Marginal and Happy – How can people be culturally detached and well adjusted?

Belonging to several cultural groups at the same time can be associated with complex feelings of group membership. In this post, I will provide an explanation for the phenomenon whereby many immigrants marginalize—feel detached from the mainstream culture they live in and the heritage culture they grew up in—while feeling happy.


What are the outcomes associated with feeling culturally detached?

Perhaps paradoxically, most people fulfill their need to differentiate themselves by belonging to social groups. However, belonging to several cultural groups at the same time can be associated with complex feelings of group membership (Cheng & Lee, 2009; Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2000). This position is familiar to many people who have been in extended contact with at least two cultures (for example, because they studied abroad, moved to a new country, or grew up in a family that shares a diverse cultural heritage), particularly immigrants. Failing to adopt the customs of the mainstream culture they live in may hinder their ability to successfully navigate their social reality, and failing to maintain the customs of the heritage culture they grew up in might result in a painful sense of loss. Yet, many of them feel marginal—they feel disconnected from both the heritage culture they grew up in and the mainstream culture of the society they live in (Berry, 2001).

Because many needs are fulfilled through group membership, researchers have traditionally assumed that marginalized individuals will be at a highly disadvantageous position. Some studies found that, compared to other immigrants, marginal immigrants report being more stressed and depressed (Bhui et al., 2005; Kim, Gonzales, Stroh, & Wang, 2006; Nakash et al., 2012), as well as lower self-esteem and life satisfaction (Berry & Sabatier, 2010; Pfafferott & Brown, 2006; Pham & Harris, 2001). However, this pattern does not always apply. Although a large portion of marginal immigrants seems to have trouble adjusting, many marginal immigrants are able to live happily, despite being detached from their cultural groups (Abouguendia & Noels, 2001; Nigbur et al., 2008; van Oudenhoven, Prins, & Buunk, 1998). Moreover, marginalization is not fully understood conceptually according to several researchers (Bhatia & Ram, 2001; Boski, 2008; Rudmin & Ahmadzadeh, 2001). Taken together, this body of research suggests that marginalisation is in need of clarification: little of the current theorizing attempts to explain why certain marginal immigrants adjust well, whereas others do not.

Could uniqueness clarify the connection between marginalization and its potential effects?

To explain these mixed results, Professor Roxane de la Sablonnière, Maya Rossignac-Milon and I suggest that some fundamental needs might be met otherwise than through group membership. In particular, the need to feel and to perceive oneself as distinct has been identified by many researchers (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004; Leonardelli, Pickett, & Brewer, 2010; Vignoles, Chryssochoo, & Breakwell, 2000). Individuals need to differentiate themselves from others; for example, by placing what they feel distinguishes themselves at the center of their identities, or by behaving in a manner that they believe sets them apart (Vignoles, Regalia, Manzi, Golledge, & Scabini, 2006). Usually, belonging to a group and perceiving this group as distinct from other groups allows individuals to incorporate the distinctiveness of this group’s identity into their personal identity – and, as such, meet their need to differentiate and feel distinct (Jetten, Spears, & Postmes, 2004; Sheldon & Bettencourt, 2002; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Yet, other individuals meet this need by striving for individual uniqueness – striving for feeling unique as an individual and perceiving that their uniqueness is valued (Brewer, 1991; Snyder & Fromkin, 1980).

Detached from both their heritage and mainstream cultures, marginal immigrants likely feel quite unique. Experiencing marginalisation involves feeling that one does not fit into either culture, and therefore feeling different from others. This feeling of being different from others may be a source of well-being for marginal immigrants who strive for individual uniqueness. For instance, because different cultures often promote very different sets of values and attitudes, marginal immigrants who strive for individual uniqueness might feel as their detachment from the two cultures provides them with a special perspective and highlights their impression of being different. They may feel as if being detached from both their heritage and mainstream cultures allows them to have a ‘special’ worldview.

In other words, most marginal immigrants are placed in a situation that emphasizes their individuality; for this reason, marginal immigrants who strive for individual uniqueness are especially well positioned to meet this need, and are thus able to benefit from the positive outcomes associated with meeting it. On the contrary, marginal immigrants who do not strive for individual uniqueness might not be able to capitalize as much on their individuality as a source of well-being. Indeed, if marginal immigrants do not have a high need for individual uniqueness, then feeling unique as an individual may not buffer them from the negative outcomes associated with being marginal. Perhaps feeling different from those around them may instead be a source of distress.

Striving for uniqueness can clarify why some marginal immigrants are well adjusted

In three studies, a consistent pattern of results emerged that supported our main assertion (Debrosse, de la Sablonnière, & Rossignac-Milon, 2015). In Study 1, striving for individual uniqueness predicted the self-esteem of marginal immigrants, but not the self-esteem of non-marginal immigrants. Similarly, the results of Study 2 indicate that striving for individual uniqueness is associated with higher happiness, higher positive and lower negative emotions for marginal immigrants, but not for non-marginal immigrants. Whereas Study 1 and Study 2 examined whether marginalisation and uniqueness predicted the happiness, affect and self-esteem of university students, Study 3 attempted to extend their scope by examining the self-esteem and the life satisfaction of youths recruited in the community. In Study 3, striving for uniqueness was associated with significantly higher life satisfaction and marginally higher self-esteem for marginal immigrants, but not for non-marginal immigrants.

The results of all three studies suggest that marginal immigrants are able to experience better adjustment when they strive to feel unique as individuals. Despite their limitations, these studies allow us to identify the need for uniqueness as an individual difference that seems to play a role in the adjustment of marginal immigrants. As such, these studies shed a new light on marginalization, showing that the most damageable reactions to immigration sometimes lead to positive outcomes.



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