Cultural assimilation

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Cultural assimilation is the process by which a person or a group's language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group. The term is used both to refer to both individuals and groups, and in the latter case it can refer to either immigrant diasporas or native residents that come to be culturally dominated by another society. Assimilation may involve either a quick or gradual change depending on circumstances of the group. Full assimilation occurs when new members of a society become indistinguishable from members of the other group. Whether or not it is desirable for an immigrant group to assimilate is often disputed by both members of the group and those of the dominant society.

Cultural influence

A place (a state or an ethnicity) can spontaneously adopt a different culture due to its political relevance, or to its perceived superiority. The first is the case of the Latin language and culture, that were gradually adopted by most of the subjugated people.

The second is not the case of subjugated, but of the older and richer culture, which see itself imitated by the new masters, e.g. the victorious Roman Republic adopted more from the Hellenistic cultures than it imposed in most domains, except such Roman specialties as law and the military.

Cultural assimilation can happen either spontaneously or forcibly. A culture can spontaneously adopt a different culture or older and richer cultures forcibly integrate other weak cultures. The term assimilation is often used with regard to immigrants and various ethnic groups who have settled in a new land. A new culture and new attitudes toward the origin culture are obtained through contact and communication. Cultural changing is not simply a one-way process. Assimilation assumes that relatively tenuous culture gets to be united to one unified culture. This process happens through contact and accommodation between each culture. The current definition of assimilation is usually used to refer to immigrants, but in multiculturalism, cultural assimilation can happen all over the world, not just be limited to specific areas. For example, a shared language gives people the chance to study and work internationally, not just being limited to the same cultural group. People from different countries contribute to diversity and form the "global culture" which means the culture combined by the elements from different countries. This "global culture" can be seen as a part of assimilation that causes cultures from different areas to affect each other.

Assimilation of immigrants in the United States

Immigrant assimilation is a complex process in which immigrants not only fully integrate themselves into a new country, but also lose aspects, perhaps all of their heritage too. Social scientists rely on four primary benchmarks to assess immigrant assimilation: socioeconomic status, geographic distribution, second language attainment, and intermarriage.1 William A.V. Clark defines immigrant assimilation "as a way of understanding the social dynamics of American society and that it is the process that occurs spontaneously and often unintended in the course of interaction between majority and minority groups".2

It has been found that between 1880 and 1920, the United States took in roughly 24 million immigrants.1 This increase in immigration can be attributed to many historical changes. Later, during the Cold War from the 1960s through the 1980s and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, over 1.8 million Jews (including some non-Jewish family members) emigrated from the former Soviet Union. The major destination countries were Israel (about 1.1 million), the United States (over 400,000), Germany (about 130,000), and Canada (about 30,000).3 The beginning of the twenty-first century has also marked a massive era of immigration, and sociologists are once again trying to make sense of the impact that immigration has on society and the impact it has on immigrants themselves.1

The Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration because Congress believed that the changing ethnic mix was altering the country's culture.4 The average IQ test results of immigrants in the United States continues to be substantially lower than that of the native born people.4 Many people would associate this with the fact that the United States is a much more industrialized country than that of which many immigrants are coming from, but this is not said to be the case. Many of the immigrants faced with taking the IQ test are not familiar with the type of questions on the test. IQ tests tend to be associate questions with common Western ideals, that many immigrants may not be familiar with. After being in the United States for twenty years or more, many immigrants have the same average test results as natives.4 They steadily assimilate into American culture, and are better able to understand the meaning behind certain facts associated with IQ tests. Intelligence and perceived intelligence are relevant to cultural assimilation because immigrants are perceived to be less intelligent than natives, when in actuality they are being rated on a scale developed for Western culture, which they have not yet become accustomed to.4

