Section II: Ethnicity as Concept and Process

The Importance of “Community” in the Process of Immigrant Assimilation

Joseph Fitzpatrick

In studies of the experience of migrating people, the process of assimilation has been given consistent attention. In more recent studies the importance of the immigrant “community” in the process of assimilation has been emphasized. The present paper is an attempt to examine the concept of community as it is understood in these studies; to indicate the usefulness of the concept of community in the analysis of the process of assimilation; and to clarify the concept in relation to further studies of the immigrant community.

Part I: Assimilation and Community


The concept of assimilation has had a variety of meanings.[1] It is not necessary to delay on them here. In the present paper, assimilation will be used in a simple and unsophisticated sense as the process in which people who can be identified as belonging to the same culture, move into the area of a culture foreign to their own and gradually adopt the way of life of the new culture. According to current theories of assimilation, this process consists of two main stages, cultural assimilation and social assimilation. This distinction had been implied in earlier studies, but S.N. Eisenstadt[2] succeeded in developing a sharply defined concept of each stage. According to Eisenstadt, cultural assimilation consists of the adoption of those values, norms, patterns of behavior and expectations without which a person is incapable of functioning with minimum effectiveness in a society. These are called the “universals” of a culture. Without them, one cannot survive in a culture. Social assimilation consists of the absorption of the newcomers into the primary groups of the host society, into face-to-face interaction as accepted members of the social groups of the host society in a range of activities from clubs to courtship and marriage. Social assimilation implies that two cultural groups no longer exist, but only one. Milton Gordon[3] uses the same distinction, but speaks of complete absorption as “structural assimilation.” During the first stages of the process of assimilation a situation of multiple cultures[4] exists. Apart from the essential values and behavior patterns which are shared, a wide range of distinct cultural values and behavior patterns exist side by side. The relationship between the two cultures in a situation of multiple cultures varies greatly from one of domination of one culture by the other; hostility of one to the other; indifference or acceptance.


The meaning of community can be presented in descriptive terms, the way in which it would come to one’s attention when empirically observed. It signifies a group of people who follow a way of life or patterns of behavior which mark them out as different from people of another society, or from other people in the larger society in which they live or to which they have come. They are people who have generally come from the same place, or who are identified with the particular locality where they now live or to which they have come. They speak the same language, probably have the same religious beliefs. They tend to “stick together,” to help and support each other. They have expectations of loyalty one to the other and methods of social control.

The literature on the concept of community is extensive. George A. Hillary[5] attempted to synthesize the definitions of the concept and published the result of his efforts in an excellent article on which the present paper relies heavily. This will be indicated specifically later on. Many of the definitions of community rely on the well known definition of Robert MacIver. MacIver[6] defined community (a) physically by reference to a specific geographical area; and (b) socially and psychologically by what he called “community sentiment.” This latter provides the basis for group solidarity: (i) role-feeling, the awareness of a definite set of roles to fulfill in the group; (ii) we-feeling, a sense of belonging to this community, of sharing its customs and traditions, its total unique culture; (iii) dependency-feeling, the perception of the community as a necessary condition of one s life, as a “refuge from the solitude and fears that accompany that individual isolation so characteristic of our modern life.”[7]

MacIver insisted that both conditions, a territorial base and a community sentiment are necessary for community. In brief, “The mark of a community is that one’s life may be lived wholly within it.”[8]

This quality of relationships which MacIver defines as community has been expressed in a number of ways by other writers. Toenmes used the concepts of Gemeinschaft in contrast to Gesellschaft in which community (gemeinschaft) was perceived as a quality of human relations which are indeliberate on the part of individuals and proceed from the mere observable fact that men live together. In this concept of community, the fact of “groupness” is prior to the awareness of any specific or specialized functions. Community (gemeinschaft) is distinct from association (gesellschaft). In the latter, actions are deliberately chosen in relation to goals or ends. This concept of community is evidently what Henry Sumner Maine sought to express in the term “status” in contrast to “contract ” (association). Durkheim used the concept “mechanic solidarity” in contrast to “organic solidarity” (association). Talcott Parsons[9] uses a number of “pattern variables” to express the quality of human relationships which take place in community; relationships which are particularistic rather than universalistic; diffuse rather than functionally specific; in which status is ascribed rather than achieved; are affective rather than affectively neutral; ego-oriented rather than collectivity-oriented. In other words, the relationships expressed by the concept “community” are a basic pattern of relationships found in men’s social life. They differ from another basic pattern of relationships expressed in the concept “association.”

