Section III: Amalgamation, Acculturation, Assimilation

Assimilation as Concept and as Process

Walter Hirsch

The purpose of this paper is a comparison of the concepts of assimilation as defined by several American sociologists in the last two decades with the actual process of assimilation. It is assumed that the referent of the concept should be descriptively and operationally congruent with the process.

This analysis will involve the discussion of three main points regarding assimilation: (1) differences in definitions of the concept; (2) differences in definitions of kindred concepts, viz., accommodation, acculturation, adaptation, adjustment and amalgamation, and the consequent effects on the definition of assimilation; (3) differences between the definitions of the concept and the actual process of assimilation.

Assimilation as Concept

A. Two decades ago Sarah E. Simons considered assimilation “that process of adjustment and accommodation which occurs between the members of different races, if their contact is prolonged and if the necessary psychic conditions are present. The result is group homogeneity to a greater or less degree. Figuratively speaking, it is the process by which the aggregation of peoples is changed from a mere mechanical mixture into a chemical compound.”[1]

B. According to Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, assimilation is one of the four major categories of social behavior, the others being conflict, competition, and accommodation. It is “a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments and attitudes of other persons or groups, and by sharing their experience and history are incorporated with them in a common cultural life.”[2]

C. Kimball Young accepts the previous definition but prefaces it by a supplementary one according to which assimilation is “the common sharing and fusing of folkways and mores, of laws and all the other features of two or more distinctive cultures by people who have come into direct relations with each other.”[3]

D. Finally, H.G. Duncan defines assimilation as follows: “a process, for the most part conscious, by which individuals and groups come to have sentiments and attitudes similar to those held by other persons or groups in regard to a particular value at a given time.”[4]

These four definitions were chosen because each contains a special emphasis that needs further analysis. We must now raise the question of whether differences of definition are mainly semantic, i.e., due to use of different verbal symbols for the same process, or whether they result from a description of altogether different processes. In this connection it may be pointed out that these definitions are highly descriptive, not only of one process but of a number of processes, mechanisms, and end results.

We turn now to an analysis of the definitions.
1. It is not certain whether by “interpenetration and fusion” Park and Burgess are referring to persons or to culture elements, or to both. At any rate, these terms need further definition. “Fusion” (or amalgamation) is generally used to describe a biological process, i.e., interbreeding of members of different racial groups. An actual physical fusion of persons is obviously impossible, except as realized in their offspring. The other possibility is that Park and Burgess use fusion in reference to culture elements, as Young does. This will be more fully discussed in No. 4 below.

“Adjustment” and “accommodation” have specific connotations which they did not have at the time Simons used them. Adjustment is a generic term referring to the “adaptation of the organism to social environment.”[5] “Accommodation refers to functional changes which take place in the habits and customs of persons and groups, and which are socially rather than biologically transmitted.”[6] For Park and Burgess accommodation is a more rapid and revolutionary change, often a “social mutation” as exemplified by conversion, while assimilation is a gradual process. Young differentiates the two as follows: “If persons or groups strike a truce but do not intermarry or fuse their cultures, we call this accommodation. If they intermarry and fuse their cultures, we speak of it as biological amalgamation and cultural assimilation.”[7]

2. The agents in this process are either persons or groups. The latter are defined more specifically as cultures by Young and as races by Simons.[8] Park and Burgess’ definition is sufficiently elastic to conceive of assimilation as taking place within an in-group. Thus, the term might refer to the socialization of the child.[9] However, judging from the descriptive material offered, assimilation is meant to refer to interaction between members of two different national or cultural groups–usually the former.

3. Assimilation is “for the most part conscious” for Duncan, but Park and Burgess regard it as “the outcome of unreflective responses to a series of new experiences,”[10] in contrast to accommodation. It seems that the same process is called “assimilation” by Duncan and “accommodation” by Park and Burgess–a fact which will be borne out by subsequent discussion.

4. What are the mechanisms of assimilation? According to all but Duncan, assimilation involves the “sharing,” “acquisition,” and “fusing” of the memories, sentiments, attitudes, history, and experience of others. It is not made clear through what psychological processes
one can share the memories or acquire the history of a person or group with an entirely different experiential background. Duncan is more cautious and seems more realistic in speaking of the acquisition of “sentiments and attitudes similar to those held by others in regard to a particular value at a given time.” For Duncan complete assimilation is impossible within one generation.

