Jun 252012

Salman Akhtar’s “Immigration and Identity: Turmoil, Treatment, and Transformation” has shed a lot of light for me on the psychological experience of immigration. The book takes a psychoanalytical look at the effects of immigration on individual identity. The most useful parts deal with factors and process of identity transformation. Part 1 of this overview will tackle the “psychosocial variables associated with immigration.”

Immigration from one country to another is a complex psychosocial process with significant and lasting effects on an individual’s identity. Leaving one’s country involves profound losses. However, alongside these losses is a renewed opportunity for psychic growth and alteration.

The outcome of cultural shock and loss inherent in the immigration process depends on several factors. They include:

  • Circumstances of and reasons for migration. Is your immigration temporary or permanent? Is it voluntary or forced? How much time did you have to prepare for it? Can you revisit the home country? Why did you leave—to escape a hardship or to seek new opportunities? Answers to these questions determine whether you can be considered an immigrant or an exile.
  • Connection to home country. An external source of support is communication with family ‘back home’ and trips to the home country. Internal support consists of contacts with nationals in the host country and consuming home country’s cultural products (food, media entertainment, festivals, religious services) in the host country.
  • Age at migration. Children and adolescents experience extra hardship during immigration, as it may constitute their first experience with profound loss and they are on the receiving end of the manifestations of their parents’ experience.
  • Character before immigration. Your personality influences your readiness to leave the home country and how you adapt to the host country. If you seek contact, collect objects, and prefer security, immigration will be hard at first but you will adjust well. If you seek thrills, search for novelty, and are independent-minded, you will enjoy the new freedom but become restless later.
  • Nature of home country. Moving from a poor to a rich country can “mobilize unconscious guilt,” whether it’s from bettering yourself in comparison to those left behind or from oedipal issues. Moving from a rich to a poor country also brings up guilt, from having previously lived in an affluent society. Akhtar overlooks differences in political regime.
  • Magnitude of cultural differences. The greater the cultural differences between home and host country, the more difficult the adaptation. Food and language stand out in significance. The former because “it symbolizes the earliest structural link with the mother”, the latter for its link to the culture that nourished you. Other factors include attire, music, humor, political ideology, sexuality, subjective experience of time, communication, and so on.
  • Reception by the host population. The more immigrants in the host group, the better the welcome. The more open the political situation to immigration, the better. And the more connections there are between your home and host countries, the more positive the reception.
  • Efficacy in the new country. Can you get the same job in the host country that you had in your home country? Think doctors becoming janitors.
  • Birth of children. Parenting brings you closer to your new country.
Akhtar also addresses additional factors ignored in immigration literature, including
  • Bodily characteristics. The more different you look from the host country’s population, the tougher the time you’ll have adapting.
  • Gender. Women have an easier time adapting to immigration.
  • Marriage. Marrying long before migration or long after makes the experience easier. Marrying a compatriot can offer security of the home connection but hamper adaptation. Marrying a host country’s national eases immigration, especially if you can exchange cultural artifacts with one another. Marrying a third country national can bond you together in the immigration experience.
  • Legal status. Being an illegal immigrant is bad for your psyche.


Source: Salman Akhtar, “Immigration and Identity: Turmoil, Treatment, and Transformation,” New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999

Image credit: desatur8

Read Part 2 and Part 3 for a summary of the four tracks of identity transformation.

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