Conceptualization of Self, Ethnic Identity and the Experience of Acculturation

Mary Nichter

Sam Houston State University


Ethnic identity as part of an individual’s self-concept develops from knowledge of membership in a cultural group and the value or emotional significance attached to that membership.  The value placed on ethnic group membership is influenced by the degree to which an individual has experienced acculturation into the dominant culture.  The relationship between conceptualization of self, ethnic identity and acculturation and how culturally sensitive counselors can utilize this information has been reviewed in current literature.

Conceptualization of Self, Ethnic Identity and the Experience of Acculturation

In 1908 Israel Zangwill, an English author and Jewish leader, wrote a play titled The Melting Pot, in which he described his vision of the emerging American culture as follows:

            You, the Spirit of the Settlement! … Not understand that America is God’s

crucible, the great melting-pot where all races of Europe are melting and re-forming!  Here, you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island,

here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories…

(Zagwill, 1908, p. 1).

While Zangwill’s perception of the melting pot as the fusion of many cultures into a new and unique culture may have been the answer to the European immigrants migrating to American, it would not be the cultural solution for immigrants of non-European descent.  Kallen (1999), Lee (1997) and Locke (1998) described a different and more challenging process for immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin cultures.  According to Kallen, the blending of non-European immigrants into the American melting pot would have involved “the miracle of assimilation” (p. 12).

Assimilation and Acculturation

Kallen suggested assimilation required the cultural absorption of a minority group into the main cultural body resulting in cultural loss for the minority group. He suggested only a miracle could change all the characteristics of one group to become like another group. 

Lee (1997) and Locke (1998) stated the process of acculturation best described the challenge non-European immigrants confronted when becoming part of the dominant culture.  Acculturation has been described as giving up most cultural traits of the culture of origin and assuming traits of the dominant culture (Barry, Trimble, & Olmedo, 1986); an adjustment process whereby, as a result of sociocultural interactions, a person acquires the customs of an alternative culture (Phinney, 1990); the degree to which an individual identifies with or conforms to the attitudes, lifestyles, and values of the dominant culture (Lee, 1997).  While acculturation and assimilation may have held hopes of unity and belonging by creating one macroculture (Marin, 1992) in which all members of the new American society were to fit, the process would create many challenges for immigrants of non-European cultural origins.

            Locke (1998) suggested that many of the challenges faced by the original non-European immigrants have continued through the years to confront individuals migrating to America from non-European cultures.  He identified the degree of difference between the set of cultural factors presented by non-European groups and the set of cultural factors of the dominant European influenced culture of America made the process of assimilation and acculturation more or less difficult to achieve.  The set of cultural factors are psychological and behavioral qualities, including language and the arts, child-rearing practices, religious practices, family structure, and values and attitudes (p. 6).  Lee (1997) referred to the set of cultural factors as the ethnic ingredients of a culture. 

Not all researchers reviewed agreed on the relationship between culture and ethnicity.  Researchers, C. Lee, (1997); W. Lee, (1999); and Locke, (1998), viewed ethnicity as part of one’s culture; others, Barr (1997), Helms (1985), and Marin (1992) postulated that culture differs from ethnicity in that it refers to a group’s norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors that may not necessarily be based on ethnic background.  Other researchers, (Gasser & Tan, 1999) regarded ethnicity and culture as the same using the terms and concepts interchangeably.  Despite varied opinions and perceptions, all researchers agreed conceptualization of self was significantly influenced by the experience of membership to an ethnic or cultural group.  The term ethnic identity will be used throughout this article to refer to an individual’s sense of belonging and identification with a cultural group. 

