Section II: Ethnicity as Concept and Process

American Immigrant Groups: Ethnic Identification and the Problem of Generations

Vladimir Nahirny and Joshua Fishman

A half century of inquiry and discussion on American immigrant groups “has given currency to a handful of such concepts as ‘Anglo- conformity’, ‘cultural pluralism’, ‘the third generation interest’, ‘behavioural assimilation’ and ‘structural assimilation’. This essay attempts to take another look at ethnic identification and ethnic continuity in the United States in the hope that this meagre arsenal of commonly accepted formulations can be enriched. Its vantage point will be a recently completed study of language maintenance among immigrant groups in which several topics in the sociology of language were explored at the nationwide, community and family levels of analysis.

Basic to this essay is the view that the erosion of ethnicity and ethnic identity experienced by most (but not all) American ethnic groups takes place in the course of three generations; it involves, in other words, the immigrant fathers, their sons and their grandsons. Contrary to the widely prevalent opinion that there ensues some kind of a return to the fold of ethnicity, whenever any immigrant group reaches the third generation stage of its development, we hold that the ethnic heritage, including the ethnic mother tongue, usually ceases to play any viable role in the life of the third generation….

It has been long thought that the generational conflict between immigrant fathers and their sons represents the first major blow to the continuity of ethnic groups and their cultures in the United States. On the one hand, it has been observed that most immigrant fathers desperately tried to instill in their sons their own (i.e. the fathers’) love for and allegiance to the ethnic heritage; on the other hand, most of the sons of these immigrant fathers were found determined to forget everything–the mother tongue that left (or was rumoured to leave) so many traces in their speech, the ‘strange’ customs that they were forced to practice at home, in church, or even in more public places, etc. In many a case, as Marcus Lee Hansen observed, ‘Nothing was more Yankee than a Yankeeized person of foreign descent.’ How general this revolt might have been is only of minor concern here; what deserves careful scrutiny is the limited extent to which most immigrant fathers could ever have led any of their sons to appreciate or to identify with ethnicity in the same manner as they themselves did. To those immigrant fathers of pre-World War I days who were of rural background, ethnicity represented a particular way of life inseparably bound up with the daily round of activities within the village community. On the whole, this way of life was steeped in intimacy and immediacy to such an extent that both the human and nonhuman worlds within it were highly individualized and scarcely transferable….

Consonant with the character of this primeval world was ethnicity, since it was equally rendered immanent and parochial. Folk songs and folk costumes, local festivities and dialects–all these and other elements of ethnicity–possessed idiosyncratic characteristics within this milieu. Where trained linguists distinguished only several regional dialects, peasant immigrants readily recognized many differentiating features between their own local speech and that current a few miles away from their native village. And it was precisely this parochial tongue–the speech of their kin and dear ones, rather than the national language, that the peasant immigrants appeared to have been attached to….So abiding was this particularized attachment to ethnicity among some that the very establishment of ‘national’ ethnic organizations in the United States was considerably hindered by it….

