Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

Understanding Immigrants and Their Children Lissette M. Piedra and David W Engstrom

The life model offers social workers a promising framework to use in assisting immigrant families. However, the complexities of adaptation to a new country may make it difficult for social workers to operate from a purely ecological approach. The authors use segmented assimilation theory to better account for the specificities of the immigrant experience. They argue that by adding concepts from segmented assimilation theory to the life model, social workers can better understand the environmental Stressors that increase the vulnerabilities of immigrants to the potentially harsh experience of adapting to a new country. With these concepts, social workers who work with immigrant families will be better positioned to achieve their central goal: enhancing person and environment fit.

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KEY WORDS: acculturation; assimilation; immigrants; life model; second generation

Nearly a century ago, Jane Addams (1910) observed that immigrants needed help integrating their European and American experiences to give them meaning and a sense of relation:

Power to see life as a whole is more needed in the immigrant quarter of the city than anywhere else Why should the chasm between fathers and sons, yawning at the feet of each generation, be made so unnecessarily cruel and impassable to these bewildered immigrants? (p. 172)

The inability of some immigrant families to integrate the cultural capital from the world left behind with the demands of the new society creates a gulf of experience between immigrants and their children that can undermine the parental relation- ship. Today, the issue of family cohesion in the face of acculturative Stressors remains central to the im- migrant experience and creates a sense of urgency because it is so linked with the success of the second generation. The size of the immigrant population and the role their children vill play in future labor markets (Morales & Bonilla, 1993; Sullivan, 2006) moves the problem from the realm of the person to the status of a larger public concern.

Immigrant families are rapidly becoming the “typical” American family. More than one in seven

families in the United States is headed by a foreign- born adult. Children of immigrant parents are the fastest growing segment of the nation’s child popula- tion (Capps, Fix, Ost, Reardon-Anderson, & Passel, 2004).The U.S. Census Bureau (2003) reported that slightly more than 14 million children (approxi- mately one in five) live in immigrant families; the percentage is even higher (22 percent) for children under the age of six (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). At a structural level, these changing demographics create large-scale and long-range effects that bear on many social services and many issues of social pohcy (Sullivan, 2006). Specifically, the population growth of native-born children in nonwhite im- migrant families, in the context of an aging white population, has implications for intergenerational and interethnic justice. The native-born children of immigrants will make up a large portion of the future workforce—and of the future contributors to the social security—recipient population (Morales & Bonilla, 1993; Sullivan, 2006).

For many immigrants, relocating to the United States means leaving one cultural universe and enter- ing a new one—a life transition that, unlike other forms of life transitions, can span decades and affect subsequent generations. Immigrant families must grapple with a distinct set of cultural adjustments. Aside from adapting to a new society, immigrant adults rear children in a cultural context that is different—sometimes vastly so—from the one in which they themselves were socialized, and often that context includes speaking a language other than English.

Although contemporary immigrants and their native-born children—the second generation—face the same type of parental estrangement as earlier immigrants did, the social context has changed dramatically. Immigrant families today face the challenges of adaptation in an era of eroded social safety nets and heightened scrutiny of citizenship status (Engstrom, 2006). The industrial era long ago gave way to a more technologically complex society, and the labor market has bifurcated into two sectors: high-skilled work and low-skill work, the latter with correspondingly low wages and often with no benefits (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001 ¡Wilson, 1980, 1987). Many immigrants work in low-wage jobs that provide few or no benefits and little opportunity for advancement.

Segmented assimilation theory identifies factors that contribute to the different rates of acculturation among parents and their offspring; it also explains how intergenerational acculturation patterns affect the way the second generation confronts external obstacles to social mobility (Portes, 1996; Portes, Fernandez-Kelly, & Haller, 2005; Portes & Rum- baut, 2001; Portes & Zhou, 1993; Waters, 1996). Segmented assimilation theory has been used by scholars studying the difficulties immigrant fami- lies have with acculturating to American society. For example, segmented theory has been used to ground case studies (Kelly, 2007) and to under- stand substance use and abuse (Martinez, 2006), educational performance (Stone & Han, 2005),and racial distrust among immigrant minority students (Albertini, 2004). Chapman and Perreira (2005) used segmented assimilation theory to inform aspects of their framework for assessment of the psychosocial risks associated with successful adaptation of Latino youths. Although a useful contribution to the lit- erature. Chapman and Perreira’s (2005) application of the theory is narrowly focused on Latinos and does not make use of this theory’s abihty to explain why some immigrant families have more difficulties with assimilation than others do. The explanatory power of the theory lies in its ability to illuminate factors that contribute to diverse life trajectories among immigrant families.

