What does “assimilation” (in its socio-cultural sense) really mean in an age of globalization, easy digital communication, international integration, migration, and recently in the wake of recrudescent nationalisms?
On a vary basic level, we know that assimilation refers to a process by which individuals of a more or less distinct group (perhaps indigenous, immigrant, or formerly enslaved) are integrated or subsumed – willingly or by force – into the identity of a larger society or dominant culture. As such it has long been a goal of many plural states, and also of many immigrant groups settling in different countries.
Beyond that, the meaning of the term seems to be assumed without much clarity as to what the implications are.
The initial question gives rise to others. For example, what are the issues/differences of assimilation as national policy, as socio-cultural process, and as personal or community aspiration? Are there different kinds or degrees of assimilation at each level?
Does assimilation necessarily require sacrifice of identities? Who decides whether or not that is the case, and what is sacrificed?
Is some kind of assimilation necessary for full participation in a society? Is equal status conditioned on type/degree of assimilation? If so, at what point – if ever – might it confer status and rights equivalent to those of the rest of society?
Considering the racist and nativist streaks in at least some nationalisms, do their definitions of assimilation exclude some peoples a priori? What is the relationship between assimilationism and racism (recognizing that there have been different treatments of various racial, ethnic, and religious minorities)?
What is the burden shouldered by willingly assimilating? Or the cost imposed on individuals, communities, and cultures by assimilationist policies?
What are the benefits and costs of assimilation to the society as a whole?
What do other related terms like “acculturation” and “integration” (in its socio-cultural sense) mean in this context, and how are they different? Such terms would seem essential for fuller understanding of, and clearer discussion about “assimilation.”
These questions in turn bring up other issues, such as:
- Forms of multiculturalism and national identities.
- What is the difference between “migrant” and “expatriate“?
- The changing nature of citizenship (and implications for the future of the nation-state).
- Is it possible to speak of assimilation to an emerging “global culture”? (And implications for cultural traditions and other socio-economic dynamics.)
Does it make any sense to talk of assimilation as we advance into the 21st century? If so, how and in what ways? If not, is there another term/concept that is more appropriate and productive for the changing realities that peoples and nations are living today?
Are we now defining an “Assimilation 2.0”? Or perhaps more fortuitously, new ways of thinking about how diverse peoples come to live together in peace, and with mutual respect and amity?
The text of this post is adapted from the description of an email list with the same title that I ran in the mid 2000s.