Argument: Assimilation does not mean abandoning cultural distinctions

Issue Report: Multiculturalism vs. assimilation


  • Peter D. Salins. “Assimilation, American Style”. Reason Online. February 1997 – “The great hallmark of assimilation, American style is that immigrants are free to retain or discard as much or as little of their homeland cultures as they wish without compromising their assimilation. This fact is rarely recognized, however, in most discussions of the subject, allowing a misperception to stand that severely distorts the American debate about assimilation’s desirability and possibility. The conventional judgment as to whether immigrants or their descendants are assimilating is usually based on how much of their native cultural heritages they have discarded and how culturally ‘American’ they seem. By this standard, a foreign-born teenager listening to rock music on his Walkman, wearing a baseball cap backward, and speaking accent-free English is ‘assimilated,’ whereas an Amish farmer is not. But the social characteristic being identified here is not really assimilation, but what Milton Gordon and other sociologists refer to as ‘acculturation,’ conforming to superficial cultural features of the dominant society such as dress, speech, and etiquette.
Acculturation may or may not accompany assimilation. Usually, immigrants who assimilate– or at least their children–become acculturated as well, but not always and not completely. Usually, acculturated people are assimilated, but again, not always. The distinction between assimilation and acculturation is crucial, and Gordon’s decades-old insistence that acculturation is not synonymous with assimilation may be his greatest contribution to the theory of assimilation. Except for the need to speak English, acculturation, in the American historical context, may be meaningless, because it is unclear what it is that immigrants should be acculturating to.
Notwithstanding the continuing predominance of English cultural and social influences, African-American, Hispanic, Jewish, Italian, Asian, and other ethnic influences are now deeply and ineradicably embedded in the national cultural mix, and new ethnic influences are changing that mix every day. Even international ethnic influences, detached from any immigrant cohorts, are at work changing the American ‘national’ culture. For instance, the widespread appeal of Japanese products, architecture, and food is largely unrelated to the direct influence of the small cohort of Japanese-American immigrants.”