Assimilation Essay

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Assimilation is making a comeback as a major concept in the study of immigrant groups’ processes of adjustment to a receiving society. This development is most evident in the United States, but it is to some extent occurring in Western Europe as well, where multiculturalism is declining sharply in favor. This comeback reverses the trend at the end of the 20th century, which saw assimilation frequently criticized as an outmoded, ethnocentric notion.

Reconceptualizing Assimilation

Assimilation’s return is associated with significant changes in the way it is conceptualized, reflecting an updating to take into account the criticisms of the recent past. Earlier versions of the concept originated with the studies of early 20th-century immigrants in American cities conducted by sociologists of the Chicago school, who saw immigrants and their children, usually called the “second generation,” changing in tandem with upward social mobility and migration away from immigrant residential enclaves into better and more ethnically mixed neighborhoods. This view crystallized in the book The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups of 1945, by W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole, which, however, added the jarring note that assimilability depended crucially on skin color and that, therefore, the assimilation of southern Italians, for instance, would require six generations. The assimilation of African Americans, according to Warner and Srole, was not foreseeable without revolutionary changes in U.S. society.

The concept originating with the Chicago school received its canonical post-World War II formulation at the hands of sociologist Milton Gordon in Assimilation in American Life of 1964, a book still widely cited. Gordon conceived of assimilation as a multidimensional process, in which two dimensions, cultural and structural assimilation, are the most determinative. Cultural assimilation is a largely one-way process, by which immigrants and their children divest themselves of their original cultures and take on the cultural features of the mainstream society, which are those of middle-class white Protestants, in Gordon’s view. Structural assimilation refers to the integration of immigrant-group members with their majority-group counterparts in friendship circles, neighborhoods, and other forms of noneconomic relationship. Gordon hypothesized that in the United States, (a) cultural assimilation is inevitable in all domains other than religion; and (b) once structural assimilation occurs, then the overall assimilation process is destined to complete itself in short order. With this last hypothesis, Gordon had in mind the collapse of prejudice and discrimination against the group, a surge of intermarriage involving group members, and the disappearance of salient differences between the immigrant group and the host majority.

In this brief account, one can readily see some of the problematic aspects of the older concept that critics attacked. First, assimilation seems to require a complete transformation by the immigrant-origin group(a term used here to refer to the immigrants and their descendants), which must drop all of its original characteristics to become carbon copies of the host society’s majority group, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Second, assimilability depends upon skin color, and thus the older concept reserves full assimilation for European-origin groups, which could be seen as racially “white” (although there were initially doubts about the whiteness of some of the southern and eastern European groups). Hence, the verdict of many critics was that assimilation was hopelessly racist and ethnocentric.

A new version of the assimilation concept, developed by Richard Alba and Victor Nee, adapts it to the multiracial America of the 21st century, while remaining faithful to the historical experiences of integration into the mainstream that gave rise to it in the first place. Alba and Nee define assimilation, a form of ethnic change, as the decline of an ethnic distinction and its corollary cultural and social differences. Decline, in this context, means that a distinction attenuates in salience, and more specifically, that the occurrences for which it is relevant diminish in number and contract to fewer and fewer domains of social life. As ethnic boundaries become blurred or weakened, individuals’ ethnic origins become less and less relevant in relation to the members of another ethnic group (typically, but not necessarily, the ethnic majority group), and individuals from both sides of the boundary mutually perceive themselves with less and less frequency in terms of ethnic categories and increasingly only under specific circumstances. Assimilation, moreover, is not a dichotomous outcome and does not require the disappearance of ethnicity; consequently, the individuals and groups undergoing assimilation may still bear a number of ethnic markers. It can occur on a large scale to members of a group even as the group itself remains as a highly visible point of reference on the social landscape, embodied in an ethnic culture, neighborhoods, and institutional infrastructures.

