What Is Cultural Assimilation?

An Asian employee watches presentation with young, creative teams.

Kelvin Murray / Getty Images

What Is Cultural Assimilation?

Cultural Assimilation

Cultural assimilation refers to the process in which a minority group or culture assumes the behaviors, values, rituals, and beliefs of their host nation’s majority group.

The term cultural assimilation is often used to describe immigrants who have migrated to new locations; however, it is also used to discuss Indigenous groups. As a result, it comes in two forms:

  • Forced assimilation
  • Full assimilation

People are often encouraged or pressured to culturally assimilate, but these changes are often forced. Indigenous, immigrant, and ethnic minority groups often change or hide elements of their own culture, including their language, food, clothing, and spiritual practices, in order to adopt the values and social behaviors of the dominant culture. 

Those who advocate for cultural assimilation believe that it decreased conflict, contributes to a more cohesive national identity, and improves the social and economic opportunities for minority individuals.

Not everyone agrees, however, and suggests that cultural assimilation contributes to the loss of culture and history, increased discrimination and violence, and damage to people's self-esteem and confidence.

While cultural assimilation is often presented as an easy solution, it contributes to other problems and difficulties.

Evolution of the Term

Initially referred to as assimilation, cultural assimilation was defined as the economic, social and political integration of an ethnic minority group into mainstream society. Since then, the assimilation process has been elaborated upon and split into several subprocesses.

Melting Pot Theory

Modern references to cultural assimilation state that it occurs when minority groups take on the culture of the majority group in order to integrate into society. Often, you’ll hear people state that their country or city is a “melting pot.”

What Does the Term "Melting Pot" Mean?

This melting pot theory is a common analogy used to describe cultural assimilation. It is used to describe how different cultures "melt" together to form a new culture, just as metals are heated together to form a new, stronger compound.

While the melting pot theory can be applied to any country, it is usually used to describe the American context. As a result, the melting pot theory has become synonymous with the process of Americanization.

While the melting pot theory suggests that people will integrate into the dominant society, critics suggest that this process harms diversity and leads to cultural loss. Instead, some people promote the idea of multiculturalism, utilizing metaphors such as a mosaic or puzzle in which people are able to come together yet retain their unique culture.

Voluntary vs. Forced Cultural Assimilation

As stated above, cultural assimilation comes in two primary forms:

Voluntary Assimilation
  • Integration into the dominant culture over generations

  • Occurs over time

  • Often in response to pressure from a more predominant culture, and conformity is a solution for people to remain in safety


Forced Assimilation
  • Minority groups are forced to give up their identities

  • Involves a threat of violence

  • Occurs quickly

  • Non-consensual

  • Example: The residential school system in the USA and Canada


  • Voluntary assimilation: This is when members of the minority group become indistinguishable from those of the dominant group. This form of assimilation occurs in stages or over the course of generations. In this form, assimilation is usually easier for the children of immigrants as they are either born, socialized, or educated in the dominant culture from a young age. It is important to remain mindful that voluntary assimilation is often in response to pressure from a more predominant culture, and conformity is a solution for people to stay safe and survive.
  • Forced assimilation: This is when a minority or Indigenous group is forced to give up their cultural identity, language, norms, and customs to fit into the dominant group. As a result, forced assimilation tends to occur much quicker due to the threat of violence. This process was conducted after an area changed nationality after a war; however, it has had other applications throughout history, such as the forced assimilation and traumatization of Native Americans for centuries, with residential schools operating as recently as 1996.

Acculturation can also occur. This is a form of assimilation in which people from a minority group accept some of the beliefs, customs, or behaviors of the dominant group, but still keep some of their own cultural traditions and customs.

History of Cultural Assimilation

Even though cultural assimilation has taken place throughout history, most academic research into it focuses on the U.S. context and race relations due to its history of immigration.

That said, while it is a common process attributed to the States, it is still a divisive political issue—with some politicians and the public holding the view that European immigrants assimilated quicker in the past than minority groups are doing in the present.

The United States has struggled with steady and significant hostility toward immigrants, indigenous communities, and anyone perceived as an "other." Today and historically, many White Americans in this country have viewed immigrants and ethnic minorities as a threat to the nation’s culture, fearing differences among us and putting direct and indirect pressure on those who do not conform to do so, including through threats and violence.

Some immigrants, ethnic minorities, and their children may have a desire to assimilate, but lack knowledge or resources regarding how to do so. Others may not have cared about assimilating, but eventually felt the urge or pressure to blend in. Regardless of their attitude, the pressure of cultural assimilation is ever-present.

Cultural Assimilation Was Meant to Limit Self-Segregation

However, during this period of time, immigrants were encouraged to assimilate as a means to achieve social stability and economic success. It was thought that by “Americanizing,” these individuals would minimize instances of “self-segregation.” It was assumed that having everyone under one uniform belief system would eradicate intergroup rivalry for jobs and resources.

However, this point of view was eventually seen as problematic for various reasons. For example, scholars argued that this idea created a hierarchy of citizenship whereby those able to integrate fully were afforded more capital.