In the community type of grouping,[10] it is indicated that we find evidence of sentiment and identification. The individuals have mutual concern for each other as values in themselves, and are not seen as functionaries of a higher social organization. The internal mechanism of social control is normative and of the reciprocal reaction type. The associations are informal and repressive in nature. The pattern of interaction does not give rise to status positions and their corresponding role expectations, especially statuses, in which authority inheres. If authority is manifest in community organization, it assumes the character of personal leadership.

It is within the community that an individual is comfortable and secure. It satisfies his need for recognition and acceptance. Within it he can reevaluate, mold and integrate the values of the higher society. His avenues of interaction are predictable. They are basically cooperative, short-lived, and not necessarily directed toward higher goals. If community functions arise, they come about because of this organization and not as a starting point. Briefly, it is defined by Timasheff as the social group in which the group is prior to the function.

Assimilation and Community.

The existence of a strong community among immigrant people and its importance in the process of assimilation has long been recognized. The emphasis in Eisenstadt and Gordon on the distinct social group which assimilates culturally while it retains its distinct social identity is another way of indicating the central role of the immigrant community. “One integrates from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness” is a frequently quoted remark. The general position is stated in a previous article by the present author.[11] He says that if people are torn too rapidly away from the traditional cultural framework of their lives, and thrown too quickly as strangers into a cultural environment which is unfamiliar, the danger of social disorganization is very great. They need the traditional social group in which they are at home, in which they find their psychological satisfaction and security, in order to move with confidence toward interaction with the larger society. The immigrant community is the beachhead from which they move with strength. Florence Kluckhohn’s[12] study of the ethnic groups in the Boston area discovered that those families in which emotional “illness” had occurred were families in which the close ties with kin and family had broken down, whereas the emotionally “healthy” families were those in which the close family and kinship ties had remained strong. Abraham Weinberg’s[13] study of immigrants to Israel concluded that man cannot be of good mental and physical health in the midst of widespread associational activity (gesellschaft) unless he finds some way of perpetuating the satisfactions of community (gemeinschaft). Weinberg found that primary groups were essential, and, for immigrants this is generally the community of friends and kin. Eugene Litwak[14] presents evidence that, even in migration within the nation, the extended kinship ties play an important role in enabling the migrating family to adjust successfully to the new environment. The consistent findings of studies of immigrants indicate the strength which these close family relationships give to migrating groups. This network of relationships would be called the immigrant community.

Part II: Clarification of Concept

This review of the concept of community and of the significance of the community in the process of assimilation still leaves a great deal of obscurity in the use of the concept for the study of immigrant groups. Sometimes widely scattered, at different stages of assimilation, with different interests and leaders, the community of immigrants is not always easy to discover. Therefore the second part of this paper will seek to clarify the concept particularly in view of its use in the study of immigrant communities.

Identification of Community.

The first major problem is the problem of identifying the active reality which is a community. In the case of immigrants, it is not the larger society; it is a sub-culture in the culture of the larger society. There is agreement that the basic elements of the community are the conscious sharing of common ends, norms and means, which gives the group a “consciousness of kind,” an awareness of bonds of membership which constitute their unity. It is also widely agreed that interaction as a primary group is required. And since this generally cannot take place at too great a distance, some kind of area limits are necessary to define a community. Thus, area, primary group interaction, and consciousness of kind in the possession of common ends, norms, and means appear to be indicators of community. John F. Cuber[15] and Arnold Green suggest that area is not as important as interaction which is now possible beyond the range of local areas. And Maurice Stein states that “…a spatial neighborhood may have no significant meaning…true communal congeniality may exist between people scattered throughout a city…”[16] He stresses as the basis of community a “configuration of values and a set of institutional patterns,” a definite “social identity” and primary group ties and primary relations, with emphasis on the individual as an end in himself. Granted that primary group relations may possibly transcend local areas with modern communication, most scholars find that the geographical referent is important.