One important aspect of this definition is that it leaves room for assimilation to occur as a two-sided process, whereby the immigrant minority influences the mainstream and is not only influenced by it. The degree to which the assimilation process is in fact two-sided is an empirical question to be answered in specific cases and not a matter to be settled a priori. But there can be no question in the U.S. context that the mainstream culture has taken on layers of influence from the many immigrant groups who have come to U.S. shores, as seen, for instance, in the impact of 19th-century German immigrants on American Christmas customs and leisure-time activities.

The ramifications of the influence of the immigrant minority on the mainstream are developed conceptually by Alba and Nee through the idea of “boundary blurring.” A social boundary is an institutionalized social distinction by which individuals perceive their social world and divide others into categories that have the character of “us” or “them.” However, not all boundaries are sharply delineated; when boundaries become blurred, the clarity of the social distinction involved has become clouded, and other individuals’ locations with respect to the boundary may appear indeterminate or ambiguous. Boundary blurring can occur when the mainstream culture and identity are relatively porous and allow for the incorporation of cultural elements brought by immigrant groups; that is, two-sided cultural change. Under such circumstances, the apparent difference between the mainstream culture and that of the immigrant group is reduced partly because of changes to the former. Assimilation may then be eased insofar as the individuals undergoing it do not sense a rupture between participation in mainstream institutions and familiar social and cultural practices and identities. Assimilation of this type involves intermediate, or hyphenated, stages that allow individuals to feel themselves simultaneously to be members of an ethnic minority and of the mainstream.

A Theory of Assimilation

A reconceptualization of assimilation is not enough: Understanding the potential role of assimilation for contemporary immigrant groups and their descendants also requires a theory of assimilation—an account of the causal mechanisms that produce it. Positing such a theory implies that assimilation is not an inevitable result of the intergroup contacts resulting from migration—an assumption that was unfortunately shared by many of the early 20th-century scholars of the phenomenon—but requires a specification of the circumstances under which it emerges as an outcome. According to Alba and Nee, the pace and success of assimilation depend principally on three factors or mechanisms. First is the crucial effect of informal and formal institutions—customs, norms, conventions, and rules—that establish the underlying framework of competition and cooperation in a society. Second are the workaday decisions of individual immigrants and their descendants—which often lead to assimilation not as a stated goal but as an unintended consequence of social behavior oriented to successful accommodation. And third is the effect of network ties embedded in the immigrant community and family, which shape the particular ways in which their members adapt to American life.

The institutional portion of this account calls attention to the fundamental changes in the societal “rules of the game” that have occurred since the 1960s. Prior to World War II, the formal rules and their enforcement bolstered the racism that excluded nonwhite minorities from effective participation in civil society. For example, Asian immigrants were ineligible for citizenship until 1952 and faced many discriminatory local and regional laws that restricted their property rights and civil liberties. But these blockages have yielded as a result of the legal changes of the civil rights era, which have extended fundamental constitutional rights to racial minorities. These changes have not been merely formal; they have been accompanied by new institutional arrangements, the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms of which increased the cost of discrimination.

Institutional changes have gone hand in hand with changes in mainstream values. One of these is the remarkable decline in the power of racist ideologies since the end of World War II. An examination of more than half a century of survey data demonstrates unequivocally that the beliefs in racial separation, endorsed by a majority of white Americans at mid-century, have steadily eroded. Such institutional and ideological shifts have not ended racial prejudice and racist practice, but they have changed their character. Racism is now outlawed and, as a consequence, has become more covert and subterranean, and it can no longer be advocated in public without sanction.

At the individual level, assimilation is frequently something that happens while people are making other plans. That is, individuals striving for success in U.S. society often do not see themselves as assimilating. Yet the unintended consequences of practical strategies taken in pursuit of highly valued goals—a good education, a good job, a nice place to live, interesting friends and acquaintances—often result in specific forms of assimilation. It is not uncommon, for instance, for first- and second-generation Asian parents to raise their children speaking only English in the belief that their chances for success in school will be improved by their more complete mastery of the host language. Likewise, the search for a desirable place to live—with good schools and opportunities for children to grow up away from the seductions of deviant models of behavior—often leads immigrant families to ethnically mixed suburbs (if and when socioeconomic success permits this), because residential amenities tend to be concentrated there. One consequence, whether intended or not, is greater interaction with families of other backgrounds; such increased contact tends to encourage acculturation, especially for children.

