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Regular version of the site

It's All about Social Capital

What helps the successful adaptation of immigrants


Multiple factors determine how well immigrants can adapt to living in a new country. According to research, the key factors are social capital, i.e. having friends who can help with housing, employment and other basic needs, and the immigrant's approach to becoming part of their new community and culture (i.e. acculturation attitudes and strategies). A team of HSE researchers examined the relative importance of social capital and acculturation strategies for successful adaptation of immigrants from Central Asia and South Korea living in Moscow. 

From Friends to Strategies

Sociocultural adaptation is measured by how comfortable immigrants feel in a new society, whether they are sensitive – and adhere – to local norms and values and even whether they understand local humour.

Both social capital and acculturation attitudes appear to be essential for successful adaptation. Having social capital means knowing people who can provide financial or in-kind support, e.g. by helping an immigrant with moving to a new home, fixing their computer or getting a job, by explaining some intricacies of the local culture, and much more. Such friends and acquaintances can be the immigrant's compatriots (bonding social capital) or members of the host community (bridging social capital). 

According to John W. Berry's acculturation theory, an individual moving to a new country is faced with two main decisions: first, how deeply they wish to be involved in the host community and how much of its norms and values they wish to acquire, and second, how much of their ancestral or heritage identity, language, values and traditions they wish to retain. These decisions underlie the individual's choice among four different acculturation strategies. 

Graphically, these strategies can be represented as follows:

 Assimilation. The individual desires to identify totally with the new culture. Seeking to be accepted by the host community, they learn the language and adopt the new values while gradually abandoning their culture of origin.

 Separation. The individual holds on to their culture of origin while keeping their interaction with the other culture to a minimum. Immigrants who have chosen this strategy tend to live in enclaves and preserve their language, culture and customs.

 Integration is considered the most challenging but also the most productive of the four strategies. The individual makes an effort to learn and adopt the host community's values and practices while maintaining their culture of origin. According to Tatarko, this is the best strategy in terms of preserving one’s mental health and integrity, because unlike assimilation, it does not force one to abandon their cultural heritage and unlike separation, it does not hinder effective adaptation.

 Marginalization. The individual rejects their culture of origin because its values do not work in the host community but for some reason fails to accept the new values, ending up marginalised in-between the cultures. 'This is the most counterproductive adaptation strategy often causing mental problems in those who choose it', Tatarko comments.

In this study, the researchers examined whether one's social capital or acculturation strategy is more important for adaptation; in other words, what happens first: making social connections in the new country and then picking one's acculturation strategy or choosing the strategy first and then making friends and acquaintances that fit in with this strategy. 

In addition to this, the researchers explored which type of social capital – bonding or bridging – tends to contribute more to the sociocultural adaptation of migrants from Asia in Russian society.

Choice of Respondents

The study sample included 122 migrants from Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) and 136 migrants from South Korea.

The researchers chose these countries of origin because they are similar in terms of global cultural dimensions: all are collectivist, high-power distance societies – meaning that power hierarchies have a strong impact on social interactions. Respect for authority and unquestioning compliance from subordinates are universal norms in these cultures. In addition to this, both South Korea and the Central Asian countries are predominantly masculine cultures where individual comfort and social support are perceived as secondary to wealth, professional success and the desire to dominate.

In terms of social capital, however, these groups differ. Due to their shared past, many people from the former Soviet republics speak Russian and are familiar with Russian culture, making it easier for them to accumulate bridging social capital by establishing useful connections with locals. In contrast, relatively few Koreans are fluent in Russian or well-versed in Russian culture and often turn to other Koreans for advice and assistance. 

Social Capital Comes First

Based on responses from both groups of immigrants surveyed, social capital comes first and determines the choice of acculturation strategy based on the kind of social connections a new immigrant is able to make. 

Immigrants from Central Asia tend to benefit from both bridging (i.e. contacts with Russians) and bonding (i.e. contacts with compatriots) types of social capital. Indeed, having both types of social capital is essential, because an excessive focus on interactions within their community of origin can lead to separation rather than integration. 

Compared to immigrants from Central Asia, Koreans tend to rely less on social capital for sociocultural adaptation in Russia generally, but when they do, it's mostly bonding social capital, i.e. interactions with other Korean immigrants. According to the researchers, Koreans are more likely to adapt effectively to living in Russia if they enjoy support from their community of origin, in particular by sharing knowledge about Russian culture, customs, values and norms. This makes Korean immigrants different from their post-Soviet peers who are already familiar with the Russian language and culture and do not need much help adapting to local norms.



Study authors:
Alexander Tatarko, Chief Research Fellow, HSE Centre for Sociocultural Research
John W. Berry, Chief Research Fellow, HSE Centre for Sociocultural Research
Keunwon Choi, Visiting Scholar, HSE School of Asian Studies
Author: Alena Tarasova, March 26, 2020