Therefore the definition of community must begin with the identification of a social group, a group of interacting individuals who have a consciousness of kind in the possession of common ends, norms and means; the definition must indicate the relationship of this group to area. In many cases, it appears that area may simply be a pattern of physical symbols which enable members of the community more easily to identify themselves. This problem of identity is the problem of “boundaries”; what shall I take as community?

Conrad Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball[17] present an excellent model for the identification of a community in the anthropological tradition. They point out that it must first be a culture, a set of interrelated institutions; it must have some geographical referent, i.e. the institutional arrangements must express themselves in some kind of settlement pattern; finally, it must have some relationship with the cultural worlds outside itself; how is it linked to the larger society? A cultural group, in a geographical setting, with a particular set of relationships with the larger society–these become the guiding norms to identify a community.

Arensberg and Kimball then state four questions which must be answered before community can be studied on either a theoretical or empirical level: 1) Representativeness: what aggregate should be chosen as representing a culture? What aggregate is a community? 2) Boundaries: what limits does the investigator set? How self-sufficient must the aggregate be to be a community? How self-contained? 3) Inclusiveness: how complete must the community be? To what extent must the totality of institutions be present in it? 4) Cohesiveness: How united must the group be? To what extent must conflict and factions be excluded?

The model of Arensberg and Kimball is proposed for the study of large communities, in a sense, settlements. A more useful definition on the level of smaller communities is the definition of a “minority-group community” which Robin Williams adopted from a dissertation of Robert B. Johnson.[18] Speaking of community, he says: “The core elements are a history, a territorial base, a clustering of primary institutions, a set of functional relationships with a dominant or majority community and a special frequency of social interaction within the minority community.”

In view of these definitions and models, a study of community must first determine the “boundaries” of community (what makes this particular aggregate a community); its relationship to a geographical area, and its links with the larger society.


As indicated above, the variables that basically make a social group a community are the ends, norms, attitudes, and values, which give a particular form or style to the interaction of its members. A search for such a group would be the first step identifying a community. Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodbeck[19] have developed a method of studying groups according to value orientations toward five crucial problems of human life. On the basis of these they find they can identify groups, contrast them, and indicate the kinds of difficulties which will be involved as the group shifts from one set of value orientations to another. The five human problems and the value orientations are as follows:[20]

Human nature Evil Neutral-mixture of good and evil Good
Man-nature mutable immutable subjugation of nature mutable immutable harmony with nature mutable immutable mastery over nature
Time Past Present Future
Activity Being Being-in-becoming Doing
Relational Lineality Collaterality Individualism

The book presents a carefully worked out method of studying these basic orientations by which the members of a community could be identified.

In an impressive study of an Italian community on the West End of Beacon Hill, Boston, Herbert Gans[21] was able to distinguish various sub-cultures in the “Urban Village” on the basis of different attitudes and values. These would have great value in the study of any poor class group, although the range of use is limited since they relate to lower class cultures rather than the entire range of cultural levels which one may have occasion to study. It is important to note that Gans, in defining the sub-community of which he writes, states that: “The basis of adult life is peer group solidarity…membership in the group is based primarily on kinship. Brothers, sisters, cousins (and their spouses) are the core. Godparents and single individuals are also included, the latter because of the sympathy of the Italians for the unattached individual, a role little valued in their culture. Neighbors can be included.”[22] “…people must be relatively compatible in terms of background, interests, and attitudes.”[23]

Gans also ties in a number of institutions with community; namely, the church, the parochial school, formal social, political and civic organizations and some commercial establishments.[24] To the “Urban Villagers” the organizations and institutions that constitute the community are an accepted part of life, since their functions are frequently an auxiliary to those of the peer society.[25]

Interaction within this cultural framework produces a type of social-sub-system with its own structures and dynamics. This notion of sub-system is an important tool of analysis, and it is very helpful when applied in the study of the solidarity of the immigrant community (system maintenance) and the relationship of the community to the larger society (systematic linkage.) Change and conflict as well as control and organization can also be analyzed in the context of system. The community as a subsystem, therefore, is more extensive than a teenage gang, for example, which would be a social group but hardly a community. Community as a subsystem focusses around such primary institutions as family, religion, recreation. A totally self-sufficient community would be a society. A primitive community might be so self-enclosed and self-sufficient as to form an independent society; but towns, urban villages and immigrant neighborhoods or communities generally cannot be.

