Immigrant Adaptation

The last set of theories deals with the social relationships between immi- grants and members of the native majority and their cultural interac- tions. Different perspectives on immigrant adaptation correspond to different theories on the uses of immigrant labor. Thus, the theory that views immigrants essentially as a supplement to the domestic labor force is complemented by a first perspective on adaptation in terms of social and cultural assimilation. The assimilationist school, as these writings are collectively known, comprises most of the classic studies of immi- grants in the United States. These include the work of such sociologists and historians as Handlin on the urban Irish, Child on second-genera- tion Italians, Wittke on the Germans, and Blegen on the Norwegians. It also includes an array of subsequent scholars, from Milton Gordon to Thomas Sowell.

The assimilationist perspective defines the situation of immigrants as involving a clash between conflicting cultural values and norms. The native majority represents the “core,” while immigrants are the “periphery.” Assimilation occurs by the diffusion of values and norms from core to periphery. By osmosis, as it were, these new cultural forms are gradually absorbed by immigrants, bringing them closer to the majority. The process, sometimes called acculturation, is generally seen as irreversible though it may take different lengths of time for different groups.

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