Theoretical explanations

Researchers have attempted to explain the assimilation rate for post 1965 immigrants in the United States with experiences of immigrants who entered the United States between 1880 and 1920. Many of the methods and theories that are used to assess immigrant assimilation today are derived from earlier immigrant studies. One of the leading theories in understanding immigrant assimilation came from William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki who published The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Thomas and Znaniecki's study on Polish immigrants (1880–1910) assessed how these immigrants built an institutional community in the United States during the Napoleonic War.5 Another influence on immigrant assimilation came from Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and William I. Thomas, in which they trained graduate students to study the experiences of immigrants in Chicago. Park, Burgess, and Thomas provided these graduate students with theoretical tools such as Park's theory on collective behavior. The third theory on immigrant assimilation comes from Gordon's book, Assimilation in American life. Gordon highlighted the generational change in immigrant groups; it states that the first generation or foreign-born were less assimilated and less exposed to American life than their American-born children (the second generation), and their grandchildren (third-generation) were more like the American mainstream than their parents.1

Theoretical models to immigrant assimilation

The first, classic and new assimilation model sees immigrants and native-born people following a "straight-line" or a convergence. This theory sees immigrants becoming more similar over time in norms, values, behaviors, and characteristics. This theory also expects those immigrants residing the longest in the host population, as well as the members of later generations, to show greater similarities with the majority group than immigrants who have spent less time in the host society.6 The second, racial or ethnic disadvantage model states that immigrants' chances to assimilate are "blocked".7 An example of this model would be discrimination and institutional barriers to employment and other opportunities. In reaction to these patterns of discrimination and other institutional barriers, some immigrant groups have formed ethnic enclaves to circumvent these challenges. The third, the segmented assimilation model theorizes that structural barriers, such as poor urban schools, cut off access to employment and other opportunities—obstacles that often are particularly severe in the case of the most disadvantaged members of immigrant groups, and such impediments can lead to stagnant or downward mobility, even as the children of other immigrants follow divergent paths toward classic straight-line assimilation.6

Core measurements to immigrant assimilation

Researchers have assessed that assimilation exists among immigrants because assimilation can be measured on four primary benchmarks. These core measurable aspects of immigrant assimilation that were formulated to study European immigrants to the United States are still the starting points for understanding immigrant assimilation. These measurable aspects of assimilation are socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, language attainment, and intermarriage.1

  1. Socioeconomic status is defined by educational attainment, occupation, and income. By measuring socioeconomic status researchers want to find out if immigrants eventually catch up to native-born people in terms of human capital characteristics.
  2. Spatial concentration is defined by geography or residential patterns. The spatial residential model (based on theories of Park) proposed by Massey states that increasing socioeconomic attainment, longer residence in the U.S, and higher generational status lead to decreasing residential concentration for a particular ethnic group.8
  3. Language attainment is defined as the ability to speak English and the loss of the individual's mother tongue. The three-generation model of language assimilation states that the first generation makes some progress in language assimilation but remains dominant in their native tongue, the second generation is bilingual, and the third-generation speaks only English.1
  4. Intermarriage is defined by race or ethnicity and occasionally by generation.1 High rates of intermarriage are considered to be an indication of social integration because it reveals intimate and profound relations between people of different groups; intermarriage reduces the ability of families to pass on to their children a consistent ethnic culture and thus is an agent of assimilation.9 Intermarriage came under particular scrutiny by the Jewish community in the early-mid 20th century as Jewish leaders more and more often turned to social scientists to explain why Judaism was a typically endogamic religion. Although intermarriage was viewed as a firm base from which to begin an argument for assimilation, it was also seen as a way to gradually ease the transition into their new culture. Julius Draschler, a graduate student at Columbia University, believed that as long as people are allowed to maintain some differences, such as the Jewish practice of marrying only another Jew, they will delay the inevitable while simultaneously enriching the nation in the process of their slow assimilation. While Draschler acknowledged that assimilation was the ultimate endpoint for all American groups, he hoped to prove through his intermarriage studies that, the more gradual the process, the better. Such need to justify (or vilify) the intermarriage practice became increasingly important after the 1950s as Jews (as well as other typically endogamic cultures, such as African-Americans) began to engage in more exogamic relationships.10

Immigrant name changing as a form of assimilation

While the changing of immigrant names is not one of the 4 measurable benchmarks for assimilation outlined by early sociologists, it nonetheless represents a clear abandonment of the old as new immigrants are absorbed into the fabric of society. It is often believed that, due to language barriers, or the lack of training and sensitivity by government officials, names were often changed, without consent, by inspectors on Ellis Island. This general misconstruction of the facts is refuted in an article released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, claiming that inspectors did not personally take names, instead inventorying the passengers using manifests supplied by the shipping companies themselves. Many immigrants changed their names willingly.citation needed

It is suggested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that most name blunders were likely the fault of the origin and not the destination. Donna Przecha, a published and well-known expert in genealogy, suggests a number of alternative explanations for name changing, one of which was a need for employment. A huge surplus of labor began to immigrate to the United States, many of whom were unskilled, with names that were often difficult to pronounce. Employers were not bound by the same anti-discriminatory legislature that exists now and tended to gravitate toward individuals with more American names.

