Social identities and acculturation of immigrants

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Policy Briefs

Social identities reflect the acculturation of immigrants  

The social identities of immigrants are an important dimension of their successful adaptation. Social identities, say University of Victoria researchers, Christoph Schimmele and Zheng Wu, indicate immigrants’ sense of attachment to or alienation from the mainstream culture.

Since the 1970s, Canada population has become increasingly diverse because of immigration from non-European countries. Within the next 2-3 decades, Canada is expected to become a “plurality nation” as the proportional size of the White population declines. This rapid demographic change raises questions about the future of intergroup relations and social cohesion.

According to Schimmele and Wu, the social identities of immigrants need to be understood in terms of their level of acculturation into Canadian society. They observe that “social identities are a reflection of the incorporation of immigrants into the mainstream and their personal commitment to the host community.”

In a recent research, Schimmele and Wu investigated how the host community influences the social identities of non-European immigrants. The authors observe that this social context is “an essential, but often overlooked, factor of adaptation.” Most recent immigrants are non-White and face a color barrier to assimilation or integration. Their paper suggests that the ethnic identities of recent immigrants are a barometer for interracial relations. When welcomed, immigrants tend to assimilate or integrate with few problems. But immigrants feel marginalized and tend to adopt non-Canadian identities when prejudice and discrimination is rife.       

Schimmele and Wu observe that a sense of being “Canadian” develops over generations. Most first generation immigrants retain national-origin identities, such as “Chinese’ or “Korean”. Their children tend to adopt hyphenated identities, such as Chinese-Canadian. The authors conclude that this represents intergenerational progress toward identificational assimilation with other Canadians. However, ethnic identity remains important for both first and second generation immigrants, which demonstrates that the acculturation process for recent waves of immigrants is incomplete.   

One of the main concerns is whether discrimination shapes the social identities of immigrants. A reason that some second generation immigrants are hesitant to “drop the hyphen” is because of feelings of being “less Canadian” than Whites. The authors also point out that blocked socioeconomic mobility and social exclusion can discourage immigrants from developing a sense of attachment to the host nation. In some cases, this can even lead to politicized identities that put racial minorities into potential conflict with Whites.   

Despite this, Schimmele and Wu are quick to point out that strong “ethnic identities are not incompatible” with attachment to Canada. Most second generation immigrants are opting for bicultural identities. One of the key messages from their report is that “Canada’s multicultural environment encourages the simultaneous retention of cultural distinctiveness and a sense of belonging to the host nation.

A summary of the study can be found at the Population Change and Lifecourse Cluster Policy Brief: The New Immigration and Ethnic Identity.  

For more information, please contact Dr. Christoph Schimmele, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria.

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