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Assimilation has many definitions depending on the field of study. For example, in biology, assimilation refers to the process of digestion and absorption of nutrients into the fluid or solid substance of the body. In linguistics, the act of assimilation is a common process where sounds are incorporated phonologically. In psychology, the process of assimilation refers to the incorporation of new concepts into existing schemes; for example, Jean Piaget suggested that assimilation is essential for learners to construct new knowledge, where absorption of new ideas into existing knowledge takes place.
A more general definition of assimilation refers to when people of different backgrounds and beliefs assimilate through living side by side. These individuals eventually come to see themselves as part of the larger community in which they settle; that is, a small group is absorbed into and made part of a bigger group. One instance of such assimilation was evident in the 19th-century United States among the Irish immigrants. A final goal of assimilation, or complete assimilation, would mean that no separate social structures remain and people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds entering a new society, free of these (i.e., ethnic and racial) constraints, come to interact in the life of the larger community. According to Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, the complete assimilation process would require individuals or groups of individuals to acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons or groups through sharing their experience and history, which would lead to a complete incorporation into a larger society and result in a common cultural life. That being said, however, the subject of assimilation is problematic.
Today, the most commonly used meaning of assimilation in social contexts almost universally carries an underlying connotation of conformity of a minority group or an individual to a larger or mainstream segment of society. To that end, racial or ethnic backgrounds play a significant role in how the mainstream community or larger society embraces or stagnates the process of assimilation of the minority groups. Derived from the Latin origin of the word assimilationem, which means “similarity,” in the United States over the years, assimilation became synonymous with the mainstream’s imposition of its views and ways of life on the minority groups within a society. As such, a number of ideological constructs have been formed around assimilation, some of which are racially motivated. These constructs, almost exclusively, revolve around cultural assimilation and immigration, resulting in the subject of assimilation being, at times, politically charged and, therefore, controversial. Accordingly, the act of assimilation is often highly contentious and carries a number of motivating connotations associated with the underlying pressures to assimilate.
Cultural assimilation often involves the acceptance of the dominant or mainstream group’s belief structures, including but not limited to social and moral conventions, cultural norms, social sentiments, and attitudes. While cultural assimilation is often a matter of choice for some communities, there has also been, and continues to be, an element of pressure from many nations and majority groups within a society to compel minority groups to assimilate. This can be seen in the 19th-century U.S. policies toward Native Americans, which involved laws prohibiting and regulating certain cultural behaviors. Another example can be found in modern-day China, which tries to enforce Sinicization, or the adoption of Han Chinese values, in the various autonomous regions under its jurisdiction.
Scholars in the area of cultural assimilation have provided a variety of evolving theorems and rationales for this phenomenon. One example of early thoughts on cultural assimilation involves what the sociologist Milton Gordon found in the idea of Anglo-conformity or Americanization. This was the predominant form of what was considered classic cultural assimilation in the United States as European migrants settled in the 19th century. While most scholars agree that this was not necessarily a uniformly smooth process, it is largely considered an example of successful cultural assimilation. When European enclave communities in the present-day United States are examined, they are largely culturally assimilated in terms of language and intermarriage, as well as most forms of economic parity.
As with many disciplines, however, a fuller picture of assimilation has developed as the world’s population has become more mobile and more easily studied. The theories pertaining to the experiences of white European communities and their cultural assimilation did not hold together in the face of migrant experiences from the mid-to late- 20th century. Rather, the sociologists Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou present two viewpoints on the prevailing cultural assimilation theories. First, the smooth assimilation of nonwhite immigrants into white middle-class society was clearly more difficult due to obvious racial differences. Second, many recent (21st century) immigrants face a segmented assimilation experience. At the same time, there are those who find a more classic cultural assimilation process, like the one mentioned above. As such, due to the diversity of ethnic groups in the United States, cultural assimilation paths for any given group rarely share the same trajectory.
Immigration, Assimilation, And The “Melting Pot”
The migration of people across international borders is not a new phenomenon. Immigrants leave their homelands to pursue life in another nation for a number of reasons—economic, personal, political, social, familial, or environmental. Resettlement is a complex process that invariably depends on the ways the individuals and polices of the host nations receive, include, and integrate the new members of their society. The United States has long been branded as a nation of immigrants, representing the “melting pot” of a diverse society.
As such, the notion of the melting pot has long existed in the United States and can be traced back to J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur’s 1782 volume, Letters From an American Farmer. This concept underlines the fusion of immigrants into the melting pot of a composite that defines the American people. That being said, however, Henry Pratt Fairchild asserts that the concept of the melting pot aligns more with Americanization of the people, who are expected to undergo acculturation into the mainstream society in order to assimilate. James Vander Zanden furthers this point by distinguishing between unilateral and reciprocal assimilation. Unilateral assimilation is the process in which an individual or a group of people relinquish their own beliefs and behaviors and fully adopt the mainstream/majority culture. On the other hand, the process of reciprocal assimilation would eventually lead to a third culture where the blending of two or more cultures takes place.
