Ethnic Enclave

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Ethnic Enclave



The term ethnic enclave first emerged in the contemporary sociological literature in 1967 (Hanna and Hanna 1967). However, Alejandro Portes and his colleagues (Portes and Bach 1985; Portes and Manning 1985; and Portes and Stepick 1985; but see also Model 1985) are credited with developing the concept theoretically and bringing it to the forefront in our understanding of the labor market experiences of marginalized workers, particularly immigrants. A review of the literature shows that while the ethnic enclave concept gained popularity during the 19851994 period, it continued to receive attention in the 19952005 period.


The origins of the ethnic enclave concept can be traced to the segmented labor market perspective (Sanders and Nee 1987), which is an extension of dual economy theory (Averitt 1968; Galbraith 1971). According to this perspective, the labor market is segmented in advanced capitalistic societies into at least two labor markets (Edwards 1975; Gordon 1972). Primary labor markets are characterized by stable working conditions, high wages, scarce skill specifications, internal labor markets, and high returns to human capital investments for workers. In contrast, secondary labor markets are characterized by high turnover rates, low wages, low skills, lack of opportunities for promotion, and lower returns to human capital. Given that advanced capitalism requires the continual flow of low-wage and relatively unskilled labor to fill undesirable jobs (Burawoy 1976; Piore 1979; Sassen-Koob 1978), minorities, women, and immigrants are disproportionately clustered in secondary labor markets (Light and Gold 2000; Sanders and Nee 1987; Tolbert et al. 1980).

However, Kenneth Wilson and Portes (1980) shifted the focus from ethnic to immigrant enclaves in one of the earliest recalibrations of the ethnic enclave concept. Subsequently, Portes defined the enclave economy as involving immigrant groups which concentrate in a distinct spatial location and organize a variety of enterprises serving their own ethnic market and/or the general population. Their basic characteristic is that a significant proportion of the immigrant workforce is employed in enterprises owned by other immigrants (1981, p. 291).

Hence, Portess (1981) immigrant enclave concept has two characteristics: (1) a critical mass of immigrant-owned business firms that employ a critical mass of co-ethnic workers; and (2) spatial clustering of enterprises. Although Portes and his associates (Portes and Jensen 1992; Portes and Bach 1985) have altered the definition, it has basically followed the general conceptualization of immigrant enclaves.

The term ethnic enclave economy has come to stand for the economic advantage of location clustering (Light and Gold 2000). Some argue that one of the benefits of ethnic enclaves is protection from discrimination (Portes and Bach 1985; Zhou 1992). Accordingly, ethnic enclaves allow workers from discriminated groups to overcome the barriers for which they are punished in mainstream labor markets. As such, the process of ethnic enclave formation compensates for background deficits and discrimination that ethnic groups encounter in the general labor market. Examples of successful groups in ethnic enclaves include Japanese Americans in the early twentieth century (Bonacich and Modell 1980) and Cubans in contemporary Miami (Portes and Jensen 1992).

In contrast, some argue that ethnic enclaves are used to maintain and enforce sweatshop conditions, including low-wages and restrictions against union organizing (Sanders and Nee 1987). Additionally, ethnic enclaves may fuel paternalistic ethnic assistantship in which immigrants who depend on kinship or ethnic-group assistance in the initial stage of adaptation to a host society may become caught in a web of obligations that interfere with rational pursuits of economic opportunities (Li 1977). Furthermore, as long as immigrant and minority workers are restricted to ethnic enclaves, entrepreneurs can profit from the surplus of cheap labor (Schrover 2001) and impede upward mobility by restricting the accumulation of skills (e.g., proficiency in English) to compete in general labor markets (Sanders and Nee 1987). Indeed, in a study of Cuban and Chinese immigrants, Jimmy Sanders and Victor Nee (1987) observed that the positive economic rewards of the ethnic enclave apply only to entrepreneurs but not to their workers.

In sum, immigrants, and their native-born counterparts to a lesser extent, participate in ethnic enclaves because of their limited human capital, their exclusion from mainstream labor markets, and as a protective mechanism from discrimination. However, there is no agreement about the benefits of these ethnic enclaves, particularly in light of the characteristics often associated with themunsafe working conditions, low-wages particularly for rank-and-file laborers, workers being overburdened with obligations, and the entrapment of workers that impedes their acquisition of the human-capital resources needed to gain greater economic rewards.

SEE ALSO Assimilation; Ethnic Enterprises; Immigrants to North America; Networks


Averitt, Robert T. 1968. The Dual Economy: The Dynamics of American Industry Structure. New York: Norton.

Bonacich, Edna, and John Modell. 1980. The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Business in the Japanese American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burawoy, Michael. 1976. The Functions and Reproduction of Migrant Labor: Comparative Material from Southern Africa and the United States. American Journal of Sociology 81: 10501087.

Edwards, Richard C. 1975. The Social Relations on Production in the Firm and Labor Market Structure. In Labor Market Segmentation, eds. Richard C. Edwards, Michael Reich, and David M. Gordon, 326. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1971. The New Industrial State. New York: Mentor.

Gordon, David. 1972. Theories of Poverty and Underemployment: Orthodox, Radical, and Dual Labor Market. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Hanna, W. J., and J. L. Hanna. 1967. The Integrative Role of Urban Africas Middleplaces and Middlemen. Civilisation 17 (12): 1239.

Li, Peter S. 1977. Occupational Achievement and Kinship Assistance among Chinese Immigrants in Chicago. The Sociological Quarterly 18: 478489.

Light, Ivan, and Steven Gold. 2000. Ethnic Economies. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Model, Suzanne W. 1985. A Comparative Perspective on the Ethnic Enclave: Blacks, Italians, and Jews in New York City. International Migration Review 19 (1): 6481.

Piore, Michael J. 1979. Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Portes, Alejandro. 1981. Modes of Structural Incorporation and Present Theories of Labor Immigration. In Global Trends in Migration: Theory and Research on International Population Movements, eds. Mary Kritz, Charles B. Keely, and Silvano Tomasi, 2033. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Portes, Alejandro, and Robert Bach. 1985. Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Portes, Alejandro, and Leif Jensen. 1992. Disproving the Enclave Hypothesis. American Sociological Review 57: 418420.

Portes, Alejandro, and Robert D. Manning. 1985. The Ethnic Enclave: Theoretical and Empirical Examples. International Review of Community Development 14 (Autumn): 4561.

Portes, Alejandro, and Alex Stepick. 1985. Unwelcome Immigrants: The Labor Experience of 1980 (Mariel) Cuban and Haitian Refugees in South Florida. American Sociological Review 50 (4): 493514.

Sanders, Jimmy M., and Victor Nee. 1987. Limits of Ethnic Solidarity in the Enclave Economy. American Sociological Review 52: 745767.

Sassen-Koob, Saskia. 1978. The International Circulation of Resources and Development: The Case of Migration Labor. Development and Change 9: 509545.

Schrover, Marlou. 2001. Immigrant Business and Niche Formation in Historical Perspective: The Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 27: 295311.

Tolbert, Charles M., Patrick M. Horan, and E. M. Beck. 1980. The Structure of Economic Segmentation: A Dual Economy Approach. American Journal of Sociology 85: 10951116.

Wilson, Kenneth L., and Alejandro Portes. 1980. Immigrant Enclaves: An Analysis of the Labor Market Experiences of Cubans in Miami. American Journal of Sociology 86: 295319.

Zhou, Min. 1992. Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

M. Cristina Morales

Rogelio Saenz