Segmented Assimilation

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At the core of this project lies the testing and updating of the theory of segmented assimilation, an approach that emerged as an attempt to understand the new immigration post 1965 in the U.S.

Measure of segmented assimilation to be tracked among the five latino/hispanic youth: traces of ethnic identity, linguistic assimilation (parental, children, home), educational attainment, peer group ethnicity (networked publics, school friends), cultural practices and tastes (music, movies, internet), ethnic media consumption, mobility. A growing list of segmented assimilation indicators.


Researchers, politicians, and the general public have used the concept of assimilation to describe the processes of incorporation of foreign immigrants to a host society. That is, the process in which foreign ethnicities and races negotiate and adapt to a new social environment. This concept, however, is contested. Due to particular historical contexts and the complexity of the process of incorporation and ethnic interaction, assimilation has been conceptualized different by social scientists in the 20th Century. As the U.S. has become more culturally and ethnically diverse, as well as with changes in the economy, researchers have developed theories of assimilation that assume the host society and culture differently and consider specific dimensions of the process. While some researchers have considered the host society as homogenous, others have assumed it as heterogeneous and highly stratified, while some have tried to address multiple dimensions (e.g. socioeconomic, educational, civic, identity, psychology), others have focused only on two dimensions of the process (e.g. culture and economy).

Classic Assimilation

What is known in the social sciences literature as classic assimilation theory assumed a single and unified U.S culture and society where immigrants became incorporated progressively and inevitably. In "Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups" (1945), W. Lloyd Warer and Leo Strole, argued that the process of assimilation of immigrant minorities to the U.S. consisted in a progressive incorporation to a homogenous Anglo-Protestant American culture and society. At the end of the "straight-line" process, immigrants were supposed to become part of a unified white American middle-class whose culture and society remained unchanged. Likewise, Milton Gordon, in his seminal works "Assimilation in American Life" (1967) and "Human Nature, Class, and Ethnicity" (1978) posited that immigrants in the U.S. gradually assimilated to a white Anglo-Saxon putative mainstream. According to Gordon, immigrant groups conformed to a preexisting and dominant Anglo core, in a multi-step process that started with giving up their cultural patterns and ethnic heritage. After assimilating culturally, immigrants and their children could incorporate to American social groups, assume an American identity, change their attitudes and behaviors, and become engaged in civics. This process took several generations.

Besides describing seven stages of the assimilation process, sociologist Milton Gordon outlined a series of indicators that could be used to quantitatively measure the extent of immigrant’s incorporation to the new society. For instance, variables related to language usage, and celebration of ethnic holidays could measure the degree of cultural assimilation; variables related to the ethnic composition of social ties could measure the degree of structural assimilation; and variables related to ethnic self-image could indicate the degree of identificational assimilation. In another attempt to quantify the immigrant assimilation process in the U.S., Peter Blay and Otis Dudley Duncan (1967) focused on the socioeconomic aspect of the process and considered variables related to status attainment, occupation, income, and education. According to them, the assimilation process could be measured by the social mobility that immigrant minorities had in the new society and their participation in socioeconomic institutions (e.g. labor market, education).

Although classic assimilation studies described the process of immigrant adaptation, identified different dimensions, and operationalized several indicators to measure the extent of incorporation of individuals and groups to the U.S., their theories were often ethnocentric and idealized conformity to a homogeneous white Anglo middle-class culture and society. Given the racial and ethnic characteristics of the European migration that took place at the turn of the 20th century, as well as the historical and economical context of massive industrialization, a "straight-line" process of incorporation into a core white Anglo mainstream seemed to describe the experience of many of the white European immigrants and their children in the U.S. However, as the immigrant population became more ethnically and racially diverse after the new wave of massive immigration post-1965, and as the economic context changed entering a post-industrial era, such assumptions of Anglo conformity and assimilation to a unified white middle-class could not accurately describe the uneven experiences of the "new immigrants" and their children in the U.S.

