Centre for Development Economics
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics


Segmented Assimilation: A Minority’s Dilemma


Prof. Arijit Sen
IIM Calcutta


19th November 2018 (Monday) at 11:00 AM

Venue: Seminar Room (First Floor)
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics

All are cordially invited

Over the last twenty years, sociologists have studied the phenomenon of mainstream assimilation of successive generations of non-white immigrants in the US and in other OECD countries.  Regarding the assimilation experience of immigrant populations, the sociological theory of segmented assimilation – initiated by Portés and Zhou (1993) – states that in assimilating with the mainstream, an immigrant population fractures into multiple segments over successive generations, with some advantaged segments assimilating with the mainstream and other disadvantaged segments dissociating from the mainstream and assimilating among themselves.

The premise of the current paper is that such a pattern of ‘segmented assimilation’ also exists for various minority communities (who are not necessarily immigrants) in different countries – the African-Americans in the US, the Palestinians in Israel, the Muslims in India, and the Hindus in Pakistan. Some empirical evidence lends support to this premise.

This paper presents a theoretical study of minority assimilation trajectories in a model of multigenerational decision-making by minority individuals in the presence of mainstream economic opportunities. We consider an environment where the minority population is initially located at different positions in a ‘minority culture continuum’, and where each person can consciously alter her inherited cultural traits (to some extent) in response to socio-economic incentives.

We identify distinct conditions under which the long-run minority equilibrium will involve segmented assimilation as opposed complete assimilation (either in the minority village or in the mainstream city). We show that when the initial minority culture distribution is left-skewed and when there are significant benefits in coming closer to the dominant local culture (both in the minority village and in the mainstream city), a ‘segmented assimilation strategy’ is optimal for minority individuals for a

large range of mainstream economic returns. This segmented assimilation strategy is one in which each minority individual takes the following decision: “If I am born close enough to the majority culture, I will culture-shift towards the mainstream in order to improve my mainstream opportunities; otherwise I will dissociate from the mainstream and assimilate with my traditional minority peers.”

Such behavior over successive generations leads to the segmented assimilation of a minority population over time, thereby creating greater economic and social inequality and greater polarization within the minority community vis-à-vis the mainstream. That is the minority’s dilemma.

Having derived sufficient conditions that guarantee segmented assimilation of the minority population in the long run, we delineate specific features of alternative segmented assimilation trajectories. In this context, our analysis uncovers the following possibilities.

  • Equilibrium assimilation trajectories can exhibit hysteresis: Consider two minority members born at the same culture-position in the same generation. Then different short-term shocks regarding opportunities to culture-shift and/or migrate can ensure that the progeny of one member escape to the mainstream city while the progeny of the other get perpetually entrenched in the minority village.
  • Sons can become more fanatic: Equilibrium trajectories can be such that in the early generations all minority members pursue a ‘mainstream-focused assimilation strategy’ in that she culture-shifts towards the mainstream and/or migrates to the city if given a chance, while in later generations some minority members pursue the segmented assimilation strategy described above

Affirmative action policies can increase the possibility of segmented assimilation:  If an affirmative action policy increases the mainstream migration opportunities of only those minority members who have succeeded in shifting very close to the mainstream culture, then that can increase the incentives of some minority members to adopt the segmented assimilation strategy.

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