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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • The Theory of Straight-Line Assimilation
  • The Theory of Segmented Assimilation and Its Critiques
  • Transnationalism
  • The Second Generation in the United States
  • The Second Generation in Europe
  • New Immigrant Destinations
  • Assimilation and the Future of the United States

Sociology Immigrant Assimilation
Van C. Tran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0101


The study of immigrant assimilation has had a central place in the discipline of sociology, beginning with sociologists of the Chicago school trying to understand the incorporation of European immigrants and their descendants at the turn of the 20th century. Since 1965, tens of millions of “new” immigrants have arrived, and this influx has rekindled an entire subfield of migration studies in sociology and, to a lesser extent, in anthropology, political science, economics, and history as well. As a result, assimilation research is an interdisciplinary field with much new and exciting scholarship being produced, alongside lively and contentious debates about the fate and fortune of the new second generation (i.e., defined as those who are born in the United States to immigrant parents). Most central to this debate are the theory of straight-line assimilation (and its revised formulations), which was based on the experience of white ethnic groups in the earlier period, and the theory of segmented assimilation, which posits divergent paths for different post-1965 ethnic groups. The study of immigrant assimilation is important because it provides insights into not only how immigrants and their children have been incorporated into the United States, but also how their incorporation might reshape patterns of ethnic and racial inequality. Assimilation also has the potential to affect virtually all aspects of the host society, from its religion and culture to its economy and politics. Because assimilation research is highly interdisciplinary and spans different disciplinary boundaries, an exhaustive bibliography is beyond the scope of this article. Specifically, this article focuses first and foremost on research done by sociologists, with a primary focus on the United States. Even though assimilation and incorporation are likely to be important factors in most other national and regional contexts, including Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the majority of the work on this topic has originated in the United States, a country with a significant history of immigrant incorporation. However, this article does strive to include work from a multidisciplinary perspective and relevant comparisons to nations in Europe and elsewhere when appropriate, although the United States would remain the central point of reference even in these cross-national comparisons. To make this effort manageable, this article limits itself to only English-language publications.

General Overviews

The arrival of immigrants since 1965 has generated a lot of research on their experiences and encounters with American society. As a result, a robust literature has developed on the topic of immigrant incorporation and assimilation, with Portes and Rumbaut 2006 and Waters, et al. 2007 being two of the most accessible introductory texts in the field, suitable both for undergraduate and for graduate courses. In addition, Hirschman, et al. 1999 is an authoritative source on the multifaceted experience of immigration, including immigration policy debates, whereas Smith and Edmonston 1998 provides a fair, balanced assessment of the impact of immigration on American society. Since the theory of assimilation originated from the experience of European immigrants and their children in the previous wave, discussion of immigrant assimilation in the contemporary period is often implicitly comparative—see Foner 2000 for an excellent comparison. The concept of “assimilation,” as originally formulated in the Theory of Straight-Line Assimilation, came under serious attack in the 1960s, mostly due to its ethnocentric and normative formulation. Kivisto 2005 provides one of the most comprehensive selections of the key developments both in the classical and in the contemporary theoretical accounts of assimilation. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed serious attempts to revive this concept, by focusing on assimilation as a “process” through which ethnic groups become more similar to each other. Instead of “how much assimilation,” the literature has become more nuanced in thinking about “assimilation in which outcome, over which period of time, and into which reference population.” Specifically, Alba and Nee 2003 conceptualizes assimilation as a form of ethnic change, focusing on three key boundary processes—boundary crossing, boundary blurring, and boundary shifting. In other words, assimilation is simply the unintended consequences of individuals’ actions in pursuit of practical goals, such as getting a good education, finding a good job, moving to a nice neighborhood, having interesting friends and colleagues, and developing relationships with others like themselves. They also argue that assimilation was indeed the master trend among descendants of European immigrants. Finally, Bean and Stevens 2003 provides a good overview of the key outcomes for a range of post-1965 ethnic groups and their overall incorporation.

  • Alba, Richard D., and Victor Nee. 2003. Remaking the American mainstream: Assimilation and contemporary immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    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.

  • Bean, Frank D., and Gillian Stevens, eds. 2003. America’s newcomers and the dynamics of diversity. Rose Series in Sociology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    An accessible volume with individual chapters covering topics on language, identity, labor, intermarriage, and labor market outcomes among immigrants and their children. This is suitable for introductory courses on immigration.

  • Foner, Nancy. 2000. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s two great waves of immigration. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A good introduction to the main themes in immigration research. By comparing the previous immigration wave from Europe to the current wave from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, Foner highlights both the similarities and the differences in the main themes. The historical and comparative approach in this book is unique.

  • Hirschman, Charles, Philip Kasinitz, and Josh DeWind, eds. 1999. The handbook of international migration: The American experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    A comprehensive collection of works by leading scholars on virtually all aspects of immigration and assimilation. This is ideal for graduate students and researchers who would like a quick introduction to the key debates in the field of immigration research.

  • Kivisto, Peter, ed. 2005. Incorporating diversity: Rethinking assimilation in a multicultural age. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    This edited volume includes an excellent introduction to the main debates on assimilation. Part 1 includes key excerpts from classical texts. Part 2 includes recent efforts at theorizing assimilation in the post-1965 era. Part 3 includes new directions for future research on assimilation. Overall, this volume is a good resource both for undergraduate and for graduate courses.

  • Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. 2006. Immigrant America: A portrait. 3d ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This is one of the most accessible and widely used introductory texts on immigration. The third edition is thoroughly revised and updated with more recent census data and is a valuable resource for an introductory course at the undergraduate level.

  • Smith, James P., and Barry Edmonston, eds. 1998. The immigration debate: Studies on the economic, demographic, and fiscal effects of immigration. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    This authoritative volume brings together an impressive range of scholars from across the social sciences and is unique in its interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary approach. It remains one of the most comprehensive assessments on the impact of immigration on American society.

  • Waters, Mary C., Reed Ueda, and Helen B. Marrow, eds. 2007. The new Americans: A guide to immigration since 1965. Harvard University Press Reference Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674044937

    A comprehensive volume with two main components: thematic chapters and descriptive profiles for specific groups. The chapters cover a range of topics: ethnic and racial identity, intermarriage, transnationalism, intergroup relations, education, language, gender and families, ethnic media, etc. This book is a valuable resource both for undergraduate and for graduate courses.

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