Ethnic Identity

            Ethnic identity has been described as a template used to develop knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about a person’s own ethnic group (Dana, 1993); as a cognitive, information-processing framework within which a person perceives and defines objects, situations, events, and other people (Markstrom-Adams, 1992); and as a basis for a person’s behavior (Phinney, 1990).  Tajfel (1981) described ethnic identity as part of an individual’s self-concept developed from knowledge of membership in a cultural group and the value or emotional significance attached to that membership.  Similarly, Guanipa-Ho and Guanipa (1999) defined ethnic identification as a real awareness of self within a specific group, which resulted from valuing or devaluing connection to the group.  Charlesworth (2000) maintained ethnic identity development to be an essential human need that provided a sense of belonging and historical continuity and created a foundation on which to build a concept of self. 

Self-Concept and Ethnic Identity

Shirley Samuels (1977) discussed self-concept development and identified several dimensions in conceptualization of self:

Body Image: how the individual views himself or herself, how he or she looks physically and how his or her body reacts and acts.

Social Self: the racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious self

Cognitive Self: the self as viewed in the individual’s mental development and aptitudes

Self-Esteem: how the person evaluates his or her self-concept; how much respect the person has for himself or herself (p. 459)

Samuels found in reviewing available research that by age two and a half, children develop a racial consciousness and a sense of ethnic identity.  Identity, an understanding of who we are and who we are not, has been described as a complex multifaceted process that begins in childhood and continues through life (Gasser & Tan, 1999).  Early in identity development, children become aware of a wide range of physical characteristics in themselves and others, including those we call racial – skin color, facial features, and hair texture (Gasser & Tan, 1999; Phinney, 1990; Tajfel, 1981).  Likewise, young children acquire ethnic values, customs, language styles and behavioral codes long before they are able to label and know them as ethnic.  

            Researchers, Phinney and Rotheram (1987) studied racial and ethnic development in young children from a socialization perspective and believe that the ethnic identity process for children of color begins at birth – at the earliest interaction between the child, family and community.  They maintained that the continual presence of personal and societal markers – skin color, language, food choices, values and membership in a dominant or non-dominant group – instill in children ethnic roles and behaviors that prepare them for eventual self-labeling.  Zweigenhaft and Domhoff (1998) researched skin-tone of ethnic minorities and found the degree of lightness of skin served as a mediating variable in determining macroculture acceptance of different minority group members.

Given that ethnic identity is one aspect of global self-concept (Charlesworth, 2000; Samuels, 1977), it would seem reasonable to expect that a person with a positive self-concept, experiencing high self-esteem would have a strong and favorable ethnic identity.  Subsequent research in the area of ethnic identity and self-identity has supported a strong relationship between the two.  Phinney and Rotheram (1987) and Phinney (1990) asserted self-esteem to be unquestionably related to ethnic identity.

            As early as 1948, Lewin (as cited in Phinney, 1990) stated that individuals need a sense of group identification in order to maintain a sense of well-being.  This idea has been further developed and supported by researchers (Barry, Trimble, & Olmedo, 1986; Markstrom-Adams, 1992) who found that simply being a member of a group provided individuals with a sense of belonging and connectedness that contributed to a positive self-concept.  Other researchers (Phinney & Rotheram, 1987) cautioned against overgeneralization of this concept and stated that with respect to ethnic group membership, where the dominant group holds traits or characteristics of the group in low esteem, the members of the low-status ethnic group may be faced with negative identity and low self-regard.

            Researcher and author James Garbarino (1999) described the developmental needs of youth and found the need to belong and be accepted as a group member to be major components of identity formation and evaluation.  Ethnically and culturally diverse youth, who are often confronted with rejection from the dominant culture, may gravitate to any culture or cultural substitute including a gang culture for a sense of identity and self-esteem.

Levels of Acculturation/Immersion and Ethnic Identity

            The sense of esteem and pride one experiences from ethnic group membership may be influenced by the degree to which individuals have immersed themselves into the dominant culture. Locke (1998) offered four classifications to describe the levels of immersion into the dominant culture:

Bicultural: Able to function as competently in the dominant culture as in their own while holding on to manifestations of their own culture

Traditional: holding on to a majority of cultural traits from the culture of origin while rejecting many traits of the dominant culture

Acculturated: Having given up most cultural traits of the culture of origin and assumed traits of the dominant culture

Marginal: Neither completely at ease in the culture of origin nor minimally a part of the dominant culture (p. 8)

Lee’s (1997) research supported Locke’s (1998) classifications of immersion as a determining factor in the level of esteem in ethnic identification experienced by individuals of non-dominant culture origin.  Lee used the term acculturation to parallel the experience of immersion as described by Locke. 

