Section III: Amalgamation, Acculturation, Assimilation

The Validation of Acculturation: A Condition to Ethnic Assimilation

Leonard Broom and John Kitsuse

The effective utilization of the acculturational approach to the study of ethnic minorities has been impeded by the lack of a clear formulation of the relation between acculturation and the significant social forces making for and retarding assimilation. In this paper we shall sketch out an approach which may clarify the inherent problems and indicate a potentially fruitful line of inquiry. It is our judgment that the student of this problem should study intensively the ways that the acculturated patterns of behavior are used by the groups undergoing change and the contexts in which they are used.

The social significance of the acculturation of ethnic groups cannot be understood as a process of the accumulation of specific cultural elements. There comes a point in the acculturation of an ethnic group in an open society, such as America, when its members have acquired enough of the new cultural apparatus to behave efficiently within the adopted system. They then have the alternatives of maintaining a peripheral position in the social order or venturing the risks and rewards of validating their acculturation. Validation is the empirical test of the individual’s achieved acculturation. It must occur in interethnic situations where the latent mobility of the individual, unprotected by his group or the immunities of cultural incompetence, is assessed.

The process of validation is not, however, an even one in the sense that acculturation is validated once-and-for-all, any more than acculturation is in the experience of a person a simple progression to a point of completion. Critical choices and traumatic experiences may figure importantly for one person, whereas for another the course may be a relatively steady one. An individual who is reared in a locality with a predominantly nonethnic population validates his acculturation continually in the spheres of activities appropriate to his age-sex status. As an adult, if he is to consolidate his earlier validations, he must validate his acculturation in other spheres, particularly the economic one.

A large part of the acculturational experience of the members of an ethnic group may be circumscribed by the ethnic community. Such experience does not validate acculturation and indeed may have the long-run effect of retarding the validation of acculturation and the eventual assimilation of many members of the group. The validation of acculturation must take place in the host society (not the ethnic community), and the individual must be divested of the immunities, as well as the impediments, which are properties of ethnicity.

When ethnic communities persist beyond the early immigrant stages, they contain a number of individuals with varying degrees of acculturation. The organizations and institutions of the ethnic community change, and some of them take on the essential characteristics of the institutional forms of the large society. These may be designated parallel ethnic institutions. Parallel ethnic institutions may be significant for the acculturational process in at least three respects:

  1. They ameliorate the stresses of interethnic situations and provide contexts of acculturation under relatively permissive conditions. Ecological segregation and discriminatory restrictions upon social participation emphasize the functional importance of ethnic institutions. For those who are spatially isolated from the ethnic community and thus faced with greater exposure to the stresses of interethnic interaction, ethnic institutions provide avenues for withdrawal and retrenchment.
  2. They provide criteria of acculturation for the less acculturated and more isolated members of the ethnic group. These criteria almost always are selective of the dominant cultural forms. The selectivity is in part a reflection of the socially differentiated position of the group in the society. It is also conditioned by the cultural congruence of the two systems.
  3. They legitimize the status system of the ethnic community in which we expect to find transplanted important aspects of the stratification criteria of the dominant society. Acculturation, when used for status differentiation within the ethnic community, tends toward the elaboration of formal culture. (Discussion of this interesting problem must be deferred to another time.) But acculturation acquired for intraethnic prestige value may obscure or impair the instrumental significance of acculturation for the adjustment of the ethnic group to the dominant society. The ethnic community is a relatively safe place in which acculturated forms may be tried out, and interaction with the dominant group may be rehearsed. But it is in interethnic situations that acculturation is validated as an instrument of adjustment, the ethnic individual’s level of acculturation is tested, and the distance he must yet travel to assimilation is measured.

To explore this problem further we shall take the case of the Japanese Americans. (Cf. Caudill 1952; Embree 1941.) The rapid acculturation of the Japanese population in America and Hawaii and its adjustment to the dominant society has frequently been remarked upon. Considering the apparent gap between the American and Japanese cultures and the differences between the English and Japanese languages, the speed of this acculturation is doubly notable. It is not appropriate to review here the reasons for this adaptation–an achievement perhaps rarely equaled in the history of human migration. We should observe, however, that great differences in manifest cultural characteristics need not be accompanied by an equal difference in the less tangible aspects of culture and society–those aspects related to valuations, motivations, and the like. Indeed, it may be hypothesized that the American and Japanese cultures are quite similar in the emphasis placed upon societal instruments, e.g., formal education (Broom and Shevky 1952). The rapidity of Japanese acculturation has been aided by generally good access to formal education.

The speed of Japanese acculturation hasĀ· produced within the population individuals varying widely in their degree of acculturation. Abrupt termination of immigration from Japan created the following situation: a native-born (Nisei) population with an intermediate to high level of acculturation standing beside an immigrant population (Issei) with low to intermediate acculturation. “The Nisei problem,” the repeated concern of the Japanese community in the United States for the past thirty years, is an expression of this cultural cleavage. Part of this minority group has been brought with great rapidity to the very brink of assimilation. The extent to which the chasm will be bridged is dependent upon the ability of these highly acculturated individuals to validate their acculturation in the context of the large society. To what extent will they be able to surmount racial impediments, on the one hand, and the cohesive and isolating forces of ethnic separatism, on the other?

