What's the difference between heaven and hell?  Heaven is a place where the police are British, the chefs are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss.  And what about hell?  Hell is where the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organized by the Italians!

This joke reflects common stereotypes about European cultures, and there is likely a grain of truth to it.  But these differences are not innate - there isn't much difference between a British or a French or a German baby.  We aren't born with culture, ethnicity or religion implanted in our brains- rather, we gradually learn the values, beliefs and attitudes of our culture through the process of enculturation.

Video Activity

Watch the video below, in which a "Crazy Russian Dad" describes his experiences growing up in the USSR (the former Soviet Republic).  Reflect on the following:

  • What were the values of the USSR?

  • How were these values taught to children in the USSR?

  • What are the values of your country?  

  • How have the values of your country been taught to you?  In what regards is the process of enculturation similar to, or different from, that described in the video?
What is enculuration?

Enculturation is, simply put, the process of "becoming" a member of your culture.  It involves learning the values, beliefs, norms and expectations of the place where you are from.  Enculturation involves a process of education in all the following:

  • Values and beliefs.  This is the process of learning what your society or culture cares about.  What is important, what is worth fighting for?  For instance, in the USSR, children were taught that they were "builders of Communism".  A culture also shares a set of common beliefs, often concerning the social identity of the group - who we are as a people, where we came from, what defines us, the trials we faced, and where we are going in the future.

  • Norms and expectations - These involve learning the behaviors that are expected of us in our culture, what we should or shouldn't do, and what we role we should play in society.  For instance, a Jewish or Muslim child might learn not to eat pork, how to pray according to the rules of their religion, and how to observe religious holidays.  Of course, norms and expectations do not only apply to those of us who are brought up in a religious faith, but concern every aspect of behavior.  For example, you probably have learned from your parents and teachers that you ought to do your homework, go to university, and prepare yourself for a professional occupation - these are the norms and expectations of 21st century life in a capitalistic, knowledge-driven world.

Think Critically

Complete an "Enculturation mind map" by completing the following steps:

  • On a large piece of paper, write down a few of the cultural groups that you belong to (these could be national cultures, like "Australian", religious groups, like "Catholic", or even other types of cultural groups, like "Skateboarder")

  • For each cultural group, draw branches linking the cultural group with the values, beliefs, or expectations that are associated with the culture  (for instance, a value of American culture might be "liberty and freedom")

  • Finally, draw branches from each value / belief / expectation to some of the symbols, rituals and practices that have helped instill these principles in you.  Think of the role of your parents, the education sytem, the media, and religious institutions in helping to impart the ideas of your culture

How enculturation happens

How does one internalize the values and norms of one's culture?  Culture is all around us, like the air we breathe - it is the way our parents raise us, what we watch on TV, what we learn in school, and the holidays and special occasions we celebrate.  Over time, our thoughts and feelings becomes shaped by our surroundings.  That is why a Muslim might revile at the thought of eating pork, or an Indian may prefer to have an arranged marriage over Western style dating.  Enculturation can occur through a number of different processes:

  • Direct tuition. This simply means that your parents, teachers, or other members of your society explicitly teach you certain beliefs, values, or expected norms of behavior.  For instance, your parents might have taught you the table manners of your culture, and reminded you not to slurp your soup too loudly or eat your food with your hands.  If you grew up in a religious family and attended religious classes, you will have likely learned teachings on the beliefs and customs particular to your faith.  Finally, at school, you will have likely been taught to respect your flag and national anthem, studied the history of your nation, and taught the values of your culture.

  • Participatory learning involves engaging in activities which are meant to instill certain values, beliefs, and expectations.  For instance, if your school organizes a trip to collect garbage at a national park, this activity helps to instill the values of respect for nature and environmental conservation.  Religious traditions often emphasize participatory learning - for instance, children who participate in the singing of hymns during Christmas will internalize the values and practices of the holiday.

  • Observational learning.  As you've seen in an earlier lesson, we don't always need to be explicitly taught in order to learn - much learning happens simply by observing and imitating others.  So long as a person identified with a model, believes that imitating the model will lead to positive outcomes, and feels that one is capable of imitating the behavior, learning can occur without any explicit teaching.  For instance, a child who is lucky enough to born to parents that are in a loving relationship, and observes his parents expressing warmth and intimacy with each other, will learn how to be affectionate and caring in his or her own future relationships.

