Contemporary use of the term assimilation has involved two processes: (a) the process whereby an individual or a group of diverse ethnic and racial minority or immigrant individuals comes to adopt the beliefs, values, attitudes, and the behaviors of the majority or dominant culture; and (b) the process whereby an individual or group relinquishes the value system of his or her cultural heritage and becomes a member of the dominant society. The early use of the term assimilation refers mainly to the process by which people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds occupying a common territory came to achieve a cultural solidarity to sustain a national existence. Since the 19th century, the use of assimilation has been a political rather than a cultural concept. It has been used to justify selective state-imposed policies aimed at the eradication of minority cultures. As globalization results in ever-expanding trading and political relations, understanding the history and the process of assimilation becomes important as we support multicultural sensitivity and well-being of all cultural groups and individuals.
Sarah Simons in 1901 suggested that the word assimilation is rarely or inconsistently used in social science. The concept can be traced back to the first U.S. general treatise on immigration, published in 1848. It recorded that the United States was composed of immigrants from all over the world and that the policy of the United States was to transform everyone into British-like individuals. Scholars later called it Anglo-conformity theory. Although the practice of assimilation can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient conquerors, so well documented in the histories of Europe or Asia, this entry mainly addresses the use of the word assimilation in psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
Milton Gordon, in his 1964 book, noted that the early use of the word assimilation can be traced to the concept of the melting pot, which was first proposed by the agriculturalist J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur in 1782. In the following century, assimilation became influential in the field of American historical interpretation after Frederick Jackson Turner, in 1893, presented his paper discussing the fusion of Western frontier immigrants into a mixed English group—a new composite of American people. Politicians in the early 20th century maintained that the new types melting into one were already shaped by the American frontier in the process of nation making. The newer immigrants, mainly Southern and Eastern European at the time, were indoctrinated with the Americanism that had been established by earlier arrivals. Sociologists of that era equated assimilation with Americanization. While the concepts of Anglo-conformity and the melting pot dominated 20th-century thoughts, in the mid-1940s the sociologist Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy studied intermarriage. She found that although intermarriage took place across national lines, there was a strong tendency for marriage to stay confined within three major religious groups, namely, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. She posited that religion rather than nationality should determine or define assimilation and called it the “triple melting pot” theory of American assimilation.
Assimilation as a Process
Assimilation is consistently treated as a process rather than a result. It is a process that is continuous in nature and varies in degree. It is not a concept that can be dichotomized. Direct contact between an individual or a racial minority group and persons of the majority or dominant culture is required for assimilation to take place. Contacts can also be described as primary and secondary contacts. Primary contact refers to a personal network, including marriage or strong personal friendships, whereas secondary contact refers to the wider range of interactions other than with primary contacts. In general, the more numerous the points of interactions are, especially in the primary contacts, the faster the process of assimilation occurs.
Assimilation also requires both a positive orientation toward and identification with the dominant group on the part of the assimilating individual or group. In addition, assimilation is contingent upon acceptance by the dominant group because becoming a member of the dominant or host society necessitates acceptance by that society. Furthermore, assimilation comprises both internal and external change. It is more than making individuals look alike in appearance, language, or manners, that is, external change. It also involves changes in beliefs, values, and attitudes, that is, internal change. Both internal and external changes form the components of the assimilation process; changing one without the other is only partial assimilation. Other conditions, such as common language, racial and class equality, and religion, all play a significant role in the process of assimilation.
Individual versus Group Assimilation
Whether assimilation is to be treated as a group process, individual process, or both, has been discussed among scholars. For some, assimilation occurs when one enters into social relations, absorbs meaning generated from the interactions, and passes its significance to others. To these scholars, assimilation occurs at the individual level. Other scholars, such as Sara Simons and Bernard Siegel, restrict their discussions of assimilation to the group level, thereby implying that it is a group process. An example of group assimilation would be the Indian-Anglo of India in the early 1900s. As a group, they collectively identified with British and desired to be assimilated into British. They wore European clothes and regarded England as their home, despite the fact that they had never been there.
The popular position in the literature has treated the concept of assimilation process as an individual or a group phenomenon. Some scholars suggest that for minority groups that continually receive cultural influences from a larger parent cultural group, group assimilation could be difficult or even impossible. An example of this might be the continuing influence of Mexican immigrants in the United States. In such a case, individual rather than group assimilation becomes the norm. It is important to recognize that group isolation does not necessarily dictate group assimilation. Groups may resist being assimilated as a whole or may adopt an antagonistic acculturative attitude that also will affect group assimilation.
Dominant groups have justified segregation, mass expulsion, and even genocide on the grounds that certain groups are inassimilable because of their innate inferiority. For many years, Black Americans were barred from consideration as an assimilable element of the American society, despite the fact that they made up nearly one fifth of the total population at the time of the American Revolution.
