Assimilation, sometimes known as integration or incorporation, is the process by which the characteristics of members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another. That process, which has both economic and sociocultural dimensions, begins with the immigrant generation and continues through the second generation and beyond.
Although the experiences of European groups coming to the United States in the early-20th century suggest that full assimilation generally occurs within three to four generations, no fixed timetable governs completion of the process. For example, recent historical research by sociologist Sharon L. Sassler on European immigrants to the United States has shown that, in 1920, the educational attainment of even third-generation Irish and Germans lagged well behind that of whites who had been in the country more than three generations.
Indeed, groups may vary in the apparent incompleteness of their assimilation for a number of reasons, including the level of human capital (education) they bring with them and the social and economic structure of the society they enter.
Different aspects of assimilation may also vary in completeness at any point in time. For example, an immigrant may master a host-country language faster than he or she matches the earnings of the native born. Finally, the incompleteness of assimilation may be similarly affected across groups if economic or other structural changes were to reduce most people's chances of economic mobility.
Assimilation may be incomplete because it is blocked outright, delayed, or merely unfinished. But the type of incompletion matters, because each type is freighted with different implications for theory, and thus for policy.
Some theoretical frameworks specify that certain factors block assimilation, while other theories emphasize factors that merely slow it down. Empirical analyses of assimilation need to consider whether a relative lack of convergence between newcomers and the native majority may stem from actual blockage or simply delays in assimilation. Blockage factors may be deeply embedded in society and thus lose their influence only slowly, making it hard to distinguish them from delays in assimilation.
For example, entry policies that admit large numbers of immigrants with low levels of education could exacerbate crowding in the labor market and thus slow economic mobility. Or, as sociologist Susan K. Brown’s research shows, many immigrants and their children share resources with other coethnics out of economic necessity, thus delaying assimilation but not permanently forestalling it.
But incompleteness could just as well result from racial/ethnic discrimination, which would provide an example of blocked assimilation.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries, native-born Americans widely perceived immigrant groups, such as the Irish and Italians, as inferior national-origin groups. As a result, they were treated in "racialized" ways. But because these groups were non-black, they eventually came to be seen as white, in part because their members segregated themselves from African Americans both residentially and occupationally. Academics are still debating whether today’s new immigrant groups from Asia and Latin America will similarly be defined as "white."
One of the most difficult tasks in gauging group differences in the completeness of assimilation involves figuring out how much race and ethnicity — rather than other factors — affect economic mobility. Immigrants who become "racialized" and are treated as disadvantaged racial or ethnic minorities may find their pathways to economic mobility and assimilation blocked because of racial/ethnic discrimination.
Assessing the degree of racialization is important for reaching conclusions about assimilation, but it has not been an easy task for researchers. Policymakers and the public often want to know how well a particular immigrant group is doing in terms of education or employment, for example, and whether racial discrimination plays a part in causing such differences.
Yet empirical research on members of the first or second generation — long before assimilation can be completed — cannot provide a definitive answer about the progress of assimilation. However, such research can shed light on particular problems and, in some cases, allow policymakers to address them.
Theoretical Models and the Changing Nature of Assimilation
Assessing present levels of assimilation among today's immigrant groups requires considering the possibility that the process itself may be changing. To ascertain this, we must first understand three major theories of immigrant and ethnic-group integration. The theories are the classic and new assimilation models, the racial/ethnic disadvantage model, and the segmented assimilation model.
Classic and new assimilation models
The notion of the United States as a melting pot has been part of public consciousness for a century or more. In 1908, Israel Zangwill's play of that name captivated Broadway. The sociological paradigm that has constituted the most prominent perspective on immigrant group mobility is classic assimilation theory, which dates to the Chicago School in the 1920s. More recently it has been represented in the work of sociologists like Milton Gordon, Richard Alba, and Victor Nee.
In general, classic assimilation theory sees immigrant/ethnic and majority groups following a "straight-line" convergence, becoming more similar over time in norms, values, behaviors, and characteristics. This theory expects those immigrants residing the longest in the host society, 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.
Early versions of the theory have been criticized as "Anglo-conformist" because immigrant groups were depicted as conforming to unchanging, middle-class, white Protestant values.
In 1964, Gordon postulated several stages that follow the acquisition of culture and language. First comes structural assimilation (close social relations with the host society), followed by large-scale intermarriage; ethnic identification with the host society; and the ending of prejudice, discrimination, and value conflict.