We argue that by adding concepts from segmented assimilation theory to the life model (Germain &

Gitterman, 1996; Gitterman & Germain, 1976, 2008), social workers can better understand the en- vironmental Stressors that increase the vulnerabilities of immigrants to the potentially harsh experience of adapting to a new country. Furthermore, this enhanced ecological approach can help practitio- ners better understand the crucial role that inter- generational acculturation plays in the challenges that some immigrant parents experience in their efforts to relate to and guide their children. With this expanded view, we believe that social workers who work with immigrant families will be better positioned to achieve their central goal: enhancing person and environment fit.


The life model is particularly relevant for those vorking with immigrants and their children. In- spired by the idea that social work practice should be modeled on life itself, the life model places particular emphasis on the normal life processes of growth, development, and decline (Bandler, 1963; Germain & Gitterman, 1996, Gitterman & Germain, 1976, 2008). These processes, along with human motivation for problem solving and need satisfaction, are understood in the context of the life span. Life-modeled practice, grounded in ecological theory, seeks to maximize the fit between individuals, families, and groups and their environment (Germain & Gitterman, 1996; Gitterman & Germain, 1976, 2008). Capitalizing on reciprocal interactions between people and their environments, interventions are tailored to enhance people’s abihty to meet their needs and to coax the environment to become more amenable to their needs (Germain & Gitterman, 1996; Gitterman & Germain, 1976, 2008; Shulman & Gitterman, 1994). Problems in living (Gitterman & Germain, 1976) were originally conceived as generated by three interrelated sources: (1) stressful life transitions, (2) environmental pressures, and (3) maladaptive interpersonal processes (Shulman & Gitterman, 1994). Later, the hfe model added three new con- ceptual areas that reflect the profession’s evolving sensitivity to social diversity: (1) the recognition of factors that influence vulnerability and oppression; (2) the presence of healthy and unhealthy habitat and niche; and (3) consideration of variations in the life course (the trajectory taken by an individual), with attention to social and cultural determinants of these trajectories (Germain & Gitterman, 1996; Ungar, 2002).

Although these new additions to the life model provide a comprehensive framework for under- standing the myriad challenges facing immigrant families, the life model remains general and unspe- cific regarding factors that affect immigrant families. Other theoretical concepts are needed to address the following key questions regarding the adapta- tion process: What factors influence vulnerability and oppression of immigrants? What are the social and cultural determinants of the various hfe trajec- tories immigrants take? Answering these questions will generate a greater appreciation for the obstacles immigrant families must overcome.


Intergenerational conflict is common in the immi- grant experience, but not all families experience the disdain that some second-generation youths develop toward their immigrant parents and their cultural heritage. Not all immigrant youths prematurely free themselves from parental authority, losing the corresponding support and guidance. Nevertheless, the question remains: How do individual, faniily, and community dynamics intersect with larger contextual forces so as to give rise to divergent as- similation outcomes?

Contemporary sociological theory can help answer this question. Although assimilation—the process by which immigrants and their children integrate into society—is an important concept, it is also a term that has been overused and burdened by extensive qualifications (Portes &c Rumbaut, 2001). Traditional straight-line assimilation, with its assumption of rapid integration and acceptance into the American mainstream, is only one of several possible assimilation outcomes. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) reminded us that assimilation re- mains a cautionary tale and that positive outcomes are by no means guaranteed. They argued for a conceptualization that accounts for the different possible outcomes and variation across immigrant groups. By tracing the divergent assimilation paths of second-generation children to intergenerational acculturation, segmented assimilation theory ex- plains the specific role that immigrant parents and their co-ethnic communities play in helping the second generation to confront external obstacles to social mobility (for example, racial discrimination, a

two-tiered labor market, and inner-city subcultures). The key issue is not whether the assimilation of immigrants and their children will occur; a long historical record proves that it does, even under the direst of circumstances. Rather, in regard to social mobility, the segment of society into which immigrants and their children assimilate carries significantly more weight.

