The Origins of “Culture Shock,” Part 1

While planning my previous post, “Reverse Culture Shock: Repatriating Back to Post-COVID ‘Normal’ in the Church,” I figured somewhere near the beginning I’d include a definition of culture shock, preferably from as far back as I could find one. Pretty quickly I came to the words of the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, spoken in 1954 to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Now these cues which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.

Now when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed.

(Kalervo Oberg, “Culture Shock,” presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954, at CiteSeerx, republished in a slightly edited version as “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology, vol. 7, issue 4, 1960, 177-182)

His is a well-known, often lauded description, and many cite Oberg as the originator of the term culture shock. But not blindly trusting the combined wisdom of the many, I wanted to see for myself it that were true. It didn’t take me long to find evidence to the contrary, and my search led me to Cora Du Bois’ earlier (1951) explanation of the term, which I used for my post. It comes from a talk that she gave, referenced by Oberg, as being “part of a panel discussion at the first Midwest regional meeting of the Institute of International Education in Chicago, November 28, 1951.” Here is some of what Du Bois had to say:

Please do not consider me too irrelevant if I begin talking about an occupational disease among anthropologists. Some twenty years ago I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional status we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field with strange people cut off from our familiar daily surroundings. We all wanted to do field work. We loved it—but we realized that things happened to us when we did. We began calling this peculiar syndrome “culture shock.”

. . . .

We anthropologists flattered ourselves when we thought culture shock was an occupational disease. It is a malady that seems to affect most transplanted people.

The genesis of the malady is really very simple. It is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues. . . . All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. These cues are acquired in the course of growing up and are as much part of our cultural heritage as the language we speak. They have become so habitual that they have been forgotten as part of our conscious cultural equipment.

Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result. (22)

(Cora Du Bois, “Culture Shock,” To Strengthen World Freedom, Institute of International Education Special Publications Series, No. 1, New York, 1951, 22-24 [a reprint can be found in Guidelines for Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Training, Part III, Supplementary Readings, Center for Research and Education, Peace Corps, Estes Park, March 1970])

While Du Bois’ presentation preceded Oberg’s, she doesn’t claim to have coined the term herself. Rather, she points to someone else as its creator, but we’ll circle back to that later. First, let’s go back to the 1920s.

In 1929, Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio wrote about immigrants from Mexico adjusting to life in the US, using the term cultural shock.:

The civilization of the larger part of the immigrants is originally of native or mixed type and consequently different in form and background from that of the American people, all of which, together with the climatic differences between both countries, make the cultural shock sharp and the biological adaptation for the newly arrived Mexican painful. From this situation a selection results; some individuals go back to Mexico not to return to the United States while others gradually become adjusted to the new environment. (468-469)

(Manuel Gamio, “Observations on Mexican Immigration into the United States,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 2, No. 8, August 1929, 63-69)

H. Ian Hogbin, the next year, uses the same words in his discussion of decreasing populations among South Pacific tribes brought on by the arrival of Europeans.

I think we may now conclude that the causes of an increase in the death-rate are, firstly, the introduction of new disease purely and simply, and secondly the break-up of the old culture. This latter has undermined the mental balance of the native and makes him die more quickly from both his own and the new diseases. That is why epidemic diseases have a lasting effect. European society had received no shock at the time bubonic plague was ravaging it, and so it soon recovered. Ongtong Java had been dealt a heavy blow already when influenza reached it, and therefore society there did not recover. (57)

And as he considers that the deaths of the older men leave no one to pass on traditional ceremonies, he writes,

If these ceremonies, or the useful ones, had remained, they might have roused the members of society and in their hours of leisure given them something to occupy their minds, instead of letting them face and acquiesce in despair. That, I think, explains why epidemics in societies which have sustained no cultural shock have no appreciable effect in the long run. All the customs have still a function and so are kept up. The prospect of extinction never occurs to people, because they are too occupied, or possibly too stupid even to think about it unless it is obvious. Therefore they do not become extinct. (64)

(H. Ian Hogbin, “The Problem of Depopulation in Melanesia as Applied to Ongtong Java (Solomon Islands),” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 39, March, 1930, 43-66)