5. The result of this process is described by Simons as a change in the aggregation of people from a “mere mechanical mixture into a chemical compound.” This is an unfortunate analogy, but we must remember that Simons wrote over twenty years ago. Park, however, makes some extremely valuable observations in his discussion of “homogeneity in cosmopolitan groups. ” It is “a superficial uniformity , a homogeneity in manner and fashion, associated with relatively profound differences in individual opinions, sentiments, and beliefs.”[11] If we can classify our society as cosmopolitan, it would appear that assimilation, as previously defined by the same authors, cannot take place in our society! For, according to Park and Burgess, the basis of solidarity today is not like-mindedness, but “concurrent action” as Sumner termed it. This seems an inadvertent admission that Park and Burgess’ definition of assimilation operates in vacuo as far as our society is concerned. Park goes even further and makes assimilation a purely objective state, calling it a “function of visibility: As soon as an immigrant exhibits no longer the marks which identify him as a member of an alien group he acquires by that fact the actual if not the legal status of a native.”[12] What has happened to the sharing of sentiments and acquisition of memories of others?”

Thus, we find a curious contradiction even within the concept of a single student of the problem. This is not surprising. The definition of assimilation is linked unconsciously with a concept of community as a function of likemindedness in the minds of Park and Burgess. In the meantime they have espoused a new concept of community, but the concept of assimilation is lagging behind the new concept of community. If communal solidarity is based not on the homogeneity of units but on the functional integration of heterogeneous units , i.e., on the modus vivendi, the theory of assimilation as a result of sharing of memories and attitudes does not hold. It cannot be applied to a society where differentiation exists with social mobility, for it would demand that all social groups have the same attitudes and sentiments. Thus, a minority group like the Negroes would have to regard themselves as they are regarded by the socially superior whites. Such a situation may exist in a caste society. One occasionally finds such quasi-masochistic attitudes among minority groups in our society, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Thus, according to Park and Burgess’ observations, Duncan’s relativistic position would be the only correct one. Assimilation does not mean the acquisition of the same, but of similar attitudes, and only in regard to a particular value at a given time. In short, assimilation refers to not one process, but to a number of processes involved in becoming a community member. These processes differ infinitely, according to the nature of the particular community, of those who are to be assimilated, and various other factors, all of which will be discussed in Section II.

If we define assimilation loosely and provisionally as the process of becoming a member of a community, the problem of definition becomes acute again. We shall define a community as an aggregation of people who are made dependent on each other by enduring common material and psychological needs and who are conscious of their interdependence.

From that point of view assimilation is a matter of social ethics and social policy. Assimilation as an objective concept is non-existent at present; rather it is a reflection of various notions of “Americanization.” Thus, we find in Park and Burgess a change from the quasi-coercive notion of “likemindedness” to the liberalistic notion of cultural variation. Henry P. Fairchild, who has a different idea of Americanization, defines assimilation as lithe process by which a nationality preserves its unity while admitting representatives of outside nationalities.”[13] Simons distinguishes two “methods” of assimilation: the “coercive-aristocratic,” as practiced in Tsarist Russia, and the “tolerant-democratic,” found in the United States. This latter is the “genuine” method of assimilation.[14] An undertone of condescension is evident in the attitudes towards immigrants, not only on the part of professional Americanizers but also of sociologists. “We must deal as a wise physician deals with a soul-sick people for whose trouble we have no responsibility but who have become an integral part of our lives,” says H.A. Miller.”[15]

In fine, assimilation is not defined as that which exists, but as that which ought or ought not to exist. The ethical imperative is linked integrally with the concept of assimilation in the cases of the writers which were analyzed.

Having drawn these conclusions, the burden rests on us of investigating the actual processes involved in what we have defined as assimilation for heuristic purposes.

Assimilation as Process

The “factors” involved in assimilation may be schematically pictured as follows:

A. The experience-world of the assimilant.

  1. Cultural conditioning.
  2. Personal-social conditioning.[16]

B. The situation of transition.

  1. The objective characteristics of the assimilant and his family (age, occupation, income, schooling, health, etc.) at the time of transition between two communities.
  2. Attitudes.
    a. Concerning his migration.
    b. Class or group consciousness.
    c. Life goals.
  3.  Chance factors: traumatic or euphoric experiences.

