Stanford sociologist flips assimilation formula in new book

In his new book, sociologist Tomás Jiménez turns the conventional analysis of assimilation on its head and dissects the phenomenon from the perspective of Silicon Valley’s established population.

The conventional way of studying assimilation is to document the changes immigrants and their children experience when adapting to a new culture.

Tomas Jimenez, associate professor of sociology, im his office

In a new book, sociologist Tomás Jiménez looks at the other side of assimilation: how immigrants are changing American life. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford sociologist Tomás Jiménez flips the equation in his new book, The Other Side of Assimilation: How Immigrants Are Changing American Life. Focusing on the unique composition and atmosphere of three distinct areas of Silicon Valley, Jiménez analyzes assimilation from the perspectives of the region’s established inhabitants by exploring how their lives have changed due to the presence of immigrants and interactions with them.

Stanford News Service interviewed Jiménez about his book, which examines themes including how immigration has reformed ideas about race and what it means to be American, as well as how engaging with immigrants is no longer an unfamiliar experience.

How is your analysis of assimilation in this book different than the majority of works discussing the topic?

Research on immigrant assimilation focuses on how immigrants and their children adjust to a new society. But at the same time, scholars, including me, observe that immigrants are changing what we eat, the language we speak, the music we listen to, the way politics operate. If the observation is right that immigrants have changed so much, I wanted to know what that means for individuals whose families have been here for multiple generations. How are they adjusting to those changes?

Two Stanford graduate students and I interviewed a race and class spectrum of established individuals – people who are U.S.-born to U.S.-born parents – in three areas of Silicon Valley: East Palo Alto, Cupertino and Berryessa [a San Jose neighborhood], each of which captures aspects of the race and class diversity among the established and immigrant populations.


Assimilation is not a one-way street. … It’s a relational process that entails a back-and-forth adjustment.

—Tomás Jiménez

Associate Professor of Sociology

In your view, both sides are experiencing changes.

It’s a mutual adjustment I call “relational assimilation.” Studying the established population shows that assimilation is not a one-way street; it’s not about one population being absorbed by another. It’s a relational process that entails a back-and-forth adjustment in everyday life: immigrants figuring out how to make it here and, in the process, forcing the established folks to make adjustments of their own. That back and forth happens over time, across generations, until there is a consensus about what it means to belong racially, ethnically and what it means to be American. The book captures the bumpiness of that process.


What is culturally normal to be an American?

The established people we talked to had lots to say about what it means to be American, and their views were heavily informed by their everyday interactions with neighbors, co-workers, friends, romantic partners and schoolmates who are immigrants and the children of immigrants. Living around so many immigrants sharpened our interviewees’ understanding of what it means to be American. People draw hard lines around two things: speaking English and being in this country legally.

But it also blurred their understanding. Interviewees told us that immigrants who work hard, play by the rules, contribute economically and are law-abiding – even if they’re undocumented – deserve a chance to be Americans because they’re behaving like Americans.


You say that assimilation is relational, but not symmetrical. Can you expound on that?

There are important axes of power that determine who has to adjust more in relational assimilation. One is population size. Over half the population in Silicon Valley was born in another country or has parents who were born in another country. So, it’s a place where immigrants are likely to be in a position to have more say over who has to adjust.

Another axis is status. Being from a population that is highly educated and has more income puts some immigrants in a better position to determine what it means to belong. In Silicon Valley, high-skilled immigrants are overrepresented, so in all likelihood, it’s a place where immigrants have more say.

The immigrant experience is so braided into life in a place like Silicon Valley … that it is core to the civic identity of the region.

—Tomás Jiménez

Associate Professor of Sociology

The third axis is institutional arrangements. Institutions almost never benefit all parties equally. One of the ways institutions matter in this context is by defining who is here legally and who’s not. So, if you have a large population that is unauthorized or noncitizens, that puts the immigrant population at a disadvantage to define political belonging, but also social belonging. They have no way to participate in formal politics and elect representatives that would look out for their interests, not to mention the fear that permeates every aspect of life for the unauthorized.

This all makes the point that relational assimilation does not imply that there’s some kind of equal exchange. Far from it. And these three things – population size, relative status and institutional arrangements – make up the larger forces that shape how much one group has to adjust to another in Silicon Valley and beyond.


Your book states that “established individuals saw their lives and lives of newcomers as deeply enmeshed.” How have immigrants become so ingrained in our daily lives?

There’s a strong narrative in the research literature and popular discourse that immigrants are strangers in a strange land. But we found that established individuals don’t see immigrants in that way. The immigrant experience is so braided into life in a place like Silicon Valley – and I would argue in other places too – that it is core to the civic identity of the region. Living around, working with and, in some cases, dating and marrying people from another country are part of the normal course of everyday life for the people we interviewed. It turns out that here immigrants are not so strange in the eyes of established individuals after all.


Your book touches on feelings of ambivalence immigrants experience. What are they ambivalent about?

Immigrants and their children often feel like they’ve lost some of their traditions, a sense of family and language by moving to a new country. But they also feel like they’ve gained something: better economic opportunity, but also political and religious freedom.

Interestingly, the established population also feels ambivalent about immigrants being here. They say that they enjoy some of the diversity and that immigrants bring innovation. They see living around people who come from other countries as an opportunity to expand their worldview in positive ways. But our interviewees also feel like they have lost a way of life, a sense of community. Some even feel like they are ethnically bland in comparison to immigrants and their children, who often have such a vibrant ethnic community.

So, even as the immigrant experience is baked into the everyday lives of established individuals, it doesn’t mean things are entirely comfortable for them.


What else makes it uncomfortable?

Established individuals love diversity up to a point. The line between tolerable diversity and diversity gone too far is drawn with language. Even the most ardent multiculturalist said they found it, at the very least, frustrating that their daily lives were impacted by people who don’t speak English.

We also saw examples where “whiteness” has been flipped on its head. Whiteness typically operates as a high-status category that comes with privilege and is associated with intelligence. In studying Cupertino, an upper-middle-class, highly educated community with a large group of Asian immigrants, that hierarchy has been flipped where schools are concerned. It’s the white students, compared to Asian students who’ve grown up in an immigrant household, who are associated with taking a lackadaisical approach to school and not working very hard. White kids say they feel the pain of assumptions about their intelligence from teachers and other students. So, an important aspect of racial status has changed because of the immigrant presence.


Your research was done in Silicon Valley, a liberal and welcoming area. Do your findings translate to the country at large?

Relational assimilation is playing out in a lot of places where immigrants have settled, even if not to the same degree you find it in Silicon Valley. If you look at any of the major immigrant gateways in the last three decades – Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Boston – you’d see much the same. You’d also see this playing out in places where immigrants are new to the scene – in the South and Midwest. And as immigrants and their children assimilate – as they intermarry, as they enter jobs in all parts of the economy, as they move to more integrated neighborhoods – established folks are making their own adjustments as well. The Silicon Valley case shows what’s entailed in that process, even if details of relational assimilation might be different in other regions.