Assimilation Essay

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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

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).


  1. Fairchild, Henry Immigration: A World  Movement and Its American  Significance, Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1913.
  2. Faulkner, Caroline Economic Mobility and Cultural Assimilation Among Children  of Immigrants. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing  LLC, 2011.
  3. Gordon, Milton. Assimilation in American  life: The Role of Race, Religion,  and National Origins.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  4. Healey, Joseph F. and Eileen O’Brien, eds. Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2007.
  5. 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).
  6. Park, Robert and Ernest W. Burgess. Introduction to the Science of Sociology,  2nd ed. Chicago,  IL: University of Chicago Press, 1921.
  7. 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).
  8. Portes, Alejandro and Ruben  Immigrant America: A Portrait, 4th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
  9. Vander Zanden, James W. (1963). American  Minority Relations: The Sociology of Race and Ethnic  New York: Ronald  Press.
  10. Watkins, Susan C. (1994). After  Ellis Island: Newcomers and Natives  in the 1910  New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  11. Wilson, James Q. (1960). Negro Politics: The Search for Leadership. Glencoe, Scotland  III: The Free Press.

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