The point made above deserves additional attention if only because ethnic identification has been commonly defined as ‘a person’s use of racial, national or religious terms to identify himself, and thereby, to relate himself to others’. These national terms or general categories allegedly provide a universalistic framework for ordering social relationships. Ethnic orientation, therefore, has been defined as ‘those features of a person’s feeling and action towards others which are a function of the ethnic category by which he identifies himself.’ To appreciate the difficulty posed by such definitions of ethnic identification and orientation, it may suffice to note that many peasant immigrants-be they of Finnish, Italian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Slovak, Ukrainian or even of Polish or German origins–were hardly responsive to such comprehensive categories. The very mode of orientation toward ethnicity largely barred most immigrant fathers from being sensitive to general ethnic categories. Being an outgrowth of past personal experience, the ethnic identification of the immigrant fathers constituted something deeply subjective and concrete; that is to say. it was hardly externalized or expressed in general symbolic terms. So much was this the case that many of them were simply ignorant of their national identity….But what is salient in this context is not so much whether peasant immigrants were aware of the existence of appropriate ethnic categories (some of them undoubtedly were) as the extent to which any of their attitudes and actions were a function of their identification with such categories. It may be argued that the establishment of so many ethnic organizations and churches by the immigrant fathers was directly expressive of their ethnic consciousness and solidarity. Yet, it is known that the first ethnic organizations and churches of well-nigh all immigrant groups were set up along local rather than along national ethnic lines. The very patterns of chain migration and settlement largely proceeded along such parochial lines. Some two hundred and fifty present-day Ukrainian organizations in the United States and Canada are still based on such parochial loyalties and attachments. Membership in mutual benefit societies in the ‘Little Italies’ tended to be almost exclusively based on companilismo (local loyalty). Norwegian-American bygdelags provide an additional illustration of this same phenomenon….The first immigrant organizations partook of the nature of communal reunions; indeed, they provided immigrants with an ersatz framework within which they did and could recreate their common past experience–from speaking and hearing their dialect to singing and dancing local folk songs and dances. It was not a response to national symbols that made most immigrants band together, but a highly particularized response to many facets of their very concrete and delimited former ways of life….To the extent, then, that immigrant fathers from a given ‘country of origin’ were primarily sensitive and responsive to such local pasts, they possessed many different ethnic pasts rather than one national past….

Sheer human sentiment was involved in the establishment of many immigrant organizations, and their primary function in this country was to foster friendly ties among former neighbours and, thereby, to keep alive the local customs and precious personal memories of their ancestral homes….

Personal experience and memory underlay this mode of identification with an attachment to ethnicity and ethnic traditions. To dismiss this as a lachrymose nostalgia for a bygone past and as nothing but another instance of Schwaermerei is simply to disregard the significance of concrete experiences for the continuity of personal identity….

In view of the foregoing it is certainly appropriate to suggest that the immigrant fathers could scarcely transmit to their sons this kind of mnemonic orientation toward ethnicity, even when they genuinely tried to inculcate the mores maiorum of their ancestors. By listening to the stories told by parents or by studying ethnically related geography and history, the sons were able, at best, to respond to certain generalized attributes of the old country–be they Norwegian fjords, Finnish lakes, or Lithuanian forests. But what bearing could such acquaintance with ethnicity have on that special relationship which links the family or the individual from generation to generation? Too radical a break in the actual life patterns of generations had made the personal and concrete experiences of the immigrant fathers inaccessible to the sons. For the fathers, the ‘old ways’ survived as realities, since they continued to link them meaningfully to the ancestral past as well as to the community of their immigrant contemporaries. For the sons, in turn, they stood (at best) for ideals to be appreciated and cherished. Whereas the immigrant fathers accepted ethnicity as a way of life and, to that extent, as a living tradition, the sons viewed it increasingly as the ‘dead hand of the past’ which they were taught to hold dear to and respect in their childhood years. Partly influenced by the dominant de-ethnicized society (with its stress on cultural novelty and on social inclusiveness), the sons turned before long to a wholesale purging of that past which they came to consider as reflecting archaic survivals. As a result, those elements of traditional ethnicity to which their parents were so intensely attached, and which were so strikingly different from those found in the dominant society, were cast off and, with time, replaced by supposedly less superstitious practices of the dominant society….

The observations made above underscore the most important difference in ethnic orientation between fathers and sons. While the sons treated ethnicity as something to be evaluated, manipulated or even dispensed with at will, the fathers still continued to live by it and, in the process of doing so, imperceptibly but necessarily changed and modified it. In the case of the fathers, ethnicity retained the basic mark of any genuine tradition. In the case of the sons, it simply ceased being a complete pattern of daily life.