For any racially visible group, assimilation is impeded by the strong bars to racial crossing in the United States. Under these conditions full acculturation is not accompanied by the rewards of full acceptance by the society, at least not immediately. It is quite possible, indeed probable, that in a period of a few generations the small population of Japanese Americans will be absorbed into the white population. This does not enter into our discussion, however, and we need only note that the validation of acculturation is for this group impaired and retarded by the societal regulations of racial exclusion.

The validation of their acculturation before the war was largely limited to highly institutionalized settings and relations. The success of the Nisei in the public schools and in school clubs and teams is a manifestation of this. On the other hand, informal association with hakujin (Caucasians) was limited. The Nisei peer group elaborated their own institutions, which were sometimes adaptations of Japanese forms such as the Buddhist church, but more commonly were adaptations of American forms like the Japanese American Citizens League and numerous age-graded, sexually differentiated social clubs. Even in organizations such as the Buddhist church, which might naively be assumed to be agents of cultural conservatism, there rapidly emerged a set of forms and associations for Nisei, indistinguishable from their equivalents in the Protestant churches of middle-class white communities. Within these ethnically circumscribed associations the Nisei played acculturated roles, which in interethnic situations would have required more aggressive self-confidence than they were able to marshal. In the ethnic peer groups the Nisei found support for new standards and definitions of behavior, which were sources of intergenerational conflict in the family and community. We note in passing that the participation of Nisei females in interethnic groups demanded less acculturation and was less threatening to their position in the ethnic group as well as in the dominant society than was the case for the Nisei male. While females could participate passively, the male role demanded an aggressiveness which made him highly vulnerable. Consequently, interethnic participation among Nisei males required a degree of acculturation and security which few Nisei had achieved before the war.

In the processes of economic adjustment, the Japanese had concentrated their activities in a few occupations (small-scale business in ethnic enclaves, contract gardening, domestic service, fishing) and had achieved a most important role in the production and distribution of truck garden crops. However, many Nisei who graduated from high school in the early 1930’s, encouraged by the high value given to education in the Japanese culture, chose college education as an alternative to entering ethnic-defined occupations. A college degree offered no guarantee of securing the white-collar jobs to which the Nisei as a group aspired, and the incongruity of college graduates taking employment in produce markets, gardening routes, and small shops, with scant prospects of advancement, led to a growing pessimism in the Japanese population. The flow of Nisei into ethnically defined occupations had important consequences for the group’s adjustment to the society at large, for it affected the character of interethnic participation and reduced the volume of interaction in the important area of economic activity.

The political participation of the Japanese population was limited and immature because discriminatory legislation against the Japanese denied Issei the rights of citizenship. Consequently, it remained for the Nisei to assume political leadership in mediating the group’s relations with the dominant society. The extreme vulnerability of the population in a historically anti-Japanese region defined an ethnic-centered, defensive political strategy, emphasizing selective group participation in the political institutions of the society. Opportunities for participation in dominant political organizations were consequently limited to the race leaders and then at the level of the ward worker.

The generally permissive orientation of the Japanese culture toward religion presented a favorable condition for the acceptance of and participation in the dominant religious institutions. The number of Christians in the Japanese population nearly equaled that of Buddhists. However, the dominant religious institutions provided few opportunities for the validation of acculturated religious forms. As early as 1900 the Methodist Church, the denomination with the largest number of Japanese members, instituted a program which effectively segregated the activities of the Japanese. The occasional “inter-racial” meetings which were conducted between Nisei and Caucasian youth groups were designed for group rather than individual interaction and underscored the separation from Caucasian churches.

The Japanese family in America rarely participated as a unit in the larger society. We have already noted how the differential participation of its members in the dominant institutions created a wide range of acculturation in the population. Within the ethnic enclaves the family represented a major conservative influence, and in most families acculturation of the Nisei was accompanied by conflict. Community and institutional supports, so essential to the maintenance of the Japanese family system in Japan, became less effective as the Nisei carried their acculturative influences into the family (cf. Miyamoto 1939). The patriarchal family pattern was consequently attacked from within and without, and the traditional authority and dependency relationships were placed under stress (Masuoka 1938, 1944).

Acculturation is viewed here as directed toward the ultimate assimilation of the ethnic individual in American society. Access to participation in the dominant institutions is a precondition for the validation of acculturation and consequently for assimilation. But access to the dominant society is limited by diverse factors which create stress in interethnic situations, provide for the prolonged survival of parallel ethnic institutions, and result in deferring the validation of acculturation.

Reproduced by permission of the American Anthropological Association from the American Anthropologist, 57:44-48, 1955.



Broom, Leonard and Eshreef Shevky. “Mexicans in the United States: A Problem in Social Differentiation,” Sociology and Social Research, 36:150-158, 1952.

Caudill, William. “Japanese-American Personality and Acculturation,” Genetic Psychology Monographs, 45:3-102, 1952.

Embree, John Fee. “Acculturation Among the Japanese of Kona, Hawaii,” American Anthropological Association Memoir, No. 59, 1941.

Masuoka, Jitsuichi. “Japanese Patriarch in Hawaii,” Social Forces, 17:240-48, 1938.

“Life Cycle of an Immigrant Institution in Hawaii: The Family,” Social Forces, 23:60-64, 1944.

Miyamoto, Frank S. “Social Solidarity Among the Japanese in Seattle,” University of Washington Publications in the Social Sciences, 11, No. 2, 1939.


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