Social workers must combine theories with practice—from insights gathered in the field—to develop effective frameworks. The culturagram is one such tool. It was developed by Dr. Elaine Congress in the 1994 and has been continuously refined based on her experience as an accomplished social worker and academic.1 Here, we explore the 10 categories of the culturagram to understand how it can be applied in practice.
What is the Culturagram?
The culturagram is a family assessment tool developed by Dr. Elaine Congress to help social workers better understand families with different cultural backgrounds. It is a particularly relevant tool for counseling immigrant families in the current landscape.
The framework offers the missing piece in many counseling approaches to support acculturation, which is knowing the unique perspective of families to empower them to adapt to a new environment without leaving behind their own culture.
Dr. Congress developed the culturagram based on her work with numerous clients over the years. The method differs from other assessment tools (e.g., the ecomap and the genogram) because of its unique focus on culture, which is key to working with clients from immigrant backgrounds.2
Dr. Congress has been refining the culturagram since she developed it in the early ’90s. The latest version focuses on various challenges faced by today's immigrant population. These challenges include oppression, bias, discrimination and racism.
The 10 Categories of Culturagram
The center of the culturagram consists of the names of the individual family members. Surrounding them are the 10 culturagram categories3:
1. Reason for Relocation
Many immigrants came to the U.S. because of economic reasons, while others came to reunite with family members, while yet others moved here to escape political or religious persecution. Transnationalism is a recurring theme here. Some immigrants go back and forth between the U.S. and their home countries frequently, while others may never go home again—there is often a certain sadness associated with this fact.
2. Legal Status
It is not uncommon for people in the same family to have different legal statuses, from illegal immigrants and those who overstayed their visas, to ones with Green Cards or even citizenship. This can create a lot of tension due to the fear of deportation. Often, such fears can prevent people from getting the medical or special services they need.
3. Time in Community
Different family members may have lived in the U.S. for varying amounts of time. For example, one person may have come here to work or attend school before the rest of the family followed. The differences in acculturation can cause various family members to develop different points of view.
4. Language Spoken at Home and in the Community
Most children learn to speak English very quickly when they come to the U.S., but their parents often use them as interpreters, which keeps children out of school. They may get exposed to situations that children do not typically face. At other times, the children may refuse to speak their native language, leading to communication problems with their parents.
5. Health Beliefs
Many immigrants have very different beliefs about health diagnoses and treatment. For example, some do not get well-baby visits or preventive checkups in their home countries. They only go to the doctor when they are very sick. Also, physical and mental health are more interwoven in the U.S., so it is uncomfortable for some immigrants to share personal issues with a doctor who they do not know well.
6. Impact of Trauma and Crisis Events
Many refugees have endured pre-migration traumatic experiences, such as war, torture, murder of relatives or rape. Other crisis events include developmental crises, especially in adolescents because they want to be just like their peers. Accidents, sudden illness, violence, and unemployment can also bring trauma to an immigrant family.
7. Contact with Cultural and Religious Institutions, Holidays, Food and Clothing
Religions and holidays are part of any culture, so we must understand what is important for each immigrant family. Meanwhile, food and clothing are basic needs we take for granted, but immigrants from different locations and social backgrounds may not know how to navigate acquiring basic needs in the U.S.
8. Oppression, Discrimination, Bias and Racism
Many immigrants bring with them conflicts, prejudice and biases. People from the same area or country may have opposing backgrounds. Also, many immigrants have left a country where they are the majority and now find themselves as the minority facing prejudice in their new home.
9. Values about Education and Work
Most immigrants consider teachers to be authority figures. They come from backgrounds where parents would bring a child to school, and the teachers would take over. This practice is quite different from the American educational system in which parents and teachers form a partnership.
10. Values about Family: Structure, Power, Myths and Rules
Many immigrant families come from traditional, patriarchal backgrounds in which the father is the head of the house. Meanwhile, other cultures consider family needs to trump that of the individual. Social workers must understand the unique family story—how it is structured, how the power is arranged, what the rules are and how family myths affect the dynamics.
Applying the Culturagram in Social Work
The culturagram can be used to engage with immigrant families. Social workers can assess the family in the different areas noted in the list above and then plan necessary interventions. For example, if a social worker sees there is an issue in legal status, a referral to legal resources might be of great help.
If a social worker detects a conflict within the family, a referral to family therapists might be helpful. The culturagram can help social work professionals decide how to work with an immigrant family to empower them.
Advance Your Career in Social Work
Tools and frameworks such as the culturagram can help you make a difference in more people's lives. A Master of Social Work online program enables you to gain the knowledge you need to develop your skills, advance your career or switch to a new path—from anywhere and at any time. Learn more about the online CSWE-accredited Master of Social Work with Yeshiva University.
1. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from connect.springerpub.com/content/book/978-0-8261-0830-2/chapter/ch01?implicit-login=true
2. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from socialworkpodcast.blogspot.com/2008/12/visual-assessment-tools-culturagram.html
3. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from connect.springerpub.com/content/book/978-0-8261-0830-2/chapter/ch01?implicit-login=true