In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Assimilation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Legal Status as a Barrier to Integration

African American Studies Assimilation
Van C. Tran, Cristine S. Khan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0132


Immigration has transformed every aspect of cultural, economic, political, and social life in both European and US societies. The changing nature of immigrant assimilation, integration, and incorporation spurred robust research on both sides of the Atlantic. Immigrant assimilation is a conceptually rich, theoretically nuanced, empirically rigorous, and substantively consequential field of academic research. The diversity of perspectives and voices not only reflects the complexity of new immigrant groups but also captures distinctive aspects of the immigrant experience for different ethnoracial groups in the same host society. Despite the diversity of trajectories and specificity in the national context, research has pointed to the relatively successful integration of immigrants and their descendants. This article presents competing theoretical conceptions of immigrant assimilation that have emerged from the US experience while also assessing how well these US-based theories explain integration outcomes among immigrants and their descendants in Europe. This article proceeds in four parts. First, it discusses major theories of immigrant assimilation. Second, it reviews relevant scholarship on the second generation (i.e., native-born children of immigrants) in the United States and Europe while pointing to the emergence of the third generation. Third, it summarizes four dimensions of immigrant integration—identity and belonging, socioeconomic integration, citizenship and participation, and intermarriage and racial mixing. Finally, it underscores legal status as a barrier to full integration and a consequential dimension of inequality.

General Overviews

The post-1965 immigration flow is the most diverse in ethno-racial origin. Competing theories of immigrant assimilation provide important conceptual frameworks to make sense of immigrant groups’ divergent pathways and diverse experiences. Originating from the experience of immigrants from Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, Straight-Line Assimilation Theory posits that the cultural and social distance between immigrant and native groups declines with successive immigrant generations. According to Warner and Srole 1945, assimilation is the process through which immigrants shed their “ethnic cultural traits” and adapt to the “American cultural way of life.” Assimilation is an endpoint and final stage of adjustment when descendants of immigrants attain a socioeconomic level on par with the native majority at the time. Gordon 1964 conceptualizes assimilation as a multigenerational and multidimensional process, delineating the different conceptual dimensions of assimilation to be measured empirically. In the 1960s, the concept of assimilation—formulated in straight-line assimilation theory—came under attack due to its ethnocentric and normative nature (Kivisto 2005). In its defense, Brubaker 2001 distinguished between assimilation’s general meaning, denoting “increasing similarity or likeness” among groups, from its specific meaning, implying a “complete absorption” of immigrant groups into the US mainstream (p. 534). Scholarly debates on assimilation are often implicitly comparative. In this vein, Foner 2000 contrasts the experiences of post-1965 ethnic groups with European immigrant groups from 1880 to 1924. Recent attempts to revive assimilation as a social scientific concept define assimilation as a “two-way” social process through which new ethno-racial groups and the US mainstream become more “similar.” For example, Alba and Nee 2003 define assimilation as “the decline of an ethnic distinction and its corollary cultural and social differences” (p. 11). How well have post-1965 immigrants integrated into US society? How might their incorporation reshape American society? Two major reports commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences examined the cultural, economic, fiscal, and social impacts of immigration on US society. The first, Waters and Pineau 2015, concluded that immigrants and their children (including those from modest origins) have successfully integrated into US society while highlighting “undocumented status” as a barrier toward full integration. The second, Blau and Mackie 2016, found immigration to have a mostly positive impact on the economy, including economic growth and fiscal benefits at local and federal levels.

  • Alba, Richard D., and Victor Nee. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674020115

    In this synthesis, Alba and Nee reconceptualize assimilation as a form of ethnic change, focusing on three boundary processes—boundary crossing, boundary blurring, and boundary shifting. They argue that assimilation is the unintended consequence of strategies and actions that immigrants and their children often adopt in pursuit of familiar goals.

  • Blau, Francine D., and Christopher Mackie. The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2016.

    This authoritative volume examines the long-term impact of immigration on economic growth and fiscal outcomes in the United States. It provides a comprehensive assessment of the economic impact of immigration on US institutions and the labor market outcomes among US workers at the national, state, and local levels.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. “The Return of Assimilation? Changing Perspectives on Immigration and Its Sequels in France, Germany, and the United States.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24.4 (2001): 531–548.

    DOI: 10.1080/01419870120049770

    In this article, Brubaker suggests a shift from “organic” understandings of assimilation, which focus on the end state of assimilation, to “abstract” understandings of assimilation, which focus on the social process of how groups become more “similar” over time.

  • Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Historically informed, this is an excellent introduction to the experiences of immigrant assimilation in New York in the past and the present. By comparing the previous immigration wave from Europe to the recent wave from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, Foner highlights similarities and differences in their integration.

  • Gordon, Milton M. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    Building on Warner and Srole 1945, Gordon conceptualized assimilation as a multidimensional concept. He specified seven stages or aspects of assimilation: cultural, structural, marital, identificational, attitude-receptional (i.e., absence of prejudice), behavioral-receptional, and civic assimilation.

  • Kivisto, Peter, ed. Incorporating Diversity: Rethinking Assimilation in a Multicultural Age. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005.

    This edited volume includes an excellent introduction to the central debates on assimilation. Part I includes critical excerpts from classical texts. Part II includes recent efforts at theorizing assimilation in the post-1965 era. Part III includes new directions for future research on assimilation.

  • Warner, W. Lloyd, and Leo Srole. The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups. Yankee City 3. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1945.

    A seminal study of assimilation among European ethnic groups. Warner and Srole defined assimilation as the process in which immigrant groups shed their ethnic “cultural traits” and adapted to American society’s cultural way of life. Progressive assimilation was linked to socioeconomic advancement among successive immigrant generations.

  • Waters, Mary C., and Marisa Gerstein Pineau. The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2015.

    This authoritative volume brings together an impressive range of scholarship from across the social sciences and is unique in its interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach. It is the most recent comprehensive assessment of immigrant integration and its social impact on American society.

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