Individuals at the bicultural classification level of immersion (Barr, 1997; Lee, 1997; Locke, 1998) move comfortably, both physically and psychologically, between their ethnic culture and the macroculture.   Lee offered language competency as an example of movement between two cultures.  Bicultural individuals are often bilingual, having mastered the standard language of the macroculture while maintaining fluency of their ethnic language or linguistic traditions.

            Individuals identified within Locke’s traditional classification maintain a strong tie to their culture of origin and exhibit less flexibility within the macroculture.  Recent immigrants (Lee, 1997) are examples of this group who often learn the language and adapt to many practices of the macroculture yet continue to nurture the cultural customs of the “old country” (p. 21).

Immersion at the acculturated level described individuals who exhibit little ethnic identification (Locke, 1998); experience a limited sense of belonging to their ethnic group (Phinney & Rotheram, 1987); and little in the dynamics of their personality reflects ethnic group membership (Lee, 1997).  Phinney (1990) postulated that a weak experience with one’s ethnic group may be motivated by overt or subtle macroculture messages about the unacceptability or undesirability of significant aspects of ethnic minority cultural practices.  However, little involvement with one’s ethnic group may result from lack of contact and limited knowledge about one’s ethnic heritage.  

The marginal classification of immersion categorized individuals who experience a weak sense of ethnic identity and a low degree of acculturation.  These individuals have limited sense of belonging to any group and very little of their personality is attributable to specified group membership (Phinney & Rotheram, 1987).  Lee (1997) described these individuals as physically, mentally, and spiritually ill in any culture. 

            The relationship between a sense of ethnic identity and the degree of acculturation

 may be influenced by a number of factors including, age, gender, ethnic group, length of residence within the macroculture, level of education, extent of experience with racism, and socioeconomic status (Barr, 1997; Lee, C. 1997; Lee, W.1999).  Ethnic identity and acculturation are dynamic processes, in which an individual may experience ongoing movement within the immersion classifications.

Implications for Counselors

            Locke (1998) reminded counselors that the goal of counseling is change and ways to bring about change are culturally dependent.  An ethnic minority’s reaction to counseling, the counseling process, and the counselor are all influenced by ethnicity and cultural identity (Helms, 1985).  Therefore, increased awareness and knowledge of different ethnic groups and development of skills for effective counseling relationships across cultures must be part of the professional growth process for all counselors.  Enrolling in university classes, reading professional journals and textbooks, attending professional conferences and interviewing members of different ethnic background can accomplish this professional growth need of counselors. 

Counselors are encouraged to think about how phrases like “melting pot,” “we are all the same,” and “you are just like me” are used.  These statements deny the differences between people and may very subtly imply Euro-American values as the norm and point of reference for everyone.

Counselors who are sensitive to ethnic and cultural differences and express appreciation for ethnic diversity form beneficial relationships with a broad spectrum of people.  Culturally responsive counseling must be based on an appreciation of and sensitivity to differences between counselors and clients.  A culturally responsive counselor uses strategies and techniques that are consistent with the life experiences and cultural values of clients.  In order to implement these strategies and techniques, professional counselors must have awareness and knowledge related to issues of cultural and ethnic diversity (Sue, Arredondo & McDavis, 1992).  The dynamics of ethnic identity and acculturation and the important relationship between them need to be factored into culturally responsive counseling (Lee, 1997).