It is impossible to assess how many and precisely what elements of ethnicity were considered by the sons as unworthy of retention. The mother tongue was certainly one of them, since there is convincing evidence to show that in many instances the sons even vehemently disapproved of teaching it to their own children in ethnic schools. Differences in this respect existed from one ethnic group to another and certainly from one second generation individual to another. There is hardly any doubt, however, that the attitude of many sons verged on outright nihilism; that is, they tended to dismiss their respective ethnic heritages in toto, either by equating them with ignorance and superstition, or by equating them with poverty and backwardness….To appreciate the tragic predicament in which some of the sons found themselves, it suffices to point out that the more intensely they despised their ethnic heritage the more conscious they were of their ethnic identity. The more ashamed they were of this past, and even of their parents, the more they were aware of their ethnic background. For it should be kept in mind that by suppressing ethnicity the sons also rebelled against parts of themselves….

What was the nature of the sons’ ethnic identification if, at the same time, they scoffed at their own ethnic heritage? In what ways did the sons relate themselves to their fathers if they disparaged or despised many personal attributes possessed by their fathers? How did the sons identify themselves with their respective ethnic groups if they were bent on eliminating the very ties that bound them to these groups?…

One suggestive way of approaching the problem raised above is to hypothesize that the ethnic orientation of the sons did not need to be expressed only via the acceptance of such obvious and specific strains of the ancestral heritage as folk customs and traditions. Rather, it might have been expressible via identification with selected and quite abstract values and ideals that ostensibly symbolized the ancestral heritage. Drawing mainly, though not exclusively, upon Jewish sources, the few illustrations that follow should further clarify this peculiar mode of orientation toward ethnicity.

In two symposia dealing with American-Jewish intellectuals, published in Contemporary Jewish Records and Commentary one central and recurrent theme is readily discernible. The editor of Commentary somewhat tauntingly summarized this theme as follows:

Believing…that the essence of Judaism is the struggle for universal justice and human brotherhood, these young intellectuals assert over and over again that anyone who fights for this ideal is to that degree more Jewish than a man who merely observes the rituals or identifies himself with the Jewish community.

Some of the participants in the two symposia go so far as to claim that the more thoroughly one divests oneself from ancestral tradition the more one reaffirms the ‘essence of Judaism’, i.e. the more qualified one becomes to play the role of spokesman for ‘rational social change’ or for a ‘rationally organized democratic world society unfettered by parochial traditions and superstition’. Even more, the very estrangement from ancestral tradition was proclaimed to be a virtue in that it fostered.

…a critical sense out of role of detachment; it is, if you will, the assumption of the role of prophet…the one of whom the Hebrew assayist Akhad Ha-am has written: ‘…he is a man of truth! He sees life as it is with a view unwarped by subjective feelings; and he tells you what he sees just as he sees it, unaffected by irrelevant considerations!’

It is only too evident that this kind of Judaism, so eagerly embraced by Some sons, was not received from their natural fathers through a process of transmission from generation to generation. It may be traced to the most diverse sources–to Amos and Maimonides, to Marx and Trotsky, or even to Hess and Buber–but hardly to the Jewishness of the Torah-centered shtetl of their own fathers and mothers….

It would be of little value to inquire whether any of these conceptions of Judaism are historically valid. What is certain is the fact that the French, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Hungarians, indeed, well-nigh all ethnic groups, have unearthed in their collective pasts analogous values and ideals….