The Concept of "Passing"

In addition, those able to "pass" (meaning someone of a minority group whose physical appearance looks like the dominant group, e.g., a Latino person who looks White) as the dominant culture would be rewarded with greater benefits, while those of other ethnicities would be penalized — even though this isn’t something under their control.

"Passing" is a complex phenomenon as it perpetuates racism and emotional distress as many folks who realize they may benefit from the advantages of "passing" have made them complicit in a system that oppresses and harms others.

Is Cultural Assimilation a Good or Bad Thing?

While cultural assimilation may help immigrants and ethnic minorities feel safer or more accepted by the dominant culture, research into its effects has been mixed.

For example, a 2011 study into the effects of assimilation on immigrant adolescents found that those living in non-poverty areas experienced increased educational achievements and better psychological well-being. However, there was also an increase in at-risk behavior. In contrast, they found that it negatively impacted immigrant children living in poorer locations.

A different study into immigrant households found that brothers with more foreign names faced higher unemployment rates, completed fewer years of school, earned less, and were more likely to marry foreign-born spouses. As for current discussions around cultural assimilation, they tend to focus on the psychological welfare of immigrants.

For example, it can lead to a loss of identity and cause significant psychological stress on immigrants. These can range from homesickness to depression and severe mental illness.

In addition, the act of migration can cause an individual to experience cultural bereavement — a form of grief caused by the loss of one’s culture and, thus, a core aspect of their identity. This can be further exacerbated by the loss of key cultural markers such as language, traditions, customs, and food, which can also intensify the alienation felt by an individual when trying to relate to someone (or a family member) from the country of their origin.

Effects of Cultural Assimilation

Cultural assimilation can lead to both positive and negative outcomes:

Positive

  • Immigrants may feel safer and a greater sense of belonging to the dominant culture
  • Immigrants who assimilate may experience a higher quality of living and better mental health

Negative

  • Those belonging to minority groups may feel a loss of identity
  • Minority groups may experience mental health struggles as a result of losing or becoming distant from their cultural strengths

Things to Consider When Discussing Cultural Assimilation

Cultural assimilation occurring voluntarily over time can be neutral as assimilation following migration can be helpful in connecting to and navigating a new culture.

Forced Assimilation Is a Form of Violence

However, forcing minority groups to adopt cultural practices that are not their own is problematic at best and violent at worst. After all, while cultural assimilation has been beneficial for some minority groups and the dominant cultures they come in contact with, forced assimilation has caused the violent extinction of many others. Therefore, it is vital to be as nuanced as possible when discussing cultural assimilation.

Furthermore, it is essential to reconcile with the pressures minority groups face to assimilate into host nations. For some of these individuals, assimilation may be the only means they see to succeed in society.

Therefore, it is critical for those part of the dominant group in a particular society to recognize and fight back against any attempts to force individuals to give up their culture. After all, cultural diversity can bring positive psychological and behavioral benefits.

A Word From Verywell

Cultural assimilation is a complex subject, so it is important to maintain sensitivity and consideration when reflecting upon it. Indigenous people, ethnic minorities, and immigrants often experience assimilation in different ways, so it is essential to use care when discussing and reflecting on how it occurs and the impact it may have.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Holohan S, Holohan. Assimilation. Anheier H, Juergensmeyer M, eds. In: Encyclopedia of Global Studies. SAGE Publications; 2012:93. DOI:10.4135/9781452218557

  2. Keefe S, Padilla A. Chicano Ethnicity. University of New Mexico Press; 1987.

  3. Maddern S. Melting pot theory. Wiley Online Library; 2013. DOI:10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm359

  4. European Center for Populism Studies. Melting pot.

  5. Blakemore E. How native Americans taught both assimilation and resistance at Indian schools. JSTOR Daily.

  6. Alba R, Nee V. Rethinking assimilation theory for a new era of immigration. International Migration Review. 1997;31(4):826. DOI:10.2307/2547416

  7. Abramitzky R, Boustan L, Eriksson K. Do Immigrants Assimilate More Slowly Today than in the Past?. Am Econ Rev Insights. 2020;2(1):125–141. DOI:10.1257/aeri.20190079

  8. Abramitzky R, Platt Boustan L, Eriksson K. Cultural assimilation during the age of mass migration. National Bureau of Economic Research.

  9. Xie Y, Greenman E. The social context of assimilation: testing implications of segmented assimilation theory. Soc Sci Res. 2011;40(3):965–984. DOI:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2011.01.004

  10. Abramitzky R, Boustan LP, Eriksson K. Cultural Assimilation during the Age of Mass Migration. Social Science Research Network; 2016.

  11. Bhugra D, Becker MA. Migration, cultural bereavement and cultural identity. World Psychiatry. 2005;4(1):18–24. 

  12. Callan E. The ethics of assimilation. Ethics. 2005;115(3):471–500. DOI:10.1086/428460

  13. Crisp RJ, Turner RN. Cognitive adaptation to the experience of social and cultural diversity. Psychol Bull. 2011;137(2):242–266. DOI:10.1037/a0021840