Segmented assimilation theory recognizes that although U.S. society is racially and ethnically di- verse, it is also stratified along socioeconomic lines (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Wilson, 1980, 1987). Socioeconomic status shapes and constrains op- portunities for social mobility. Those at the more impoverished levels of society—the working poor, for example—experience a myriad of obstacles to upward social mobility because the problems associ- ated with poverty are so interlocking that one rever- sal can produce a chain reaction with far-reaching results (Shipler,2004).Low-wage employment with no benefits relegates workers to communities with poorer housing stock, unreliable transportation systems, and inadequate schools. This heightened vulnerability is further accentuated when workers have an illness, are involved in an accident, or are victims of a street crime. Given the corrosive effects of poverty, it is not surprising that, for low-income immigrant families, increased length of residency in the United States coincides with deterioration in the health and school achievement of their children (Hernandez & Charney, 1998; Shields & Behrman,2004).

Perhaps the most useful contribution segmented assimilation theory has to offer is the idea that the pace of intergenerational acculturation—the process by which immigrants and their children learn the language and normative lifestyles of a new culture—plays an important role in the support and resources that second-generation children can access to overcome external barriers to successful adaptation. In an ideal world, acculturation occurs at similar rates for both immigrant parents and their children, enabling children to maintain family and communities ties. When confronted by racial discrimination, a bifurcated labor market, and inner- city subcultures, second-generation children who have maintained these important connections face these difficulties with adult support and guidance. However, acculturation rates often differ between parents and offspring (Hwang, 2006), creating a gap between the first and second generations that extends beyond normal generational gaps. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) identified three types of intergenerational acculturation: (1) dissonant, (2) consonant, and (3) selected.

Synonymous with “harsh” or “jarring,” dissonant acculturation is aptly named. Such an acculturation occurs when children learn English and adopt U.S. culture at such an accelerated rate, compared with their parents, that parental authority is undermined and children can prematurely free themselves from parental control. In the most extreme instances, role reversal occurs when the child’s mastery of the language and culture puts her or him at a so- cial advantage vis-à-vis the parents and the child is expected to serve as translator and mediator in the public world. A dissonant acculturation process diminishes the ability of parents to provide critical guidance. Moreover, this process often occurs in a context of limited community supports, so the results are particularly cruel.When confronted with external obstacles to social advancement, such as poverty, racial discrimination, or poor educational opportunities, these children often have little more than their peer group for support. The immigrant’s child confronts these obstacles alone and is par- ticularly vulnerable to the adoption of adversarial attitudes and lifestyles associated with inner-city subcultures and downward social mobility.

Consider the fluidity of racial identity and how it can serve as a proxy for something other than identity (Samuels,2006;Tafoya,2004;Waters, 1996). One study that examined how adolescent children of black immigrant parents constructed and used their ethnic identity found that ethnically identi- fied teenagers recognized that their immigrant status separated them from being solely identified as African American—arguably the most stigmatized group in the United States (Water, 1996).Depending on the situation, ethnically identified youths spoke differently—formal English rather than accented English—and sent out other signals of ethnic group belonging (such as sporting a Jamaican key chain). For these adolescents, racial and ethnic identity were not synonymous with being a black American. Rather, these adolescents viewed race and ethnicity as fluid, social currency that is partially a conscious choice to adopt behaviors and speech to fit the social context (Waters, 1996). Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

In sharp contrast, other adolescents in the study who adopted a fixed racial identity—black Ameri- can—placed little emphasis on their ethnic identi-

ties. These teenagers believed that race definitively constrained their chances of getting ahead, and they did not see their cultural heritage as providing any social leverage. Moreover, these youths had adopted and identified with some of the negative stereotypes. One young Haitian American teenager reported the following:

My parents, they do not like American blacks, … they feel that they are lazy.They don’t want to work and stufflike that from what they can see. And I feel that, um, I feel that way too . . . and my mother is like, yeah, you’re just too American. (Waters, 1996, p. 185)

The most striking finding in this study was how the two groups of teenagers responded to their parents’ negative opinions of black Americans and the degree of intergenerational conflict. Although both groups reported that their parents held negative appraisals of African Americans, ethnically identi- fied youths agreed with their parents’ and wider society’s negative assessments of poor black people and sought to avoid being identified in that way. American-identified youths rejected their parents’ opinions outright, blaming those beliefs on their parents’ naivete regarding the U.S. social system. These youths’ racial identity included embracing aspects of a peer-group culture that brought them into conflict with their parents’ cultural beliefs. Disaffected by their parents and their cultural values, American-identified teenagers confronted the perils of racial discrimination and inner-city subcultures alone.

In marked contrast, consonant acculturation reflects a process in which there is a gradual loss of native language and culture. Acquisition of English language and U.S. culture are assumed by the parent and child at roughly the same rates. The role of economic resources cannot be underestimated here. In some instances, immigrant parents have the resources to purchase experiences that facilitate their ability to pass on their cultural heritage: a parochial education, language school, summer trips to the country of origin. These “extras” give a child exposure to the parent’s culture and facilitate a family milieu of common values and cultural beliefs. In addition, the parents’ education and employment foster the acqui- sition of language and culture, enhancing authority so that the parents retain their parental role. Selective acculturation occurs when the learning process of both generations is embedded in a co-ethnic community that slows down the cultural shift and promotes the partial retention of parents’ home language and cultural norms. Selective acculturation is commonly found among middle-class members living in ethic enclaves, such as Cubans in Miami.


As illustrated in the earlier discussion, central to segmented assimilation theory is the way that parental human capital influences patterns of intergenera- tional acculturation. In addition, intergenerational acculturation is affected by how the immigrant group is received in this country (modes of incor- poration) and the ways in which family structure helps or hinders social supports. In this section, we discuss these three factors and how they facilitate the ability of immigrant parents to remain a guiding force for their children (see Figure 1).

Parental Human Capital. Immigrants come to this country with wide variations in age, educa- tion, occupational skills, wealth, and knowledge of English. Each of these factors not only contributes to immigrants’ wage-earning potential in the labor market, but also plays a role in determining the extent to which immigrant parents can regulate the acculturation process for their children. This ability to have some say in the rate of children’s acculturation is extremely important, because for most immigrant families, schools often undermine cultural retention (Ishibashi, 1991; Ishibashi & Martinez, 2006). By attending U.S. schools, the children of immigrants experience an accelerated acculturation process, often putting them at a linguistic and cultural ad- vantage over their parents. Therefore, parents who lack the personal and community resources to keep up with their children’s acculturation are decisively disadvantaged in maintaining an influential role in their children’s lives. Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

Immigrant parents with English language ability, who know how to navigate complex social organiza- tions, have a decisive advantage both at home and in the labor market. Highly educated and skilled adult immigrants are better able to acculturate quickly to U.S. society than immigrants who come with little education, low levels of literacy, and no exposure to complex social institutions and technology. The first group has greater potential to access high- wage work that will lead to rapid social mobility. Because they possess education and skills that are valued in U.S. society, these immigrants encounter a more hospitable environment and have greater opportunity to regulate their situations (and their family situations) than do those with low levels of human capital.

Figure 1: Factors Contributing to Variations in Acculturation

Parental Human Capital: Age, education, occupational skills, wealth, and knowledge of English.

Background Factors: First Generation

Modes of Incorporation: Governmental policies toward different immigrant groups and the reception by the native population.

Family Structure: The composition of the immigrant family and the presence of both biological parents.


Intergenerational Patterns of Acculturation

Parental Support for Overcoming Obstacles ro Social Mobility:

Discrimination, Labor Markets, Inner-city Subcultures

Dissonant Acculturation: The children’s acquisition of English and of American ways occurs with the loss of immigrant culture, outstripping the parents’ pace of acculturation; role reversal occurs.

