Culture Shock and Multiculturalism: How The Left Made A Useful Metaphor Into A Trojan Horse—And Then Abandoned It

 I vividly remember the first time I came across the stage theory of “culture shock.” Originally from the UK, I had been living in Finland for a few months when an expatriate, who had been there a lot longer, presented me with a diagram, photocopied from a book on “intercultural communication.” It was the standard representation of “culture shock.” The fellow expatriate made it quite clear to me that I would, without doubt, undergo the four stages of this de facto traveler malady.

  • Stage One: xenophilia, a naïve fascination with the new culture.

This, evidenced by my positive attitude towards Finns, was, he insisted, precisely the stage I was in.

  • Stage Two: reaction.

This involved reacting negatively against the host culture, loathing everything about it and romanticizing my home culture. During this stage, I would refuse to learn Finnish, socialize exclusively with other expatriates (especially British ones) and wallow in negative “stereotypes” about the hosts.

  • Stage Three: Resignation.

This seemed to be his stage, at least looking back on it. You developed coping strategies, learnt a bit of the language, patronized newer expats and could laugh about your misfortune. Eventually, you reach

  • Stage Four: Acceptance.

I would realize that Finnish culture was “just another way of living,” no better or worse than my home culture.

Clear evidence of this would be seen if I returned home, because I would experience “reverse culture shock.”

The certainty of all this disturbed me. And, as I lived abroad longer, I found that more and more “expats” would use “culture shock” as a means dismissing people’s sometimes legitimate criticisms of Finland. If you complained about Finnish “silence”— I used to find meeting my wife's friends difficult because we'd sit drinking violently strong coffee in a Trappist-like hush—you were simply “stereotyping” because you were in “culture shock” (usually Stage Two) and you would realize they were wrong once the Damascene conversion of Stage Four was reached.

The idea that robust stereotypes contain at least an element of truth never occurred to them.

There can’t be many expatriates, or even people who go on foreign holidays, who have not come across the term “culture shock.” Like “jet-lag,” it is an easy metaphor allowing you to understand some of the more unpleasant experiences provoked by international travel and, in particular, living abroad. The phrase has become so popular that it has even moved beyond its original “culture” connotation. British soccer players refer to changing teams as “a bit of a culture shock.”

However, culture shock, unlike jet-lag, is not simply a broadly accurate, if hackneyed, means of summing up experience. Its importance is much more far reaching.

The way in which “culture shock” has been treated uncannily reflects the ideologies that have come to dominate both social anthropology, and even the social sciences more broadly, especially since the 1920s. If left unexamined, the stage theory of “culture shock” is essentially a Trojan horse for the promotion of Multiculturalism and the related unscientific dogmas of cultural determinism and cultural relativism.

Like the concept of “jetlag”, the concept of “culture shock” can be useful. Research into shock-ridden earthquake survivors divides their reaction up into phases beginning with kind of joy, followed anger and sadness before they become used to what has happened to them.

But the “stage theory” of “culture shock” goes a lot further. It effectively states that if you don’t eventually accept cultural relativism then you are mentally ill.   

The metaphor of “culture shock” goes back to about 1929. Sociologist Manuel Gamio noted that Mexican immigrants became depressed in the USA and returned home. He called this “cultural shock.” In 1931, sociologist Niles Carpenter referred to the “culture shock” experienced by Dustbowl escapees in American cities. They retreated into fundamentalist religiosity, romanticizing aspects of the countryside from which they had come. He compared their plight to “shell shock.”

But it was Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1901- 1973) who developed the famous stage theory that is so popular amongst anthropologists, expatriates and Lonely Planet backpackers.

The influence of what later became known as Multiculturalism on Oberg’s model is very clear. Oberg first presented his paper “Culture Shock” [PDF](later published in an anthropology journal) before a club for the wives of American expats in Rio in 1954. For Oberg, culture shock is a mental illness which can be “cured” only when you accept that the new culture is “just another way of living.” So, in essence, you are either mad or you accept cultural relativism. Dismissing intellectual opponents as mad is, of course, a well-known tactic of some less than savory political regimes.

Oberg argues that culture shock is overcome not by gradually getting to understand the culture but thinking differently. This is similar to the Stoicism which underpins a lot of Freud’s thought. If you convince yourself that you can’t change the world and just accept it, then you feel better. Indeed, it is similar to certain religions which argue that, once you accept a certain dogma, then everything in your life will suddenly be better.

But it is not a recipe for developing civilization or science.

Oberg’s presentation effectively romanticizes Third World cultures—despite his admitting that the problems that expats experienced in Brazil, power cuts and the like, are “real.” For Oberg, all cultures are equal because different cultures are “just another way of living.”

Oberg appears to be advocating cultural relativism. But, in reality, he regards Western and non-Western peoples as fundamentally different.

Non-Western peoples are the innocent products of culture and history. In contrast, Western behaviour is not exculpated by Western history and culture. Oberg blames Westerners for their unacceptable behaviour and suggests that they need to reject it, implying that they have the freedom to do so. Like Romanticism pioneer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oberg constructs an enemy: the “middle-class,” “ethnocentric,” “cocktail circuit” Western expatriate and treats him more harshly than unsuccessful or marginal, with whom he identifies.

Oberg condemns the stereotyping of natives but finds it acceptable to stereotype Western expatriates (e.g., as being part of a “cocktail circuit”). This is the same inconsistency seen in many cultural relativists, who even defang tribes to maintain a romantic fantasy.