In contrast to forced segregation or expulsion, there are also programs designed for forced assimilation. This was the case in Russia where a program was designed to assimilate Jews by getting rid of their communal life at the end of 1950s. Similarly, the governments of the United States and Australia designed programs to force assimilating of their native populations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Direction and Dominance
The assimilation process has traditionally been regarded as a unidirectional process. It implies that the assimilating individuals or groups are always being pulled toward the dominant culture. The dominant culture serves as an active element, and the assimilating individuals or groups serve as a passive element. Simon, in 1901, proposed three factors that determine the direction of the assimilation process:
- The relative culture stage of the element involved. Simon proposed that if a culture is perceived to be superior, it is likely to be the dominant culture irrespective of the number of people in that cultural group.
- The relative mass of the two elements. Although the number of people in a group is not as influential as the perceived superiority of a culture, the number of people in a cultural group is still a determining factor in the direction of the assimilation process.
- The relative intensity of race-consciousness. That is, the greater the intensity of the assimilating group’s racial consciousness, the more resistance is displayed by the assimilating individual or group. This consciousness may be so intense as to prevent all assimilation from taking place. For instance, the intense cultural awareness of the ancient Greeks caused the Roman conqueror to adopt the Greek culture rather than assimilate the Greeks into the Roman culture.
Some scholars also support the view of history that suggests that the majority of nationalities resulted from conquest and assimilation. This leads those thinkers to postulate that conquest changes not only the conquered, the assimilating group, but also the conquerors, the dominant group. This mutually interactive process is usually referred to as acculturation. Most scholars maintain that assimilation is a unidirectional process pulling the minority individuals or groups from the minority culture to the dominant culture.
Assimilation and Acculturation
It is almost impossible to study assimilation without considering the process of acculturation. These concepts are often treated as being identical or as stages of one another. The anthropologists and sociologists, who began the study of acculturation, often used these terms interchangeably. In the current literature on intercultural interactions, assimilation and acculturation are seen as separate processes that can be related to one another. Acculturation can be described as a process that involves changes in cultural practices or behaviors as well as social and institutional structural changes among individuals or groups of two or more cultural backgrounds or cultural systems as a result of contacts. It continues for as long as there are culturally different groups in contact. Both assimilation and acculturation are long-term processes that may take years or even generations to change. Sometimes this process may take centuries. They both take place most rapidly and completely in primary social contacts, which include intermarriage and other forms of intense personal relationships.
The process of assimilation differs from the process of acculturation in several important aspects. First, acculturation does not require dominant group acceptance, whereas assimilation does require such acceptance. Second, assimilation requires that the minority group have a positive orientation and identification toward the dominant group. Simply making oneself appear and act like the dominant cultural group does not constitute assimilation. Assimilation requires internal value change; that is, individuals come to be a part of an association, absorb the meaning of the association, and contribute to the correction and improvement of the association. Furthermore, assimilation requires the assimilating individual or group to relinquish the identification with the heritage group and seek identification with the dominant group that results in becoming less distinguishable from them. Acculturation does not require such a unidirectional process. It involves a two-way reciprocal relationship in which the dominant and acculturating groups make changes. Also, one may acculturate but not lose his or her personal heritage.
Whether assimilation is a phase of acculturation or vice versa has also been discussed among scholars. Robert Park, for example, is known for his notion that assimilation is the final stage of a natural progressive, inevitable, and irreversible race relations. He posits that when stabilization is achieved, race relations would assume one of three configurations: (1) a caste system, (2) complete assimilation, or (3) the unassimilated race constituting a permanent racial minority. Milton Gordon further proposed that acculturation is the first stage of assimilation and, although it does not lead to structural assimilation, inevitably produces acculturation. Among anthropologists, as documented in the Social Science Research Council 1953 Summer Seminar, acculturation is commonly treated as a necessary but insufficient condition of assimilation, which is treated as a second type of progressive adjustment. The first type of progressive adjustment is cultural fusion, which refers to a formation of a third sociocultural system through a process of intercultural contacts among two or more autonomous systems.
Other scholars, such as John Berry and his colleagues, advocate for assimilation as a phase of acculturation. They developed a bidimensional model that focuses on the process of group and individual adaptation within pluralistic societies. These two dimensions allow for a fourfold classification and four acculturation strategies. In this model, individuals or groups decide whether to maintain their cultural identity and customs or to engage in and pursue intergroup contacts. Integration occurs when one chooses to engage in inter-group contacts while maintaining one’s own cultural identity. Assimilation occurs when one chooses to engage in intergroup contacts while relinquishing one’s cultural identity. Separation occurs when one chooses to maintain one’s cultural identity and customs while giving up intergroup contacts. When one loses cultural and psychological contacts to both cultures, the result is marginalization. In this model, assimilation is considered a phase of the process of acculturation, and integration is the preferred way to acculturate.
- Berry, J. W. (2005). Acculturation: Living successfully in two cultures. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, 697-712.
- Gordon, M. M. (1964). Assimilation in American life: The role of race, religion and national origins. New York: Oxford University Press.
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- Simons, S. E. (1901). Social assimilation. American Journal of Sociology, 6, 790-822.
- Social Science Research Council. (1954). Acculturation: An exploratory formulation. American Anthropologist, 56, 973-1002.
- Teske, R. H. C., & Nelson, B. H. (1974). Acculturation and assimilation: A clarification. American Ethnologist, 1, 351-367.