Consonant Acculturation: The learning process and gradual abandonment of home language and culture occur at similar rates.

Selective Acculturation: The learning process of both generations is embedded in a co-ethnic community to slow down the cultural shift and promote the partial retention of parents’ home language and cultural

poor; obstacles are confronted alone; there is a risk for downward social mobility

relationship maintained; adequate support is available to assist with social mobility

relationship maintained; adequate parental and communal supports are available to facilitate social mobility âW cultural retention

Source: Adapted from Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation (Figure 3.2 The Process of Segmented Assimilation; A Modei). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. O2001 Regents of the University of Caiifornia.

The second group has many more cultural disadvantages to overcome. For these immigrants, competencies developed in their native societies may not translate well to the new society. Regrettably, the second generation’s view of their parents is shaped by their perception of the fit between the parents’ skills and their new environment, rather than the actual competencies of their parents. Consider the observation made by Rodriguez (1982):

My mother and father made themselves under- stood at the county hospital clinic and at gov- ernment offices. And yet… it was unsettling to hear my parents struggle with English. Hearing them, I’d grow nervous, my clutching trust in their protection and power weakened, (p. 15)

Apart from obvious financial difficulties, income, language, and education can negatively affect the parental relationship in unforeseen ways, fraying those important ties over time and heightening the vulnerability of some immigrant children to the loss of parental support. Because parental human capital determines labor-market participation, which in turn affects the availability of resources and institu- tional access, the coercive effects on family ties are particularly brutal: Children living in families with the fewest resources (usually living in communities where parental guidance is most critical) are on their own in dealing with discrimination and the pitfalls of poverty. Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

Modes of Incorporation. In addition to the skills and resources that immigrants individually possess, the receiving context plays a vital role in eroding or strengthening family ties. Governmental poli- cies and the receptivity of the native population to the new immigrants have a powerful effect on the supports and resources available to help immigrants maintain control over their lives during adaptation to a new environment. As noncitizens, immigrants depend on federal policies to confer rights and privileges on the basis of their immigration status. Sometimes these policies are influenced by foreign policy needs, as in the case of Cuban refugees. In the United States, modes of incorporation can range from a positive reception, in which there is federal support for the resettlement of immigrants (as in the case of Cubans and Vietnamese during the Cold War), to an overtly hostile stance, as in the case of undocumented Mexican nationals. Between these two extremes, most immigrants find a host society

that is, at best, ambivalent about their presence and expects immigrants to make it largely on their own (Engstrom, 2006). However, the ability to “make it” depends largely on governmental policies that regulate immigration status: essentially, the degree to which immigrants can live and work openly in society and the types of labor opportunities and protections they encounter.

Undocumented immigrants, for example, work at jobs that most people in the United States find undesirable, and they have the least protection from occupational hazards and abuse. Moreover, their claim on social institutions is tenuous. Because un- documented immigrants fear deportation, many will use such institutions only in emergencies. The lack of choice for this group is apparent; reversals, such as a serious illness or injury or a workplace raid, can have a disorganizing effect on even the most industrious family. Under these hostile circumstances, parental ability to protect children is precarious.

However, even legal immigrants, who have a stronger claim on social services and institutions, are not immune to a hostile reception. Their ability to make use of institutional resources is limited by factors that convey a message of inaccessibility: the lack of health insurance, language barriers, and the absence of linguistically and culturally competent service providers. Modes of incorporation have far-reaching effects on the acculturation of immigrants and directly relate to their ability to care for themselves and their families.

Family Structure. Family structure is intimately tied to the cultural and economic resources fami- lies have for raising their children. Two-parent households generally have higher incomes than one-parent households (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Low-income immigrant families can stretch their resources, for example, if they have extended fam- ily or family friends who can assume child care responsibilities while parents are working. Moreover, low-wage immigrant parents often must work two jobs to make ends meet, so they have less time to spend with their children and to interact with the institutions (such as schools) that shape the lives of their children.

