GORDON’S ASSIMILATION THEORY
Overview of the theory
Originator and brief history of the theory; historical context, Underlying assumptions
Adopting a seven-pronged framework, Milton Gordon (1964) bridged the gap between enculturation and assimilation talking about ‘structural assimilation’ that was his nomer for one group totally identifying and ‘slipping into’ another. Gordon (1964) argued that different cultures merge into the “American dream” via a process that extends by stages from acculturation into assimilation. Acculturation comes first and is inevitable and acculturation extends from external impression, such as changes in dress and food, to changes in internal characteristics such as beliefs and norms which are central to their group identity. The assimilating group gradually gives up all (or most) of its customs except for its religion which it continues to adhere to.
Gordon’s original theory has been appended to and modified by other theorists throughout the ages. Although many scholars find Gordon’s theory helpful in explaining and contributing to studies on assimilation, Gordon’s theory was more applicable to the American 1950s milieu of immigrants than it is today. It is undisputed that assimilation was a major trend with immigrants who came to America trying ti integrate as fast as they possibly could and the culture dtyrign to “Americanize” them. Assimilation, during this period, eroded differences between ethnicities and crammed immigrants into the cookie cutter that was the America of the time. It was only with the passage of time and the collapse of ethnic distinctions, that greater ethnic parity was achieved and the face of the American nation as a whole changed. Now no longer one dominant profile that all had to aspire to, America instead became a spectrum of different ethnic groups. Ethnic distinction is encouraged and the effect has two results: on the one hand, America has become a mix of different nations and ethnicities that acclaim their own separateness and distinction. On the other hand, disintegration of separateness has resulted in greater impetus to assimilate and in greater acceptance of the different other. The total-result, however, has been mergence into and greater acceptance of other groups. As opposed to the pre-1930s, individuals of one race are more apt to acculturate and slip into another race than they are into any conglomerate, non-existent so-called American entity.
Gordon’s assumption was of America containing a certin characteristic, or milieu, that people of one thncity slid into. He did not consider the complexity of the American ‘group’ and spoke about assimilation as one group totally disappearing into another main group, whereas, in reality, the American nation is comprised of an eclectic bunch of various groups. More so, it is more often the case that one ethnic group can melt in to another rather than merging into the vague component of ‘Americana’ as a whole. In other words, the case closer to reality is that a Jew may decide to become a practicing Christian Scientist, rather than an ‘American’ the vagueness of which term is in question. This idea is more in line with that of Kennedy’s (1944) Triple Melting Pot idea.
The famous Melting Pot idea is that of a mix of nations all fusing into one monolithic American whole and losing their identities in the process. It is this idea that provides the main problem to the theory, particularly given the character of today’s diverse American nation that is demarcated into many races and cultures. Not only is there no one model of an American nation, but this mythic ‘American nation’ is, in turn, shaped and formed by the many different ethnicities that it absorbs (Conzen et al., 1992).
Key concepts and themes, including:
Variants of the theory
Gordon (1964) argued that acculturation comes first and is inevitable and acculturation extends from external impression, such as dress and food, to internal characteristics such as beliefs and norms and that are central to their group identity. The assimilating group gradually gives up all (or most) of its customs except for its religion which it continues to adhere to.
Gordon’s first stage is acculturation. In this stage, change is performed at the margins. There are: “Minor modifications in cuisine, recreational patterns, place names, speech, residential architecture, sources of architectural inspiration, and perhaps a few other areas” (Gordon, 1964, p.100). Acculturation could only last indefinitely, and it was most, frequently, followed by the stage of assimilation. Catalyst for assimilation is ‘structural assimilation” which is represented by ‘the entrance of the minority group into the social cliques, clubs, and institutions of the core society at the primary group level.” Once structural assimilation occurs, all other assimilations will naturally follow which meant that prejudice and discrimination would decline, intermarriage will be common, and the culture’s separate identity will be lost.
Sandberg (1973) added the “straight-line assimilation” concept to the mix. This envisions a process unfolding in a series of generational steps where each further generational step signifies one more change and adaptation to the new culture. Gans (1992) modified this to the “bumpy-line theory of ethnicity” where adaptation to host culture depends on environmental, social, and political conditions with some generations being more eager than others.
