Section: Forum

This paper was presented as the national report for the United States at an International Commission on Historical Demography session, 17th International Congress of Historical Sciences, Madrid, August 30, 1990. An earlier version appeared in Altreitalie, and is published here in slightly revised form. The article appears courtesy of Altreitalie, International Review of Studies on the peoples of Italian origin in the world, published by Edizioni della Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, and appeared originally in Issue No. 3 April 1990. Future issues of Altreitalie will also include a discussion of this article.

Since the United States has received recurring waves of mass immigration, a persistent theme of American history has been that of the incorporation of the foreign born into the body politic and social fabric of the country. The dominant interpretation both in American historiography and nationalist ideology had been one of rapid and easy assimilation. Various theories which predicted this outcome, i.e., Anglo-conformity and the Melting Pot, shaped the underlying assumptions of several generations of historians and social scientists.[ 1]

Historical studies in the United States over the past two decades have called these assumptions into question. Scholars have increasingly emphasized the determined resistance with which immigrants often opposed Americanization and their strenuous efforts at language and cultural maintenance. They no longer portray immigrants as moving in a straight-line manner from old-world cultures to becoming Americans. At the same time recent studies agree that the immigrants’ “traditional” cultures did not remain unchanged. Rather immigration historians have become increasingly interested in the processes of cultural and social change whereby immigrants ceased to be “foreigners” and yet did not become “One Hundred Per Cent Americans.” From immigrants they are said to have become ethnic Americans of one kind or another.[ 2]

Ethnicity has therefore become a key concept in the analysis of this process of immigrant adaptation. Classical social theories as applied to the study of immigrant populations as well as indigenous peoples had predicted the inevitable crumbling of “traditional” communities and cultures before the forces of modernization.[ 3] However, from the 1960s on, the rise of ethnic movements in the United States and throughout the world have demonstrated an unexpected persistence and vitality of ethnicity as a source of group identity and solidarity. These phenomena stimulated an enormous amount of research and writing on the nature of ethnicity as a form of human collectivity.[ 4]

Although there are many definitions of ethnicity, several have dominated discussions of immigrant adaptation. One, stemming from the writings of anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Harold Isaacs, has emphasized its primordial character, originating in the “basic group identity” of human beings. In this view, persons have an essential need for “belonging” which is satisfied by groups based on shared ancestry and culture. For some commentators, like Michael Novak, such primordial ethnicity continued to influence powerfully the descendants of the immigrants even unto the third and fourth generations. Others, like sociologist Herbert Gans, have dismissed the vestiges of immigrant cultures as “symbolic ethnicity,” doomed to fade away before the irresistible forces of assimilation.[ 5]

A different conception of ethnicity, initially proposed by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan, deemphasizes the cultural component and defines ethnic groups as interest groups. In this view, ethnicity serves as a means of mobilizing a certain population behind issues relating to its socioeconomic position in the larger society. Given the uneven distribution of power, prestige, and wealth among the constituent groups in polyethnic societies and the ensuing competition for scarce goods, people, so the argument goes, can be organized more effectively on the basis of ethnicity than of social class. Leadership and ideologies play important roles in this scenario of “emergent ethnicity.” While “primordial ethnicity” both generates its own dynamic and is an end in itself, “interest group ethnicity” is instrumental and situational.[ 6]

The authors of this essay propose to explore a recently formulated conceptualization: “the invention of ethnicity.”[ 7] With Werner Sollors, we do not view ethnicity as primordial (ancient, unchanging, inherent in a group’s blood, soul, or misty past), but we differ from him in our understanding of ethnicity as a cultural construction accomplished over historical time. In our view, ethnicity is not a “collective fiction,” but rather a process of construction or invention which incorporates, adapts, and amplifies preexisting communal solidarities, cultural attributes, and historical memories. That is, it is grounded in real life context and social experience.

Ethnic groups in modern settings are constantly recreating themselves, and ethnicity is continuously being reinvented in response to changing realities both within the group and the host society. Ethnic group boundaries, for example, must be repeatedly renegotiated, while expressive symbols of ethnicity (ethnic traditions) must be repeatedly reinterpreted. By historicizing the phenomenon, the concept of invention allows for the appearance, metamorphosis, disappearance, and reappearance of ethnicities. This essay will seek to illustrate the processes which we believe account for periods of florescence and decline, for continuities and innovations, for phases of saliency and quiescence, in the histories of particular ethnic groups.

The invention of ethnicity furthermore suggests an active participation by the immigrants in defining their group identities and solidarities. The renegotiation of its “traditions” by the immigrant group presumes a collective awareness and active decision-making as opposed to the passive, unconscious individualism of the assimilation model. In inventing its ethnicity, the group sought to determine the terms, modes, and outcomes of its accommodation to “others.” We conceive of this as a process of negotiation not only between immigrant group and dominant culture, but among various immigrant groups as well. One of the virtues of this research strategy is that it focuses upon relationships among specific immigrant groups and between them and the dominant ethnoculture, in this case, the Anglo American. These interactions, which could be competitive, cooperative, or conflictual, and perhaps a combination of all three, are seen as essential components of the process of ethnic group formation and definition.[ 8]

Immigrant groups themselves were by no means homogeneous; they were divided by varying combinations of regional origin, dialect, class, politics, and religion. Internal debates and struggles over the nature of the group’s emerging ethnicity were inevitable. One of the purposes of invented traditions was to provide symbols and slogans which could unify the group despite such differences. The symbolic umbrella of the ethnic culture had to be broad and flexible enough to serve several, often contradictory, purposes: provide the basis for solidarity among the potential members of the group; mobilize the group to defend its cultural values and to advance its claims to power, status, and resources; and, at the same time, defuse the hostility of the mainstream ethnoculture by depicting the compatibility of the sidestream ethnoculture (to use Joshua Fishman’s term) with American principles and ideals. On the level of individual psychology, the invention of ethnicity sought to reconcile the duality of the “foreignness” and the “Americanness” which the immigrants and their children experienced in their everyday lives.

The concept of the invention of ethnicity also helps us to understand how immigration transformed the larger American society, engendering a new pluralistic social order. Once ethnicity had been established as a category in American social thought, each contingent of newcomers had to negotiate its particular place within that social order. Anglo Americans had to assimilate these distinctive groups into their conception of the history and future of “their” country, and to prescribe appropriate social and cultural arrangements. Inevitably all Americans, native born and immigrant, were involved in a continual renegotiation of identities. Further, a process of syncretism occurred by which much of ethnic cultures was incorporated into changing definitions of what was American and what it meant to be an American. Without corresponding to either the Anglo-conformity or Melting Pot models of assimilation, the interaction of mainstream ethnoculture and sidestream ethnoculture wrought major changes in both.[ 9]

These prefatory observations will be developed in several parts of this essay. An initial section will expand upon the origins of ethnicity as a form of identity in nineteenth-century America The following section will discuss how contextuality and periodicity affected the process of invention. Then we shall present three case studies drawing upon recent work focusing upon particular moments in the invention of specific ethnicities, and conclude with speculations on the direction of future research.


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