And in her 1938 overview of Charles S. Johnson’s “The Present Status and Trends of the Negro Family” (Social Forces, vol. 16, no. 2, 1937), Myrtle R. Phillips talks about “cultural shocks”:

Crime, delinquency, illegitimacy, and the changing fertility rate of Negro families characterize the cultural shocks involved in the cultural expansion of these Negro families. (197)

(Myrtle R. Phillips, “Abstracts and Digests,” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 7, April 1938)

Eventually, cultural shock was largely replaced by culture shock, though sporadic usage of the former has continued, as demonstrated in several references in this post.

It was two years later, in 1931, that sociologist and Episcopal minister Niles Carpenter used culture-shock in his book The Sociology of City Life. It appears in the context of the “shock effect” of people moving to American cities, either as migrants from rural areas in the US or as immigrants from other countries. He postulates that “the heavy incidence of mental disease” among this second group comes from the “general culture-shock” of relocating to a new country and “the special sort of culture-shock involved in the initial acquaintance with the city and it’s ways of life.” (335)

While I can’t say definitively that Carpenter coined the term culture shock (with our without the hyphen), there seems to be evidence to support that conclusion: First of all, from what I have found, this is the earliest occurrence of the exact phrase in print. Also, when Carpenter first uses the term in his book, it’s in the context of “a process that might be termed culture-shock.” Carpenter often uses this passive-voice construction (“might be termed,” “may be remarked,” “may be said,” and “might be said”) to introduce ideas in The Sociology of City Life, and in this case it is followed by “That is to say . . .” with an explanation of the phrase. Also, as shown below, Carpenter lays out the groundwork for culture shock by pointing out its similarities to the “shell-shock” experienced during wartime.

Here are several passages from Carpenter:

One authority, moreover, asserts, “Many of the neuroses of the inhabitants of big cities may be regarded as analogous to the shell-shock that followed deafening bombardments during the war. . . .” (208)

The shock-effect of the city may be carried into the second or even the third generation of migrants. Many conditioning influences are imbedded in traditional folkways. Others are passed on from one generation to another, by conscious precept or by imitation, particularly when the migrating group is also an immigrant group, as is often the case in the cities of the United States. That is to say, there may be reverberations for two or more generations of the shock-effect attendant upon country-to-city migration. (218)

[T]he rural migrant to the city together with his children is undergoing a process that might be termed culture-shock. That is to say, he is transferred suddenly from one sort of culture to another one, and the experience imposes a serious strain upon him, especially as regards the habituations in thought and attitude which he has derived from his rural heritage. This process of culture-shock is well recognized in the case of the immigrant. In its most marked manifestation, it involves personality disorganization, and even mental breakdown. A less spectacular and more common reaction is a sort of interlude of confusion, in which Old-World folkways are dropped while New-World ones are assimilated incompletely, if at all. This process is to be observed in connection with the immigrants family life, his intellectual life, his economic life, and his religious life. The immigrant and more particularly his son or daughter cease to be Germans or Poles, or Italians, without yet becoming in any vital sense Americans. (272)

The urban resident must be, in other words, somewhat more readily inclined to respond to inducements towards crime than the rural-dweller. One of those influences is suggested by the material that has been presented. It is that of culture-shock. (316)

In this connection, it may be remarked that the war neuroses (commonly called shell-shock), seem to be somewhat analogous to the type of shock-effect involved in the transition from a rural to an urban environment. The change was more complete, and the new environment was infinitely more trying. Nevertheless, the general process of sudden change from relative certainty and security to a life of intense mobility, insecurity, and the stress would seem to be essentially similar. Certain of those who gave way would probably have done so in any circumstances, but in a large number of cases it seems that no breakdown would have occurred if the individuals affected had been able to continue in their accustomed round of activities. Moreover, it is noteworthy that, according to Conklin, an essential feature of the war neurosis is the contrast between the mental patterns of the sufferer’s previous way of living and his present situation: “The man is left with only his old reactions, totally unsuited to the demands made up him.

