Intercultural Relations in Educational and Military Settings

September 28, 1998

John W. Berry

Simon Fraser University Vancouver (at Harbour Centre)


In a previous presentation to the Pacific Region Forum, I outlined a general framework for understanding "Cultural Group Relations in Plural Societies" (1996), and presented some empirical findings from research on these issues in Canada. In this presentation, I briefly review this framework, and then discuss findings from two current research projects. The first is a twelve country study of second generation immigrant adolescent adaptation: how do they learn to live between their parental (heritage) culture, and their peer (school) culture? The second is an examination of intercultural relations in the Canadian Forces (both Regular and Reserve): how do members of the CF learn to live with the new "diversity imperative" they face, both in Canada and internationally? Implications of these research findings for the future of institutional diversity and equity are discussed.

In culturally plural societies, there are two research traditions that help us to understand intercultural relations. The first is the approach of acculturation: how do peoples in contact interact, influence each other, and change (both culturally and psychologically)? The second is ethnic relations: what is the pattern of prejudice, attitudes towards diversity, and towards specific groups that affects the quality of intergroup relations? For both approaches, it is important to know how (the strategies) individuals and groups try to engage each other. These strategies have been defined as follows: assimilation involves giving up one's heritage culture and becoming a part of the larger society; integration involves holding on to the important parts of one's heritage, while at the same time becoming a full participant in the life of the larger society; separation involves holding on to one's heritage culture and avoiding major involvement with the larger society; and marginalization involves giving up one's heritage (sometimes involuntarily), while not becoming a participant in the larger society (sometimes because of prejudice and discrimination). Previous research strongly suggests that integration is the strategy that is typically the most-often preferred, and that leads to the most successful adaptations.

These strategies not only pertain to individual preferences (as above), but can also be used to understand national and ethnocultural group policies, and how institutions seek to accommodate the interests of diverse peoples who try to live and work together in day-to-day interactions. In Canada the national policy of multiculturalism is in essence one of integration, supporting both the maintenance of heritage culture and the full participation of individuals and groups in the larger social framework.

How does such a set of strategies work in practice in institutions? More specifically, how do adolescents and schools engage each other across these cultural boundaries; and how do individual soldiers, and the military as an institution, deal with the same issue?

The first question has been taken up in an "International Comparative Study of Ethnocultural Youth". It is commonly believed that immigrants usually have a difficult time adapting to life in a new society. While this is the case for some, most immigrants to Canada and other countries actually settle rather well, leading productive and satisfying lives. Migration, in itself, does pose difficulties, but many other factors are now known to either increase the risk of encountering problems or to protect an immigrant from them. Two of these factors are of particular interest in this study. First is the way in which the receiving societies deal with immigrants and their settlement; some societies have traditionally been built on immigration, resulting in substantial acceptance of immigration and of cultural diversity, while others are relatively new to immigration and have little experience of welcoming newcomers. In this study, individual's adaptation in high immigration and diversity countries (Canada, Australia and the United States) is contrasted with those moderate (Great Britain, France and Germany) and those lower (Sweden, Finland and Norway) on this factor.

Second, there is growing evidence that while most immigrants settle reasonably well, their children (the second generation) may be having some difficulties in adapting, particularly during their adolescent years when other life transitions are underway, and, in addition to those involving ethnicity. Our results, however indicate that in Canada (and so far in many of the other countries), the immigrant students are doing better at school, and engage in less anti-social behaviour, than a comparable sample of non-immigrant students. In most cases, it is possible to interpret this relatively greater success as a result of being involved in both their heritage culture and that of the larger society. Their preferred acculturation strategy is integration (followed by separation, rather than assimilation); and their identity is a bi-cultural one (rather than attaching themselves to one or the other of the two cultures in contact). This preference for being a participant in both cultures is generally the case in the other countries in the study, suggesting that the national or official policies don't matter very much: even in societies that have a relatively low level of acceptance of immigration and cultural diversity, the adolescents in our study persist in seeking and attaining dual cultural involvement, which is predictive of more positive outcomes for them.

Military institutions, unlike schools, have been less open to accommodating cultural diversity, at least until recently. Since 1993 the Canadian Forces (CF) have adopted pluralist policies, and have recently been required to observe Federal Employment Equity practices. There are good reasons for these recent changes: Canada participates in many international arenas, some of them involving the CF (e.g., peacekeeping, protecting and delivering humanitarian assistance, operations with forces of allied countries); these all require an understanding of, and acceptance of, other cultures and their ways of living. Moreover, within Canada, the CF participates in civilian assistance (e.g., disaster relief, emergency control) and now has to abide by policies that seek to ensure that the composition of the CF resembles that of the society it serves; these engagements, too, require intercultural knowledge and sensitivity. The central question is: to what extent do members of the CF accept this "diversity imperative"?

In surveys of the Regular and Reserve Forces, the answer is complex: in some respects, CF members obtain the same (relatively low) scores on a general measure of prejudice (ethnocentrism and racism) as the Canadian population, but are less accepting of diversity as an ideology (about 50%, compared to 70% in the general population). When it comes to specific policies and practices in the CF, there are signs of opposition to cultural pluralism: about a quarter oppose the pro-active recruitment of diverse groups; about a tenth oppose training for increased acceptance of diversity within the CF; and almost half believe that morale and cohesion will be reduced if increased diversity is sought for the CF.

Improving intercultural relations requires both institutional and individual change: unless corporate practices, such as curriculum, recruitment, promotion and other aspects of institutional culture are substantially modified, then individuals in educational and military settings will continue to be socialized into, and to exhibit, practices that impede positive intercultural relations: changing individuals alone (through programmes such as "cultural sensitivity training") will almost certainly backfire in the absence of institutional change. Conversely, changing the institutional climate (top down, by proclamation) without ensuring that individuals know and accept the new diversity imperative, will also not achieve the desired outcome.

In the research outlined here, educational institutions appear to be well on their way to achieving their diversity goals, and to accommodating the needs, strategies and identities of many groups of students. However, the military has only just begun: while moderately supporting the general initiatives, findings also suggest pockets of resistance to change. In both institutional settings, movements are clearly toward promoting more positive intercultural relations; however, there are clear discrepancies between the eventual goal, and the current situation.


Berry, J. W. (1997). Individual and group relations in plural societies. In C. Granrose & S. Oskamp (Eds). Cross-Cultural Workgroups (pp. 17-35). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Berry, J. W. (1997). Immigration, acculturation and adaptation. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46, 5-68.

Berry, J. W. (1998). Intercultural relations in plural societies. Canadian Psychology, 39,

Berry, J. W. et al, (Eds.) (1997). Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Vol. 1, Theory and Method. Vol. 2, Basic Processes and Human Development. Vol. 3, Social Behaviour and Applications.