assimilation Research Paper Starter


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Assimilation is the process by which immigrants become part of the mainstream culture of their new country, lessening the differences between immigrants and native born Americans. Research often distinguishes between cultural assimilation, in which ethnic and cultural norms from the previous country become less prevalent, and other factors such as socioeconomic success and educational equity, referred to under the umbrella of structural assimilation. Assimilation, especially cultural assimilation, has been a controversial debate in American policy making, affecting education, health policy, and other areas. Previously, many believed that total assimilation was necessary for the healthy functioning of American society. Today, many embrace multicultural or segmented assimilation theories, which view multiculturalism and distinct ethnic identity as a strength rather than a weakness.

Keywords Assimilation; Cultural Assimilation; Immigrant; Melting Pot; Multiculturalism; Pluralism; Segmented Assimilation; Socioeconomic Status; Structural Assimilation



Assimilation is the process by which immigrants to the United States become part of mainstream American culture, lessening the distinctions between the various ethnic and racial groups. There are several characteristics by which assimilation of an individual or group is measured, including language proficiency, the decision to become a citizen, and the concentration of ethnic groups in any one geographic region or area. Immigrants are classified as those who have relocated from their country of birth to live and work in another country. The immigration rate in the United States is measured by the percentage of those who were born outside of the country who are currently residing in the United States, either legally or illegally (Wadsworth & Kubrin, 2007).

Immigration has been a significant issue throughout United States history. Historically, the United States has been a country of immigrants, with groups of people coming to live in and work in the country from all over the world. Many countries' citizens have also been barred from entering the United States by various laws throughout the course of history. Immigrant groups have faced and continue to battle racism and negative treatment subsequent to entering the United States.

Today, immigration to the United States has changed drastically from the first half of the twentieth century. Since a low point in the 1940s, the immigration rate has risen dramatically. The population of immigrants in the United States has quadrupled since 1970 and doubled in number since 1990. Furthermore, today's immigrants differ in ethnicity, skills, and education. Most immigrants in the early 1900s emigrated from Europe, and were largely Caucasian. In 2011, most immigrants entered the United States from Latin America and all over Asia (Vigdor, 2008; Office of Immigration Statistics [OIS], 2012). Immigration continues to be a salient policy issue because there continues to be no consensus on whether immigrants have a positive or negative impact on United States society.

The idea of assimilation has been connected to the metaphor of a "melting pot," or a blurring of differences between different ethnic and racial groups, creating a society where one group cannot necessarily be differentiated from another. Conversely, the idea of pluralism encourages retaining ethnic differences, embracing various aspects of one's original ethnicity and culture, and celebrating the diversity as a unique attribute to the United States. A poll taken in 1994 found that the country evenly supported assimilation, pluralism, and a blend of the two (Spain, 1999). A Gallup poll conducted in 2012 found that 66 percent of American respondents thought that immigration was a positive thing for the United States (Jones, 2012).

Research regarding immigration and its impact on society has laid the foundations of American sociology. Generally, sociologists recognize three distinct groups of immigrants who entered the United States. The first group, mostly northern and western Europeans, immigrated up to the nineteenth century to set up the American colonies, states, and to move westward. These groups often made their living as farmers. Subsequently, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, the United States experienced massive industrialization. Immigrants to the United States during this period were largely from southern and eastern Europe, settling in urban areas of the country. Finally, in the post-1965 era of immigration, following the 1965 Immigration Act, immigrants entered the United States largely from Latin America and Asia, and new immigrants were largely focused on service professions. Sociologists also recognize and study the south to north migration of black Americans during the beginning of the twentieth century (Pedraza, 2005).

Those who study assimilation often distinguish between socioeconomic, cultural, and structural assimilation, in addition to other categories, and there are several assimilation theories that have been developed. Until recently, complete assimilation has been seen as imperative to the success of our economy and society (Portes & Zhou, 1993).

Further Insights

Socioeconomic Assimilation

Socioeconomic status refers to the "measure of an individual or family's relative economic and social ranking" (NCES, 2008). The three major measures of socioeconomic status in the United States include education level, occupation, and income level. When discussing the economic success of immigrants, assimilation experts refer to these measures. In a society in which all immigrants were completely socioeconomically assimilated, there would appear to be little or no differences in socioeconomic status between immigrants and native born individuals and families (Spain, 1999).

Vigdor (2008) presents a report measuring the socioeconomic similarities and differences between native-born and foreign-born adults in the United States. Utilizing census data since 1900, many differences have emerged in socioeconomic measures of assimilation rates since the turn of the twentieth century. The study analyzes data regarding education, home ownership, English-speaking ability, naturalization rates, and marriage patterns. The study also found that immigrants who have arrived in more recent years are more likely to arrive less assimilated; however, non-native born individuals assimilate at a quicker rate than in the past, especially culturally.

Further research shows that immigrants in the United States are slightly more likely than non-immigrants to hold an advanced degree; however, native-born individuals are much more likely to have a high school diploma. Additionally, low-skilled immigrants who enter the country are much less likely than native-born individuals to be unemployed (Orrenius, 2004).

Studies have also found that immigrants become economically assimilated after living in the United States for approximately sixteen to twenty years, reaching the socioeconomic levels of those who are native born. Research has also suggested that non-Hispanic groups make the largest gains in education, but Hispanic groups made the most overall economic gains from generation to generation (Orrenius, 2004).


Cultural assimilation refers to the assimilation of cultural patterns, including language and value systems. Structural assimilation refers to the assimilation of non-native-born individuals and their families into the structural customs of American society, including intermarriage. In the past, cultural and structural assimilation has been seen as necessary to the economic and social health of the country, but also as a process by which non-native-born individuals and families merge themselves into American mainstream society (Pedraza, 2003).


Today, many sociologists have refocused from classical theories of assimilation towards "transnationalism" and "diasporic citizenship." Transnationalism and diasporic citizenship refer to the "process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement" (Basch, Schiller, & Szanton, 1993) and the "set of practices that a person is engaged in and a set of rights acquired or appropriated that cross nation-state boundaries and that indicate membership in at least two nation states" (Laguerre, 1998), respectively.

Previously, classical theories of assimilation held that immigrants became more assimilated into mainstream American culture the longer they resided in the United States. However, newer theories of assimilation differ. For example, transnationalism and diasporic citizenship purport that during the assimilation process, the immigrant not only adopts customs and practices of the society into which they are integrating, but they also change and enrich the society in which they live by introducing different customs and points of view. Furthermore, these theories...

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