May this shock-effect be continued for more than the migrant generation? Schlapp and Smith believe that it can be continued at least into the second generation, through embryonic and fœtal injuries following upon maternal glandular disturbances. And where ideational conflicts are involved, as in contrasting notions of parental authority, familial solidarity, sexual behavior, religious belief, and the like, such personality-disintegrating influences might be continued for two or three generations, before there would take place what might be termed compete psychic urbanization. (337)

(NIles Carpenter, The Sociology of City Life, Longmans, 1931)

The next year, H. Reynard included culture-shock (without quotation marks or italics) in her review of The Sociology of City Life, and social scientist Walter Greenwood Beach quoted Carpenter in his book Social Aims in a Changing World, writing,

In the conflict of ways it is no wonder that there is a “culture-shock”1 followed by a possible increase of crime or other indications of social maladjustment. (153)

The reference number in this excerpt points to The Sociology of City Life.

(H. Reynard, “The Sociology of City Life, by Niles Carpenter,” The Economic Journal, vol. 42, June 1932, 301-302; Walter Greenwood Beach, Social Aims in a Changing World, Stanford University Press, 1932)

In 1935, a team of sociologists and educators, made up of Mabel Agnes Elliott, Charles Omega Wright, Dorothy Grauerholz Wright, and Francis Ellsworth Merrill, published the high-school textbook Our Dynamic Society, which included explanations for the terms migration and disorganization, culture conflict, the marginal man, and culture shock:

Culture Shock. Such a drastic change in folkways, mores, and traditions may result in what is termed “culture shock.” The immigrant’s former security is exchanged for bewilderment and change. Crises appear which bring difficult new decisions. The shock may follow a severing of old family ties, the loss of old associates, or the facing of a new complex life in a strange city. As a result of culture shock, the immigrant may become highly disorganized and display his disorganization in conduct that runs counter to social values. He may desert his family, drown his disappointment in liquor, or commit suicide. Such disorganization results from his failure to redefine the situation in satisfactory terms. (100)

The authors describe “the marginal man” as one “who appears at the border-line where two cultures meet,” using a term coined/popularized by sociologist Robert E. Park in “Human Migration and the Marginal Man (American Journal of Sociology, vol. 33, May, 1928). They write that this person

may be said to pass through three states of disorganization. (1) The preliminary stage is that of early contact with a new group, during which he is unaware of his marginal problems. (2) The crisis stage appears when he is painfully conscious of his strangeness and his difficult situation. (3) The third stage is that of either adjustment or disorganization. If he meets the crisis in a satisfactory fashion, he becomes adjusted. If he fails, he becomes a disorganized man. (101)

Later in the book, the authors use the term cultural shock when discussing high rates of suicide among immigrants.

(Mabel Agnes Elliott, Charles Omega Wright, Dorothy Grauerholz Wright, and Francis Ellsworth Merrill, Our Dynamic Society, Harper, 1935)

Now, we’ll jump forward to Cora Du Bois, and back to the passage above, where she says, “Some twenty years ago, I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional state we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field.” As the quotation comes from 1951, “some twenty years ago” would put the conversations circa 1931, the same year as Carpenter’s usage of culture-shock.

In Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, anthropologist Peggy Golde writes that in “private communication,” Du Bois “credits” culture shock to Ruth Benedict, who was Du Bois’ anthropology teacher at Barnard College. Golde states that “by 1940, [the term] was so well accepted by social scientists that it needed no citation.” (11)

(Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, 1970)

Golde’s 1940 reference is to John B. Holt, of the United States Department of Agriculture:

Regarding the possible connection between the rapid rate of urbanization and social maladjustment in the Southeast, Odum observes, “The South, more than the other regions, fitted by habit and tradition to a life closely attuned to natural processes, finds rapid shift to artificial industrialism beyond its power for quick absorption and effective adaptation.” The administrator of a farm program in Kentucky is reported to have said, “The physical ‘bends’ of deep-sea divers exposed too rapidly to lighter atmospheric pressure is nothing compared to the psychological or spiritual bends produced in our mountain communities when subjected too rapidly to urban standards and ways of doing thing.”