Geographical Referent.

Actually what Gans calls the organizations and institutions of the community are what Arensberg and Kimball mean when they speak of a “geographical referent.” They are tangible entities into which the lives of the community members are enmeshed, and which give to the members check points as it were of their own identity. They can localize, “who they are.” The referents, as described by Fried,[26] were an extension of home in which various parts are delineated on the basis of a sense of belonging. A sense of spatial identity, Fried insists, is fundamental to human functioning. Prior to being relocated from Boston’s West End redevelopment area, most residents experienced profound satisfaction from living in the area. Their satisfaction derived in large part from the close associations maintained among the local places. In turn, people and places provided the framework for personal and social integration.

Therefore, this second indicator involves a knowledge of the neighborhood and those features of the neighborhood which are the tangible points of identity for a group. A church, a store, a club, even a street corner, a place of work, whatever these may be, if they are the spatial context for the social life of a group of people, they become important. Their loss or sudden change can seriously affect the existence of the community.

Links with the Larger Community.

The third important variable to investigate is the linkage of the community with the larger society or community. In a study of cultural assimilation, this is particularly important because this will represent the channels through which contacts will develop; ideas, attitudes and values come to be known, then shared or rejected; the possibilities for primary group interaction develop.

The basic links are occupation, the education of children, and political action. Occupation operates on a number of levels. A person may be working in a place where most or all of the other employees are of his same subcultural group; he may even be working in an establishment owned and operated by one of his own subculture. In this sense, occupation may provide a very weak link with the larger community. However, to the extent to which he is working for an employer who belongs to the larger society, or with employees who are not of his own community, employment becomes an effective link with the larger world.

Education is the major socializing institution which communicates to the children, of immigrants or not, the culture of the United States. It is the process of education which guarantees eventual assimilation. Therefore, in terms of an immigrant community, education may be dysfunctional. By socializing the children in a culture different from that of their parents, education runs the risk of creating division in the home between parent and child and thus may tend to disrupt the solidarity of the community of the first generation.

Political action brings the community into immediate participation in the organized life of the larger society. Immigrants may participate as a recognizable block, with their own strength and power; or they may join with other groups. In any event they are engaged in the action proper to the larger society as a whole. They gain power for themselves, or for the political group of which they are a part, when they reach a point where those in political power can no longer afford to disregard them.

Two final points may be introduced here: the relationship of conflict to the community, and the role of the intellectuals. Conflict outside the community often serves to strengthen the community;[27] it has a boundary-maintaining function, unless it reaches an intensity at which it becomes destructive to the smaller community. Therefore, the study of conflict becomes an important means of determining the strength of the community; it also enables one to analyze the relationship of the community to the larger society. It is very likely that conflict which originated in a desire to contain the smaller community may become the most significant factor in giving the community the strength it needs to integrate rapidly.

A second aspect of conflict is more difficult to cope with, namely, the presence of conflict within the community itself. The investigator must make a decision whether to define the community in terms of the common and harmonious possession of common values and attitudes, or whether to admit the presence of conflict within the community. If conflict is to be admitted in the community to be studied, the function of this conflict must be explored: does it tend to strengthen or weaken the community in question?

The second point refers to the elite or the intellectuals. Gordon presents the theory that the intellectuals constitute a community of their own.[28] They, more than any others, transcend the community of race or ethnic group and constitute a community of their own. marginal to that of their origins, and founded on the values, attitudes, and objectives they have as intellectuals. On the other hand, it has been the elite who traditionally have shown the capacity to build the bridge between their own community and that of the larger society. Therefore, the study of the elite must analyze the extent to which the elite have established a community relationship with intellectuals of their own kind in the larger society; and the extent to which the elite mediate the integration of their community of origin with the larger society.


This paper accepts the position that the relationships expressed in the concept “community” play a decisive role in the process of cultural assimilation. There is evidence that the immigrant community is the beachhead into the new society. It provides for the immigrant a base of security, peace, and psycho-social satisfaction while he learns to adjust to the new and strange world into which he has come. Had he no such basis of security, the too sudden exposure to a strange culture could be an upsetting shock. The immigrant community is the basis of familiar relationships and interaction which give him an identity and the security of living according to familiar patterns among familiar people.

