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The Subtlety of Assimilation
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In another paper, defining the concept of Assimilation, some common patterns were identified under three categories.

1.  Model: Shifting Streams
Some families from one cultural and linguistic stream migrate and join another people and take up their language and gradually merge into this stream.  We sometiems say that the "host" cultural stream absorbs other streams into it.  Other streams are absorbed into the usually dominant cultural (or linguistic) stream.

2.  Model: Divergence
Sub-groups within a large defined culgtural and linguistic stream develop more distinct identities and gradually become separately identitifed as a different ethnic or cultural group.  The same language may be retained or a notable and distinct variety of the language may develo or become accentuated.  The language of the sub-group may also develop so far tha it becomes a separate and different language.

3.  Model: Coalescence (or Convergence)
Two or more ethnic streams or parts of streams coalesce into a new unique ethnic identity based on some new common affinity.  This may begin as a social commonality, religious identity, choices made at a political or economic crisis in the society, dissention or new alignments in response to other pivotal event in the culture.

The reason 3 possibilities are given is that we are evaluating indicators. Clarification is then obtained in further details based on the actual worldview of the people and social realities of that group.

This information is discovered through primary research on the ethnic group. This is the first step in entering a culture and even before actual contact if possible.  But it is an ongoing process of observation, analysis and overt elicitation of insider cultural information.

This information would clarify which scenario seems to best account for the facts.  Thus the facts given in most instances could be accounted for by the three first possibilities given here.  These three general categories of assimilation patterns could be expanded to more specific patterns.  And other perspectives might lead to a different categorization.

The same cultural characteristics and social processes, however, need to be monitored and accounted for in all this.  We are tracking the major characteristics of cultural gorups and social groups.  Progress may be over two or more generations.

A continuum is the best format, enmabling amapping of "progress" along a line of change between known or designated categories.  Tracking would monitor direction of development and the charactieristics that take shape.

Assimilation is a process along a multi-dimensional spectrum.

A separate fourth possibility has to also be considered.  If details are insufficient to determine between these, then the researcher or data manager has to make a judgement call on how to list that ethnic entity at that stage.

We would be advised to remain aware and watch for later updated information on the entity to clarify.  Assimilation is a continuum, so a progressive scale of various factors should be kept in mind.  I am not aware of any instrument for formal quantitative measurement.

Same Language - Different Name
Here is a key marker of a merging of two ethnic groups or communities at some level, perhaps indicating assimilation, but sometimes not:
When you find a form of a more dominant language spoken by a group of people who call themselves by a different name from the name of the dominant people speaking the dominant language.  Sometimes the dominant people and language name would be the same, sometimes not.

This is an indication of a separate ethnic origin somewhere back in history.  It may be at a historical depth of from one generation to centuries.  Thus you would continue with further worldview research to clarify the people's self-identity and relational factors between the two groups, to obtain a more detailed, refined idea of their identity.

Assimilation is not a simple linear process, but multi-faceted, multi-dimensional.

My colleague Dr Jim Haney, who has had extensive experience among the Bambara people of West Africa, had some thoughts in this regard.

Adaptations are multifaceted and assimilation is a complex process.  Assimilation of one ethnic group to another is not a simple movement along a clear, straight line from one point to another.  There are many forks in the road, side paths, variations, threatening, seductive or entertaining distractions along the way, small groups within larger groups in the meandering migration, various small segments stopping off along the way for longer or shorter periods of time, or settling permanently in new villages along the road.

As I worked with some colleagues on a definition of assimilation, the following seemed to cover what was intended:

The process by which a population or ethnic group is absorbed into the cultural tradition of a different population or ethnic group.

Behind this succinct statement we recognize that this process of absorption into another cultural tradition may occur to lesser or greater degrees.  Some aspects may be borrowed, some groups may be more fully absorbed, some may be totally absorbed.

In that regard the following statement was also composed, summarizing our definition of that process:

Degree of Assimilation:
The extent to which a population or ethnic group has been absorbed into the cultural tradition of a different population or ethnic group.

