Reconsidering Assimilation Theories: The Case of China

by Yuan Mingyang

Although the new assimilation theory supported by Alba and Nee (1997) and the segmented assimilation theory in Portes and Rumbaut (2001) to some extent explain the experience of immigrants and their descendants in the United States, some flaws can be found in the basic conceptions in both theories. For example, Jung (2009) pointed out that the notion of race has been largely overlooked and misinterpreted in both the new assimilation theory and the segmented assimilation theory. These flaws might become more obvious in the context of countries other than the U.S. since both researches are largely based on the U.S., and therefore in the following paragraphs I will examine some key concepts in the assimilation theories in the situation context of China. The aim is not to criticize these theories but to reconsider whether it is appropriate to take these concepts for granted in the assimilation theories.

The first problematic concept is “culture”, which is also mentioned in Jung (2009). Segmented assimilation theory has been criticized to blame everything to “culture”, which tends to essentialize social groups into certain good or bad social images (Jung, 2009). The segmented assimilation theory also uses the term “culture” without making a clear definition of it. Without a clear definition, culture can literally mean everything in human society, and as a result, the argument of the segmented assimilation theory that some groups successfully assimilated in the U.S. due to their culture becomes hollow.

The notion of culture in both theories also fails to analyze the interaction between the groups that are sometimes considered as sharing similar cultures. Lin (2012) made a research about how Taiwanese assimilate in the mainland society. Lin found that the key for Taiwanese to assimilate in the mainland is a Weberian social stratification, instead of a vague notion of culture. Lin argued that it is possible for Taiwanese to assimilate in the mainland society, but only into the group of people with similar socio-economic status and taste, since a large number Taiwanese in the mainland settle in large cities and are businessmen of higher socio-economic status. The segmented assimilation theory would not be able to provide an answer for this kind of cases. Indeed, the segmented assimilation theory might not even notice this kind of cases if it kept overemphasizing the effect of a blurred notion of “culture”.

The term “assimilation” is also hard to be defined in the assimilation theories. Culture is not a good criterion for defining assimilation as discussed above. Although both theories more or less use socio-economic status as a criterion for assimilation, these two theories seldom mention the situation where a group of higher socio-economic status are trying to assimilate in the host society, for instance, Taiwanese in mainland China discussed in Lin (2012). It is also hard to determine whether Taiwanese in China, most of who are businessmen with high socio-economic status, have assimilated in the mainland society, and therefore socio-economic status might not be able to measure assimilation.

National policy, which is part of context in the theory of Portes and Rumbaut (2001), might be another way to examine whether a group is accepted as a member of the country, but usually policy is different from reality. For example, although pluralism is prevailing in the national discourse in China, and many national policies preferred minority ethnic groups over the Han majority, minority ethnic groups usually live in specific areas and are of relatively low economic and education standards (Myers et al., 2013). Although multiculturalism is written in the Constitution, the government focuses more on unity and has a strong control on the autonomous regions of minority ethnic groups (Ibid).

The final point comes to the definition of migration itself. If we define migration only as people moving from one country to another country, we might be blind to the things happening inside the borderline. Both theories are restricted by the international system composed of sovereign states since they only focus on people across the border. The groups that are inside the border from the beginning will not be considered in the theories even if they do not share similar social norms and economic standards with other members in the same country. The neglect of race (Jung, 2009) might also be a result of this kind of theoretical assumption which only focuses on people moving across the border. In the case of China, since Korean, Russian, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, Uzbek, and many other minority ethnic groups are living inside China (see Myers et al., 2013 for details), their live and the interactions among minority ethnic groups and the majority Han will never be covered by assimilation theories. It is necessary to reconsider from the beginning what we should really focus on and what do all these conceptions really mean when we are studying migration.

References

Alba, R., & Nee, V. (1997). Rethinking assimilation theory for a new era of immigration. International Migration Review, 31(4), 826-874.

Jung, M. (2009). The racial unconscious of assimilation theory. Du Bois Review, 6(2), 375-395. doi: 10.1017/S1742058X09990245

Lin, R. (2012). Birds of a feather flock together: Social class and social assimilation of the Taiwanese in mainland China. Soochow Journal of Political Science, 30(2), 127-167. (Original text in Chinese)

Myers, S. L., Gao, X., & Cruz, B. C. (2013). Ethnic minorities, race, and inequality in China: A new perspective on racial dynamics. The Review of Black Political Economy, 40(3), 231-244. doi: 10.1007/s12114-013-9165-7

Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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