Implications for School Counselors

            Researcher Amy Klauke (1989) described a shifting cultural makeup of public school student enrollment, which would result from immigration, migration and fertility patterns.  She indicated that by the year 2010 about 38 percent of people under the age of 19 in the United States would be African, Asian, or Hispanic American.  By that time, according to Klauke’s predictions, in seven states and the District of Columbia, more than one-half of the children in public schools will be minorities: Hawaii (80 percent), New Mexico (77 percent), California (57 percent), Texas (57 percent), News York (53 percent), Florida (53 percent), Louisiana (50 percent) and District of Columbia (93 percent).  As the nation’s ethnic diversity increases, schools will have to develop ways to create productive, multicultural environments to accommodate diverse student backgrounds.  School counselors must serve as catalysts (Wittmer, 1992) to insure that teachers, students and others learn how to value diversity.  The valuing of diversity can be taught to others and should be a major part of any school’s comprehensive guidance program. 

            With the make-up of the student body changing so rapidly, school counselors, teachers, and administrators are required to learn new techniques and skills for understanding, motivating, teaching, and empowering each individual student regardless of culture, ethnicity, world view, gender, or religion.  Therefore, university education programs for teachers, counselors, and administrative leaders must place stronger emphasis on culture awareness, ethnic diversity, and how to interact effectively with members of cultures different from one’s own.  Thus, training professionals who promote positive feelings toward diversity and develop quality counseling programs designed to meet the needs of all students regardless of ethnic background. 

Barr (1997) alerted school counselors to students who buy into the “either/or dilemma – my culture or theirs (p. 3).” He stated these individuals risk failing to identify with either one, which undermines possession of any culture at all, creating a dangerous situation.  Lack of cultural identity leads to lack of personal identity, and consequently, decreased self-esteem.

Culturally diverse youth who struggle with the either/or dilemma are at risk for experiencing ethnic discrimination from both cultural groups.  Ethnic discrimination was identified by Garbarino (1999) to be one of the risk factors that contributed to youth violence.  He stated, “to be anything other than white and Anglo heightens the risk that a child will feel rejected for who he is or for the group to which he belongs or the sound of his name” (p. 103).  Rejection and estrangement from the macroculture experience by many children significantly contributes to acts of violence.  Garbarino encouraged counselors and mental health professionals to provide vulnerable minority youth with “a solid anchor” (p.150) to turn them away from violence by connecting them to positive values and positive relationships. 


            In today’s increasingly diverse population, counselors must address the challenges presented when counseling ethnically diverse clients.  In addition, counselors who work with ethnically diverse individuals should note the relationship between conceptualization of self and ethnic identity.  The process of self-esteem development is culturally based; therefore, counselors must seek to understand the cultural values of all clients.  Counselors should encourage individuals to take pride in their ethnic heritage, thereby boosting self-esteem.  Self-esteem has been described as a basic human need that makes an essential contribution to the life process; that is indispensable to normal and healthy development; with survival-value (DeHart, Sroufe, & Cooper, 2000).  Therefore, encouraging development of self-esteem by positive identification with one’s ethnicity should be a primary goal for every client and student in a counseling relationship.  In addition, counselors must understand the acculturation experiences of clients and how this ongoing process continually influences how clients view themselves. 

Recognizing the importance of the counseling relationship, researchers (Barr, 1997; Guanipa-Ho & Guanipa, 1999; Helms, 1985; Phinney, 1990) emphasized the importance of identifying and valuing the differences between counselor and client.  Other researchers (Atkinson, 1983; Atkinson & Lowe, 1995; Locke, 1998) emphasized the importance of identifying the similarities between counselor and clients.  They stated that certain similarities, including ethnicity, between counselor and client might enhance therapeutic longevity and therapist preference.  Locke found similar experiences in the acculturation process between counselor and client had greater influence on the counseling relationship than same ethnic group membership.  He suggested an increased number of culturally different counselors might provide more effective counseling experiences for persons from diverse cultures.  All researchers, however, agree if counselors are to have a positive impact on the development of increasingly diverse client populations, counseling practice must be built on responsiveness to ethnic and culture diversity.


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