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Integrative communication theory


Integrative communication theory is a theory of cross-cultural adaptation proposed by Young Yun Kim. The first widely published version of Kim's theory is found in the last three chapters of a textbook authored by William Gudykunst with Young Yun Kim as second author. See acculturation and assimilation.

Young Yun Kim's assimilation Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation maintains that human transformation takes only one path, assimilative. Kim argues that all human beings experience conformity as they move into a new and culturally unfamiliar environment and that they do so by "unlearning" who they were originally. The concept, cross-cultural adaptation, refers to a process in and through which an individual achieves an increasing level of psychological and functional fitness with respect to the receiving environment. Kim's theory postulates a zero-sum process whereby assimilation or "adaptation" occurs only to the extent that the newcomer lose the characteristics of their original cultural identity, such as language, customs, beliefs and values.

Kim's theory however is self-contradictory for on one hand Kim argues that the newcomer "evolves" toward becoming exactly like the host majority by internalizing the majority's ways of thinking, feeling and behaving while unlearning their own. But on the other hand Kim argues that out of this transformation emerges an intercultural identity, that somehow exists beyond all the contingencies of culture and language itself. Kim claims that individuals that enter a new culture for varying lengths of time, and to include migrant workers, diplomats, and expatriates alike

Kim's research into cross-cultural adaptation began in the 1970s through a survey of Korean immigrants in the Chicago area. It subsequently expanded to study other immigrant and refugee groups in the United States to include American Indians, Japanese and Mexican Americans, and Southeast Asian refugees. In addition to studying groups of immigrants, Young Yun Kim researched groups of students studying abroad in the United States, as well as international students in Japan, Korean expatriates in the United States and American expatriates in South Korea. The first outline of her theory was found in an article titled, "Toward an Interactive Theory of Communication - Acculturation", leading to a complete rendition of the theory in Communication and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: An Integrative Theory

Kim states that there are five key "missing links" in cross-cultural adaptation literature, which her theory attempts to cover:

All human beings are born into an unfamiliar environment and are brought up to become part of a culture. This process is known as enculturation, and refers to the organization, integration, and maintenance of a home environment throughout the formative years along with the internal change that occurs with increasing interaction of the individual in its cultural environment.



