Assimilation and Its Discontents: Ironies and Paradoxes
The Handbook of International Migration, Pp. 172-195 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999)
37 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2012
Date Written: 1999
Few concepts in the history of American social science have been as all-encompassing and consequential as “assimilation,” or as fraught with irony and paradox. That master concept long ago penetrated the public discourse and seeped into the national narrative, offering an elemental explanation for a phenomenal accomplishment — the remarkable capacity of a self-professed nation of immigrants to absorb, like a giant global sponge, tens of millions of newcomers of all classes, cultures and countries from all over the world. And yet, few concepts have been so misused and misunderstood, or erected on such deep layers of ethnocentric pretensions. Few have so thoroughly conflated the real with the rhetorical, the idea with the ideal and the ideological, mixing descriptions of what is observable with prescriptions of what is desirable, even framing it as a corollary to the central myth of progress at the heart of the core culture. The ultimate paradox of assimilation American-style may well be that in the process, what is being assimilated metamorphoses into something quite dissimilar from what any of the protagonists ever imagined or intended. It is in these conceptual interstices between theory, rhetoric, and reality that irony and paradox emerge (or at least what appears paradoxical from the vantage of the prevailing worldview). By focusing on ironies and paradoxes — on evidence that contradicts core assumptions and points instead to assimilation’s discontents — my aim in this paper is to test empirically the conception of assimilation as a linear process leading to improvements in immigrant outcomes over time and generation in the U.S. Through the examination of ironic and paradoxical cases — in effect, deviant case analyses of “outcomes of events that mock the fitness of things” — fruitful reformulations can be stimulated, considered and advanced.
Keywords: Immigration, assimilation, acculturation, identity, myth of progress, national narrative, rhetoric and reality
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