To measure this process of assimilation and to determine the degree of assimilation in any particular case, specific objective factors or characteristics would need to be defined and evaluated.

Ethnicity Threatened
The concept or term "assimilation" may have a negative connotation for certain ethnicities.  Many small ethnic groups face that today, when cultural change is occurring so fast worldwide.  Notably, in this situation are the Native American peoples.  "Assimilation" may be synonymous with loss of ethnic identity.

Different peoples respond in different ways to this threat to their unique ethnic identity.  The definition of the process of assimilation is unrelated to a particular people's view of the advisability or desirability of the process.  Identifying the process does not determine response to it.  Realization that assimilation is happening has at times led to a conscious resurgence of a unique culture.

The term "cultural adaptation" identifies one variety of assimilation.  This tends to be a neutral or positive term.  Much change and borrowing of culture goes on besides that which is found in the process of Assimilation.

All cultures continually adapt, some more readily than others, some at faster acceptable rates than others.  Adaptation often involves borrowing (adopting) various survival strategies, which may be actually chosen by the minority or alien group to strengthen and further differentiate their unique origins or characteristics.

Adaptation occurs commonly in social or military structures or technology.  This also usually entails borrowing or adapting vocabulary and maybe even other aspects of language associated with the technology.

The acceptance of new technology often produces changes in the broader shared worldview of the group.  How we related to the world, out of choice or necessity affects our understanding of reality.

Assimilation and Identity
There are numerous examples on record of cultural borrowing and change, even extensive change of a particular ethnic group's culture that do not cause their loss of identity, even when it brings them more in line with the dominant culture.  Often borrowing certain aspects of a dominant culture can slow or prevent the process of assimilation by  providing better coping strategies for the people under pressure.

"Assimilation" does not address the attitude towards self of a particular people (ethnicity) involved in some process of assimilation, or cultural borrowing.  Talking about the process does not concede defeat, or capitulate to the undesirable dominant culture in any way, nor admit to any inevitability.  These would be additional aspects or factors to be separately considered.

Ethnicity and Social Structures
Further, assimilation should not be confused with the broad sharing of a common "super-culture" or social "super-structures."  This is more the situation we find in the US.  Native Americans and some other ethnicities may find themselves under heavy pressure to become assimilated in the broader and deeper sense.  

Competing Voices
In some cases, different members of certain ethnic groups will differ over strategies.  While some will advocate resistance to assimilation, competing voices will favor aspects of assimilation, for various reasons.  Some First Nations try to retain traditional culture as completely as possible.

Some, such as the Cherokees, have actively adapted, appearing superficially to assimilate, while, in fact, becoming stronger as a nation in their own self-identity on new terms.  Their way of life as settled farmers, was, however, quite different from the Navajo and plains Indians at the time each met the white man and his voracious, triumphal and destructive military culture.

We need to evaluate multiple factors of cultural practice and self-identity, not just language, dress and social interaction.  Family structures and marriage patterns, economic patterns and inheritance within family lines are important factors to consider.

The term assimilation does not refer to a simple in-line progress to competent participation in the local society through the dominant, standard or common language of the mainstream society.  Always look deeper for patterns and expressions of differentiation at a more subtle level.

And remember the term assimilation refers to a process or continuum of movement along a line between one cultural identity and another.  And in a multi-cultural society like Anglo North America (USA And Canada) the multiple streams of human self-identification and interaction will not all change at the same rate, as Haney commented earlier.

Assimilation is more than competence in the dominant language or even competent participation in the common institutions of the broader society.  We always want to look for clues and elicit overt expressions of self-identify in the family and group psyche.  This is entailed by our term "worldview."

Also related:
Germanic and Celtic
Models of Assimilation
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
Our Genetic Journey - Reviewing The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Scots, Irish and English

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
Assimilation Models How People Groups Develop and Change
Describing a People Group
Identifying a People Group
What is a People Group?


Basic notes first written on 17 May 2004
Developed in August 2005 and September 2011
Last developed and posted on Thoughts and Resources 11 October 2011
Last edited 26 November 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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