  • Adaptation as a Natural and Universal Phenomenon
    • The theory of integrative communication rests on the human instinct to struggle for equilibrium when met with adversarial environmental conditions as experienced in a new culture. This experience is not limited to any one region, cultural group, or nation, but is a universal concept of the basic human tendencies that accompany the struggle on each individual when they are faced with a new and challenging environment.
  • Adaptation as an All-Encompassing Phenomenon
    • Before efforts at racial and cultural integration in the United States, the main thrust was assimilation. The stress was on the ideology of the "model minority" which states that the only standard for "appropriate," "effective," and "competent" thinking (cognition), feeling (affect), and behavior (functional fit) was a presumed majority mainstream culture. The immigrant newcomer was compelled to internalize mainstream ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving or be marginalized. Beginning even before World War II and certainly after, efforts at racial and ethnic integration grew dramatically and the model minority ideology became untenable (Kramer, 2003 ). But even into the twenty-first century we see remnants of it. An example is Young Yun Kim's cross-cultural adaptation theory. Borrowing extensively from Gordon and Park's work, especially Milton Gordon's 1954 book Assimilation in American Life where he outlines seven stages in the assimilative process, Kim presents a reiteration of the 1950s era notion in her theory of cross-cultural adaptation as a multi-staged process. The theory focuses on the unitary nature of psychological and social processes and the reciprocal functional personal environment interdependence. This view takes into account micro-psychological and macro-social factors into a theoretical fusion "vertical integration" of theory. While cross-cultural adaptation theory itself is a fusion of previous ideas, it is not about racial or ethnic integration but instead assimilation. And as such it is unlike the works of Bateson, Ruesch and Bateson, Watzlawick Beavin, and Jackson, and Buss and Kenrick Kim's approach is unilinear. The sojourner must conform to the majority group culture in order to be "communicatively competent." Gudykunst and Kim (2003) equate integration, adaptation and assimilation writing, "cross-cultural adaptation process involves a continuous interplay of deculturation and acculturation that brings about change in strangers in the direction of assimilation, the highest degree of adaptation theoretically conceivable" (p. 360). In biological science adaptation means the random mutation of new forms of life, not convergence on a single form or monoculture (Kramer, 2003). The term adaptation is used by Gudykunst and Kim to mean simple conformity to the coercive power (pp. 360,371) of what they call a single form of "mainstream culture" with its "objective" "external" reality (p. 378) -- "what is real, what is true, what is right, what is beautiful, and what is good" (p. 376). As they define reality, the newcomer's perspective is false, a delusion or "self-deception" (p. 380) and any attempt to maintain one's original false values, beliefs, ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving constitute the mental illness of "maladaptation" (p. 372). According to Gudykunst and Kim (2003) the way of "upward-forward" (p. 382) evolution toward functional fitness and psychological health is for the newcomer to willfully "unlearn" and "deculturize" (p. 380) herself. They propose psychotherapy as well as the abandonment of all ethnic relations and associations with ethnic ties as well as avoidance of "ethnic media" use (pp. 365–368) to help immigrants (p. 382) achieve "integrative" conformity. This is not ecological integration but simple disintegration of the newcomer until their identity is erased. According to Gudykunst and Kim (2003) the more the newcomer is disintegrated the better, even if it leads to extreme distress for the immigrant. As Gudykunst and Kim (2003) put it, "Even extreme mental illness [caused by "conformity pressure" p. 371] can be viewed as a process of a potentially positive disintegration that will be reintegrated with new material at a higher level" (p. 381). No matter how unjust or cruel, Gudykunst and Kim (2003) argue that the host way of thinking, feeling, and behaving constitutes the "higher level" of psychic evolution and any resistance to pressure to conform, to disintegration on the part of a minority person indicates that the immigrant is communicatively incompetent, immature (p. 381), mentally ill (pp. 365, 372-373, 376), weak (p. 369), irrationally aggressive or hostile (pp. 371, 376), lacking in self-control (p. 369), cynical (p. 380), pessimistic (p. 369), closed-minded (p. 369), simple minded (pp. 382–383) and "ethnocentric" (pp. 376, 382). Evolutionary progress for the individual requires the individual to "abandon identification with the cultural patterns that have constituted who one is and what one is" (p. 377). These patterns are not just behavioral but "appropriate" ways of thinking as defined by the majority mainstream reality. In contradistinction from Gudykunst and Kim's version of adaptive evolution, Eric M. Kramer, in his theory of Cultural Fusion (2011, 2010, 2000a, 1997a, 2000a, 2011, 2012) maintains clear conceptual separation between assimilation, adaptation, and integration. Only assimilation involves conformity to a pre-existing form. Kramer's (2000a, 2000b, 2000c, 2003, 2009, 2011) theory of Cultural Fusion, which is based on systems theory and hermeneutics, argues that first it is impossible for a person to unlearn themselves and second that "growth" is, by definition, not a zero sum process that requires the disillusion of one form for another to come into being but rather a process of learning new languages and cultural repertoires (ways of thinking, cooking, playing, working worshipping, and so forth). One need not unlearn a language in order to learn a new one. Nor does one have to unlearn who one is in order to learn new ways of dancing, cooking, talking and so forth. Cognitive complexity involves the ability to code switch between repertoires, not a zero growth, zero-sum process as Gudykunst and Kim claim (2003, p 383). Learning is growth, not unlearning.
  • Adaptation as a Communication-Based Phenomenon
    • A person begins to adapt only as they communicate with others in their new environment. Integration relies on that interaction with the host society and the degree to which an individual adapts depends on the amount and nature of communication with members of the host society.
  • Theory as a System of Description and Explanation
    • The present theory is designed to identify the patterns that are commonly present within a clearly defined set of individual cases and to translate these patterns into a set of generalized and interrelated statements. The fact that humans will adapt in a new environment was not questioned, but rather how and why individuals adapt.
  • Theorizing at the Interface of Deduction and Induction
    • Kim's research has switched between deductive and inductive processes – between the conceptual realm of logical development of ideas from a set of basic assumptions about human adaptation and empirical substantiation of the ideas based on proofs available in social science literature. In her research, Kim introduced anecdotal stories and testimonials of immigrants and sojourners available in non-technical sources such as reports, biographies, letters, diaries, dialogues, commentaries, and other materials in magazines, newspapers, fiction and nonfiction books, radio programs, and televisions programs. These individual accounts are not scientific data, but rather serve as a vital source of insights into the "lived experiences" of cross cultural adaptation.
  • Focal Concepts and Boundary Conditions
