Make your own free website on

Richard, Madeline A. Ethnic Groups and Marital Choices. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991

Chapter Two The Relationship between Intermarriage and Assimilation: Patterns, Correlates, and Determinants

Assimilation: Theoretical Perspectives

The convergence hypothesis of classical immigration theory has been central to many studies of assimilation (Lieverson 1963). Its basic premise is that the process of individual adaptation leads to the convergence of the individual and group characteristics with those of the host society over time. The extent of assimilation is normally assessed in terms of the dissimilarity between the distribution of certain characteristics of the immigrant groups and the dominant cultural group. The processes of acculturation, that is, cultural or behavioural assimilation and integration that lead to convergence, are numerous and complex, operating within generations as well as across successive generations.

A form of social interaction theory is enlisted in this literature to predict the nature of change between the groups. The expectation is simply that the smaller immigrant groups of subordinate status will experience the greatest change, and in the process can expect to become more like the culturally dominant group over successive generations. Social interaction theory also reminds us that assimilation is a two-way street in that the dominant group will in turn be affected by its minority groups, but not with the same force (LaPiere and Farnsworth 1942; Gordon 1964:62).1

Park and Burgess (1921) formulated one of the earliest definitions of the process of assimilation. They suggested that it entailed the 'fusion' of persons or groups such that they each acquired the 'memories, sentiments, and attitudes' of other individuals or groups, culminating in a 'common cultural life for all' (ibid.:735). Park and Burgess differentiated between assimilation and amalgamation, but included the later in the definition of the former. Amalgamation was defined as the mixing of 'racial traits through intermarriage,' a process which promoted assimilation (ibid.:737). Park, in reference to immigrant assimilation, suggested that the foreign born could be considered assimilated when they fit into the main stream of the host society 'without encountering prejudice' or discrimination as a result of their ethnic or cultural ancestry (1930:281).

[pg. 18] The concept of the melting pot was introduced by Zangwill in 1909. Empirical support for the theory was provided by Kennedy in 1944, followed by Herberg in 1955. Their research findings indicated that ethnic assimilation was occurring within three broad religious groupings, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Social differentiation, then, was sustained by religious category rather than by ethnic origin group. A revisionist view was stimulated by the work of Glazer and Moynihan (1963), who disputed the occurrence of the melting pot and argued that ethnicity persisted in American life. Their study of ethnic groups in New York City revealed that in spite of generational change, distinct ethnic identities were maintained. More recently, Lieberson and Waters offered a reminder that 'theoretically, it is impossible to visualize a full assimilative process if ethnicity is still seriously affecting the choice of mates' (1985:43).

Despite some debate regarding the extent of ethnic assimilation, the dominant theory in the field is still Gordon's (1964)2 seven-stage model. focusing on cultural and structural assimilation Gordon argues that cultural or behavioural assimilation usually comes first and that it 'may continue indefinitely' (1964:77). Structural assimilation, which is 'large scale entrance into cliques, clubs, and institutions of the host society in a primary group level' (ibid.:71), either follows or occurs concurrently with acculturatioon or cultural assimilation. While there is no necessary connection between acculturation and the other assimilative processes, structural assimilation inevitably leads to marital assimilation and is considered to be the 'keystone of the arch of assimilation' (ibid.:81). Furthermore, if large-scale intermarriage takes place, the minority group melts, as it were, into the host society, 'identificational assimilation' takes place, and the remaining stages, that is , absence of prejudice, discrimination, value and power conflict will 'naturally follow' (ibid.). This being the case, with respect to those who intermarry, greater social , political, and economic mobility should be evident and reflected in characteristics that are more like those of the host society than are the characteristics of those who do not intermarry.

In general, three theories of assimilation have been evident. They are referred to as the Anglo-conformity, melting pot, and cultural pluralism/multiculturalism perspectives. Anglo-conformity necessitates the abandonment of the immigrant's cultural heritage in favour of the dominant Anglo-Saxon group's behaviour and values. The melting pot view envisions the formation of a new ethnically blended American. In this case the blurring of ethnic differences is largely accomplished through intermarriage. Cultural pluralism is the most recent of the three and tends to reflect the significance of //[pg. 19] twentieth-century immigration experience to North America as well as a rekindled international interest in ethnic group persistence and revivalism (Reitz 1980:10). It posits that immigrants take on the behaviour and values of the host society, but at the same time retain certain aspects of their own cultural heritage.

Historically, Anglo-conformity has been the primary model of assimilation for Canada. Hurd, for example, examined intermarriage with the British origin population as a general index of assimilation (1929, 1942, 1964:101). Immigration policy before the Second World War was assimilationist in that it provided for the selection of groups that most likely fit into Canadian society (Reitz 1980). Large-scale immigration to Canada during the postwar years, however, and the country's unusual position of having two founding charter groups, the British and the French, provided the impetus for the eventual recognition of ethnic diversity in Canada. In 1971 the Canadian government officially announced a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. Multiculturalism is Canada's version of cultural pluralism. It reflects the idea that 'the survival of ethnic groups as separate groups is socially useful and desirable' and 'as in the melting pot, there is a blending of groups and each affects the other. But unlike the melting pot each group maintains its distinct identity' (ibid.). As Burnet (1987) points out, however, the policy does have defects and ambiguities. The maintenance of many cultures, for example, is not possible or feasible. Immigrants bring their cultural heritage with them to the new land, but many forces impinge upon their lives, making at least some change inevitable. Publicly, government policy is one of multiculturalism, but the ideology expressed by Anglo-conformity still seems to prevail in the minds of policy makers and the Canadian people (Manpower and Immigration 1974a; Secretary of State 1987). The government's policy of multiculturalism, 'which is regarded as an expression of a desire to respect and preserve ethnic heritage for its own sake' (Reitz 1980:44), reflects the greater awareness and concern for ethnic survival that prevailed throughout the world during the 1960s and 1970s. However, the programs announced has as much to do with removing barriers to full participation in Canadian society and with inter-cultural activity, and, therefore, assimilation, as they did with the preservation of ethnic heritages.

Return to Homepage.