Although there is a long-standing debate over both the processes involved and the semantic use of the term assimilation, Gordon’s conceptual scheme provides the most satisfactory criteria to date for measuring assimilation and identifying to what degree assimilation is actually taking place. According to Gordon, a complete assimilation is accompanied by seven distinct variables: (1) change of cultural patterns to those of the mainstream or host society; (2) entrance into cliques, such as clubs and institutions of the mainstream society, on the level that is accepted by the primary group of the host society; (3) intermarriage; (4) a strong sense of peoplehood that exclusively aligns with the host society; (5) the absence of prejudice; (6) the absence of discrimination; and, last, (7) the absence of a conflict between value and power systems.
Politics, Issues, And Critique
Many immigration scholars take issue with the traditional definition of assimilation because it has been used to refer to the extent to which immigrants and their families leave behind their home culture to adopt the customs, dominant language, and behaviors of the native-born population. In recent years, immigration scholars have contested that this narrow use of the term assimilation is laden with prejudice and nativist pressures—which are often politically motivated—to conform at the expense of immigrants’ identities. As a result, the current wave of research on immigrant assimilation has taken a different tone. Central to this shift is the immigrant’s sense of belonging as a culturally and linguistically rich contributor to society. However, there are multiple factors that influence the degree to which immigrants, their children, and even their grandchildren feel that they identify and belong. This sense of belonging and the environment of reception in the host society affect the likelihood of immigrant children building their human capital through education as well as the likelihood of their climbing the occupational ladder, holding all other things constant.
Researchers have sought to measure the social, economic, civic, cultural, and political integration of immigrants in an effort to understand the areas—such as educational attainment, home ownership, employment, marriage, family, and civic participation—that evidence differences and the disparities that exist between immigrant communities and their nonimmigrant comrades. At the same time, immigrants’ rights to both belong and maintain their customs, beliefs, traditions, and languages have sparked discussions and debates on the value of multiculturalism and multilingualism in the 21st century.
Moreover, James Wilson asserts that color continues to be an important factor affecting assimilation. An example of this was clearly highlighted in a study of Chicago’s African American community that shows that color affects social relations, entry into various professions and professional recruitment, as well as choice of marriage partners, among other aspects of life. A more recent example involves people of Hispanic origin in the United States—this topic has generated a heightened controversy, especially in the border states. Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 (2010) has sparked many debates over immigration laws, its jurisdiction, and lawlessness (or lack thereof), and, more important, the profiling component of the law—upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court—which ever since its conception has been dubbed as the most racist and racially motivated law of the 21st century.
As such, attention should be called to attitudinal causes in the mainstream society that more often than not result in politically motivating factors that have either stifled altogether or retarded assimilation. These mainstream attitudinal causes are also evident in many historical situations where beliefs that the members of certain racial or ethnic groups cannot assimilate existed. Policies that resulted in common and lawful practices of segregation, mass expulsion, and even instances of genocide have all been both motivated and driven by a belief system that certain members and groups cannot assimilate (e.g., Nazi racial policies, which resulted in the Holocaust; the lawful racial segregating practices that existed in the United States before Brown v. Board of Education of 1954; South Africa’s policies asserting that there must be distinct social, political, and economic separation to permit each group—European and African—to attain its fullest development; the French colonial policy of “assimilation” during the first half of the 20th century, to name just a few).
- Fairchild, Henry Immigration: A World Movement and Its American Significance, Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1913.
- Faulkner, Caroline Economic Mobility and Cultural Assimilation Among Children of Immigrants. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2011.
- Gordon, Milton. Assimilation in American life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
- Healey, Joseph F. and Eileen O’Brien, eds. Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2007.
- Logan, John R., Wenquan Zhang, and Richard Alba. “Immigrant Enclaves and Ethnic Communities in New York and Los Angeles.” American Sociological Review, v.67/2, (2002).
- Park, Robert and Ernest W. Burgess. Introduction to the Science of Sociology, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1921.
- Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, v.530/1 (1993).
- Portes, Alejandro and Ruben Immigrant America: A Portrait, 4th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
- Vander Zanden, James W. (1963). American Minority Relations: The Sociology of Race and Ethnic New York: Ronald Press.
- Watkins, Susan C. (1994). After Ellis Island: Newcomers and Natives in the 1910 New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Wilson, James Q. (1960). Negro Politics: The Search for Leadership. Glencoe, Scotland III: The Free Press.