Assimilation: Definitions, Nature and Other Details



Assimilation: Definitions, Nature and Other Details!

A term synonymous with acculturation, used to describe the process by which an outsider, immigrant, or subordinate group becomes indistinguishably integrated into the dominant host society (Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 1994). Acculturation, on the other hand, is a process of culture change set in motion by meeting of two auton­omous cultural systems.

It modifies cultures, without a complete blending of the two cultures. Acculturation, therefore, implies modification but not complete assimilation. Assimilation is different from accommodation whereby the subordinate group simply conformed to the expectations of the dominant group.

Assimilation implied that the subordinate group actually came to accept and inter­nalise the values and culture of the group. In accommodation, the mental distance and 'inactive intolerance' continue. In assimilation, the psychological distance is completely overcome and perfect identity of shared experiences is a precondition. Accommodation is a first step to assimilation. Assimilation is also different from the analogous process of amalgamation, which is a biological phenomenon.

It is a process of cross-breeding to the production of hybrid offspring and the blending of racial stocks through inter-marriage and intimating. Assimilation, on the other hand, is a cultural, social and psychological phenomenon. On one hand, it involves the fusion of cultural heritages, and, on the other hand, the modification of sentiments and attitudes and the gradual incorpo­ration of the strangers into the cultural group.

The two processes are thus quite different from each other. One is biological, the other is sociological; one is a fusion of cultures, the other is blending of racial stocks. Like socialisation, accommodation is also a process of learning.


According to Park and Burgess (1921), "assimilation is a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, attitudes of other persons or groups and by sharing their experiences and history are incorporated with them in a cultural life".

Ogburn and Nimkoff (1958) write: "Assimilation is the process whereby individuals or groups once dissimilar become similar, i.e., become identified in their interests and outlooks."

Horton and Hunt (1964) defined it as, "the process of mutual cultural diffusion through which persons and groups become culturally alike".

According to Schaffer and Lamm (1992), "assimilation is the process by which a person forsakes his or her own cultural tradition to become part of a different culture".

Summarising the above views about assimilation, it may be said that assimilation is a process of fusion or blending, whereby cultural differences tend to disappear and individuals and groups once dissimilar become similar. It results in the modification of attitudes, values, patterns of thinking and ultimately behaviour. Husbands and wives, starting marriage with dissimilar backgrounds, often develop a surprising unity of interest and purpose. In the long run they become more or less similar in their attitude toward life and family.


Assimilation takes place slowly, gradually and to a considerable extent without conscious effort and direction. The speed of the process of assimilation depends upon the nature of contacts. If the contacts are primary, assimilation occurs naturally and rapidly but if they are secondary, i.e., indirect and superficial, the result is accom­modation and not assimilation.

It takes quite some-time before individuals or groups dissimilar become similar i.e.; become identified in their interests and outlook. Children are gradually assimilated into adult society as they grow up and learn how to behave? Assimilation occurs through the mechanisms of imitation and suggestion.

Assimilation is a matter of degree. Complete assimilation of an individual into a culture takes considerable time and is seldom if ever achieved within his lifetime. Such a person exhibits behaviour that reflects elements of both cultures. He has been labeled as a 'marginal man'. In large society, complete assimilation is perhaps hypothetical.

Assimilation is a two-way process when it happens between two cultural groups. Each group contributing varying proportions of the eventual blend. The alien group not only contributes to the host culture but retain many of their own ways. As a result, there is cultural pluralism which may reflect incomplete assimilation. Should the minority group be forced to assimilate the culture of the majority group is a very controversial question.


The process of assimilation takes place mainly at three levels:

(i) Individual,

(ii) Group, And

(iii) Culture.

Individual Level:

A socialised individual when enters or joins a new group having different cultural patterns, he or she has to adopt new patterns of values, habits, customs and beliefs of the other group in order to be fully accepted by the new group. In course of time, he or she becomes assimilated into the second group.

Indian women after marriage start with dissimilar backgrounds and develop a surprising unity of interests and identify herself with the family of her husband. The tendency is to conform to other's behaviour pattern and differences in time may largely disappear.

Group Level:

When two groups with dissimilar patterns of behaviour come in close contact, they inevitably affect each other. In this process, it is generally seen that the weaker group would do more of the borrowing from and would give very little to the stronger group. For instance, when we came in contact with Britishers, being a weaker group, we have adopted many cultural elements of the Britishers but they have adopted a very few cultural elements from Indian society.

The adoption of elements of dominant culture paves the way for total absorption, if not checked, of the new cultural group with the dominant culture. Similarly, immigrants in America or Britain usually adopt the material traits (dress pattern, food habits etc.) easily in order to adjust themselves in the new cultural environment.

