Migration and cultures

Authored by: Yen Le Espiritu

Handbook of Cultural Sociology

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415474450
eBook ISBN: 9780203891377
Adobe ISBN: 9781134026159


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US immigration studies have been greatly influenced by the historical production of immigrants as bearers of cultural difference. The dominant theories in the field—theories of assimilation (including segmented assimilation), amalgamation, the “melting pot,” and cultural pluralism (or multiculturalism)—all conceptualize the immigrants’ “original” culture as fundamentally opposed to native and white “American” culture. Though prescribing different outcomes, these immigration theories focus on the degrees of transformations of ethnic consciousness—that is, how much individuals or communities assimilate into American life or retain their community-of-origin ties. The present essay argues that this conceptualization of cultural identity—as bipolar and linear—promotes a discourse of race in which “cultural difference,” defined as innate and abstracted from unresolved histories of racial inequality, is used to explain or explain away historically produced social inequalities. Here, I challenge the very authority and authenticity of the term “cultural identity,” asserting instead that culture—or, more precisely, culture-making—is a social, historical, and transnational process that exposes multiple and interrelated forms of power relations and that articulates new forms of immigrant subjectivity, collectivity, and practice.

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