Shibutani and Kwan (1965) in “Ethnic Stratification” added on to Gordon to discuss the dynamics of ethnic stratification around the globe. People are more likely to identify with surrounding culture and to slip in when social distance is low, and when others around them deal with them in a more welcoming less stereotypical manner. Social distances that are high create distance not only from recipients of scorn but also from surrounding culture itself that takes greater pains in preventing the ethnicity from absorbing themselves. Shibutani and Kwan (1965) have also pointed to greater spurts of assimilation following protests.
Types of problems it addresses; How the problem is defined; How solutions are envisioned; How the helping process is defined; Focus for solutions
The theory was used to help individuals or groups acclimatize to American (or any) society. The theory is helpful in that it plots assimilation in terms of stages and thus helps to plot absorption of one individual, or group, in the culture of another (Barkan, 1995). Gordon’s theory has often been used in studies, literature, or social work to measure the progress of assimilation (then) and adaptation to the environmental culture now.
Some of the problems that the theory addresses are the distinction between “historical identification” which is the person’s identification with the group as par the groups’ history and “participational identity” where the individual joins him to the group as part of his locus of identity and for reasons of roots and community. Being aware of these distinctions can help helpers track and define the consistency and character of the individual’s attachment to his birth culture.
Helping concepts and focus for solutions also involve other concepts such as Anglo-Conformity and the Melting Pot (as well as a third model, Cultural Pluralism which is peripheral to his theory). The model of Anglo-Conformity is exclusive to historical English customs that have crept into American society, whereas the Melting Pot concept relates to the immigrant’s success in adapting to the larger American society.
Contemporary issues related to the theory: The relevance of this theory to generalist social work practice and/or other social work practice
The theory is useful today in that it helps plot and match an individual or groups’ success of merging into their wider American society. Discrepancies of adaptation are also matched against certain of the concepts of the theory. Secondly, assimilation theories, such as Gordon’s, have profound influence in shaping and assessing policies and rules designed for immigrants’ smooth transition to a host culture. They also effect other’s reception and perception of the immigrant. The assimilation theory, itself, when used by social worker, can trigger different coping and adaptive strategies on the part of the immigrant (Kivisto, 1990).
Critical analysis of the theory, including: Placement of theory on macro-micro continuum Philosophical underpinnings, settings and possible applications for the theory today.
Gordon’s theory places the decline on a continuum from acculturation to assimilation, but today people may remain ensconced in their own traditions whilst living in the wider milieu, or may remain in the acculturation phase without merging into assimilation. In other words, individuals of a certain group may retain their ethnic dress, food, and other cultural traditions whilst embracing something of the Anglo-conformism of contemporary America.
Today, too, Anglo-Conformism has spread worldwide and given today’s environment of globalization, people from America slide into customs from other countries, whilst other countries become westernized. Ethnic differences have largely blurred and people, influenced by the media and Internet, are far more open to being influenced by other cultures than they were before. There is no ‘Americanization’ or Melting Pot as such today, but rather a circumstance of globalization.
The theory fails to consider other forms of assimilation such as occupational and economic where these forms of assimilation play a determining role whether, and to which extent, the individual will assimilate into the larger society. Education, occupation and income are some of the many factors that play a constitutive role (Neidert & Farely, 1985).
Methodological issues and empirical support for the theory
Given the theory’s displacement in contemporary life and given the fact that education, occupation and income are some of the many factors that play a constitutive role in determining assimilation, scholars such as Xie and Greenman (2011) conclude that there is little empirical evidence supporting the theory. The methodology is flawed since it is irrelevant to contemporary living and since, for reasons, mentioned throughout this essay, the theory possesses internal flaws in various areas. The process of assimilation depends on the contextual area of the immigrant; no generalizations can be made. Furthermore, future research should focus on differential processes of assimilation rather than generally determining acculturation followed by assimilation to be a pattern conclusive to all.
Conzen, K et al., (1992). The invention of ethnicity. Joun. Am. Ethnic Hist.12: 3-41
Gans, H (1992) Second generation decline Ethnic and Racial Studies, 15: 173-192
Kivisto, P. (1990) The Transplanted Then and Now: The Reorientation of Immigration Studies from the Chicago School to the New Social History. Ethnic and Racial Studies 13, 455-481.
Neidert, L & Farely, R (1985) Assimilation in the United States. Am. Soc. Review, 50:840-850
Sandberg, N (1973) Ethnic identity and assimilation. Praeger: NY
Xi, J. & Greenman, E (2011). The social context of assimilation testing. Soc Sci Res., 40, 965 — 984.