the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration
In this era of multiculturalism and globalization, the idea of assimilation—that the social distance separating immigrants and their descendants from the mainstream of society closes over time—seems outdated in the United States as well as in other countries of immigration. But for the first time since Milton Gordon’s classic Assimilation in American Life (1964) two professors of sociology, Richard Alba and Victor Nee, have undertaken a systematic examination of this concept. Since the United States abolished the national origins quotas and new immigrants began to take advantage of its open doors in 1965, no such study had been done. Yet, the United States is undergoing a new wave of immigration, the likes of which have not been seen since the quotas were imposed in the 1920s.
Richard Alba and Victor Nee's book develops an in-depth comparison between the incorporation of the previous wave of immigration to the United States and that of the contemporary immigrants. It is commonly held in academic circles that the newcomers’ experience is unique due to differences in national origin and cultural background, to their ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and to a different socioeconomic and political context in the United States. Yet Alba and Nee contend that the specificity of the current wave of immigration, although real, should not be overstated; on the contrary they emphasize the continuity between past and present patterns of incorporation. They succeed in avoiding the pitfalls of the polemic surrounding immigration and assimilation issues, thanks to a strong theoretical basis and a careful and nuanced examination of empirical evidence.
The book opens with a historiographical analysis of theories of assimilation, starting from the Chicago School sociologists of the early twentieth century, and recalling the steps that led to the canonical definition of assimilation through such important publications as those of Warner and Srole, Gordon, or Gans. This leads the authors to introduce their own theoretical framework, which takes the concept of assimilation apart to better resurrect it. One of the merits of their theory is that it does away with numerous clichés that long plagued the all-too familiar concept and that are to be found both among supporters and critics: that assimilation occurs in a straight-line trajectory from the time of arrival to entry into the middle class. Denouncing the deficiencies of previous conceptions of assimilation, such as their ethnocentrism and emphasis on inevitability, and refusing to suggest in any way that immigrants should assimilate, Alba and Nee choose to examine the causal mechanisms of assimilation. The latter consist of two sets of factors: proximate factors, that is to say, individual and network forces facilitating or hampering the integration of minority groups—such as personal motivations and life choices, the forms of human capital migrants bring with them, or solidarity among close-knit immigrant groups; and “distal” or structural factors linked to the broader institutional and cultural environment within which the proximate factors come into play, and which can either encourage immigrants to take steps to integrate into the mainstream, or prevent them from doing so. Such factors include any legislation involving immigrants in their host country on a broad range of issues such as citizenship, education or welfare, but also more informal contextual forces such as customs, collective racial or religious prejudices, and the overall evolution of cultural values.
The next chapters study the emergence of assimilation among European immigrants of the earlier waves, then turn to the current wave of immigration. Alba and Nee critically examine the views of those scholars who insist on the distinctiveness of the new immigration, who affirm that assimilation was a product of a set of specific historical circumstances, and who envision the future American society as one in which racial or ethnic boundaries will be maintained rather than crossed or blurred over time. Alba and Nee conclude that such a position overstates differences while simplifying past immigrants’ experiences. They give convincing arguments that do not deny but relativize its basic assumptions: for example, they assert that the new immigrants’ racial specificity, while indisputable, is no more an obstacle to assimilation than the “racialized” views previous immigrants—like the Irish, the Italians or the Jews—suffered in the past. Although it was arguably easier for Italian or Irish immigrants to overcome their racial labeling and integrate into the “white” group than it is now for certain Asian, African and Latin American newcomers, Alba and Nee’s point does show that the new immigration is not as different as is commonly believed.
In a perspective of continuity that uses the lessons of past modes of assimilation to understand the present, the book tackles the cases of different immigrant groups of the contemporary wave, as the authors look for signs of intergenerational shifts that would point to a process of assimilation in preparation or already taking place. They identify trends common with the previous immigrants’ experiences, such as the rapid and generalized acquisition of the English language and the decline of bilingualism—even among the ethnic groups reputed to have the highest language retention rates like the Mexicans—or again residential dispersion and growing rates of intermarriage. Nevertheless, points of divergence are never forgotten, such as the appearance of ethnic communities in middle-class suburbs.
