How do we “explain enculturation”?

Travis DixonSocial and Cultural Psychology

Enculturation is the process of acquiring the cultural norms and values of one's "heritage culture." Parenting is one way that enculturation happens.

The new enculturation topic can be confusing and tricky. I think it’s by far one of the hardest topics to write about in IB Psychology. Hopefully this post will provide a bit of help to go along with the explanations in IB Psychology: A Students Guide.

What do you need to know?

  • What is enculturation?
  • What influences enculturation?
  • How can enculturation influence behaviour?
  • What does the research say about enculturation?


What is enculturation? 

Enculturation is a broad term that refers to the process of acquiring the cultural norms and values of one’s home culture.

What influences enculturation?

One approach to understanding enculturation is to look at variables that might affect the cultural values that different cultures encourage in their children. One factor is economics.

There are lots of ways that people can become enculturated, including through education, parents, peers and other social influences like media. Parents naturally want their children to adopt the cultural values and cultural norms of the home culture so they can be successful individuals in that culture. Therefore, they will use child training practices that will develop an understanding of those values and norms. The child training practices and related values that parents encourage will change depending on the culture and the economic systems they use.

For example, in high food accumulating cultures (e.g. agricultural and farming cultures) responsibility and obedience are encouraged since these are important qualities that will ensure crops and animals are properly raised. Low food accumulating cultures (e.g. those that rely on hunting and fishing) can afford to take more risks and experiment with new ideas, since a failed innovation will only have short-term consequences, but a success can have long-term benefits. Thus, parents in these cultures are likely to encourage independence and innovation.

These explanations are given more detail in “IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide.”

Asian Mother is teaching her son to read a story book

Parents want their children to be successful and so they will raise them with an understanding of the cultural norms and values of their culture so they can be successful later in life. Economic factors will influence what those norms and values are, and this can be seen in Barry et al.’s (1959) study.

How can enculturation influence behaviour? 

Now that we’ve seen how economic factors can influence enculturation because they affect the types of values that parents want to instill in their kids, we can now see how those values might affect behaviour. In this case we’ll look at conformity. Berry (1967) found that the low food accumulating culture of the Temne people in Sierra Leone had higher rates of conformity when compared with the low food accumulating culture of the Inuit people of North America.

This could be explained by the different values that parents might have raised their kids to have. If the Temne like other farming cultures teach responsibility and obedience, this means they’ll be more likely to adhere to group norms, since being obedient requires following rules and norms set by others. On the other hand, if the Inuit people have been raised to be independent and self-reliant, they will be less likely to buckle to group pressure and more likely to place a higher value on their own opinions, making them less likely to conform.


These Inuit parents of North America would be more likely to raise their children to value independence and self-reliance because these values will help them be successful in this culture. This could explain why they conform less than other cultures like the Temne people of Africa.

What does the research say about enculturation?

When writing about research related to enculturation, Barry et al.’s (1959) cross-cultural study on economic systems and child training practices (e.g. parenting) is a good one to use. These researchers compared 46 cultures from around the world, ranging from low to high food accumulation. They gathered data to measure the focus child training practices in each culture focused on things like obedience, responsibility, self-reliance, achievement, independence etc. They studied the practices used on children from around 5 years old to adolescence.

The results showed that high food accumulating cultures placed more emphasis on responsibility and obedience training, whereas low food accumulating cultures placed more emphasis on training children in ways that would encourage independence, achievement and self-reliance.

This supports the argument provided above to show how economic factors can influence enculturation. Using this in combination with Berry’s study can show how this enculturation can affect behaviour.

I think why I’ve been having a tough time getting my students to understand how enculturation affects behaviour is because I was overlooking the first part of the relationship: the fact that economics affects enculturation. So now we know that in order to explain enculturation, we have to explain what influences enculturation and then how that affects behaviour, it becomes easier to comprehend.