Moreover, many immigrant families are composed of members with different immigration statuses (for example, citizen, legal immigrant, undocumented immigrant). Mixed-status families are estimated to constitute 9 percent of US. families (Fix and Zim- mermann, 2001). The typical mixed-status family comprises U.S.-born children with at least one immigrant parent, who may or may not have legal immigration status. Consequently,policies designed to restrict one category of immigrants can have a radiating effect on native born immigrants. Some family members make the journey to the United States alone, leaving others behind to emigrate later. Family separation means that family members will begin the acculturation process at different times and that reality strongly influences family dynamics.

THE LIFE MODEL REVISITED As discussed earlier, although the Hfe model provides a useful ecological framework to guide practice, it requires supplemental theory. Although life-modeled practice recognizes factors that may influence vulnerability and oppression, such as poverty, crime, and environmental hazards, segmented assimilation theory focuses on vulnerability in the areas of pa- rental human capital, modes of incorporation, and family structure. By gathering information about the migration and adjustment experience, social work- ers can assess the degree to which immigrants and their children are experiencing a harsh acculturation process that can negatively affect family relations and limit immigrant children’s ability to overcome obstacles to social mobility.

The most vulnerable immigrant families are those with limited human capital to cope with the demands of a modern technological society and those who are socially isolated (usually a single-parent-headed family or a family without a co-ethnic community to call on). These are the families most in need of cultural brokers to help them understand U.S. cultural norms and expec- tations for interacting with various institutions, including schools and health care organizations. In this respect, cultural competence extends beyond merely understanding and appreciating tbe clients’ culture. Rather, this competence also mandates the ability to explain complex human service systems to immigrants in ways they can readily understand, something social workers are particularly suited for and trained to do.

By importing concepts from segmented as- similation theory into the life model, social work- ers can recognize and understand the factors that contribute to the various outcomes experienced by immigrant families. In the context of an enhanced ecological model, interpersonal conflict and distress in an immigrant family—even when the source of conflict seems mild—can be viewed in a different light. For example, conflicts concerning choice of friends, sexuality, curfew, and homework, which may typically fall in the range of normal for most families, may mask deeper underlying issues related to dissonant acculturation for immigrant families. Often, parents will reach out for help when they believe that their child is “slipping” and they are unsure about how to regain control. The unspoken concern often extends beyond the specific conflict and includes fears that the youth is becoming “too American,” in the worst sense of the term. It is tempting to minimize these concerns in the absence of overtly problematic behaviors, but doing so means that service providers miss an opportunity to address greater apprehensions about the parental relation- ship. Most families have intergenerational disputes; what distinguishes immigrants is not the presence of conflict but, rather, the dangers associated with dissonant acculturation that heightens the need for understanding, reconciliation, and compromise. Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to

CONCLUSION Jane Addams envisioned Hull House as a bridge between two different cultural worlds, facilitating the adaptation of immigrant families into U.S. society. Her observation that immigrant families need help connecting the cultural heritage of their past with the strengths needed to navigate the present terrain resonates with major tenets in the life model. Even so, segmented assimilation theory offers insights into the uneven barriers facing the first and second generations and into how vulnerabilities increase the chasm between parents and their children (as Addams, 1910, so poignantly described). By in- corporating segmented theory into life-modeled practice, contemporary social workers can foster interventions that enhance the strengths of immi- grant parents and help them guide their children to lead productive lives. H!Ü3


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Wilson,W.J. (1987). Tlie truly disadvantaged:Tlte inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lissette M. Piedra, PhD, LCSH^is assistant professor. School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Chainpaign,

1010 Nevada Street, Urbana, IL 61801; e-mail: lmpiedra@ David IV Engstrom, PhD, is associate profes- sor. School of Social Work, San Diego State University. An

earlier version of this article was presented at the University of

Illinois Continuing Education Workshop, March 28, 2007,

Urbana, IL.

Original manuscript received May 2, 2007 Final revision received January 23, 2009 Accepted February 11. 2009 Assignment: Segmented Assimilation Theory and the Life Model: An Integrated Approach to.

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