Segmented Assimilation

In order to better understand the variety of outcomes and complexity of the assimilation process in contemporary U.S. stratified post-industrial context, researchers developed alternative theories to the classic assimilation. Making a paradigm shift, sociologist Alejandro Portes and his collaborators outlined the theory of segmented assimilation in the 1990s. They posited that the assimilation process of the "new immigrants" (post-1965 immigrants and their children) was not longer a positive "straight-line" trajectory in which they gradually integrated to the mainstream white American middle class, in the process, loosing their ethnic culture and values, and gaining equal access to economic opportunity. In contrast, in the present context of persistent racial discrimination, bifurcation of the labor market (hourglass economy), and inner city marginalized populations, the "new immigrants" follow divergent pathways and assimilate to different segments of the society. (Portes & Zhou 1993; Rumbaut 1996; Bankston & Zhou 1997; Zhou 1997; Gibson 1998; Portes & Rumbaut 2001). While some assimilate and move upward to the middle-class, others are poorly assimilated and move downward to the marginalized and racialized bottom of society.

According to the segmented assimilation framework the outcomes of the incorporation process are not always positive, but mixed, and they depend on both structural and individual factors and the interaction between them. (Portes & Zhou 1993; Rumbaut 1996; Zhou 1997; Portes & Rumbaut 2001) Structural characteristics of the social contexts immigrants enter such as color (racial-ethnic stratification), location (spatial segregation), and access to mobility layers (economic opportunities) interact with individual-level factors such as parental resources (human, financial, cultural capitals), education, and values, shaping diverse pathways to downward or upward assimilation. (Rumbaut 1996; Rumbaut & Cornelius 1995; Zhou, M. & Bankston, C. 1998; Portes & Rumbaut 2001; Portes et al., 2005) Trajectories of immigrant youth assimilation depend not only on the segments of the society where their parents are incorporated and the resources that their parents bring along, but also on how youth navigate the advantages and disadvantages of their family background and how they construct their ethnic and cultural identities in the new country.

Measurement of Assimilation

Researchers have identified several variables that can be used as indicators of assimilation. Based on these variables, it is possible to describe the kind of assimilation process that immigrants have. These indicators can be measured across the three different spaces, areas, or realms of my analysis: home, afterschool, and the internet. Some of them will be easier to measure given the qualitative data that I am using. For instance, educational achievement and outcomes can be seen across the three different contexts, as well as language, media ethnic traits, and civic engagement.

  • Language spoken: at home, work, peer group, online.
  • Length of stay and generational status.
  • Ethnic composition of friendship and peers networks, affinity groups.
  • Spatial assimilation and proximity to white ethnic majority. Neighborhood and residential assimilation.
  • Educational outcomes (formal acculturation): high school completion, college enrollment, grades (school performance)
  • At-risk behaviors
  • Individualization of media consumption
  • Media and peers ethnic traits (informal acculturation): language, origin, pop culture, taste.
  • Computer and internet use at home, work, and school.
  • Family orientation: familism.
  • Racial/ethnic self-identification: strong, weak, thick, thin.
  • Civic participation and engagement :: sense of connection to in-group, larger society,and community.
  • Ethnic tastes.
  • Academic achievement, future orientation, and desire to achieve.
  • Orientation toward mainstream societal institutions: schooling, college, government, etc.
  • Class

Overall, all the participants of the study are assimilation but their trajectories are different, and they and their families seem to be incorporating to different segments of the population. One of the findings is related to how media practices are facilitating the assimilation process, particularly in relation to doing school, language, pop culture, informal learning.

For instance it could be said, that the internet practice and home computer activities are helping to latino/hispanic youth to do school and informally learn. However they are not taking full advantage of them for connecting their families totally. Although in the brokering practices we could appreciate this feature when teens introduce parents to social media, lets them use it, pay bills, explain to parents how to use technology. In the case of after school is clear that there are many opportunities of access to technology and networks, and even paid jobs. However, these opportunities are sometimes not totally powerful, given the lack of new literacies and access to social and cultural resources. Finally, as regard to the internet, a similar kind of process can be appreciated, and this youth is not totally leveraging the power of the digital tools and networks, for them, the internet doesnt look as something they can re-write, tweak. Although there are examples of content creation, they are very little. Networked publics are not that diverse for these youth. They do not have models they could relate. Do not participate in the forums they visit that much. Their disposition is more oriented towards lurking, sharing, and re-circulating information. Also, they seem to be pretty much inclined to anglo and global media and not toward specific latino/hispanic media. With excemption of the two girls who said they liked latino videos and music.