C. The nature of the new community.

  1. Size and function: Is the community a real or a
  2.  Attitudes toward newcomers in general and toward
    specific classes of newcomers (occupational, ethnic).
  3. Presence of vertical mobility.
    a. Economic opportunities.
    b. Opportunities for social contact and participation.

These “factors” cannot be quantitatively measured, nor can one generalize about their qualitative power in a field situation. A certain “factor” may work for or against assimilation, as the case may be. Generalization and prediction is made even more difficult by the fact that personal, subcultural conditioning often transcends cultural conditioning. This statement needs to be elaborated.

Personality types have often been identified with cultural and national groups, and these scientifically doubtful categorizations are still being practiced. Thus Park wrote in 1928: “Most, if not all, the characteristics of the Jew, certainly his pre-eminence as a trader and his keen intellectual interest, his sophistication, his idealism and lack of historic sense, are the characteristics of the city man, the man who ranges wisely, lives preferably in a hotel–in short, the cosmopolite.”[17]

Park wrote this in an effort to establish the emancipated Jew as the ideal type of “marginal man,” which itself is another ideal type. The definition seems to have been culled from the pages of Werner Sombart’s Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben[18] of which Sombart’s colleague Lujo Brentano said that it was “one of the most disheartening products of German scientific research.” Simmel’s ideal type of the “stranger” shows similar characteristics. He possesses objectivity, confidence, freedom from convention. The relations he enters into are “abstract,” i.e., based on specific material interests rather than on feelings of communality of consciousness of kind.[19] This type of stranger, like the marginal man, is characteristic of only a certain segment of strangers or migrants. Patently an entire ethnic group cannot be classified as an ideal type of an ideal type of stranger.

The second question we must raise is, what is a culture group? The answer may be found fairly easily in a primitive society, although the homogeneity of primitive societies has been much overstressed. In a modern “cosmopolitan” society, the problem is much more complicated. No individual participates fully in all aspects of a culture, a culture which is, moreover, full of ambivalences and contradictory patterns. Linton distinguishes the following categories of culture elements: “Universals, which are common to all sane, adult members of the society; specialties, which are shared by the members of certain socially recognized categories of individuals but which are not shared by the total population; and alternatives, which are shared by certain individuals but which are not common to all the members of the society or even to all the members of the society or even to all the members of the socially recognized categories.”[20]

Thus, in speaking of “culture groups” we must be wary of assuming homogeneity. Curiously enough, this fact was recognized by a literateur, Ludwig Lewisohn, before many sociologists recognized its importance. He wrote: “The very existence of an Americanization movement…shows…a discord, a prematureness….Americanization means, of course, assimilation. But that is an empty concept, a mere cry of rage and tyranny, until the question is answered which would never be asked were the answer ripe: Assimilation to what? To what homogeneous culture?”[21]

The following “field situation” is a case in point regarding homogeneity. In the summer of 1939, the writer spent four weeks at a voluntary work camp, containing Americans and European refugees of both sexes, aged 16-22. They were mostly students of upper middle class background. The camp was managed by a director (a refugee), a staff (preponderantly American), and an elected campers’ council (mixed). Several interesting situations developed.

Several of the decisions made by the councilor by the group as a whole, such as the establishment of a curfew, were disregarded by natives and refugees alike. Participation in discussion of these decisions and the problems they raised was extremely active. The most discussed problem was that of setting-up exercises. On this issue the camp split into two sections, which the writer shall label the “utilitarian” and the “communal.” The first group argued thus: “The benefits resulting from setting-up exercises are purely personal. The group as a whole is not harmed by the absence of individuals from this activity, and consequently participation should be optional.”

The second, or “communal,” group argued as follows: “One of the chief functions of this activity lies in its communal nature. The material benefits accruing to each individual are inconsequential and irrelevant; the fact that the group starts the day all together is most important. Therefore, the activity should be compulsory.”

The issue was finally compromised in favor of optional exercises, since both parties agreed that it was useless to legislate a feeling of community into existence if it could not arise spontaneously.

