…using one or more examples.” 

At first glance this seems a little tricky, but one way to approach the study of enculturation is to investigate one example of how and why particular values are transmitted in certain cultures. This can cover the cognition aspect. To see how it affects behaviour, we can combine another example of how those values might influence behaviour.


In my course (and book) I begin my Social Influence unit with a topic on conformity to group norms. During this first topic we look at Asch’s famous experiments on conformity and then introduce the idea of how different cultures might have different rates of conformity because of their different cultural values.

For example, Berry’s research on the Temne and Inuit tribes is covered, as is Bond and Smith’s meta-analysis on individualism/collectivism and conformity. The general concept that we look at here is how cultures who value the opinions of the group and put more emphasis on adhering to group norms (collectivism), rather than speaking out their own opinions (individualism), may be more likely to conform. Similarly, the economic system prevalent in the culture might influence the development of these cultural values. Hunting/gathering cultures (like the Inuit) might be more independent and rely less on one another, so individualism is encouraged. Farming and agricultural societies, on the other hand, need more reliance on one another so they need to work together, thus these cultures place higher value on collectivist-related values.

So at this stage we have a basic relationship chain from this first topic:

Economic factors influence → Cultural values (Ind/Coll) → which influences Behaviour (conformity)


Hunting and gathering tribes (like this one in Mongolia) may encourage attributes like initiative and innovation through their child training practices. This is one way enculturation can affect cognition and behaviour.

Where does enculturation come into it?

So the next topic in Social Influence (Topic 3.2) is Enculturation and we’ve got a headstart on the topic as we’ve already explored the relevant economic factors (type of economy – hunting/gathering vs. agricultural), the cultural values (individualism/collectivism) and the behaviour (conformity).

In order to understand how enculturation can have an effect we need an example of how the cultural values develop in the first place. And this is where child training practices becomes important – the way children are raised is where the values come from.

We can see this in Barry et al’s (1959) cross-cultural study of various cultures and their child training practices. Essentially what they found was that hunting and fishing cultures, like the Inuit, had more focus on child training practices that encouraged initiative and innovation. This could be because since they are subsistence economies, they can afford to take risks on a daily basis by trying to develop new techniques and technologies, because if they fail they’ve only lost one day’s catch, and they can always make this up.

Agricultural societies, on the other hand, require careful adherence to rules and tried and true practices of raising crops and animals, because if a herd dies or a crop fails, it affects the group for months. Not surprisingly the researchers found more emphasis on child training practices that encouraged responsibility and obedience in cultures with this type of economic system.

So by combining two topics: Cultural Influences on Conformity with Enculturation, students can get a deeper understanding of how enculturation can effect behaviour: in summary, child training practices (one part of the enculturation process) are influenced by economic factors which in turn influence the type of cultural values that are transmitted from generation to generation. These cultural values can be seen as the cognitive effect of enculturation, and the varying levels of conformity are the behavioural effects.