In what they call "new assimilation theory," Alba and Nee refined Gordon's account by arguing that certain institutions, including those bolstered by civil rights law, play important roles in achieving assimilation. They give the example of Jewish organizations that persuaded the New York City Council in 1946 to threaten the tax-exempt status of colleges or universities that discriminated on the basis of race or religion.
More so than in earlier versions of this theory, Alba and Nee stress that the incorporation of immigrant groups also involves change and acceptance by the mainstream population. Classic assimilation theory as a whole works best, however, when the mainstream is easily defined. While Alba and Nee acknowledge that assimilation takes place within racially and economically heterogeneous contexts, this has led to the criticism that they are trying to define assimilation so broadly that the concept loses meaning.
The racial/ethnic disadvantage model
Other scholars argue that the assimilation of many immigrant groups often remains blocked. This stream of thought, called the racial/ethnic disadvantage point of view, is reflected in the writings of Nathan Glazer, Patrick Moynihan, and Alejandro Portes and his colleagues.
To be sure, some of these writers emphasize racial and ethnic pluralism as much or more than they do ethnic disadvantage. For example, Glazer and Moynihan's Beyond the Melting Pot, published in 1963 before the most recent wave of immigration, argues that ethnicity can constitute a resource as well as a burden for achieving economic mobility.
But in general, this literature, especially its more recent versions, argues that language and cultural familiarity may often not lead to increased assimilation. Lingering discrimination and institutional barriers to employment and other opportunities block complete assimilation.
Because immigrants compare socioeconomic opportunities in the host country to those in their countries of origin, they may not perceive these barriers. However, by the second or third generations, they may realize that the goal of full assimilation may be more difficult and take longer than originally presumed.
This realization can have social and cultural consequences, including sometimes the reemergence (or simply emergence) of racial/ethnic consciousness.
Critiques of this model suggest that it overstresses racial/ethnic barriers and fails to adequately explain evidence of socioeconomic mobility.
The segmented assimilation model
Yet assimilation does appear to elude some immigrants' descendants, even as late as the third generation. However, uneven patterns of convergence do not necessarily indicate lack of assimilation, but rather may reflect a "bumpy" rather than "straight-line" course, as sociologist Herbert J. Gans described the process in 1992.
Others have noted that just as some members of immigrant groups become cut off from economic mobility, others find multiple pathways to assimilation depending on their national origins, socioeconomic status, contexts of reception in the United States, and family resources, both social and financial.
As a result, the assimilation experiences of recent immigrants are more variegated and diverse than the scenarios provided by the classic assimilation and the ethnic disadvantage models.
In 1993, Portes and Min Zhou combined elements of both the straight-line assimilation and the ethnic disadvantage perspectives into a framework they call segmented assimilation.
They theorize 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. Such impediments can lead to stagnant or downward mobility, even as the children of other immigrants follow divergent paths toward classic straight-line assimilation.
Heavily disadvantaged children of immigrants may even reject assimilation altogether and embrace attitudes, orientations, and behaviors considered "oppositional" in nature, such as joining a street gang. More advantaged groups may sometimes embrace traditional home-country attitudes and use them to inspire their children to achieve, a process Portes and Zhou call selective acculturation.
Consequently, segmented assimilation focuses on identifying the contextual, structural, and cultural factors that separate successful assimilation from unsuccessful, or even "negative" assimilation.
Portes, Zhou, and their colleagues argue it is particularly important to identify such factors in the case of the second generation, because obstacles facing the children of immigrants can thwart assimilation at perhaps its most critical juncture.
Thus, while many children of immigrants will find pathways to mainstream status, others will find such pathways blocked, particularly as a consequence of racialization. Portes, Patricia Fernández-Kelly, and William Haller argue:
Children of Asian, black, mulatto, and mestizo immigrants cannot escape their ethnicity and race, as defined by the mainstream. Their enduring physical differences from whites and the equally persistent strong effects of discrimination based on those differences … throw a barrier in the path of occupational mobility and social acceptance. Immigrant children's identities, their aspirations, and their academic performance are affected accordingly.
Critics of this model argue that the perspective may erroneously attribute poor economic outcomes primarily to racialization when they may actually stem from other constraints like family financial obligations or factors such as lackluster job growth that slow the rate of mobility.
They also point out that since the model has not been empirically tested beyond the current second generation (the members of which are still very young), segmented assimilation may misinterpret oppositional attitudes historically found among the young and misconstrue the pace of assimilation.
Racialization and the New Immigrants
As insightful and useful as the above theories of assimilation may be, some researchers believe they do not adequately explain the assimilation paths of today's immigrants in the United States.
