American Dream Essay

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For an immigrant, the American Dream is to achieve economic well-being and a good quality of life through hard work, entrepreneurship, and perseverance. It is the driving force behind most immigration, and its realization is the achievement dimension of the incorporation process. A main topic addressed in immigration literature is the high variance of intragenerational mobility. Why do some immigrants advance quickly while others remain at the bottom end of the economic ladder?

Essentially, incorporation along one dimension speeds up incorporation along another. For example, better command of the native tongue allows for better-paying jobs that involve day-to-day use of the native tongue, which in turn enhance language improvement. This mechanism, together with others, gives rise to two incorporation tracks: a fast and a stationary one. As a result, incorporation outcomes, particularly achievement, tend to be dichotomous.

Another mechanism is the one that causes growing income inequality in any capitalist system: money accumulation. The returns on previous investments allow for subsequent larger investments with greater returns. This is, of course, true for any participant in a capitalist society, immigrant or native. For the special case of immigrants, accompanying this core mechanism is a host of additional mechanisms that further widen the gap between rich and poor.

When immigrants find better-paying jobs outside their ethnic economy, this is often through a referral by someone already participating in the mixed economy. Migrants with a friend outside the ethnic group more likely receive news about jobs outside the ethnic economy. Those who lack such a friend will more likely continue to work in the ethnic economy. Given that cross-ethnic friends are more likely to know about jobs in the mixed economy than co-ethnic friends, economic incorporation is contingent upon incorporation along the friendship dimension. Vice versa, some colleagues and their contacts—who most likely also work outside the ethnic economy— become friends. Incorporation in multiethnic friendship networks is therefore also contingent upon economic incorporation. The new friends will further enhance job opportunities. This spiraling process will increasingly distinguish economically a group of people with largely co-ethnic friends and co-ethnic colleagues and another with largely cross-ethnic friends and cross-ethnic colleagues.

Cross-ethnic contact facilitates language improvement, and, vice versa, cross-ethnic contacts more readily develop if one speaks the host language better. The former is true because conversations with those of a different ethnicity are more likely in the host language. Language skills then develop more rapidly if more contacts are cross-ethnic. Conversely, because a better command of the spoken language facilitates conversations, cross-ethnic contacts develop more rapidly with improved language skills. Those who barely speak the host language, by contrast, find it difficult to maintain such contacts and tend to lose even the few they may have. This feedback process causes a greater and greater divergence between those with both language skills and a network entrance into the mixed economy and those who are incorporated along neither dimension. The former’s economic opportunities become better and better than the latter’s.

Interaction breeds similarity and similarity breeds interaction. These tendencies are known as influence and attraction. Attraction is the tendency of people to interact with similar others more than with dissimilar others. Influence concerns the opposite causality and is the tendency of people to grow similar to interaction partners. Together these two pervasive tendencies produce the phenomenon of homophily. In the case of immigrants, those who interact with members of other ethnic groups more often acculturate faster, more readily adopting norms, values, and traditions widely shared across society and losing ethnic-specific norms, values, and traditions. Frequent cross-ethnic contact may erode ethnic traditions and encourage identification with those from another ethnicity, whereas continuous participation in co-ethnic friendship networks, colleagueship, and neighborhoods enhances ethnic solidarity. Conversely, the sharing of norms, values, and traditions eases interaction, decreasing social distance. In combination, they produce a dichotomy between those who, with increasing speed, drift away from their ethnic traditions and contacts and those who maintain strong bonds and cherish ethnic traditions.

Immigrants with higher incomes can more readily find housing outside the ethnic neighborhood. Economic incorporation thus facilitates spatial integration (the spatial assimilation hypothesis). These more affluent neighborhoods, in turn, are perhaps closer to better-paying jobs and have resources that facilitate economic advancement. Again, a spiral is present that, in combination with the previously described spirals, breaks up the immigrant population into those who incorporate along all dimensions and those who continue to cherish ethnic norms, values, and traditions; have friends in ethnic networks; work in the ethnic economy; reside in the ethnic neighborhood; and speak the host language poorly.

These polarizing mechanisms provide a simple theoretical account of polarization in immigrants’ economic advancement. Thus, economic success, on the one hand, and incorporation along other dimensions (residential integration, native language improvement, acculturation), on the other hand, affect each other positively. At least three counteracting mechanisms weaken this correlation of economic success with noneconomic incorporation. First, dense and exclusive ethnic networks can function as a resource rather than as a restriction in immigrant economic advancement, as fellow ethnic group members, building on trust and friendship ties, provide startup funds for a business in the ethnic economy. Second, cross-ethnic contact may increase rather than decrease ethnic awareness, a phenomenon called reactive ethnicity. Third, critics of the spatial assimilation hypothesis say it neglects the ethnic barriers that, through discrimination and in-group favoritism, prevent income increases from automatically translating into neighborhood integration.


  1. Nee, Victor, Jimy Sanders, and Scott Sernau. 1994. “Job Transitions in an Immigrant Metropolis: Ethnic Boundaries and Mixed Economy.” American Sociological Review 59:849-72.
  2. Portes, Alejandro and J. Sensenbrenner. 1993. “Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the Social Determinants of Economic Action.” American Journal of Sociology 98:1320-50.
  3. Van Tubergen, Frank, Ineke Maas, and Henk Flap. 2004. “The Economic Incorporation of Immigrants in 18 Western Societies: Origin, Destination, and Community Effects.” American Sociological Review 69:704-27.

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