In Part 1 of my discussion of culture shock, I examined the genesis of the phrase. In this follow-up post, I’d like to take a look at what seems to be Kalervo Oberg’s extreme dependence on Cora Du Bois for his views on adapting to a new culture.
A copy of Oberg’s “Culture Shock,” spoken to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro in 1954, was uploaded to The Pennsylvania State University’s CiteSeerx in 2004. It closes with the following simple notation:
Reference: DuBois, Cora, Culture Shock. This talk was present [sic] as part of a panel discussion at the first Midwest regional meeting of the Institute of International Education in Chicago, November 28, 1951.
And yet, if you read Oberg’s and Du Bois’ presentations back to back, you will no doubt notice the similarities, and, in fact, the nearly word-for-word passages. My purpose in pointing this out is not to cast aspersions on Oberg (maybe I don’t have all the facts or maybe notions of summarizing or crediting sources have changed since the 50s). Rather, I want to give Du Bois the credit she is due for her original thoughts and insights. My hope is that those who would quote Oberg’s “Culture Shock” in the future would find this post and continue tracing the origins of the observations, when necessary, back to Du Bois.
With that said, here are the related passages, arranged for comparison.
Du Bois: 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.
Oberg: We might almost call culture shock an occupational disease of people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad.
Du Bois: The genesis of the malady is really very simple. It is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues.
Oberg: 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.
Du Bois: 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.
Oberg: 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.
Du Bois: 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.
Oberg: Now when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will you may be, a series of props have been knocked from under you, followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety.
Du Bois: People the world over react to frustrations in fairly comparable ways. First they reject, with repressed or expressed aggression, the environment that causes them discomfort.
Oberg: People react to the frustration in much the same way. First they reject the environment which causes the discomfort: “the ways of the host country are bad because they make us feel bad.”
Du Bois: Second they regress with irrational fervor to the familiar and comforting.
Oberg: Another phase of culture shock is regression. The home environment suddenly assumes a tremendous importance. To an American everything American becomes irrationally glorified. All the difficulties and problems are forgotten and only the good things back home are remembered.
Du Bois: If you observe a group of Americans—or any other group of nationals—in the throes of culture shock the symptoms are startlingly similar. The slightest inefficiency or delay—particularly variations from our own obsessional time sense—provoke disproportionate anger. All things American acquire new and a sometimes irrational importance. You have all experienced how easy it is to shift from being a “live-and-let-live” patriot to being a chauvinist when you are abroad. You have all observed the tendency of American tourists to cluster together even though they may be spending only a few weeks of their hard-earned vacation to see the English in England or the French in France.
Oberg: You become aggressive, you band together with your fellow countrymen and criticize the host country, its ways, and its people. But this criticism is not an objective appraisal but a derogatory one. Instead of trying to account for conditions as they are through an honest analysis of the actual conditions and the historical circumstances which have created them, you talk as if the difficulties you experience are more or less created by the people of the host country for your special discomfort.
Du Bois: There are other manifestations—the sitting around together in favorite clubs or hotels and grousing about the host country. When you begin hearing broad, and usually derogatory, comments like—the Burmese are lazy; the Indians are ignorant; the French are grasping; the Americans are materialistic, or naive or shallow—then you can be fairly sure the speaker is suffering culture shock.
Oberg: When Americans or other foreigners in a strange land get together to grouse about the host country and its people—you can be sure they are suffering from culture shock.
Oberg: You take refuge in the colony of your countrymen and its cocktail circuit which often becomes the fountainhead of emotionally charged labels known as stereotypes. This is a peculiar kind of invidious shorthand which caricatures the host country and its people in a negative manner. The “dollar grasping American” and the “indolent Latin American” are samples of mild forms of stereotypes.
(Cora Du Bois, “Culture Shock,” To Strengthen World Freedom, Institute of International Education Special Publications Series, No. 1, New York, 1951; and Kalervo Oberg, “Culture Shock,” presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954)
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.
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)
H. Ian Hogbin, the next year, used 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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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, looking at 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.