Comfort and fitting in was also a heavy motivator behind the changing of names. Many, if not most, US immigrants in the mid-1900s planned to make the United States their new home, permanently. Given this fact, it should come as no surprise that many immigrants welcomed the impending assimilation brought on by their host country. Eager to begin their new lives, many did as much as they could to become "American" as quickly as possible, particularly children. Simplicity was yet another factor in the abandonment of old titles. As immigrants poured in from various European countries, many found their names to be difficult to pronounce and/or spell for many Americans.11

Modifications for assessing immigrant assimilation

Studies on immigrant assimilation in the 19th century and 20th century conclude that immigrants had a hard time catching up to the same human capital characteristics as native-born people in the 19th century, but studies in the 20th century suggest that immigrants eventually catch up to native born people.12 Timothy J. Hatton explains this puzzle on immigrant assimilation in the 19th century and in the 20th century. He explores how recent studies have been producing misleading results between the two. Hatton focuses his research on the specification of the earnings function. Hatton argues that that specification of the earnings function should be improved in two ways. First, immigrants who arrived as children should be treated separately from those who arrived as adults. Second, specification of the earnings function should be better approximate to the true shape of age-earnings profiles. Hatton points out that with these modifications, the patterns of immigrant earnings, which have emerged make more sense with those of the 20th century and with traditional views on immigrant assimilation in the 19th century.13

Owning a home and immigrant assimilation

Owning a home can be seen as a step into assimilation. William A.V. Clark explores this link in his book "Immigrants and the American Dream Remarking the Middle Class". Clark is aware that the process of assimilation is more than just being able to purchase a home. He argues that "homeownership" is one of the steps of assimilation, it is becoming part of the community and a neighborhood and being a part of the daily activities that take place in a community.2

Naturalization and immigrant assimilation

Other than marriage, citizenship is one of the most significant factors in assimilation. The immigration debate focuses not only on the number of immigrants but on who should be admitted, and who should be allowed to be admitted but also on the processes of incorporation and, most importantly, how citizenship should be extended and to whom. For example, should it be extended to those who arrive illegally? Allowing for naturalization of immigrants can create tension in assimilation. On one hand, those who favor the admission of immigrants argue that these new residents will help build and enrich the American democratic process. However, others argue that the nature and legitimacy of the nation may be challenged and perhaps even threatened.2

New immigrant gateways and immigrant assimilation

Although it is changing, the overwhelming majority of immigrants still settle in traditional gateway states such as Florida, New York, California, Illinois, Texas, and Massachusetts. It has found that immigrants settle in traditional gateways where there are large populations of foreign-born people. Waters and Jimenez have illustrated the changes in the geographic distribution and the rates of growth of immigration in the United States. They show the number of foreign-born individuals in states where the foreign-born population grew by a factor of two or more between 1990 and 2000. Waters and Jimenez found that the largest percentage growth in the foreign-born population, was found in either the Midwest or the South in additional none of the traditional gateways were included in this large percentage growth. Waters and Jimenez noted that a reason these traditional gateways did not have an increase at the same rate of the new gateways was because, new gateways did not have many immigrants to begin with.

Waters and Jimenez have argued that this new change in geography could possibly change the way researchers assess immigrant assimilation. They argue that these new gateways are unique and they propose that immigrant assimilation may be different from the experiences of immigrants in more traditional gateways in at least three ways.