IB Psych Matters

In many cultures, the process of enculturation involves a "rite of passage", a ceremony in which a young man or woman engages in rituals meant to elevate the person to a full member of their community.  Participating in a rite of passage ceremony involves accepting the beliefs, norms and practices of one's community, thus preparing to be a full member of one's culture.

For instance, in Jewish tradition, a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, while a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah one year younger.  To prepare for a Bar Mitzvah, a boy will spend months learning to recite a portion of the Torah (the Jewish holy book), and then will be called up at to the lantern at his synagogue to read from the holy book in front of the community.  This day marks the beginning of the Bar Mitzvah's full participation in the community, and his obligation to follow the commandments of his faith.  For more on the Bar Mitzvah, watch the video below:

Does your culture practice a rite of passage ceremony?  You can be almost certain the answer is yes.  For instance, even high school graduation can be considered a rite of passage, as it marks the moment (in Western culture) that a young man or woman is expected to become independent, leave home, and become responsible for his or her self.  Choose from one of the "rite of passage" ceremonies listed below, and do more research on the values, beliefs and expectations that are conveyed through the successful completion of the rite.

  • Okuyi (practiced in several West African nations)

  • Sweet sixteen ceremony

  • Walkabout (practiced in Australian Aboriginal culture)

  • High school graduation

Research: Odden & Rochat

Aim: To study the role of observational learning (based on social cognitive theory) in enculturation in Samoa


  • This study was an observational, longitudinal study (lasting 25 months) of 28 children in one Samoan village

  • In Samoan culture, adults have a non-interventionist approach to their children.  Parents do not spend much time with their children, believing that children can learn important skills and values on their own.  Thus, this culture provided a unique opportunity to assess the role of observational learning

  • Observations were made of the children's behavior over 25 months, and at the end of the study, children completed a multiple choice test that tested their knowledge of the values of Samoan society, including the Chief system


  • Children were not taught how to fish, as the supply of fishing equipment was limited.  However, children spent a great deal of time observing how adults fished.  By the time the children were 10, they began borrowing fishing equipment (without any adult supervision), and by 12 most were capable fishermen (despite never being taught how to fish)

  • The multiple choice test demonstrated that most children had a basic understanding of the concepts, rites and rituals of their society, including the Chief system, despite not having been explicitly taught these by teachers or parents.  Children were able to learn the norms of their culture simply by observing and overhearing the conversations of others


  • Observational learning plays a significant role in enculturation.  It is possible for children to learn the values, norms and behaviors of their culture simply by observation and imitation


  • A strength of this study is its longitudinal design - by collecting observations over a period of 25 months, researchers were able to observe children acquire new skills (such as fishing) over the course of the study

  • On the other hand, this study only involved participants from one Samoan village, so it is not certain that observational learning plays such a significant role in other cultures

  • T​​his was an observational study, without a standardized method for data collection.  Therefore, there is always the risk of research bias - researchers might have given more weight to observations that confirmed their hypothesis, and less weight to observations that challenged it


  • I can define the term enculturation, and discuss how it involves the transmission of values, beliefs, norms and expectations

  • I can explain the role of direct tuition, participatory learning, and observational learning in enculturation

  • I can discuss the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of Odden & Rochat's study of observational learning, and can also evaluate the study
Quiz Yourself!

1.  Enculturation may involve learning all the following EXCEPT:

(a) The capital cities of countries around the world

(b) The history of your nation

(c) The correct dress code for different occasions

(d) A socially appropriate way to ask someone out on a date

2.  Which method of enculturation is closely linked to social cognitive theory?

(a) Participatory learning

(b) Direct tuition

(c) Cultural dimensions

(d) Observational learning

3.  Students at Central High School are instructed to form groups and prepare short videos on the dangers of illegal drugs.  What sort of enculturation is this? 

(a) Participatory learning

(b) Direct tuition

(c) Cultural dimensions

(d) Observational learning

​4.  What did Odden & Rochart observe about Samoan children's fishing skills?

(a) Children first practiced fishing together with their parents, and eventually acquired the ability to fish by themselves

(b) The Chief of every village taught children how to fish in a rite of passage ceremony

(c) Knowledge of how to fish was acquired by observation

(d) Knowledge of how to fish was acquired by guided participation

5.  Which evaluation is correct for Odden & Rochart's study?

(a) The study has high ecological validity

(b) The study has low generalizability

(c) Both A and B

(d) Neither A nor B

1 - A, 2 - D, 3 - A, 4 - C, 5 - C