On the Past and Future of American Immigration and Ethnic History: A Sociologist’s Reflections on a Silver Jubilee
Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 160-167, Summer 2006
8 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2011 Last revised: 20 May 2012
Date Written: 2006
To a historian, twenty five years may not seem like much: a span scarcely the measure of a generation, within the frame of “current affairs,” it may not yet qualify as “history”; it might even be said, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, that there is no long durée there. But to a sociologist, it is a span that packs a wallop. This essay examines the past and future of American immigration and ethnic history in the light of rapid changes marking the 25-year period between 1981 and 2006. Although much of American sociology, led by the scholars of what came to be called the Chicago School, gained its impetus and its disciplinary identity a century ago via the empirical study of mass immigration and the adaptations in American cities of an unprecedented diversity of newcomers, twenty-five years ago there was little scholarly work being done in the sociology of immigration and ethnicity. Doctoral students at leading universities were advised by their mentors as late as the 1980s to avoid writing their dissertations on such topics, since immigration was not a “field” or even a recognized section of the American Sociological Association. There was no there there, then. On the other hand, immigration became a field of specialization in American history in the 1926-40 period, it “erupted” in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s an astounding 1,813 doctoral dissertations in history focused on immigration or ethnicity. It was when immigration became “a thing of the past” that historians surged to study it, while sociologists turned to more contemporary concerns (including what would become glossed as “race and ethnic relations”). Still, historians and sociologists alike have kindred interests in understanding and explaining the common and endlessly fascinating phenomena that delimit our respective fields. While the recovery, if not the discovery, of the past may be the historian’s raison d’être, it is in part the social scientist’s conceit to examine the patterned present in order to predict the future. Whether our glance is backward or forward, our knowledge is ineluctably shaped by our present predicaments, so that as often as not we see through our respective prisms darkly. And history, in any case, does not obligingly repeat itself, whether as tragedy or as familiar farce. If we can learn something from the chaotic, checkered past of the last era of mass migration to the United States a century ago, it may be to harbor few illusions about crystal-ball gazing, even in increments of twenty-five years. Historians and sociologists alike, in our own Janus-faced ways, seek to contribute to human understanding, to enlightenment, and to the tolerance and humility that comes with it – and in that way we make our most important contributions to the long durée of humanity, all the more in a present suffused by a climate of fear. To bring these two disciplines together in the study of American immigration and ethnicity has been one of the pioneering contributions of the JAEH in its first quarter century.
Keywords: Immigration, Ethnicity, American Ethnic History
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