The network mechanisms of assimilation emerge from the dependence of immigrants and their children on the social capital that develops within immigrant communities and extended family networks. In this respect, it is rare for immigrant families to confront the challenges of settlement in a new society alone, and they frequently go along with the strategies of adaptation worked out collectively within the ethnic group. Frequently enough, these collectivist strategies advance assimilation in specific ways. For instance, Irish Americans, in their effort to shed the stereotype of “shanty Irish,” socially distanced themselves from African Americans as a group strategy to gain acceptance from Anglo-Americans, ostracizing those who intermarried with blacks. More recently, South Asians who settled in an agricultural town in northern California evolved norms encouraging selective acculturation, while discouraging social contact with local white youths who taunted the Punjabi youths. The Punjabi immigrants’ strategy, according to the anthropologist Margaret Gibson, emphasized academic achievement in the public schools as a means to success, which they defined not locally, but in terms of the opportunity structures of the mainstream.

Alternative Conceptions

The Alba and Nee theorization of assimilation is not the only new approach. Other sociologists have also attempted to reintroduce this concept in ways that overcome the deficiencies in the older versions and adapt it to the contemporary realities of immigration. Thus, Rogers Brubaker has described assimilation as a process of becoming similar to some population, indicating his preference for a population-based approach.

The alternative conception that is most challenging to the Alba and Nee version is “segmented assimilation” as formulated by Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou. Portes and Zhou argue that a critical question concerns the segment of U.S. society into which individuals assimilate, and they envision that multiple trajectories are required for the answer. One trajectory leads to entry into the middle-class mainstream; this is conventional assimilation, compatible with the Alba and Nee conceptualization. But another leads to incorporation into the racialized population at the bottom of U.S. society. This trajectory is followed by many in the second and third generations from the new immigrant groups, who are handicapped by their very humble initial locations in U.S. society and barred from entry into the mainstream by their race. On this route of assimilation, they are guided by the cultural models of poor, native-born African Americans and Latinos/as. Perceiving that they are likely to remain in their parents’ status at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy and evaluating this prospect negatively because, unlike their parents, they have absorbed the standards of the American mainstream, they succumb to the temptation to drop out of school and join the inner-city underclass.

Portes and Zhou also envision a pluralist alternative to either “upward” or “downward” assimilation. That is, Portes and Zhou claim that some individuals and groups are able to draw social and economic advantages by keeping some aspects of their lives within the confines of an ethnic matrix (e.g., ethnic economic niches, ethnic communities). Under optimal circumstances, exemplified by the Cubans of Miami, immigrant-origin groups may even be able to attain, within their ethnic communities and networks, socioeconomic opportunities equivalent to those afforded by the mainstream. In such cases, the pluralist route of incorporation would provide a truly viable alternative to assimilation.

The contrast between the Alba and Nee conceptualization and that of Portes and Zhou frames the state of debate and discussion about the trajectories of contemporary immigrant groups and their second generations in the United States. The evidence is far from definitive at present, but what there is seems to indicate that the predominant pattern among the children of immigrants remains that of assimilation toward, if not into, the mainstream as described by Alba and Nee. Although the evidence remains provisional for the time being, it leaves no doubt that the assimilation pattern is certain to be important for contemporary immigrant-origin groups, and any reflection on the American future must take it into account.


  1. Alba, Richard and Victor Nee. 2003. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Brubaker, Rogers. 2001. “The Return of Assimilation? Changing Perspectives on Immigration and Its Sequels in France, Germany, and the United States.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24:531-48.
  3. Gibson, Margaret. 1988. Accommodation without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  4. Gordon, Milton. 1964. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Kasinitz, Philip, John Mollenkopf, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway. Forthcoming. Second-Generation Advantage: The Children of Immigrants Inherit New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. 1993. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants.” The Annals 530:74-96.
  7. Warner, W. Lloyd and Leo Srole. 1945. The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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