    • Kim employs two central terms in Integrative Communication Theory, adaptation and , in order to help define the theory. Stranger incorporates in it all individuals who enter and resettle in a new cultural or sub-cultural environment.
  • The theory of integrative communication rests on the human instinct to struggle for equilibrium when met with adversarial environmental conditions as experienced in a new culture. This experience is not limited to any one region, cultural group, or nation, but is a universal concept of the basic human tendencies that accompany the struggle on each individual when they are faced with a new and challenging environment.
  • Before efforts at racial and cultural integration in the United States, the main thrust was assimilation. The stress was on the ideology of the "model minority" which states that the only standard for "appropriate," "effective," and "competent" thinking (cognition), feeling (affect), and behavior (functional fit) was a presumed majority mainstream culture. The immigrant newcomer was compelled to internalize mainstream ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving or be marginalized. Beginning even before World War II and certainly after, efforts at racial and ethnic integration grew dramatically and the model minority ideology became untenable (Kramer, 2003 ). But even into the twenty-first century we see remnants of it. An example is Young Yun Kim's cross-cultural adaptation theory. Borrowing extensively from Gordon and Park's work, especially Milton Gordon's 1954 book Assimilation in American Life where he outlines seven stages in the assimilative process, Kim presents a reiteration of the 1950s era notion in her theory of cross-cultural adaptation as a multi-staged process. The theory focuses on the unitary nature of psychological and social processes and the reciprocal functional personal environment interdependence. This view takes into account micro-psychological and macro-social factors into a theoretical fusion "vertical integration" of theory. While cross-cultural adaptation theory itself is a fusion of previous ideas, it is not about racial or ethnic integration but instead assimilation. And as such it is unlike the works of Bateson, Ruesch and Bateson, Watzlawick Beavin, and Jackson, and Buss and Kenrick Kim's approach is unilinear. The sojourner must conform to the majority group culture in order to be "communicatively competent." Gudykunst and Kim (2003) equate integration, adaptation and assimilation writing, "cross-cultural adaptation process involves a continuous interplay of deculturation and acculturation that brings about change in strangers in the direction of assimilation, the highest degree of adaptation theoretically conceivable" (p. 360). In biological science adaptation means the random mutation of new forms of life, not convergence on a single form or monoculture (Kramer, 2003). The term adaptation is used by Gudykunst and Kim to mean simple conformity to the coercive power (pp. 360,371) of what they call a single form of "mainstream culture" with its "objective" "external" reality (p. 378) -- "what is real, what is true, what is right, what is beautiful, and what is good" (p. 376). As they define reality, the newcomer's perspective is false, a delusion or "self-deception" (p. 380) and any attempt to maintain one's original false values, beliefs, ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving constitute the mental illness of "maladaptation" (p. 372). According to Gudykunst and Kim (2003) the way of "upward-forward" (p. 382) evolution toward functional fitness and psychological health is for the newcomer to willfully "unlearn" and "deculturize" (p. 380) herself. They propose psychotherapy as well as the abandonment of all ethnic relations and associations with ethnic ties as well as avoidance of "ethnic media" use (pp. 365–368) to help immigrants (p. 382) achieve "integrative" conformity. This is not ecological integration but simple disintegration of the newcomer until their identity is erased. According to Gudykunst and Kim (2003) the more the newcomer is disintegrated the better, even if it leads to extreme distress for the immigrant. As Gudykunst and Kim (2003) put it, "Even extreme mental illness [caused by "conformity pressure" p. 371] can be viewed as a process of a potentially positive disintegration that will be reintegrated with new material at a higher level" (p. 381). No matter how unjust or cruel, Gudykunst and Kim (2003) argue that the host way of thinking, feeling, and behaving constitutes the "higher level" of psychic evolution and any resistance to pressure to conform, to disintegration on the part of a minority person indicates that the immigrant is communicatively incompetent, immature (p. 381), mentally ill (pp. 365, 372-373, 376), weak (p. 369), irrationally aggressive or hostile (pp. 371, 376), lacking in self-control (p. 369), cynical (p. 380), pessimistic (p. 369), closed-minded (p. 369), simple minded (pp. 382–383) and "ethnocentric" (pp. 376, 382). Evolutionary progress for the individual requires the individual to "abandon identification with the cultural patterns that have constituted who one is and what one is" (p. 377). These patterns are not just behavioral but "appropriate" ways of thinking as defined by the majority mainstream reality. In contradistinction from Gudykunst and Kim's version of adaptive evolution, Eric M. Kramer, in his theory of Cultural Fusion (2011, 2010, 2000a, 1997a, 2000a, 2011, 2012) maintains clear conceptual separation between assimilation, adaptation, and integration. Only assimilation involves conformity to a pre-existing form. Kramer's (2000a, 2000b, 2000c, 2003, 2009, 2011) theory of Cultural Fusion, which is based on systems theory and hermeneutics, argues that first it is impossible for a person to unlearn themselves and second that "growth" is, by definition, not a zero sum process that requires the disillusion of one form for another to come into being but rather a process of learning new languages and cultural repertoires (ways of thinking, cooking, playing, working worshipping, and so forth). One need not unlearn a language in order to learn a new one. Nor does one have to unlearn who one is in order to learn new ways of dancing, cooking, talking and so forth. Cognitive complexity involves the ability to code switch between repertoires, not a zero growth, zero-sum process as Gudykunst and Kim claim (2003, p 383). Learning is growth, not unlearning.
  • A person begins to adapt only as they communicate with others in their new environment. Integration relies on that interaction with the host society and the degree to which an individual adapts depends on the amount and nature of communication with members of the host society.
  • The present theory is designed to identify the patterns that are commonly present within a clearly defined set of individual cases and to translate these patterns into a set of generalized and interrelated statements. The fact that humans will adapt in a new environment was not questioned, but rather how and why individuals adapt.
  • Kim's research has switched between deductive and inductive processes – between the conceptual realm of logical development of ideas from a set of basic assumptions about human adaptation and empirical substantiation of the ideas based on proofs available in social science literature. In her research, Kim introduced anecdotal stories and testimonials of immigrants and sojourners available in non-technical sources such as reports, biographies, letters, diaries, dialogues, commentaries, and other materials in magazines, newspapers, fiction and nonfiction books, radio programs, and televisions programs. These individual accounts are not scientific data, but rather serve as a vital source of insights into the "lived experiences" of cross cultural adaptation.
  • Kim employs two central terms in Integrative Communication Theory, adaptation and , in order to help define the theory. Stranger incorporates in it all individuals who enter and resettle in a new cultural or sub-cultural environment.
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