Assimilation refers to that result of culture change whereby the members of one society modify their behavior and values to become very similar to, or identical with, those of another society possessing a different culture. It is to be distinguished from the potentially rapid processes of culture change due to internal innovation and invention and external borrowing through intermittent diffusion of culture elements from outside the society, and the very gradual process by the absence of exact replication by a younger generation of the beliefs and behavior of an older generation. Innovation and diffusion are ongoing features of human life, and their effects are usually gradual (over many generations), limited to distinct subsets of a cultural system, and, more important, typically greatly modified in turn to mesh with the existing culture.
The process of change giving rise to assimilation, however, is acculturation. Acculturation is the complex and dynamic set of processes resulting from close, prolonged contact between two societies, one of them dominant. This imbalance of power is necessary for assimilative change, since the drastic and total character of assimilation requires that the dominant society monopolize prestige, resources, and force and possess an ideology that rewards and/or demands corresponding change in the subordinate society. There are modifications to both societies in the acculturative situation, the dominant as well as the sub-ordinate. While there have been many studies of contributions by conquered societies to Western cultures during the extent of European conquest and colonial control (in particular new domesticates), the focus in anthropology has been on what occurs in the subordinate group. Other than physical extinction, assimilation is an extreme result because it consists of a total process of adjustment whereby the subordinate group abandons its cultural forms by adopting those of the dominant society. Assimilation is cultural extinction—language, kinship and family organization, ethos, aesthetics, community organization, religion, technology, and systems of leadership and authority disappear to be replaced by the corresponding culture elements of the dominant society.
Assimilation is a theoretical end point along a continuum of reactions to acculturation. Often, the term is used to refer to a process that is incomplete, for example, “Society B is assimilating,” or “The “elites of society B are highly assimilated.” It is not irreversible, or even unidirectional. Cultural modifications may occur that suggest that a particular society is undergoing this kind of modification only to have it terminated in a nativistic movement. It is, in fact, often difficult to determine whether a society is proceeding through assimilation or achieving a dynamic balance of culture traits from the dominant culture and traditional traits from the subordinate culture.
Several questions can be developed employing a process model: How long is the assimilation process? Assimilation studies have been a staple of sociological approaches toward the immigrant experience in America, with a time span of three generations such that grandchildren have acquired the dominant culture while their grandparents have not. Margaret Mead’s description of the change in Manus society (Admiralty Islands) from a “Stone Age” culture to modernity occurred within a generation. Traditional children she had known in 1928 had apparently in 1953 become Westernized, valuing and practicing Western forms of marriage, government, and religion. Intragenerational transformation would seem probable for individuals, but it would be more likely that societal assimilation would not be complete until members of older generations had passed away.
What drives assimilation? One popularized explanation, especially for the dominant culture (and often adopted by the assimilating subordinate culture), is that the dominant culture is absolutely superior and thus overwhelmingly compelling and attractive. Mead’s account of Manus assimilation attributed the rapidity of the transformation to the much greater effectiveness of Western political and social forms and the consequent laudable desire by Manus to emulate these. However, it is more likely that the realities of the acculturative setting, with the presence of enforced planned changes (or at least planned prohibitions of traditional ways) by the dominant culture, present subordinate peoples with few choices other than attempts at assimilation. Other strategies to acculturation, such as biculturalism or marginality, active revitalization, and nativism may not be successful. Contrary to a view of subordinate societies as passive victims, anthropologists have usually sought to show that members of subordinate societies have been creative opportunists, actively taking charge of their own response to acculturation, including the adoption of the dominant culture. However, a distinction may be made between internal and external assimilation. Internal is an ideological transformation involving the adoption of the values, beliefs, and worldview of the dominant culture, while external involves the manifestations of the dominant culture: clothing, dwellings, work schedules, farming practices, and so on. It is difficult to consider that these could be mutually distinct and unrelated processes. The dominant culture typically enforces only external assimilation. Moreover, people’s responses in change often are focused on items of material culture that either show promise of material advantage or are viewed as observable markers of prestige. Still, it is the purposeful interest in acquiring ideology, values, and beliefs that drives continuing assimilation, and consequently most studies explaining people’s interest in assimilation have looked at such ideological arenas as religious conversion and education.
What is the result? The end product of assimilation would be members of the former subordinate society merging with and becoming indistinguishable from members of the dominant society. However, there is the issue of acceptance by the dominant society, especially when physiological attributes are used to reject former members of the subordinate society regardless of their capability at assimilation. This rejection has become a source of much concern in Western social science, for example, in the study of racism. Many American social scientists have looked at assimilation much more favorably than anthropology has. They view the immigrant experience in America as one in which successful assimilation was desirable, and therefore it was important to determine those social factors that enable it. Anthropology, on the other hand, views it as destructive (especially in regard to Native Americans) and therefore sought to determine those social factors that held it in check and would enable non-Western groups to maintain their own distinctive cultures and languages.
- Mead, M. (1956). New lives for old: Cultural transformation-Manus, 1928-1953. New York: Morrow.
- Simpson, G. E. (1968). Assimilation. In D. Sills (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (pp. 438-444). New York: Macmillan.