All these citations suggest the “culture shock” arising from the precipitation of a rural person or group into an urban situation characterized by a loosening of mores from a strict social control, a liberation of the individual from his group, an increasing impersonalism as against the personal character of the rural environment, an increasing mobility as contrasted with the old stability and isolation, and on top of these changes, a blasting disruption of personal and occupational habits and status. (744)

(John B. Holt, “Holiness Religion: Cultural Shock and Social Reorganization,” American Sociological Review, vol. 5, No. 5, October 1940, 740-747)

Other instances of culture shock in the 1940s include

It is probable that the middle class attitude of sacrifice of family (though not of marriage itself) in order to climb the economic ladder may characterize the college students’ culture more than that of the university students. Some such “culture shock” explanation would seem at least tenable in the light of the religious compulsions, almost certainly more impelling in the college than in the university group, that would presumably operate in the direction of more offspring. (514)

(Wayne C. Neely, “Family Attitudes of Denominational College and University Students, 1929 and 1936,” American Sociological Review, vol. 5, No. 4, August 1940, 512-522)

The concept is most strikingly illustrated by the position of the foreigner who is bridging the Old World culture and the New in the necessary process of assimilation that every foreigner meets. Each individual in this position experiences a certain amount of culture shock. . . . (121)

(Paul Henry Landis, Adolescence and Youth: The Process of Maturing, McGraw-Hill, 1945)

The white man’s alcohol and the seizure of native lands also contributed to the population decline; and along with all these specific causes there was the general disorganization of native life and customs under the impact of foreign civilization. Bewildered, diseased, abused, exploited, the Pacific peoples in many instances seemed almost to lose the will to live. They were the victims of what might be called extreme culture shock. (29)

(Raymond Kennedy, The Islands and Peoples of the South Seas and Their Cultures, American Philosophical Society, 1945)

Individual personality disorganization also usually results, until a new institutional unity has been established by all, usually requiring a period of several generations. The individual’s life organization is bound up most intimately with the social organization which conditioned him and of which he has been a part. The rural-urban, interregional, or international migrant is transferred from one sort of culture and social organization to which he has had life-long adjustment to another one which is radically different. This new environment by virtue of the presence of himself and other in-wanderers usually is even more complex and confused. Immigrants and their children, country-to-city migrants, even those who have moved from one social level to another, encounter such new and unfamiliar experiences that the change is almost certain to produce great disturbance. This has been well called “culture shock” by Carpenter and others. (286)

(Joyce Oramel Hertzler, Social Institutions, University of Nebraska Press, 1946)

It is recognized that the approaching similarity of rural and urban experience, especially in areas where consolidated schools have developed and where farm youths have considerable contact with town and city, has undoubtedly had an important influence in reducing culture shock of those who go to the city.  (220)

(Paul Henry Landis, Rural Life in Process, McGraw-Hill, 1948)

It is interesting to note that leading up to 1951, the writings about culture shock applied largely to immigrants and others facing a transition to the often perilous culture of urban America, or to those in their own countries overwhelmed by the negative influences brought by Western outsiders, and discussions of culture shock in these circumstances included its long-term effects on society, including such issues as suicide rates, crime, alcoholism, declining populations, and even fetal development. It was into this context that Du Bois made her presentation in Chicago, not only shifting the focus to international students and to anthropologists working overseas but, in so doing, kickstarting a widespread application of the concept to the larger expat community. It also marked a change in tone, with what she characterizes as her “semi-facetious remarks” about the topic.

So, to sum up, did culture shock originate with Oberg—in 1954 or 1960? No. What I have found leads me to join others who credit Carpenter with creating the phrase, but I also realize that Oberg will probably continue to get a large share of the attention, as many trace our current usage of culture shock back to him. And he does deserve credit for helping bring the term into the common vocabulary of expats and international travelers and for exploring and promoting the idea that culture shock has a series of stages leading to adjustment.

I do think, though, that there’s more to be discovered about Oberg’s influence on the culture-shock discussion—or maybe I should say there’s more to be discovered about Du Bois’ influence on Oberg. Let’s take a look at that in Part 2.

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