Acculturation As a Subject Heading

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee
Question/Answer on cataloging issues – May 2015

By Fred J. Hay, Appalachian State University

Question:  When is “Acculturation” the correct LCSH?

This is a complicated story. Many new terms have been coined and added to LCSH since the term Acculturation was the primary term in social science discourse.

J.W. Powell used the term as early as 1880 in his Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages. Franz Boas used acculturation in the Journal of American Folklore in his article “The Growth of American Mythologies” in 1896. By 1928, it was included in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and in 1934 Webster’s added the adjective “accultural” (which is not included in the current electronic version) and the verbs “acculturate” and “acculturize” (the latter is also not in later editions).

By this time, it was still a term used mostly by North American anthropologists and the 1933 supplement of the New English Dictionary designated it as an “U.S.” usage. A number of related terms were also coined: “culture contact,” “assimilation,” “culture change” and “diffusion.”

Then things get dicey as various researchers attempted to distinguish between the terms giving each its own specific meaning. For instance, anthropologist Alexander Lesser, in his ethnography of the Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game, defined acculturation as when one or both groups of “cultural equality” share a cultural trait(s). Assimilate, on the other hand, was where a conquered or overwhelmed society is transformed in ways to make it adjust to the stronger group.

Notice that so far all this discussion is based on the study of Native Americans. Melville Herskovits (from whom much of this history is derived) introduced the term acculturation to African Diaspora studies in his 1937 Life in a Haitian Valley. (Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz proposed that term “transculturation” in 1947 in Cuban Counterpoint noting that cultural exchange was never a one-way street but that term was not adopted due in large part to EuroAmerican anthropology’s hegemony).

If this seems to have become a little complicated, just how has LCSH simplified and codified this? They do not seem to have done so.

Acculturation (May Subdivide Geographically) is not surprisingly a narrower term for Civilization, Culture, and Ethnology. It is to be used for “Culture contact” and “Development education.” Narrower terms are Detribalizing, Diffusion of innovations (which is not a narrower term for Assimilation (Sociology)), Ethnic relations, and North and south (“works on both acculturation and culture conflict between civilizations of colder and warmer areas”). Related terms are Assimilation (Sociology) and Cultural fusion. When dealing with the changes in the culture of one ethnic group it is preferable to use Cultural assimilation as a modifier for the subject heading for the ethnic group. For example: Tapirape Indians—Cultural assimilation.

Assimilation has four primary subject headings: Assimilation (Phonetics), Assimilation (Sociology) (May Subd Geog), Assimilation in literature (Not Subd Geog) and Assimilation in motion pictures (Not Subd Geog).

Assimilation (Sociology) is a narrower term for Anthropology and Socialization but not for Civilization, Culture or Ethnology. Related terms are Acculturation, Cultural fusion, Emigration and immigration and Minorities. Twelve narrower terms are listed; half are for terms describing one group becoming like or part of a larger one, e.g., Americanization and Germanization. Others include Ethnic relations and Marginality, Social, as well as those denoting specific groups of people (e.g., Immigrants, Indigenous peoples, Mormons) modified by Cultural assimilation. Assimilation (Sociology) is used for Cultural assimilation.

Since Acculturation and Assimilation are related terms they should have distinct if overlapping meanings. Though no where stated (and harking back to Lesser), Assimilation seems to refer to the incorporation of one group into another while Acculturation is the adoption of cultural feature(s) of one (or both) groups by the other, hence Culture diffusion (May Subd Geog) and its narrower term Diffusion of innovations describe the process by which Acculturation happens. Obviously Acculturation is involved in Assimilation by a process of Diffusion.

This brings us to Cultural fusion (May Subd Geog) for “works on the blending of elements from two or more cultures, often producing a distinctive successor culture.” Note it says “often” not “always.”

Also of relevance is that works on societies in which “numerous distinct ethnic, religious or cultural groups coexist” the appropriate LCSH is Cultural pluralism (formerly Pluralism (Social sciences)) and for works that examine policies or programs that foster the preservation of different cultural identities the LCSH is Multiculturalism.

Seems LC needs to devote additional attention to these complex issues. These subject headings would benefit from more precision.

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