Opinion. Are you confused about integration and assimilation?


Ilkhom Khalimzoda, Researcher

Turiba University, Latvia/ University of Jyväskylä, Finland

I was once invited to a panel discussion as an immigrant living in Latvia who could share some knowledge and learn from others about migration in general. Foreign experts from several European countries, policy makers and politicians from Latvia were among the panelists. I was prepared for a short talk about my activism as an advocate for promotion of the integration of third country nationals living in Latvia, who are from the same culture or geographic area as myself. However, I was decided to change the content of my speech while I was listening to one of the speakers of the panel we shared. The reason was the usage of the word ‘assimilation’ by a politician giving speech about immigrants. He said:  “Immigrants must be assimilated here so that we can live in harmony”. In my view, he was using the understading of integration as assimilation which is misleading, intentional or not. Many of us are aware that we are living in the information age.  We receive tons of information every day, and we all hear about integration and assimilation primarily from politicians, policy makers, academics, journalists and etc.. These two important words are among  the most heard but least understood, in my opinion.  To assimilate or integrate may be individuals’ choice, but I changed my topic to tackle this terminological issue right there since the definition he used was not one for assimilation, and the strategy I used to go through, as an immigrant, is called integration. That is the motivation behind this short article which reflects on my brief description of the crucial words we are used to hear so often.

Integration vs Assimilation

There is evidence that during the course of the period of major acculturation, individuals explore various strategies, eventually settling on one that they find more useful and satisfying (Kim, 1988). Many modern acculturation theories claim that ethnic minorities (including aboriginal natives, immigrants, refugees, and sojourners) can favour either the dominant culture, or their own minority culture, or both, or neither

When we are talking about immigrants’ way of interaction, and in what forms they reside in host country, there are several strategies or models to go through. According to John W. Berry, Professor Emeritus from Queen’s University, when individuals do not wish to maintain their cultural identity and seek daily interaction with other cultures, the Assimilation strategy is selected. In contrast, when individuals place a value on holding on to their original culture, and at the same time wish to avoid interaction with others, then the Separation alternative is selected. When there is an interest in both maintaining one’s original culture while maintaining daily interactions with other groups, Integration is the option; here some degree of cultural integrity is preserved at the same time seeking to participate as an integral part of the larger social network. Finally, when there is  little interest in having relations with others, often for reasons of exclusion or discrimination, it is  called Marginalisation.

Integration can only be freely chosen and successfully pursued by non-dominant groups when the dominant society is open and inclusive in its orientation towards cultural diversity (Berry, 1991).

Nevertheless, the term is sometimes wrongly used instead of assimilation, as exemplified by a common expression such as “he is very much acculturated to . .. ” implying “he is very much assimilated into . . . ” a given society or culture. In recent years, while many countries have come to acknowledge the “un-workable” nature of assimilation as a general settlement policy principle(Berry, Poortinga, Segall & Dasen, 2002), together with increased growth in global migration, there has been a proliferation of new terms such as “biculturalism,” “multiculturalism,” “integration,” “re-socialization” and “ethnic identity.”

Berry (1990,1997, 2003), on the other hand, regards assimilation to be one of four strategies an individual may use during the acculturation process. Berry defined “assimilation” to be the situation where either (i) an individual turns his back on his original cultural background and identity, and chooses to identify and interact with the members of the host society, or (ii) the host society expects foreigners to adapt wholly to the culture of the larger national society. Assimilation on the other hand, is unidirectional in its influence (i.e., a host group unilaterally exerts some influence on another group). From a sociological perspective, Simons (1901) regarded acculturation to be a two-way process of “reciprocal accommodation.” She nevertheless equated the word to the English term “assimilation” and defined “assimilation” as the process of adjustment or accommodation which occurs between the members of two different races giving rise to the synonymous use of the terms.

“Assimilation” and “acculturation” have from the outset been regarded as synonymous even though they come from two different social science disciplines. While anthropologists preferred to use the term “acculturation” sociologists preferred to use the term “assimilation.” Furthermore, anthropologists’ use of the term “acculturation” was primarily concerned with how so-called “primitive” societies changed to become more “civilized” following cultural contact with an enlightened group of people. On the other hand, sociologists’ use of the term “assimilation” or “acculturation” was more directed towards “immigrants” who, through contact with the “host nationals”, gradually conformed to the ways of life of the host society.

The goals of diversity and equity maintenance strategy correspond closely to the integration and multiculturalism strategies (combining cultural maintenance with inclusive participation), whereas the push for uniformity resembles the assimilation and so called ‘melting pot’ approach (see Berry, 1984).

For example, integration involves two positive strategies. Newcomers try to adjust to the cultural norms of the host society but keep their values and some of the native signs and symbols.  Marginalisation involves two negative strategies, both towards native and towards hosting society, while assimilation involve one positive orientation towards host society and another negative towards newcomers. Separation involve one positive strategy -  towards  person’s native culture and negative relationship with host society.

This has been studied, for example, in the case of  Indian immigrants to the USA (Krishnan & Berry, 1992) and Third World immigrant youth in Norway (Sam & Berry, 1995); and elsewhere. After working with a variety of immigrant groups in Germany, Schmitz (1992:368) concluded : “The findings suggest that integration seems to be the most effective strategy if we take long term health and well-being as indicators.” Similarly, with regard to identity, positive psychological outcomes for immigrants tend to be related to a strong identification with both their ethnic group and the larger society (Phinney & Liebkind). Thus, integration seems to be negatively correlated with neuroticism, aggressiveness, impulsivity, anxiety and field-dependence, and positively correlated with extraversion, emotional stability, sociability, agreeableness, sensation seeking and open-mindedness. Assimilation showed positive correlations with agreeableness and sociability, but also with neuroticism, anxiety, closed-mindedness and field-dependence. (Kosic, 2005). I am encouraging readers to promote integration in our societies and work hand to hand to decrease other options such as assimilation, marginalisation and separation to have inclusive and diverse society. 


A. Kosic, L. Mannetti, and D. Lackland. The role of majority attitudes towards out-group in the perception of the acculturation strategies of immigrants. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29 (2005), 273–288.

D. Parisi, F. Cecconi, and F.Natale. Cultural change in spatial environments: the role of cultural assimilation and internal changes in cultures.  Journal of Conflict Resolution, 47/2 (2003), 163-179.

John W. Berry.  Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46/1 (1997), 5-68.

J.S.Phinney, K. Liebkind. Immigrant groups in Germany. The Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues, (2001), 493-510.

Kim, Y.H. Review of Cultural Psychology. Journal of Social Psychology, 150/

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