Culture level:

When two cultures merge to produce a third culture which, while somewhat distinct, has features of both merging cultures. In western countries chiefly but also in developing countries to some extent, rural and urban cultures which were radically different are, with rapidly increasing communication, merging as differences continue to disappear although they still exist.


Two types of assimilation have been identified:

Cultural assimilation and structural assimilation

Cultural Assimilation:

Assimilation, as said above, is a two-way process: persons (such as immigrants) must want to be assimilated and the host society must be willing to have them assimilate. The immigrant must undergo cultural assimilation, learning the day-to-day norms of the dominant culture pertaining to dress, language, food, recreation, games and sports. This process also involves internalizing the more critical aspects of culture such as values, ideas, beliefs and attitudes.

Structural Assimilation:

It involves developing patterns of intimate contact between the 'guest' and 'host' groups in clubs, organisations, and institutions of the host society. Cultural assimilation generally precedes structural assimilation, although the two sometimes happen simultaneously.

Conducive Factors:

Factors that contribute or aid to assimilation are:

(1) Tolerance:

Without the attitude of tolerance assimilation is not possible. Tolerance requires the feeling of sacrifice and elimi­nation of strong prejudices. It is a democratic virtue which fosters sympathy.

(2) Intimacy:

Frequent close social contacts and communication are a prerequisite for the start of assimilative process. Intimacy dissolves the walls of ultra-individualism which separates man from man.

(3) Cultural Homogeneity:

Culturally homogenous groups easily assimilate the values and goals of one another. Mutual similarity creates mutual affinities which bring two individuals or groups nearer to each other.

(4) Equal Economic Opportunity:

Equal economic opportunities are required to fill the gap of disparity in wealth. It implies that any increase in the availability of opportunities or equality in their distribution would create conditions favourable to the growth of assimilative process.

(5) Association:

Various associations, clubs, and other places of public meetings help in the assimilative process. When people live in the same vicinity, meet and come together, there is every possibility of the start of the process of assimilation.

(6) Amalgamation or Inter-Marriage:

Amalgamation, though a biological process of cross-breeding, helps in cultural assimi­lation. Through inter-marriages members of different racial stocks come together and adopt the cultural traits of other group.


There are certain factors which retard or hinder the process of assimi­lation.

Some of these are:

(1) Cultural Dissimilarity:

Extreme differences in cultural background act as the most powerful impediment in the way of assimilation. Language and religion are usually considered to be the main constituents of culture. Same religion and language often help in early and speedy assimilative process. Customs and beliefs are other cultural characteristics, which can aid or hinder assimi­lation. When two cultures (or groups) share many common elements, assimilation is accelerated; the absence of such factors acts as a barrier to the process.

(2) Physical Differences:

Differences in physical traits and skin colour present a formidable barrier to assimilation. This we can see between white and Negro (black) races in which discrimination is practised almost everywhere in the world. Physical differences are extremely visible and can be eliminated only by generations of inter-marriage between cultural groups concerned.

(3) Feeling of Superiority and Inferiority:

Such feelings, along with the exploitation of the weaker section (minority group) of the population by stronger one, are contradictory to the assimilative process.

(4) Prejudice:

Stereotypes and ethnocentrism both can operate as barriers to assimilation. Prejudices (prejudgment) may create a social distance between the alien and dominant cultures.

(5) Isolation:

The absence of communicative interaction is isolation. It is a situation deprived of social contacts. Isolation signifies detached position or the act or process of attaining a detached position. It may be spatial separation or organic.


Assimilation is a process of mutual interchange or diffusion of culture through which persons and groups come to share a common culture. It is a process of decreasing differentiation and increasing unification among people. It reduces group conflict by blending differing groups into larger, culturally homogenous groups. Anything which binds people into a larger group will tend to reduce rivalry and conflict between them.

A study by Sherif and Sherif (1953) shows that even there are no real differences or issues to fight over conflict still tends to develop wherever separate group identity is recognised. Assimi­lation removes some but not all possible pressure toward conflict.

The importance of assimilation rests primarily in its elimination of boundary lines as two groups, formerly distinct, assume a common identity. Boundaries help in developing 'in' and 'out' group feelings or the feeling of ethnocentrism (the attitude that one's own culture is superior to others, that one's own beliefs, values and behaviour are more correct than others).

Boundary determination is accomplished through various means such as separate unions, using some distinctive marks (Tilak on the forehead by Hindu males and red Bindi and vermilion by Hindu females), initiation ceremonies etc. To lessen the effect of boundaries, systematic linkage is suggested. Systematic linkage is a process by which groups avoid isolation while maintaining their separate identities.