How Different Cultural Groups Become More Alike

Definition, Overview and Theories of Assimilation

Assimilation is a process of becoming similar to another culture, and in the context of immigration, learning the host country's language is an important part of this process.
Hand prints of immigrants and volunteers adorn the wall of a migrants assistance center on December 2, 2016 in Stamford, Connecticut. The non-profit Neighbors Link Stamford offers free English language classes, employment and skills training programs and individual support services as part of its mission to help integrate recently arrived immigrants into the community. John Moore/Getty Images

Assimilation, or cultural assimilation, is the process by which different cultural groups become more and more alike. When full assimilation is complete, there is no distinguishable difference between the formerly different groups.

Assimilation is most often discussed in terms of minority immigrant groups coming to adopt the culture of the majority and thus becoming like them in terms of values, ideology, behavior, and practices. This process can be forced or spontaneous and can be rapid or gradual.

Yet, assimilation does not necessarily always happen this way. Different groups can blend together into a new, homogenous culture. This is the essence of the metaphor of the melting pot—one often used to describe the United States (whether or not it is accurate). And, while assimilation is often thought of as a linear process of change over time, for some groups of racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, the process can be interrupted or blocked by institutional barriers built on bias.

Either way, the process of assimilation results in people becoming more alike. As it proceeds, people with different cultural backgrounds will, over time, increasingly share the same attitudes, values, sentiments, interests, outlook, and goals.

Theories of Assimilation

Theories of assimilation within the social sciences were developed by sociologists based at the University of Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. Chicago, an industrial center in the U.S., was a draw for immigrants from eastern Europe. Several notable sociologists turned their attention to this population in order to study the process by which they assimilated into mainstream society, and what variety of things might impede that process.

Sociologists including William I. Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, Robert E. Park, and Ezra Burgess became pioneers of scientifically rigorous ethnographic research with immigrant and racial minority populations within Chicago and its environs. Out of their work emerged three main theoretical perspectives on assimilation.

  1. Assimilation is a linear process by which one group becomes culturally similar to another over time. Taking this theory as a lens, one can see generational changes within immigrant families, wherein the immigrant generation is culturally different upon arrival but assimilates, to some degree, to the dominant culture. The first-generation children of those immigrants will grow up and be socialized within a society that is different from that of their parents' home country. The majority culture will be their native culture, though they may still adhere to some values and practices of their parents' native culture while at home and within their community if that community is predominantly composed of a homogenous immigrant group. The second-generation grandchildren of the original immigrants are less likely to maintain aspects of their grandparents' culture and language and are likely to be culturally indistinguishable from the majority culture. This is the form of assimilation that can be described as "Americanization" in the U.S. It is a theory of how immigrants are "absorbed" into a "melting pot" society.
  2. Assimilation is a process that will differ on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion. Depending on these variables, it may be a smooth, linear process for some, while for others, it may be impeded by institutional and interpersonal roadblocks that manifest from racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and religious bias. For example, the practice of residential "redlining" —whereby racial minorities were intentionally prevented from buying homes in predominantly white neighborhoods through much of the twentieth century—fueled residential and social segregation that impeded the process of assimilation for targeted groups. Another example would be the barriers to assimilation faced by religious minorities in the U.S., like Sikhs and Muslims, who are often ostracized for religious elements of dress and thus socially excluded from mainstream society.
  3. Assimilation is a process that will differ based on the economic standing of the minority person or group. When an immigrant group is economically marginalized, they are likely to also be socially marginalized from mainstream society, as is the case for immigrants who work as day laborers or as agricultural workers. In this way, low economic standing can encourage immigrants to band together and keep to themselves, in large part due to a requirement to share resources (like housing and food) in order to survive. At the other end of the spectrum, middle-class or wealthy immigrant populations will have access to homes, consumer goods and services, educational resources and leisure activities that foster their assimilation into mainstream society.

How Assimilation is Measured

Social scientists study the process of assimilation by examining four key aspects of life among immigrant and racial minority populations. These include socioeconomic status, geographic distribution, language attainment, and rates of intermarriage.

Socioeconomic status, or SES, is a cumulative measure of one's position in society based on educational attainment, occupation, and income. In the context of a study of assimilation, a social scientist would look to see if SES within an immigrant family or population has risen over time to match the average of the native-born population, or whether it has stayed the same or declined. A rise in SES would be considered a mark of successful assimilation within American society.

Geographic distribution, whether an immigrant or minority group is clustered together or dispersed throughout a larger area, is also used as a measure of assimilation. Clustering would signal a low level of assimilation, as is often the case in culturally or ethnically distinct enclaves like Chinatowns. Conversely, a distribution of an immigrant or minority population throughout a state or across the country signals a high degree of assimilation.

Assimilation can also be measured with language attainment. When an immigrant arrives in a new country, they may not speak the language native to their new home. How much they do or do not learn over the subsequent months and years can be seen as a sign of low or high assimilation. The same lens can be brought to the examination of language across generations of immigrants, with the ultimate loss of a family's native tongue being seen as full assimilation.

Finally, rates of intermarriage—across racial, ethnic, and/or religious lines—can be used as a measure of assimilation. As with the others, low levels of intermarriage would suggest social isolation and be read as a low level of assimilation, while medium to higher rates would suggest a great degree of social and cultural mixing, and thus, of high assimilation.

No matter which measure of assimilation one examines, it's important to bear in mind that there are cultural shifts behind the statistics. As a person or a group assimilated to the majority culture within a society, they will adopt cultural elements like what and how to eat, the celebration of certain holidays and milestones in life, styles of dress and hair, and tastes in music, television, and news media, among other things.

How Assimilation Differs from Acculturation

Often, assimilation and acculturation are used interchangeably, but they mean rather different things. While assimilation refers to the process of how different groups become increasingly similar to one another, acculturation is a process through which a person or group from one culture comes to adopt practices and values of another culture, while still retaining their own distinct culture.

So with acculturation, one's native culture is not lost over time, as it would be throughout the process of assimilation. Instead, the process of acculturation can refer to how immigrants adapt to the culture of a new country in order to function in everyday life, have a job, make friends, and be a part of their local community, while still maintaining the values, perspectives, practices, and rituals of their original culture. Acculturation can also be seen in the way that people from the majority group adopt cultural practices and values of members of minority cultural groups within their society. This can include the uptake of certain styles of dress and hair, types of foods that one eats, where one shops, and what kind of music one listens to.

Integration versus Assimilation

A linear model of assimilation—wherein culturally different immigrant groups and racial and ethnic minorities would become increasingly like those in the majority culture—was considered the ideal by social scientists and civil servants throughout much of the twentieth century. Today, many social scientists believe that integration, not assimilation, is the ideal model for incorporation newcomers and minority groups into any given society. This is because the model of integration recognizes the value that lies in cultural differences for a diverse society, and the importance of culture to a person's identity, family ties, and sense of connection to one's heritage. Therefore, with integration, a person or group is encouraged to maintain their original culture while they are simultaneously encouraged to adopt necessary elements of the new culture in order to live and full and functional life in their new home.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How Different Cultural Groups Become More Alike." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). How Different Cultural Groups Become More Alike. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How Different Cultural Groups Become More Alike." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).