Useful as the concept of community has been, however, it is still marked by numerous obscurities which impede its more effective use in the analysis of the process of assimilation. The clarifications suggested above are certainly not definitive. They are attempts to make the concept more precise so that its application to the study of immigrant communities may be more fruitful. If the boundaries of the community can be more sharply identified by using some of the more recent methods of studying cultural differences; if the geographical referents can be specified, and the links with the larger community more accurately defined, it should be possible to indicate more clearly the functions of the immigrant community in the process of assimilation.

Taken from International Migration Review, 1 (Fall, 1966), pages 5-16 with the permission of Integrateducation, Northwestern University School of Education, Evanston, Illinois.

  1. Milton Gordon, Assimilation in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), Ch. 3 "The Nature of Assimilation" has a good review of the various meanings of the concept.
  2. S. N. Eisenstadt, The Absorption of Immigrants, (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955).
  3. Milton Gordon, Op. cit.
  4. The term multiple cultures is used here to avoid a confusion with the term "cultural pluralism." This latter is generally used to express a situation in which the second culture is accepted, and given the freedom to exist as a distinct culture in the host society.
  5. George A. Hillary, "Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement," Rural Sociology, 20 (1955), 111-23.
  6. R. MacIver & C. Page, Society, an Introductory Analysis (New York: Rinehart, 1949, Ch. 1 and 12).
  7. Ibid., p. 293.
  8. Ibid., p. 9.
  9. Talcott Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1951).
  10. The following paragraphs are based on Hillary, Op. cit.
  11. Jos. P. Fitzpatrick, "The Integration of Puerto Ricans," Thought, XXX (Autumn, 1955), pp. 402-20.
  12. Florence Kluckhohn, "Family Diagnosis: Variations in the Basic Values of Family Systems," Social Casework, 39 (March, 1958), pp. 63-73.
  13. Abraham Weinberg, Migration and Belonging (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1961).
  14. Eugene Litwak, "Geographic Mobility and Extended Family Cohesion," American Sociological Review, 25:3 (June, 1960).
  15. "...The 'communality' is an interest circle characterized by the special nearness of members whose places of residence may be widely separated...Its members belong...because they share like interests, ranging from the ephemeral to the relatively permanent. They meet together whenever they find it convenient...." John Cuber, Sociology, fifth edit. (New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, 1963), p. 437. Green states: "A community is a cluster of people, living within a continuous small area, who share a common way of life. A community is a local territorial group." But Green then demonstrates that common interests and shared ways of life in the modern world are shifting "from local place to large horizontal organizations that transcend community." Arnold Green, Sociology, fourth edit. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 274.
  16. Maurice Stein, Eclipse of Community (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 112.
  17. Conrad Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball, Culture and Community (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).
  18. Robert B. Johnson, The Nature of the Minority Community, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1955.
  19. Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodtbeck, Variations in Value Orientations (Elmsford, N.Y.: Row, Peterson & Co., 1961).
  20. Ibid., p. 12.
  21. Herbert J. Gans, The Urban Villagers (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1962).
  22. Ibid., p. 74.
  23. Ibid., p. 76.
  24. Ibid., p. 105.
  25. Ibid., p. 120.
  26. Marc Fried, "Grieving for a Lost Home," in The Urban Condition, Leonard J. Duhl (ed.) Cf. also, Marc Fried and Peggy Gleicher, "Some Sources of Satisfaction in an Urban Slum," Journal of American Institute of Planners, 27 (1961), 305-315.
  27. Cf. Ralf Dahrendorf, "Toward a Theory of Social Conflict," in Amitai Etzioni and Eva Etzioni (eds.) Social Change (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1956); also, Michael Duffy, Cultural Assimilation Viewed as a Process of Structural Change Involving Conflict, unpublished paper, Fordham University, January, 1966; also Diane Wagner, Assimilation, Growth and Conflict, unpublished paper, Fordham University, January, 1966.
  28. Milton Gordon, Op. cit., pp. 224-232.


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