Paradoxes (and Orthodoxies) of Assimilation
Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 483-511, 1997
30 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2011
Date Written: 1997
The concept of assimilation, whether as outcome or process, conflates elements that are both empirical and ideological, ethnographic and ethnocentric. Conventional wisdom on the adaptation of immigrants in America has conceived of "assimilation" prescriptively and not only descriptively, as a linear process of progressive adjustment to American life. This conception is guided by an implicit deficit model: to get ahead immigrants need to learn how to "become American" and overcome their deficits with respect to the new language and culture, the new economy and society. As they shed the old and acquire the new over time, they surmount those obstacles and make their way more successfully – a homogenizing process more or less completed by the second or third generation. Recent research findings, however, especially in the areas of immigrant health, mental health, ethnic self-identity and education, debunk such ethnocentric assumptions, often running precisely in the opposite direction of what is expected from traditional perspectives. Some empirical examples are highlighted, focusing on paradoxes – on evidence that contradicts orthodox expectations – in order to identify areas that need conceptual, analytical, and theoretical refinement, including the need to spell out precisely and systematically what it is that is being "assimilated," by whom, under what circumstances, and in reference to what sector of American society. The diversity of contemporary immigrants to the United States, in terms of class, culture, color, and the contexts within which they are received, and their segmented modes of incorporation, raise new questions about assimilation from what? to what? and for what?
Keywords: assimilation, immigration, ethnocentrism, deficit model, paradoxes of assimilation, conventional wisdom
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