Despite being an important model for the study of immigrant families, the three different acculturation types described in the theory of segmented assimilation do not take into account the complexity and messiness that happen when cultural transformations are observed on the ground. As other scholars of immigration have pointed out, segmented assimilation theory is too pessimistic and exaggerates the structural factors working against nonwhite immigrants (Alba and Nee 2003; Waters et al. 2010; Kasinitz et al. 2004, 2008). By doing so, the segmented assimilation theory idealizes the relationship between race-ethnicity and poverty, ignoring that immigrants can have social mobility even though they keep their racial and ethnic markers. As social scientists have started to prove through empirical, multi-method, and longitudinal studies, the so called "dissonant acculturation" does not necessary determine a downward process of socioeconomic mobility towards marginalization, but it could also be related to a slow upward movement within the working class. In the longitudinal "New York Second Generation" study, for instance, Kasinitiz and a group of researchers found that children of immigrants growing up in New York City, despite living a context of racial discrimination, poor schools, and the lack of economic opportunities in an hourglass economy with a shrinking middle class, are not only doing better than their parents, but also better than some of their native peers. (Kasinitz et al. 2004, 2008; Waters et al. 2010) According to their findings the different types of acculturation (consonant, dissonant, selective) outlined by Portes & Rumbaut (2010) do not seem to matter much for the socioeconomic outcomes of second-generation immigrants. (Waters et al. 2010)

In the case of all the five Latino/Hispanic families from my dissertation study, cultural changes could be described as a mixture of "selective" and "dissonant acculturation". As I intent to reveal through this chapter, as well as through the whole dissertation, the acculturation process of these families and their youth turned out to be more uneven and messier than the one described by segmented assimilation researchers and did not necessary lead towards a downward trajectory. Disparities between the acculturation processes of parents and children were actually quite big and, although they did not generate that much intergenerational tension (at least during the fieldwork period), several reversal roles and brokering activities emerged in all the five families. Cultural transformation, therefore, occurred both a selective and a dissonant manner. Given the low social, human, and economic resources of almost all the parents (the only exception was the Garcia family), all of them confronted acculturation gaps that were especially felt in the use of language and digital media technologies. The socioeconomic outcome of the cultural adaptation, however, was not marginalization despite the dissonance. These families were assimilating socioeconomically to the U.S. working class in the particular reception context of the fastest growing city in Texas and a robust high tech economy that demanded low skilled labor in several services such as construction, cleaning, food, and gardening. In Austin, these families encountered a reception context where some of their original cultural repertoires were already mixed and enrooted in the everyday life of the city in the form of foods (e.g. breakfast tacos, tamales, aguas frescas), language (e.g. Spanish, names of the streets), ethnic media (radio, television, print), and music (e.g. tex-mex, conjunto banda, cumbia). Although their position in this reception context was low given the deep history of subordination of Mexican origin people living in the U.S. southwest territories, it also offered opportunities of adaptation and slow socioeconomic mobility that compared to the ones they would find in their countries of origin, was better in terms of earning capacity, education, safety and access to new media tools and networks.

In order to understand the complex and uneven cultural assimilation process that these five immigrant youths have been navigating at the family life context, I will briefly discuss some of the cultural characteristics of the Latino/Hispanic family focusing on the issues of language and digital media use.

Uneven, Messy, Multidirectional

all of the five youths advanced their process of assimilation in the cultural, linguistic, and educational dimensions.

However, not all youths advanced their assimilation trajectories equally. Disparities in resources and differences in parenting styles shaped not only the quality and quantity of material and usage access to technology but as well the dispositions and motivations that youth had towards the educational and sociocultural dimensions of the assimilation process.


Alba, Richard, Philip Kasinitz, and Mary C Waters. 2011. The Kids Are (Mostly Alright): Second Generation Assimilation, Social Forces 89, no. 3.