Classic, racial/ethnic disadvantage, and segmented assimilation theories were constructed in the context of black-white models of racial/ethnic relations that apply much less forcefully to new arrivals from Latin America and Asia, whose histories and contemporary experiences differ considerably from those of both blacks and European immigrants.
Racial/ethnic disadvantage perspectives and segmented assimilation tend to perceive the new immigrant groups as nonwhite minorities subject to discrimination in the manner of African Americans. Classic assimilation tends to emphasize that the new immigrants are non-black. Therefore, classic assimilation envisions newcomers gradually becoming accepted and integrated into American society across time and generations.
The Mexican case in the United States exemplifies the difficulty of applying a strictly assimilation or ethnic-disadvantage perspective to new immigrants. Observers have often been uncertain how to characterize this group's experience and thus gauge the completeness of its incorporation.
Even though Mexican immigration dates back many generations, and even though current Mexican immigrants are diverse in terms of their migration status and modes of entry into the United States, theorists have tended to envision the group's experiences in one of two ways — either as similar to that of European immigrants (i.e., as different from that of blacks) or as similar to that of African Americans.
The assimilation perspective thus views Mexican-origin persons primarily as a recently arrived immigrant group whose integration will, in due course, mirror that of earlier groups. In this perspective, natural assimilation processes require sufficient time to occur, presumably over three or four generations.
The alternative frameworks envision Mexican-origin persons more as members of a disadvantaged racial/ethnic minority group whose progress toward full economic parity with other immigrant groups continues to be stalled by racial/ethnic discrimination.
In this view, substantial progress is not likely to occur simply with the passage of time but necessitates new policies both to help eradicate discrimination and to compensate for its past effects. Research testing whether a downward trajectory as predicted by segmented assimilation theory applies to Mexican-origin persons has found inconsistent evidence for the existence of such a pattern.
A Model of Changing Identificational Assimilation
The shortcomings of the assimilation and the ethnic disadvantage models for describing the experiences of new Latino and Asian immigrants are particularly evident in relation to racial/ethnic identification.
The ways the new immigrants identify themselves, as sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean have noted, do not follow the trajectories implied by the old models. The bulk of new immigrants define themselves as neither black nor white, and the younger ones are more likely to identify themselves as multiracial.
The largest group, Mexicans, as well as many other Latinos, come mostly from mixed backgrounds, including in the Mexican case a history of mestizaje (mixing) that does not involve black-white hybridity, but rather a centuries-old melding of white and indigenous groups.
Therefore, traditional models reflecting a bipolar racial context are less relevant to the historical and contemporary experiences of Mexicans. And such dichotomies are scarcely more relevant for Asian immigrants, many of whom obtain legal permanent resident status by dint of their high skills. As a result, they often are better educated upon arrival than non-Hispanic whites.
Among the new immigrants, processes of racial/ethnic self-identification appear to interact with socioeconomic status in complex ways, much as Alba found among the descendants of early-20th-century European immigrants. As Bean, Gillian Stevens, and Susan Wierzbicki note, this means that ethnic identification does not relate in a straightforward way to social and economic mobility. Rather, ethnic identification appears strongest among the lowest and highest social classes of immigrant groups.
Stronger racial and ethnic identification can thus result from disparate mechanisms:
Reactive identification is most likely to arise from the repeated experience of discrimination and may also contribute to the hardening of oppositional attitudes and the occurrence of downward assimilation. While most common among the children of immigrants in lower socioeconomic classes, reactive identification can also develop among those in higher classes.
Selective assimilation tends to characterize the children of immigrants with better resources and socioeconomic prospects. Their parents' generally higher levels of education foster more opportunistic than oppositional orientations toward economic incorporation. Also, such parents and children usually belong to ethnic networks and institutions that have enough resources to offer support unavailable outside the ethnic community.
Symbolic ethnicity may emerge among those already largely incorporated economically. It seems most likely to occur among the children of immigrants of the highest class. But such individuals tend to rely on coethnic networks and expressions of racial/ethnic solidarity less for instrumental reasons than for fulfillment of expressive, individualistic needs. For them, racial/ethnic identification has become relatively optional.
Given such contingencies, it is not surprising that research has found that racial/ethnic identification seems to be strongest among those from either the lowest or highest social classes. The working class and middle class generally would stand to gain the most from assimilation and might therefore shed much of their ethnic identity.
