Definition of the Word “Assimilation” and Assimilation Theories

Assimilation or cultural assimilation is the process by which different cultural groups are increasingly alike. When complete assimilation is complete, there is no discernible difference between formerly different groups. Assimilation is most discussed in terms of minority immigrant groups starting to adopt the culture of the majority and thus resemble them in terms of values, ideology, behavior and practices. This process can be forced or spontaneous and can be rapid or gradual.

However, assimilation doesn’t always happen this way. Different groups can blend into a new, homogeneous culture. This is the core of the melting pot metaphor (whether true or not it is often used to describe the US) And while assimilation is often thought of as a linear process of change over time, for some racial, ethnic, or religious minority groups, the process is interrupted by institutional barriers built on prejudice. can be intercepted or blocked.

In both cases, the assimilation process results in people becoming more alike. As the process progresses, people from different cultural backgrounds gradually share the same attitudes, values, feelings, interests, perspectives, and goals.

Assimilation Theories

Assimilation theories in social sciences were developed by the University of Chicago-based sociologists in the early twentieth century. Chicago, an industrial center in the USA, attracted the attention of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Some notable sociologists have turned their attention to this population to examine the process they assimilated into mainstream society and what kinds of things might hinder this process. Sociologists such as William I. Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, Robert E. Park, and Ezra Burgess have been pioneers of scientifically rigorous ethnographic research with the immigrant and racial minority populations in and around Chicago. Three main theoretical perspectives on assimilation emerged from his work. These theories are:

Theory One: Assimilation is a culturally linear process in which one group resembles another over time. Taking this theory as a lens, one can see generational changes in immigrant families where generations of immigrants are culturally different when they arrive, but assimilated to the dominant culture to some extent. The first generation children of these immigrants would grow up and socialize in a society different from their parents’ country.

Majority culture will have their own local culture, but if this community is predominantly composed of a homogeneous immigrant group, they may adhere to some values ​​and practices of their parents’ local culture while at home and within their community. Second-generation descendants of first immigrants are less likely to preserve the culture and language of their grandparents and are likely to be culturally indistinguishable from the majority culture. This is a form of assimilation that can be defined as “Americanization” in the USA. It is a theory about how immigrants are consumed in a “melting pot” society.

Second Theory: Assimilation is a process that will differ on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. Depending on these variables, it can be a smooth, linear process for some, while for others it can be hampered by institutional and interpersonal barriers stemming from racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and religious bias. For example, the housing re-line practice in which racial minorities deliberately prevented their home purchases in predominantly white neighborhoods during much of the twentieth century fueled housing and social segregation. It prevented the assimilation process for the targeted groups. Another example could be the barriers to assimilation faced by religious minorities in the US, such as Sikhs and Muslims, who are often excluded because of religious dress elements and therefore socially excluded from mainstream society.

Third Theory: Assimilation is a process that will differ according to the economic situation of the minority person or group. When an immigrant group is economically marginalized, it is likely to be socially marginalized from mainstream society, as is the case with migrants working as casual or agricultural workers. In this way, the low economic situation can encourage immigrants to come together and protect themselves, largely because of the need to share resources (such as housing and food) in order to survive. At the other end of the spectrum, the middle-class or affluent immigrant population will have access to homes, consumer goods and services, educational resources and leisure activities that promote their assimilation into mainstream society.

How Is Assimilation Measured?

Social scientists have studied the process of assimilation by examining four basic aspects of life between immigrant and racial minority populations. These include socioeconomic status, geographical distribution, language acquisition, and intermarriage rates. Socioeconomic status, or SES, is a cumulative measure of a person’s position in society based on educational attainment, occupation, and income. In the context of an assimilation study, a social scientist will want to see if SES in an immigrant family or population rises, stays the same or decreases over time to match the average of the indigenous population. An increase in SES can be regarded as a sign of successful assimilation in American society.

Whether an immigrant or minority group is together or dispersed over a wider area, geographical distribution is also used as a measure of assimilation. Clustering will indicate a low level of assimilation, as often happens in culturally or ethnically diverse enclaves such as Chinese neighborhoods. Conversely, the distribution of an immigrant or minority population across a state or country indicates a high degree of assimilation.

Assimilation can also be measured by language acquisition. When an immigrant arrives in a new country, they may not be able to speak their new home language. How much they learned or did not learn in the following months and years can be seen as a sign of low or high assimilation. The same lens can be brought to the study of language across generations of immigrants, and the ultimate loss of a family’s mother tongue is seen as complete assimilation. Finally, inter-racial, ethnic, or cross-religious marriage rates can be used as a measure of assimilation. As in others, low-level marriages suggest social isolation and interpreted as a low-level assimilation, while medium to high rates would suggest largely social and cultural mixing and hence high assimilation.

No matter what measure of assimilation one is studying, it is important to keep in mind that there are cultural shifts behind the statistics. As a person or group assimilated into the culture of the majority in a society, they will embrace cultural elements such as what and how to eat, the celebration of certain holidays and milestones in life, clothes and hairstyles, music, and TV tastes. And they can adopt the news media, among other factors.

How Does Assimilation Differ From Culture?

Often times, assimilation and acculturation are used interchangeably, but they mean quite different things. While assimilation refers to the process of how different groups are increasingly alike, acculturation is a process in which a person or group from a culture begins to adopt the practices and values ​​of another culture while preserving their own different culture.

In other words, the local culture of the person does not disappear over time, as it will be during the process of acculturation and assimilation. Instead, the acculturation process is how immigrants adapt to the culture of a new country in order to function in everyday life, have a job, make friends, and be part of their local community, as well as the practices and rituals of their original cultures while maintaining values, perspectives. Cultural culture can also be seen in the way people in the majority group adopt the cultural practices and values ​​of members of minority cultural groups in their societies. This may include purchasing certain clothes and hairstyles, the types of food he eats, where he’s shopping, and what types of music he listens to.

Integration and Assimilation

A linear model of assimilation was seen as ideal for much of the twentieth century (by social scientists and civil servants) where culturally diverse immigrant groups and racial and ethnic minorities increasingly became like those of the majority culture. Many social scientists today believe that integration, not assimilation, is an ideal model for the inclusion of newcomers and minority groups in any society. This is because the integration model recognizes the value of cultural differences for a different society and the importance of culture in terms of a person’s identity, family ties, and sense of connection with one’s heritage.


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