In regard to our problem, it is significant that membership in these two opposing groups was about evenly divided among natives and refugees. Offhand it may be assumed that most of the Americans would belong to the utilitarian-anarchistic school, and most of the Europeans to the communal-compulsive. Actually, there was no such cleavage. Some of the Americans had been influenced by the work camp philosophy, which originated in Europe and consequently stressed the importance of communal action. Some of the refugees, on the other hand, rebelled consciously against any kind of compulsion, even if democratically established, maintaining that the United States was supposed to be a “free country.” Other motives were undoubtedly basically personal, being based on dislike of the person who conducted the exercises, a sense of physical inferiority, and laziness. What is important here, however, is not the motivation but the manner in which it was rationalized.

Although this “experiment” does not prove anything conclusively, it contains evidence that in at least one particular life situation “special ties,” “alternatives,” and personal-social conditioning cut across cultural “universals” in the behavior of a fairly homogeneous group. It may be argued that the opposition of certain refugees to compulsion was a direct reaction to their European experience, an example of irradiation. This hypothesis is not borne out by the writer’s observations. G.W. Allport and associates come to similar conclusions in their study of refugees, based on interviews and analysis of autobiographies. These authors stress the “pull of the familiar” in the refugees’ experience when they are confronted with new situations, as well as the “enduring consistency of personality.” “Outstanding are the victim’s adherence to familiar scenes and activities and their persistence towards established goals.”[22]

In the definitions of assimilation which we have analyzed, there has been no mention of the basic personality structure as a factor in assimilation. In some respects this personality structure may be a direct product of the universal culture pattern, but, as Linton points out, “It must be kept clearly in mind that a basic personality structure is an abstraction and derivative of culture. It is a long step from the employment of such a concept in cultural studies to the equation of the basic personality structure of any society with the personal character of individuals who compose that society.”[23]


An attempt has been made in this paper to point out the absence of an objective concept of assimilation, to provisionally establish assimilation as the process of becoming a member of a community, and to analyze that process. The writer’s definition of assimilation is, of course, loose and provisional, perhaps even tautological. But the writer is of the opinion that it is preferable to evolve a concept from the analysis of a process in operation to creating a concept which is based on judgments of how a process is to take place. If objectivity is essential for intelligent social action, the sociologist must surely be concerned with the ways in which human beings act, regardless of whether their actions can be classified under this or that heading.

Taken from Social Forces, 21 (October, 1942), 35-39. Reproduced with permission of the author and publisher.

  1. "Social Assimilation," American Journal of Sociology, VI, 791.
  2. Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924), p. 735.
  3. Introductory Sociology (New York: American Book Co., 1939), p. 495.
  4. "A Study in the Process of Assimilation," Publications of the American Sociological Society, XXIII, 184-7.
  5. Kimball Young, "Adjustment," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, I, 438-9.
  6. E.W. Burgess, "Accommodation," ibid., pp. 403-4.
  7. Introductory Sociology, p. 452.
  8. By "races," Simons means ethnic groups, following Gumplowicz.
  9. Some writers use the concept in that sense. Cf. Ogburn & Nimkoff, Sociology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940), p. 383.
  10. Op. cit., p. 736.
  11. Ibid., p. 758.
  12. "Assimllation," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, I, 281-3.
  13. The Melting Pot Mistake (New York: Little, Brown, 1926), p. 136.
  14. Loc. cit., pp. 812-13.
  15. Races, Nations, and Classes (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1924), p. 197.
  16. This concept was coined by Kimball Young in order to distinguish traits that are not necessarily common to the culture as a whole, but are the result of personal interaction, mainly that of parents with their children. Cf. Young, Personality and Problems of Adjustment (New York: Crofts, 1940), pp. 132-36.
  17. "Migration and the Marginal Man," American Journal of Sociology (May, 1928), p. 892.
  18. Leipzig, 1911.
  19. Simmel's concept of the stranger is summarized in Margaret Wood, The Stranger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934).
  20. The Study of Man (New York: Appleton Century, 1936), pp. 272-4.
  21. Up Stream (New York. 1922), pp. 123. 235.
  22. G.W. Allport, Bruner, and Jandorf, "Personality Under Social Catastrophe," Character and Personality (Sept., 1941), pp. 1-22.
  23. Abraham Kardiner and Ralph Linton, The Individual and His Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), p. XIII.


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