As sociologist Mary Waters notes, racial/ethnic identification, more than other aspects of assimilation, may be becoming both more subjective and autonomous as racial/ethnic and other ascriptive criteria become more volitional. Thus, some immigrants may maintain racial/ethnic identifications despite considerable economic incorporation. They may also maintain social networks and perhaps even marry across racial or ethnic boundaries, providing examples of identifications that do not correspond with economic mobility in a straight-line way.
Of course, such decouplings proceed most rapidly in the absence of strong discrimination or value conflict. Otherwise, external barriers could block assimilation and foster ethnic identification.
Among lower-class immigrants and immigrant descendants who face such external barriers and who do develop reactive ethnicity, racial/ethnic identification may remain more tightly linked to negative outcomes. The relative autonomy of identification and economic mobility appears more likely to occur among middle- and higher-class groups. This suggests that incomplete economic assimilation may reflect the operation of factors other than racial/ethnic discrimination.
It is still too soon for evidence in support of this perspective to have emerged among new immigrants. Thus, it is hard to tell whether the new model will ultimately more nearly reflect a neoethnic pluralist emphasis (involving several racial/ethnic groups displaying economic mobility but diminishing salience of race and ethnicity) or a neoassimilationist emphasis (involving several racial/ethnic groups showing economic mobility while also blending into a new hybrid category).
If classic assimilation was the predominant perspective on immigrant integration throughout most of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s highlighted how this perspective had failed to depict the situation of African Americans. The Civil Rights movement also ignited decades of backlash that stressed racial disadvantage and the persistence of racial and ethnic identities.
In fact, in 1993, Nathan Glazer published an influential essay titled "Is Assimilation Dead?" But Glazer argued that, in general, the answer was no. That same year, Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou introduced the concept of segmented assimilation, which stressed a three-part path: assimilation for those with advantages in human capital, ethnic disadvantage for some because of poverty and racialization, and the selective retention of ethnicity for yet others. Thus began a reexamination of assimilation theory, with new stress on institutional roles and the contingent nature of ethnic identification.
The process of reconciling the relative importance of race/ethnicity with other factors that delay economic mobility will no doubt continue to dominate assimilation discussions. In the last two decades, gender has also emerged as a focus of incorporation studies, as some scholars have noted that girls whose parents come from traditionally patriarchal countries are excelling in the American schooling system and joining the workforce in large numbers.
As today's second generation begins to bear the third generation, the focus of research will become more longitudinal and cross-generational.
At the same time, studies of assimilation are becoming more comparative, as more traditional sending countries turn into immigrant-receiving countries. In countries where the mythic "melting pot" has never served as a national metaphor, the boundaries between immigrants and natives can be much clearer. A key question then becomes how governmental policies, such as those concerning resettlement and language training, can ease the economic mobility of immigrant groups.
The fact that some countries, such as Canada, have set forth official policies welcoming immigrant settlement brings up the final question: What is the end point of assimilation? Even after generations in North America, many people of European ancestry appear to retain a symbolic level of ethnicity. Since ethnic identity is dynamic, it thus remains unclear how today's second generation in the United States will ultimately view itself. But opportunities for greater economic mobility will be critical to the outcome.
For further reading, see the following works:
Alba, Richard D. 1990. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Alba, Richard D., and Victor Nee. 2003. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and the New Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bean, Frank D., and Gillian Stevens. 2003. America's Newcomers: Immigrant Incorporation and the Dynamics of Diversity. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Gans., Herbert J. 1992. "Comment: Ethnic Invention and Acculturation: A Bumpy-Line Approach." Journal of American Ethnic History 11 (1, Fall): 42-52.
Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel P. Moynihan. 1963. Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Glazer, Nathan. 1993. "Is Assimilation Dead?" Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 530: 122-136.
Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hirschman, Charles, Philip Kasinitz, and Josh DeWind, editors. 1999. The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lee, Jennifer, and Frank D. Bean. 2004. "America's Changing Color Lines: Race/Ethnicity, Immigration, and Multiracial Identification." Annual Review of Sociology 30:221-242.
Portes, Alejandro, and Min Zhou. 1993. "The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 530: 74-96.
Portes, Alejandro, Patricia Fernández-Kelly, and William Haller. 2005. "Segmented assimilation on the ground: The new second generation in early adulthood." Ethnic and Racial Studies 28: 1000-1040.
Sassler, Sharon L. 2006. "School Participation Among Immigrant Youths: the Case of Segmented Assimilation in the Early 20th Century." Sociology of Education 79: 1-24.
Waters, Mary. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.