Most of these divergences are attributable to the socioeconomic diversity of contemporary immigrants. Thus, Alba and Nee distinguish between human capital and labor immigrants. While the latter fill the jobs at the bottom of the labor market, like their European predecessors, the former are highly educated urbanites who report occupations in the professions. The authors deplore that such a category of immigrants, a strikingly new feature of contemporary immigration, has not been the object of much research yet, and they launch into a pioneer study of these immigrants’ achievements in the United States.
Their study is also to be commended for its detailed analysis of the diverging immigration and integration patterns of various ethnic groups, and for their insight into the interaction of socioeconomic status and race. Specific histories emerge, like that of the Mexicans, whose home country borders the United States, or that of the Salvadoran refugees whose legal status is temporary, or again that of undocumented immigrants, whose precarious position is bound to have an effect on their possible incorporation into American society. All in all, Alba and Nee trace a great variety of trajectories, ranging from total acculturation and boundary crossing into the mainstream on the one hand, to rigid occupational and residential segregation, and economic stagnation on the other hand.
With few exceptions their analysis relies on an impressive body of data, resulting from a wealth of secondary sources and the authors’ own research. Undoubtedly, due to the recent character of the current wave of immigration, to the dearth of research, and to the limitations of Census data, information about second generation immigrants remains sketchy. Yet Alba and Nee never indulge in sweeping generalizations, but, wherever data is missing, raise conclusions and hypotheses with great caution. They recognize that assimilation is not and will not be the only pattern of incorporation, that other models have some validity and that present immigration is too complex and varied to be reduced to a single theoretical model.
The two authors spend some time presenting and challenging such alternative models of incorporation, especially those that have become the most popular in academic circles: multiculturalism and segmented assimilation—a concept borrowed from Michael Piore’s theory of a dual labor market, which posits that immigrant minorities suffer more or less permanent social and economic disadvantage because they are segregated into a separate structure in the labor market, characterized by low wages, and few benefits and mobility prospects. They sometimes stand on shaky ground, as when they stress that multiculturalism remains an ambiguous concept whose application, even in immigration countries like the United States and Canada, is limited by what public opinion is willing to tolerate—an assertion not verified by any empirical evidence—or when they put forward the claim, based on a single study, that Canada, for all its official policy of multiculturalism, has roughly the same experience of cultural retention as the United States.
The authors’ analysis of racial divisions—black and white—in American society is even more controversial. Although they recognize that race has not really lost its bedrock importance, they try to show that it has become more permeable. They speculate that the black and white divide will become more and more blurred and difficult to maintain as the ethnic and racial diversity that results from current immigration becomes part of the mainstream through intermarriage. Their account of shifting racial boundaries allows readers to put in perspective the rigidity of the racial divide, but Alba and Nee’s optimistic viewpoint about the future of this sensitive issue is likely to raise intense criticism.
However, their views reflect a healthy skepticism that should stimulate future research. By covering all the aspects concerned in a study of immigrant incorporation, they point to numerous fields where additional research is much needed, such as the experience of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, or the effects of illegal status on the incorporation of newcomers.
Ultimately, Alba and Nee insist on the institutional changes that have taken place since 1965: the civil rights legislation that is meant to enforce equal rights for all Americans and the cultural shifts that have led to increasing tolerance and acceptance of physical and cultural differences. This, in combination with the existence of economic opportunities, should open the way to the assimilation of ethnic minorities. The authors do take into account the impact of globalization which, in some cases, might slow down or even halt assimilation into the mainstream. However, they believe that scholars have overstated the importance of such effects and of the correlative development of trans-nationalism.
Thus the definition of the concept of assimilation has successfully and brilliantly been revised and updated by the two sociologists, showing how the American mainstream absorbs cultural elements originating in the new immigrant population. Yet Alba and Nee abstain from concluding that assimilation will remain the main pathway for immigrant incorporation. Their objective is none other than to re-evaluate the potential for, and obstacles to, assimilation in the context of today’s immigration, compared with other theoretical models of incorporation.