Firstly, the long history of immigration in these established gateways means that the place of immigrants in terms of class, racial, and ethnic hierarchies in these traditional gateways are more structured or established on the other hand these new gateways do not have much immigration history therefore the place of immigrants in terms of class, racial, and ethnic hierarchies is less defined and immigrants may have more influence to define their position. Secondly, the size of new gateways may influence immigrant assimilation. Having a smaller gateway may influence the level of segregation among immigrants and native-born people. Thirdly, the difference in institutional arrangements may influence immigrant assimilation. Traditional gateways, unlike new gateways, have many institutions set up to help immigrants such as legal aid, bureaus, social organizations. Finally, Waters and Jimenez have only speculated that these differences may influence immigrant assimilation and the way researchers should assess immigrant assimilation.1

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Waters, Mary C.; Jiménez, Tomás R. (2005). "Assessing Immigrant Assimilation: New Empirical and Theoretical Challenges". Annual Review of Sociology 31 (1): 105–125. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100026. 
  2. ^ a b c Clark, W. (2003). Immigrants and the American Dream: Remaking the Middle Class. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-880-X. 
  3. ^ Westad, Odd Arne (2000). Reviewing the Cold War: approaches, interpretations, and theory. Taylor & Francis. p. 232. ISBN 0-7146-8120-2. 
  4. ^ a b c d Richwine, J. (2009). IQ and immigration policy. Harvard University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 166. Retrieved from (304890816).
  5. ^ Thomas, William Isaac; Florian Znaniecki, Eli Zaretsky (1996). The Polish peasant in Europe and America: a classic work in immigration history. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06484-4. 
  6. ^ a b Brown, Susan K.; Bean, Frank D. "Assimilation Models, Old and New: Explaining a Long-Term Process". Retrieved 2009-09-07. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Ellis, Mark & Goodwin-White, J. (2006). "Generation Internal Migration in the U.S.: Dispersion from States of Immigration?". International Migration Review 40 (4): 899–926. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7379.2006.00048.x. 
  9. ^ Pagnini, L. & Morgan, S. P. (1990). "Intermarriage and the social distance among U.S. Immigrants at the Turn of the Century". American Journal of Sociology 96 (2): 405–432. doi:10.1086/229534. 
  10. ^ Berman, Lila (2008). "Sociology, Jews, and Intermarriage in Twentieth-Century America". Jewish Social Studies 14 (2): 32–60. doi:10.2979/JSS.2008.14.2.32. 
  11. ^ Przecha, Donna. "They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island". 
  12. ^ 20th Century Statistics. United States Census Bureau. 
  13. ^ Hatton, Timothy J. (1997). "The Immigrant Assimilation Puzzle in Late Nineteenth-Century America". Journal of Economic History 57 (1): 34–62. doi:10.1017/S0022050700017915. 


  • Richard D. Alba, Victor Nee. (2003) Remaking the American Mainstream. Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration, Harvard University Press, 359 pages ISBN 0-674-01813-3
  • Andrew Armitage. (1995) Comparing the Policy of Aboriginal Assimilation: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, UBC Press, 286 pages ISBN 0-7748-0459-9
  • James A. Crispino (1980) The Assimilation of Ethnic Groups: The Italian Case, Center for Migration Studies, 205 pages ISBN 0-913256-39-0
  • Gordon, Milton M. "Assimilation in America: Theory and Reality," in Yetman, pp. 245–258/ Originally from Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston, Mass., vol. 90, no. 2 (Spring) 1961: 263-285.Q11.B7 [For the more thorough treatment see Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.]
  • Edward Murguía (1975) Assimilation, Colonialism, and the Mexican American People, Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 124 pages ISBN 0-292-77520-2
  • Robert A. Grauman. (1951) Methods of studying the cultural assimilation of immigrants, University of London
  • Julius Drachsler. (1920) Democracy and Assimilation. The Blending of Immigrant Heritages in America, Macmillan, 275 pages
  • Zhou, Min. Segmented Assimilation: Issues, Controversies, and Recent Research on the New Second Generation. International Migration Review, Vol 31, No. 4, Special Issue: Immigrant Adaptation and Native-Born Responses in the Making of Americans. Winter 1997: 975-1008.
  • Kazal, R. A. "Revisiting Assimilation" American Historical Society. Vol. 100 April 1995.
  • Zhou, Min and Carl L. Bankston III Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998. ISBN 978-0-87154-995-2.

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