Sociologist Milton Gordon’s concept of identificational assimilation helps to explain how minority groups develop a sense of peoplehood, an important stage in the assimilation of U.S. immigrants.
In his 1964 book Assimilation in American Life, Milton Gordon created a synthesis that delineates the multiple dimensions of assimilation, according to the various indicators of the process. He identified seven stages in which assimilation takes place: cultural, structural, marital, identity, prejudice, discrimination, and civic. These steps are not causally distinct but describe different dimensions of the same underlying process: they are subprocesses of assimilation. Gordon placed great emphasis on the first two stages–
The seven stages in Gordon’s synthesis offer a composite multidimensional index of assimilation that could be used to determine the extent of a group’s assimilation according to both individual- and group-level criteria. Thus, Gordon’s framework provides specifications for empirical indicators of assimilation, which contributed to the development of quantitative research in sociology during the 1960’s.
The fourth stage in Gordon’s multidimensional scheme is identificational assimilation, which occurs when members of the minority group, usually newly arrived immigrants, develop a sense of peoplehood based exclusively on the host society, acquiring the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of people of the core culture. This step of assimilation became more popular in later discussions of assimilation with regard to both the descendants of European immigrants and members of the new immigrant groups.
In Gordon’s framework, ethnic identity is not an undifferentiated concept. He distinguishes between historical identification and participational identity. Historical identification is a function of past and current historical events and derives from a sense of “interdependence of fate”–in sociologist Kurt Lewsin’s words–which typically extends to the ethnic group as a whole. Participational identity refers to the sense of belonging to a subculture: Its members participate frequently in it and share close behavioral similarities with each other; they are also likely to be people from the same ethnic group and social class.
In 1985, Milton Yinger noted that among the several types of assimilation, the identification stage was perhaps the least well conceptualized and measured. In 1983, Richard Alba and Mitchell Chamlin tried to measure ethnic identification using a survey in which they asked people to specify the country of origin of their ancestors. In 1988, Barbara Tomaskovis-Devey and Donald Tomaskovis-Devey did similar research and established that identificational assimilation is an approximate measure of ingroup marriage in the last generation and of the intensity of current ethnic identification. In 1990, J. Allen Williams and Suzanne T. Ortega used the same conceptualization to study the fourth stage of assimilation–they asked respondents to specify if thinking of themselves as a person from the country they named was very, somewhat, or not very important to them.
Some scholars find Gordon’s identificational assimilation to be ambiguous because it does not clarify if it applies to individuals or groups. Although the measurement has been applied to individuals, the overall hypothesis has been interpreted as applying to groups. Scholars like Richard Alba, Victor Nee, and Elliott Barkan find the strength of Gordon’s framework in its clear articulation of some of the key dimensions of assimilation, viewed as a composite concept. They also recognize that the dimensions of assimilation can be arranged in stages to the advantage of quantitative researchers in sociology.
Alba, Richard, and Victor Nee. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. Sociologists Alba and Nee advance their arguments about the similarities between the immigrants of the previous century and those of the twenty-first century by providing a thorough overview of theory and history of assimilation and immigration in the United States. Fuchs, Lawrence H. The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1990. Fuchs traces the assimilation of different immigrant groups into the American mainstream during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to show that immigrants contribute to the ethnic diversity and civic unity of American society rather than to its divisiveness. Gordon, Milton Myron. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. Seminal sociological text on assimilation in which Gordon introduces his innovative ideas on the different stages of assimilation and the stratification of American society. Jacoby, Tamar. Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be American. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Divided in five parts, the essays in the book examine the process of assimilation from a variety of perspectives and explore the new ways of thinking about America as a melting pot. Kazal, Russell A. “Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History.” American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (April, 1995): 437-471. Article tracing the emergence and centrality of assimilation in the work of sociologists and concluding that a new definition of assimilation is needed. Kivisto, Peter. Incorporating Diversity: Rethinking Assimilation in a Multicultural Age. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publishers, 2005. Presents a set of canonical texts on assimilation theory together with writings on current immigration issues in an attempt to revise the classical perspective for the contemporary situation. Salins, Peter D. Assimilation, American Style. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Examines the process of assimilation and the impacts of immigration on contemporary American society.
Melting pot theory