Melting pot theory

An idealistic view of cultural assimilation that was forced upon groups of immigrants during the early twentieth century, the melting pot theory was later discredited as more realistic perspectives concerning immigration prevailed.

The concept of the “melting pot” originated in the English Jewish dramatist Zangwill, IsraelIsrael Zangwill’s play Theater;The Melting Pot[Melting Pot]Melting-Pot, The (Zangwill)The Melting-Pot, which was first performed in Washington, D.C., in 1908. Zangwill’s play advanced the idea that a special social and cultural integration of immigrants occurred in America. In its reprocessing of William Shakespeare’s sixteenth century play Romeo and Juliet, Zangwill’s play depicts a pair of lovers from feuding Russian families who emigrate to the United States, where they find themselves and their families in a “crucible,” in which all old antagonisms fall away and they become “refined” in their new American identity.“Melting pot” theory[melting pot theory]“Melting pot” theory[melting pot theory][cat]THEORIES;Melting pot theory[03440][cat]ASSIMILATION;Melting pot

Assimilation Pressures

Inspired by the notion that different cultural groups would be combined and blended to form a new composition, like metals being melded at great heat to become stronger alloys, the melting pot theory was enormously popular. Accordingly, the United States had been transformed repeatedly by earlier waves of immigrants, who, as loyal, patriotic Americans, contributed to America’s progress. To facilitate this end, immigration laws were passed during the 1920’s that restricted the immigration of members of ethnic groups that were more difficult to assimilate–those who would not “melt” together with Americans of western and northern European heritages.

American expectations of immigrants included a commitment to all things American. There was little tolerance of “hyphenated Americanism,” such as “German-Americans.” Immigrants were expected to learn to speak English and to divorce themselves completely from the countries of their birth. This “melting” into an American identity was embraced by many European immigrants, who, fleeing from poverty and prejudice, proclaimed intense loyalty to America in World War I and renounced their own ethnic identities.

The federal Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted the immigration of Asians, southern and eastern Europeans, and Jews, ensuring that future immigration would come mostly from northern and western Europe. Consequently, the American identity resulting from the melting pot through the first half of the twentieth century retained an essentially white face. After World War II, however, federal immigration policy became less restrictive, allowing new ethnic variations.

Attitudes concerning assimilation had also modified, with more people supporting the idea of Cultural pluralismcultural pluralism that was first advanced by Kallen, HoraceHorace Kallen and Bourne, RandolphRandolph Bourne in 1915-1916. Cultural pluralism, in which smaller ethnic groups band together within a larger nation, allows members of the smaller groups to take pride in their own ethnic identities while remaining loyal to the host nation. Later, other Assimilation theoriesassimilation theories appeared that included the “salad bowl” theory, suggesting the lettuce is the host country and the other ingredients represented various ethnic groups being assimilated into the dominant group.

After 1965

Following the federal [a]Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended discrimination against members of racial minorities in public accommodations and other areas, and the expanded Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Americans held more tolerant attitudes toward other ethnicities and also had more negative views of the melting pot idea. Indeed, many prominent Americans began to denounce the “Americanization” of immigrants, and others, such as Glazer, NathanNathan Glazer and Moynihan, Daniel P.Daniel P. Moynihan, made a major contribution to the national perspective with their bestselling book Beyond the Melting Pot (Moynihan and Glazer)Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), which argues that the melting pot had “never really happened.” To support this argument, the book cites the ethnic enclaves in New York.

Poster issued by the federal government during World War II reminding Americans of the positive contributions made to the nation by immigrants, while drawing upon the concept of the “melting pot.”


The 1965 immigration reform act that abolished the immigrant quotas and aimed at family reunification, allowed drastic increases in the number of immigrants and an extreme shift in the countries of their origin. During the late 1960’s and 1970’s, immigrants began coming in huge numbers from Latin America, the Philippines, and Asia–regions whose immigrants in the past had been restricted from entering the United States. However, assimilation has continued to occur in some form, although less it is less forced than it was during the early twentieth century, despite the resistance of some immigrants to being absorbed.

Among the factors that influence the rate of assimilation of immigrants are the education levels and resources that the immigrants bring with them. Not all who come to America are impoverished, uneducated, or persecuted. While the formal schooling of many Latin American immigrants is limited to an average of six or seven years, many immigrants from Asia, particularly those from India, have doctoral and medical degrees that permit them to move quickly into scientific and entrepreneurial positions. Korean immigrants have ranked high in ownership of independent businesses.

Multiculturalism, Multiculturalism;and “melting pot” theory[melting pot theory]a controversial idea based on the idea that all cultures are of equal worth, has not been totally embraced in the United States. This has been particularly true since the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, that were made by Muslim extremists. Also, the American public has become increasingly concerned about the massive influx of Spanish-speaking Latin American and the impact they are having on American society. In fact, during the early twenty-first century, the issue of immigration was again becoming a contentious one, with several writers denouncing multiculturalism as a barrier to a return to the melting pot idea with its insistence upon the continuity of American beliefs and values.“Melting pot” theory[melting pot theory]

Further Reading

  • Jacoby, Tamar, ed. Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be an American. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2004. Collection of essays reflecting diverse attitudes toward assimilation.
  • Namias, June. First Generation: In the Words of Twentieth-Century American Immigrants. Rev. ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992. In their own words, American immigrants recount the issues that compelled them to come to America.
  • Sanabria, Robert. Stewing in the Melting Pot: The Memoir of a Real American. Sterling, Va.: Capital Books, 2002. Relates the author’s childhood experience of being forced to assimilate in a Methodist-operated orphanage for Latino children in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
  • Sue, Derald Wing, and David Sue. Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. Controversial study that aims to raise awareness of discriminatory and racist behavior in the United States as the basis of counseling individuals from diverse cultures.
  • Susser, Ida, and Thomas C. Patterson, eds. Cultural Diversity in the United States: A Critical Reader. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley Blackwell, 2001. Collection of essays that explore cultural diversity through examining complex connections between race, ethnicity, class, and gender.

Assimilation theories

Cultural pluralism

Ethnic enclaves

European immigrants

Hansen effect

Identificational assimilation

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965


A Nation of Immigrants