Oberg was in a very good position to understand “culture shock.” He was a second-generation Finnish immigrant to Canada whose parents co-founded, in 1901, a theosophical-nationalist utopian cult on Malcolm Island, off British Columbia. “Sointula,” as they renamed the island, attempted to recreate a romanticized version of the Finland that many of the members had left behind, just as Stage Two would predict. Indeed, when Oberg’s by now elderly mother was admitted to a mental hospital in the 1932, she spoke almost no English despite having been in Canada since 1895 when she in her late twenties. Stage Two would likewise predict such a failure to learn English.

Sointula was led by a charismatic dreamer and proto-hippie called Matti Kurikka (1863 – 1915) who dismissed marriage as “a capitalist licence to rape”. Many of the members only really had their Finnishness in common. It collapsed in 1904 because it was economically impractical and because a fire swept through it, killing eight children, including Oberg’s two sisters.

But you might argue that culture shock’s origins lie in this failed utopia. Oberg, clearly deeply affected by what happened, wrote his 1928 University of British Columbia undergraduate thesis on Sointula, praising Kurikka gushingly. In it, he strongly advocated cultural determinism and defended an inconsistent religious relativism.

And this is the problem with “culture shock.” It is infused with utopian thinking which essentially promotes an anti-science replacement for Christianity, complete with strong group boundaries, the demonizing of outsiders, the lauding of and moral identification with the unsuccessful, and even a sense of fate, in that “culture shock’s phases seem to be described by Oberg as inevitable.

I think Oberg’s model is useful, and there is a lot of empirical evidence for its veracity—as long as it is divorced from the Multiculturalism with which he infuses it. Divorced from this, culture shock can be a useful, sensible, accurate way of understanding what happens to you psychologically when you live abroad.

Significantly, however, since the 1980s many postmodern or, as they call themselves, “contemporary” anthropologists have been arguing that it should be completely abandoned. This is a further threat to reasoned discourse. Culture shock is dismissed as being a “cliché,” “old-fashioned” or as a “platitude” common amongst non-academics—for which reasons anthropologists should not use it. Indeed, the concept of “culture” itself is now rejected for the same reasons and also because it has a “history” and “imposes a foreign category” on other cultures. These anthropologists argue that cultures have ceased to be clear, discrete units since the 1980s.

None of these arguments stand up. The criticisms of “culture shock” are just appeals to novelty and snobbery. Similarly, the new criticisms of “culture” cannot be accepted. All categories have a history and develop in a culture and it is drawing unjustifiable line in history to argue that everything changed in the 1980s and so “culture” isn’t relevant anymore.

To draw such a line under the past, as Karl Popper once argued in The Poverty of Historicism , is a sign of revolutionary rather than scientific thinking. It is only revolutionary thinkers who divide the world into dramatically different eras that are literally revolutions apart. Scientists think in terms of incremental change.   

In practical terms, try telling the American expat in Mongolia that we can’t usefully divide-up the world into cultures.

As British libertarian philosopher Sean Gabb has argued, revolutionaries tend to engage in a manipulative appeal to novelty by presenting themselves as somehow uniquely “modern” and dismiss the state of affairs prior to their ascent to power (or the views of their opponents) as outmoded, old-fashioned.  They attempt to further their power by jettisoning important words and concepts, usually arguing that these should be dismissed for illogical and emotionally manipulative reasons – they are not just old-fashioned but offensive, hurtful, symbolic of something uniquely bad. And highly emotive smear labels—such as “enemy of the people” or “racist”—are wont to be employed against those who disagree with them, as are, sometimes, intimidation tactics. 

In removing these “old-fashioned” terms, revolutionary thinkers create a clear break with the past – because the past is now clearly linguistically different – helping them to dismiss the past and its thinking as inherently bad and other.  It also allows them to dismiss those who will not conform as being immoral. 

Once people are manipulated, or even threatened, into accepting this rejection of certain terms, then revolutionaries are dictating the terms of debate and have power over people every time they think or speak.  Ultimately, this permits them to take power, and for their way of thinking to take power. 

After a while, they will even argue for the rejection of terms which they have themselves advocated, just to exert their power and to keep people on edge about what they can and cannot say and think.  (Think of the ever-changing polite/ politically correct term for American blacks). The revolution is, in a sense, eternal.

This is directly relevant to “culture shock” and culture. The arguments of “contemporary anthropologists” (even calling themselves this implies their intellectual roots in what Popper criticizes) are that the two terms should be dismissed—because they are, variously, old-fashioned, clichéd and popular and because, in the case of “culture,” it is “imperialist”, symbolically violent … in other words “immoral,” as expressed in manipulative terms. 

But, of course, it was their intellectual forebears who redefined “culture” as “way of life” and something everybody had—as against the imperialist definition of “culture” as “civilization”—in the first place.

“Culture shock” is not just relevant to expatriates and anthropologists. It is relevant to all those who believe in freedom of thought. We must use it critically, being cautious of the ideology implicit in the most commonly-used stage theory. But (as long as it continues to be useful) we must use it, precisely because those with an anti-freedom agenda wish us not to.

If you’re in “culture shock,” you’ll probably get over it. But there won’t be some dramatic moment of “realization.” You will just become used to the new conditions. This will have no bearing on whether they are worse or better, overall, than conditions elsewhere.


Dr Edward Dutton [Email him]is an anthropologist and journalist. His book Culture Shock and Multiculturalism  is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (Newcastle, UK, 2012).