Sociology Ethnic Enclaves
Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick, Maura Fennelly, Kevin Beck, Ernesto Castañeda
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0257


Ethnic enclaves have been defined in numerous ways. The word “ethnic” is often used to refer to a particular group with a shared nationality or cultural background. Enclaves sometimes refer to the concentration of ethnic groups within a geographic area. Academic inquiry of ethnic enclaves began with Kenneth Wilson and Alejandro Portes’s study of the “immigrant enclave” formed by Cubans in Miami, which they define as a concentration of ethnic businesses employing people from the same ethnic group. Researchers have tested, expanded, and modified the “enclave hypothesis”—ethnic concentration having a protective effect against a generally hostile climate facing immigrants and ethnic minorities. Depending on the author an enclave may refer to the geographic concentration of migrants and coethnics in a neighborhood; a place with social and economic structures that diverge from those in the surrounding area; or a concentration of economic activity, particularly businesses owned and staffed by members of a single ethnic group. In the strictest sense, ethnic enclaves are made up of a high concentration of an ethnic group within a geographic space, including a large number of business owners from that community. There have been examples throughout US history of ethnic enclaves, including Cubans in Miami, New York’s Chinatown, Japanese and Korean enclaves in California, and Jewish communities in Manhattan. There are also immigrant enclaves across the world. The protective effects of enclaves are largely related to the concentration of economic power to support social, cultural, and political development for immigrant communities committed to sustaining community life within the country where an enclave is formed. Many researchers have used a partial definition of ethnic enclaves only in terms of residential concentration. From this point of view, the existing evidence shows mixed effects for living in an enclave depending on the context, aspects of the enclave studied, and relative outcomes of interest. When applied and compared, the similarities between enclaves and other community formations, such as barrios and ghettos, become relevant. Segregation most frequently serves dominant groups who use isolation to disproportionately apportion resources and exploit marginalized workers. Yet, as Cathy Yang Liu has shown, a concentration of opportunities can lead to strong social and cultural networks within ethnic enclaves. Researchers using the concept of ethnic enclaves can benefit from considering the multilayered factors of immigration, ethnic difference, urban environments, economic systems, health, and power differentials between and among residents in ethnic enclave communities and beyond.

The Formation and Study of Ethnic Enclaves

Sociologists have studied the geographic clustering of people and businesses since Park, et al. 1925 began mapping so-called “natural areas” in the early 20th century. Contemporary interest in ethnic enclaves dates back to the 1980s, when Wilson and Portes 1980 used the term to provide a theoretical explanation for how Cuban immigrants integrated into US economic institutions in Miami, Florida. Studies from this period hypothesized that enclaves create alternative pathways for economic integration that were not as dependent on the mainstream or majority society. Rather than finding jobs in the primary or secondary labor markets, as would be expected by theories of straight-line assimilation or a dual labor market, Portes and Manning 1986 argues that enclave enterprises provide coethnics with opportunities for economic mobility that were inaccessible elsewhere. Viewed in this way, ethnic enclaves may create pathways for social mobility that do not require migrants to adopt new cultural practices or move into neighborhoods where the ethnic majority predominates. This is the basis of what Wilson and Portes 1980 publication hypothesizes as enclave effects. Many conditions potentially generate ethnic enclaves. Portes and Rumbaut 2014 explains that ethnic enclaves may appear when groups of migrants are numerically large, when there is a concentration of capital, and when there is a large surplus of migrant labor. These conditions give rise to agglomerations of ethnic enterprises, which are competitive as a result of pools of cheap labor in cities and a number of ethnic buyers. Portes and Manning 1986 notes this within the key characteristics of ethnic enclaves, in addition to resilient cultural formations and organizations. Ethnic enclaves are also assumed to have high levels of social capital. Social capital has been defined in numerous ways, but in the context of enclaves, Portes 1998 defines social capital in terms of trust, embedded relationships, and support networks that make ethnic enterprises efficient and stable. As identified in Gold 2015 and other studies, examples of ethnic enclaves that possess many of these characteristics include Jewish communities in Manhattan in the mid-19th century, Japanese communities established on the West Coast of the United States in the late 19th century, Cuban communities in Miami after the Cuban Revolution, and Korean communities in Los Angeles that grew after the liberalization of US immigration policy in the late 1960s.

  • Gold, Steven J. 2015. Ethnic enclaves. In Emerging trends in the social and behavioral sciences. Edited by R. A. Scott and S. M. Kosslyn, 1–18. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    The author focuses on Cubans in Miami, in addition to the existing research on New York Jews and Japanese and Koreans in California. Some of these examples show that enclaves increase social capital and protect against discrimination. However, geographic concentration can also suppress wages and limit access to quality schools, safe environments, and government support. The author suggests ethnic enclaves be compared to “‘ethnoburbs’ (ethnic suburbs)” (p. 10).

  • Park, Robert E., Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie. 1925. The city: Suggestions for investigation of human behavior in the urban environment. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This work is an antecedent to debates over ethnic enclaves. This book presents a theory of urban ecology and defines ethnic neighborhoods as groups with shared cultural affinities that live in geographically concentrated areas, who sometimes dominate particular sectors of the city’s economy. The authors refer to ethnic neighborhoods as “natural areas,” which may have distinct social organization. A new edition was published by University of Chicago Press in 2019 with a foreword by Robert J. Sampson.

  • Portes, Alejandro. 1998. Social capital: Its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 24:1–24.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.24.1.1

    Ethnic businesses operating in enclaves can access a variety of resources, including money and labor. Social capital in ethnic enclaves also facilitates economic mobility. Coethnics help each other find jobs, provide referrals, and teach each other skills. “Ethnic niches” are formed when migrants from one ethnic group come to dominate a particular employment sector such as restaurant work, garment industries, or fire and police departments.

  • Portes, Alejandro, and Robert D. Manning. 1986. The immigrant enclave: Theory and empirical examples. In Competitive ethnic relations. Edited by Susan Olzak and Joane Nagel, 47–68. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

    Ethnic enclaves are described as one mode of structural incorporation, providing a pathway for economic mobility that does not require migrants to adopt majority group cultural practices. Enclaves are characterized as places with large migrant populations that are geographically concentrated, with high participation in ethnic organizations and low knowledge of the receiving country’s language and institutions. One of the purposes of ethnic enclaves is to provide coethnics opportunities for economic advancement.

  • Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. 2014. Immigrant America: A portrait. 4th ed. Oakland: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520959156

    Covers a wide range of topics including settlement patterns, social mobility, integration, language, and public policy. Enclaves are defined as places with a concentration of migrants possessing business expertise and places where migrants access capital and labor. The authors argue that enclaves can provide coethnics with opportunities for economic mobility because employer-employee relationships are not simply contractual but also based on social capital.

  • Wilson, Kenneth L., and Alejandro Portes. 1980. Immigrant enclaves: An analysis of the labor market experiences of Cubans in Miami. American Journal of Sociology 86.2:295–319.

    DOI: 10.1086/227240

    This article compares ethnic enclaves to the dual labor market theory. The authors define ethnic enclaves as places with vertically aligned firms that draw on coethnics for labor and capital. Migrants working in ethnic enclaves are more similar to the primary labor market than secondary. In future work Portes and Armony 2018 (cited under Ethnic Enclaves and Inequity) explains these findings in terms of a cohort effect among the early highly educated and capital-rich Cuban immigrants.

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