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The Canadian cult behind ‘culture shock’

The origins of the widely used term began in the backwoods of B.C.


Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973) was never an academic mega-star. Despite his fieldwork in Alaska, Uganda and Ecuador, and even his work under the anthropological guru Bronislaw Malinowski, he had nowhere near the influence of his contemporary Margaret Mead. But his American Anthropologist obituary (PDF) did mention one vital fact to make people who hadn’t heard of Oberg pay attention.

Oberg was the father of a very influential theory: culture shock. In 1954, while working on development projects for the United States government, Oberg gave a talk to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro. The wives of U.S. engineers heard Oberg take a term that had been in use since at least 1929 and develop it into a theory involving distinct stages. Expatriates, he said, would begin their time abroad with a “honeymoon phase.” Then they would angrily reject the host culture, associate exclusively with other expatriates (and especially those from their own country), and hopelessly romanticize home. Eventually, they would have a realization – that the host culture was “just another way of living” – and once that happened, their “culture shock” would end.

Oberg’s model of culture shock, and his advice on curing it, struck a chord. It was published in Practical Anthropology (PDF) in 1960 and the term culture shock quickly grew into a well-accepted idea. Exchange students and visiting professors today are told that they will experience culture shock, just as Oberg explains it.

But his obituary missed two crucial points, one of which its authors almost certainly didn’t know. Firstly, Kalervo Oberg was raised, in his early years, in a Finnish nationalist, utopian commune in British Columbia. The collective embodied stage two of culture shock. Oberg passionately spoke up for its ideology, and his culture shock model expressed it in many ways. The “cult” behind culture shock is something that is a little known-part of Oberg’s childhood and may well partly explain why he was the one to develop culture shock and develop it as he did.

Oberg was born in Nanaimo, B.C., in January 1901, just as the utopia envisioned by his coalminer father August, a Finnish immigrant, was coming into being. Dissatisfied with their impoverished lives, the Finns of Nanaimo, romanticizing the land they’d left behind, had decided to form a commune called Kalevan Kansa (Folk of Kaleva), a reference to Finland’s national epic Kalevala, a central part of the country’s growing nationalist movement which would see it declare independence from Russia in 1917.

August was to be treasurer, and he invited Matti Kurikka (1863-1915) – a celebrity amongst expatriate Finns who advocated free love, destroying capitalism and living in a community of religious harmony – to come and lead it. The British Columbia government leased the bear-ridden, forested wilderness of Malcolm Island to the eager Finns. Despite the dangers, they renamed the island “Sointula” for “place of harmony.” By 1902, there were 200 Finns on the island, living communally and trying to fund themselves through lumber export.

Oberg did his master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh and his PhD studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago, eventually taking U.S. citizenship and finally lecturing at Oregon State. But his BA, in economics, was at the University of British Columbia, and in 1928, he actually wrote his graduating essay on why Sointula failed. (He did not mention his connections to it, which my archive searches have revealed).

The lumber operation was a failure, leading to food shortages and recriminations. Many of the settlers had simply dreamed of a better life and didn’t agree with the leader Kurikka’s eccentric ideals, which included his belief that all that all children should be illegitimate while married couples should abstain from intercourse. But these tensions were nothing compared to those that surfaced after Sointula’s devastating 1903 fire. It killed 11 people, eight of them children, including Kalervo Oberg’s two older – but still infant – sisters. The psychological wounds led to Sointula collapsing in 1904. Half of the residents left, including Oberg’s family and Kurikka, while the other half divided up the land.

But Kurikka’s ideas didn’t die. And this is the second crucial point that obituary writers left out. In many ways, they lived on in Oberg’s term “culture shock.” In his graduating essay, Oberg defends both Kurikka and almost all his ideas, including absolute cultural determinism, cultural and religious relativism and even Kurikka’s belief in the supremacy of mind over matter. Oberg actually proclaims that if Finns had listened to Kurikka they could have avoided their 1918 civil war, and he describes Kurikka as “amongst the most worthy of [Finland’s] sons.”

Moving forward to 1954, we can better understand Oberg’s fascination with culture shock: Sointula epitomises his stage two, rejecting the host culture. And there is a great deal of evidence, especially based on recent research with international students, to back up Oberg’s first two stages.

The problematic parts of the model reflect Kurikka’s thinking. Oberg argues that culture shock is overcome not by gradually getting to understand the culture but by accepting a dogma: it’s just another way of living, all cultures are equal – just as Kurikka proclaimed all religions are equal. As with Kurikka, this “equality” is inconsistent. For Oberg, problems with less-developed cultures are caused by their culture and history and are not their fault. But, on the other hand, he blames Westerners for their “ethnocentrism.” This is the same inconsistency observed in Kurikka, who dismisses the Finnish Lutheran Church while preaching that all religions are equal.

That said, even some eminent scholars fail to tackle all of their biases. Despite my criticisms of some of his ideas, I think Oberg deserves to be better recognized. Oberg’s model of culture shock is not only influential but, when divorced from the utopian aspects, reasonably accurate and very useful. Though his adult life was hardly as biography-worthy as that of Margaret Mead, he surely boasts one of the most poignant yet fascinating childhoods amongst anthropologists, or indeed of any scholar. And one wonders if he would have given culture shock to the world without it.

Dr. Dutton is an adjunct professor of religion at Oulu University in Finland. His book
Culture Shock and Multiculturalism
was published with Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2012). The research into Oberg’s childhood has also been published in BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly.

Edward Dutton
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  1. Glenn Ruhl / May 2, 2012 at 13:23

    Oregon State University presents the Kalervo Oberg Award annually to an anthropology senior based on scholarship, leadership and service as a memorial to Oberg, who “increased our knowledge about peoples in Africa and the Americas and identified the emotional impacts of cross-cultural experience.”

  2. Alex Kuskis / May 2, 2012 at 15:03

    I wonder if the “culture shock” concept influenced Alvin Toffler in writing his bestselling book of 1970 titled “Future Shock”. As far as the future is concerned, we are all expatriates of the past, with a tendency to idealize that past and struggling to adjust to the present. Future culture is inevitably new and not always welcomed by everyone affected.

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