Amalgamation of settlers of diverse national origin has long been linked with the idealistic self-image of America as a new type of nation-state. The French-born immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), described America as a country where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” Though the nationalities included in the early expression of the melting pot ideal were largely limited to northwestern Europe, the vision of American national identity as based on cross-ethnic amalgamation eventually came to include nearly all European nationalities. British writer Israel Zangwill’s (1864–1926) early twentieth-century play The Melting Pot was the first to use the term as a metaphor of assimilation in the American context of mass immigration from Europe. The melting pot ideal was depicted in an illustration featured on the play’s theater program, which shows many strands of people walking past the Statue of Liberty into a huge boiling pot. As an ideology of immigrant assimilation, the melting pot has persisted as an idealistic vision of the inclusive nature of assimilation in America.
The melting pot ideal is often referred to as an alternative conception of immigrant incorporation in a continuum of idealized conception of assimilation as a cultural belief. At one end of the continuum is Anglo-conformity, a belief associated with the normative requirement that individual members of immigrant groups adapt to the culture and institutions established by the early Anglo-Saxon settlers of colonial America. Milton Gordon in Assimilation in American Life (1964) interpreted Angloconformity to mean that immigrants and their descendants adopt the beliefs and norms of middle-class Anglo-American culture, which he maintained remained largely unchanged despite successive waves of immigration from Europe, except for minor changes in cuisine and place names. Anglo-conformity tacitly rules out the viability of intact Old World identities and cultural practices outside of the Anglo-American mold. It emphasizes the need for immigrants to “unlearn” their cultural traits in order to learn the new social practices necessary for acceptance. In the Anglo-conformity formulation, critics underline that this approach to assimilation tacitly assumes the superiority of Anglo-American culture. Anglo-conformity is often associated with the public policy of “pressure-cooker” Americanization during and immediately after World War I (1914–1918).
At the other end of the continuum is cultural pluralism, an ideology that conceives of American society as a quiltlike mosaic of diverse cultural traditions and ethnic identities that coexist as subcultures alongside a dominant Anglo-American mainstream. According to cultural pluralism, an ideology of immigrant incorporation first espoused by the philosopher Horace Kallen (1882–1974) in the early twentieth century, the strength and durability of American democracy stems from extending equality of rights, religious belief, and cultural expression to all citizens. The basic idea was that a society benefited when the ethnic groups retained cultural distinctiveness, contributing to the cultural richness and diversity of American society. Multiculturalism is the contemporary expression of this vision of civil society.
Sociological studies by Stanley Lieberson, Herbert Gans, Richard Alba, and Mary Waters of the “twilight of ethnicity” of descendants of mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe document that the melting pot ideal of amalgamation has conformed broadly to the historical experiences of white ethnics. Old World identities and cultural practices have become mostly a symbolic attachment for white ethnics as cross-ethnic social life increasingly blurred ethnic boundaries and identities. Cross-ethnic marriages among white ethnics have become so commonplace that many identify as “American” in ethnicity and no longer list the Old World ethnic identities in response to the decennial census questionnaire item on ethnic origin.
Whether conceived as the effects of the beliefs and norms of Anglo-conformity or the melting pot, assimilation has been the primary pattern of incorporation for the European groups that migrated to America. For the descendants of mass immigration from Europe in the late nineteenth century, however, it is likely that the social process of assimilation was a protracted process taking place through incremental changes across generations. The pattern of increasing cross-ethnic marriage within religious boundaries was first identified in analysis of quantitative evidence for the 1940s. Since the historic passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, more than twenty-five million immigrants have settled in expansive immigrant metropolises, greatly increasing the ethnic diversity of American cities. Nearly one out of five Americans are now either foreign-born or children of immigrant parents. The new immigration, largely from Latin America and Asia, has driven a rapid demographic transformation of major urban centers.
Skeptics of the applicability of the melting pot ideal to post-1965 immigrants have justifiably pointed to serious problems in the assumption of assimilation of new immigrants and their children. Although the post-1965 immigrants have often settled in mixed neighborhoods and established ongoing social relationships not only with members of their own ethnic group but also with individuals outside of their ethnic group, the sheer numbers of immigrants concentrated in inner cities suggests that much of the cross-ethnic social interactions are with members of other ethnic groups that are also part of the new immigration.
Post-1965 immigration is more diverse than that of the past, in terms of human and financial capital, race, and legal status. Members of some ethnic groups enter American society at a high level almost from the start because they bring wealth or educational and professional credentials that provide an initial advantage. These immigrants and their children are in a position to benefit from the opportunities open to minorities in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is not uncommon for the families of immigrant professionals and entrepreneurs to establish domicile in middle-class suburban communities and for their children to attend selective American schools and pursue professional occupations themselves. The melting pot ideal remains a compelling metaphor of assimilation for the children of immigrants from professional and entrepreneurial backgrounds. But intermarriage often takes place among native-born children of immigrant parents, similar to the pattern of intermarriage within religious groups observed for European Americans in the twentieth century.
The pattern of incorporation is different for the native-born children of labor migrants from the Caribbean and Central America. With low levels of formal schooling, labor migrants compete for positional advantage at the bottom rungs of the labor market. The reliance of labor migrants on ethnic-based social capital, moreover, leads to incorporation within immigrant ethnic enclaves where initial disadvantages in human capital are likely to be passed on to the second generation, increasing the risk of a melting pot experience that results in amalgamation with downtrodden domestic minorities in the inner cities. This bifurcation of the melting pot experience of children of advantaged human-capital immigrants and disadvantaged labor migrants is the focus of studies of segmented assimilation. However, the extent of downward mobility may be overstated in the segmented assimilation literature, as horizontal mobility even within the same occupational groups often leads to substantial socioeconomic gains for the second generation.
In conclusion, the melting pot ideal has a long history as a cultural belief in the viability of the amalgamation of diverse ethnic groups in the making of the American nation-state. With successive waves of immigration, the ideology of the melting pot has emphasized a hybrid vision of American society and culture stemming from intermarriage across ethnic groups and cultural mixing resulting from structural assimilation.
SEE ALSO Assimilation; Conformity; Ellis Island; Ethnicity; Glazer, Nathan; Immigrants to North America; Immigration; Migration; Mobility; Moynihan, Daniel Patrick; Multiculturalism; Nationalism and Nationality; Whiteness
Alba, Richard, and Victor Nee. 2003. Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lieberson, Stanley, and Mary C. Waters. 1988. From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. 1782. Letter III: What Is an American. In Letters from an American Farmer. London: T. Davies. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/treatise/american_farmer/letters.htm.
MELTING POT is a term that originated in Israel Zangwill's 1908 drama, The Melting Pot. It examined the American dream, the acceptance of newcomers, and their subsequent Americanization. German immigrants had used the term schmelztiegel ("melting pot") in the early nineteenth century, but the term was not popularized until Zangwill's play. The term is flexible and could mean "melting" or the creation of the homogenous American; it also refers to the mixing of various elements that lead to homogeneity. In the mid-twentieth century, cultural theorists who disputed the homogeneity theory increased the elasticity of the term by arguing for a stew, salad, or orchestra metaphor.
Gleason, Philip. Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
See alsoBeyond the Melting Pot .
melt·ing pot • n. a pot in which metals or other materials are melted and mixed. ∎ fig. a place where different peoples, styles, theories, etc., are mixed together: a melting pot of disparate rhythms and cultures.