Segmented assimilation as a middle-range conceptual perspective emerged in the early 1990s with the publication of “The New Second Generation” by Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. The theory is built on the empirical observations that the host society is highly stratified by class and race, that the host reception is more contingent upon circumstances than inclusive of all newcomers, and that immigrants arrive with different amounts and kinds of resources to cope with resettlement and incorporation, resulting in different rates of success.
Unlike the classical straight-line assimilation theories that posit an irreversible and unidirectional path leading to the eventual incorporation into an undifferentiated, unified, and white middle-class mainstream by all immigrants, the segmented assimilation theory conceives of the mainstream society as shaped by systems of class and racial stratifications. It emphasizes the interaction between race and class and between group membership and larger social structures that intentionally or unintentionally exclude nonwhites. It attempts to delineate the multiple patterns of adaptation that emerge among contemporary immigrants and their offspring, accounts for their different destinies of convergence (or divergence) in their new homelands, and addresses the ways in which particular contexts of exit and reception of national origin groups affect outcomes.
From this perspective, the process of assimilation may take multiple pathways, sometimes with different turns, leading to varied outcomes. Three main patterns are discernible:
- The time-honored upward-mobility pattern dictating the acculturation and economic integration into the normative structures of mainstream middle-class America. This is the old-fashioned path of severing ethnic ties; unlearning “old world” values, norms, and behavioral patterns; and adapting to the culture of the Anglo-Saxon core associated with the white middle class.
- The downward-mobility pattern dictating the acculturation and parallel integration into the margins of U.S. society. This is the path of adapting to native subcultures in direct opposition to the core Anglo-Saxon culture or of creating hybrid oppositional subcultures associated with native groups trapped in the host society’s margins or the bottom rungs of the society’s mobility ladder.
- Socioeconomic integration into mainstream America with lagged and selective acculturation and deliberate preservation of the immigrant community’s values and norms, social ties, and ethnic institutions. This is the path of deliberately reaffirming ethnicity and rebuilding ethnic networks and structures for socioeconomic advancement into middle-class status.
The unique contexts of exit and reception determine into what segment of society the immigrant or ethnic group assimilates. The context of exit entails a number of factors, including premigration resources that immigrants bring with them (such as money, knowledge, and job skills), the social class status already attained by the immigrants in their homelands, motivations, and the means of migration. The context of reception includes the national origin group’s positioning in the system of racial stratification, government policies, labor market conditions, public attitudes, and the strength and viability of the ethnic community in the host society. Segmented assimilation theory focuses on the interaction of these two sets of factors, predicting that particular contexts of exit and reception can create distinctive cultural patterns and strategies of adaptation, social environments, and tangible resources for the group and give rise to opportunities or constraints for the individual, independent of individual socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.
While the unique contexts of exit and reception lead to distinct modes of incorporation for immigrant and refugee groups, different modes of incorporation explain variations in the contexts within which individuals strive to “make it” in their new homeland. For example, to explain why immigrant Chinese or Korean children generally do better in school than immigrant Mexican or Central American children even when they come from families with similar income levels, live in the same neighborhood, and go to the same school, one must look into the unique contexts within which these children grow up. Among the various contextual factors that may significantly influence academic outcomes, one stands out among Chinese and Koreans: an ethnic community with an extensive system of supplementary education, including nonprofit ethnic language schools and private institution in academic tutoring, enrichment, standardized test drills, college preparation and counseling, and extracurricular activities aiming mainly at enhancing the competitiveness of children’s higher educational prospects. The ethnic system of supplementary education is built not only on the strong human capital and financial resources that Chinese and Korean immigrants bring with them to the new country but also on their experience with a competitive educational system in the homeland. In contrast, the Mexican or Central American communities lack similar ethnic social structures that generate resources conducive to education. Moreover, the children of Mexican or Central American immigrants who live in the same neighborhoods as Chinese or Korean immigrants are largely excluded from these ethnic resources.
Empirically, segmented assimilation is measured by a range of observable socioeconomic indicators, such as educational attainment, employment status, income, and home ownership. For the children of immigrants, indicators of downward assimilation include dropping out of school, premature childbirths, and being arrested or sentenced for a crime. These variables are strong predictors of future low educational attainment, low occupational status, low income, and low likelihood of home ownership. Numerous qualitative and quantitative works have produced evidence in support of segmented assimilation predictions—that the second generation is likely to assimilate upwardly, downwardly, or horizontally into an American society that is highly segmented by class and race and to do so in different ways.
From the segmented assimilation perspective, downward assimilation is only one of several possible outcomes. Curiously, the segmented assimilation theory is often misinterpreted as suggesting and predicting a single outcome—downward assimilation—and thereby is criticized as being overtly pessimistic about the immigrant second generation. Nonetheless, to refute the segmented assimilation theory or state that the second generation will sooner or later move into the mainstream middle class, one must demonstrate that both of the following cases are false: (1) that the proportions of those falling into the major indicators of downward assimilation—high school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, and arrests for breaking the law—are insignificant for each national origin or ethnic group; and (2) that the differences in outcomes are randomly distributed across different national origin or ethnic groups, regardless of the group’s modes of incorporation.
- Portes, Alejandro, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, and William J. Haller. 2005. “Segmented Assimilation on the Ground: The New Second Generation in Early Adulthood.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(6):1000-1037.
- Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. 1993. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants among Post-1965 Immigrant Youth.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 530:74-96.
- Zhou, Min and Susan S. Kim. 2006. “Community Forces, Social Capital, and Educational Achievement: The Case of Supplementary Education in the Chinese and Korean Immigrant Communities.” Harvard Educational Review 76(1):1-29.
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