Students of American ethnic groups disagree among themselves as to whether the creators of this kind of past are recruited from among the educated immigrant fathers, their sons, or grandsons. Some suggest that the sons could hardly be history-minded since they were much too touchy about their foreign background. On the other hand, the grandsons, much more secure in their Americanness, displayed an increasing interest and pride in their ethnic origins. But what is significant in this context is not so much the generational composition of the authors as the peculiar affinity between this highly selected and transmuted past and the touchy attitude evinced by the sons and daughters of immigrants toward the heritage of their close ancestors–their own fathers and mothers–made them prone to fall back upon the heritage of remote ancestors-from Pericles to Marx, from Columbus to Kosciusko. Similarly, the sons’ hyphenated status predisposed them to define their ethnic ancestry in terms of a bilateral rule of descent, selectively American on one side and selectively ethnic on the other. These considerations strongly suggest first of all that the immigrant sons sought to disavow those tangible elements of traditional ethnicity to which they had been directly exposed in their parental homes. They indicate, secondly, that the more determined they were to be weaned from those aspects of ethnicity which had been transmitted to them by their natural fathers, the more inclined they were to embrace the intangible values attributed to the distant past of their adopted fathers. The more predisposed they were to equate the heritage of their own fathers with ignorance and provinciality the more readily they identified themselves with those ethnically related values which somehow transcended the actual heritage of their fathers. Such a mode of orientation toward ethnicity required neither attachment to nor personal involvement in the parental heritage….In all these instances the mode of identification seems to be characteristically ambivalent, since it allows the individuals to pride themselves on their connection with national or social collectivities in abstracto and also despise and be ashamed of their association with these same people in concreto.

While estranged from the parental heritage, the sons, nevertheless, remained more conscious of their ethnic identity than were their immigrant fathers. For the ethnic identity of the fathers was so much taken for granted and accepted implicitly that they were scarcely explicitly conscious of it. On the other hand, the marginality of the sons made them acutely self-conscious and also highly sensitive to it; especially when passing through adolescence. Some of them became more ‘Yankeeized’ than the Yankees themselves; others turned into more ardent ethnics than their immigrant fathers had ever been….

Viewed in the light of the foregoing analysis, it should become apparent why traditional ethnicity–and the mother tongue in particular–was made virtually inaccessible to the daily life of the generation of grandsons. Of course, to the extent that the grandsons continued to be involved in ethnic organizations they could not but remain exposed to organizationally sustained vestiges of ethnicity. But such exposure was obviously selective, intermittent and limited only to narrowly circumscribed segments of life. The generational discontinuity between the formative experiences and the dominant environments of most immigrant fathers and sons rendered the family ineffecitve as an agency for the transmission of traditional ethnicity. So pronounced was this generational gap that by the time the sons reached adolescence the immigrant family had become transformed into two linguistic sub-groups segregated along generational lines. The grandsons literally became outsiders to their ancestral heritage, even though many of them attended churches and schools established by the immigrant fathers. By then the ethnic mother tongue had come to resemble another foreign language which one studied in school as a required subject. There was no doubt about the national identity of the grandsons–they were simply Americans of one particular (if not of mixed) ethnic ancestry. Neither was there any trace left of the ‘wounded identity’ of the sons, for in contrast to the sons, the grandsons had never experienced the full brunt of marginality. The grandsons neither sought to disavow nor rushed to embrace their ethnic past. Increasingly it came to approximate an object of cognitive orientation, something that the grandsons had to study in order to acquire ‘knowledge about ‘ it and in order to ‘appreciate’ it. But such knowledge and appreciation is usually kept within reasonable bounds and need have little or no relevance to daily life–from the selection of spouses to personal and organizational associations.

Concluding Remarks

In this essay we have explored the generational shift in ethnic identification. By doing so we hope to have shown how much remains to be accomplished in the way of clarifying the relevant dimensions of ethnic identification. More substantively, however, we have been primarily concerned with specifying the differences in the mode of orientation toward ethnicity between the immigrant fathers, their sons and their grandsons. A case has also been made for the contention that the very disengagement of the sons from the ethnic heritage resulted from their heightened ethnic sensitivity. Thus we came to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion that despite acculturation, as reflected in the abandonment of the ethnic mother tongue and many other ethnic patterns of behaviour-the sons continued to remain acutely conscious of their ethnic identity. It is likely that under different social conditions more of these same acculturated sons might have embraced ethnicity as a cause.

New York and Manchester.

Taken from Sociological Review, 13 (1965), 311-26, with the permission of the authors.



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