Skip to Main Content

Writing American Immigration History (June 2019): Historians: Conceptualizing Immigration

by Sara S. Goek

Historians: Conceptualizing Immigration

Oscar Handlin opened The Uprooted as follows: “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” The text, first published in 1951, argues that these immigrants suffered a shock at the crumbling social structure of the Old World and their dislocation to the New. Even as they settled into new lives, they remained apart, unable to reestablish their roots. Taking issue with that conclusion, John Bodnar wrote The Transplanted. Though acknowledging a greater diversity of immigrant experiences, he focuses on one they shared: their encounter with American capitalism. In choosing to see them as “transplanted” rather than “uprooted,” he interpreted immigration as a process of active adaptation, shaped by forces beyond individual control, but within which individuals had some agency.

Bodnar’s book is a product of its time and the thirty-plus years since Handlin’s. The distinction between them in many ways prefaces how scholarship in the field would continue to evolve. A few key themes stand out. The first is a focus on ethnicity, a term that gained currency in the mid-twentieth century. While prior generations had felt the pressure to assimilate, to Americanize and drop their distinctive heritage, by the 1970s the tide shifted towards pride in that heritage. The metaphors likewise shifted from melting pot to salad bowl, from combination into an undifferentiated mass to a whole constituted by distinctive parts. In an influential article in the Journal of American Ethnic History, “The Invention of Ethnicity,” Kathleen Neils Conzen and her coauthors argue that ethnic identity is a product of history, changing over time in a dynamic “process of construction or invention … grounded in real life context and social experience.” That understanding underpins much recent scholarship, as evidenced by the inclusion of words such as “making” and “becoming” in numerous book titles (see fourth section).

Second, where Handlin had focused almost exclusively on male, European immigrants, Bodnar recognized the presence of non-European immigrants. Scholars have continued to expand that picture in terms of points of origin, race, and gender. An early contribution to the widening field was Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers’s Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration, first published in 1975 and now in its fifth edition. Roger Daniels’s encyclopedic Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life takes an approach dictated by chronology and demographics, focusing on the predominant migrant groups as they arrived over time. David Reimers’s Other Immigrants: The Global Origins of the American People explicitly concentrates on non-European immigrants, from early settlement to the turn of the twenty-first century. In focusing on interracial and interethnic relations—including between immigrants, enslaved peoples, and Native Americans—Ronald Takaki’s work, such as A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, stands out among overviews of immigration history, which often address individual groups, or immigrants’ contacts with American society as a whole, glossing over the nuances of those interactions.

If those works concern the composition of American society in its totality, since the 1990s a significant subset has focused on the production of racial categories within that society, known as the “racial turn.” Within that, whiteness studies addresses how immigrant groups came to see themselves, and to be seen, as white. Two influential scholars in this field are Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, and David Roediger, author of Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. Both recognize that among the aspects of American society immigrants had to navigate were the intersections of race and class, and they underscore the mutability of those categories. However, whiteness studies can become problematic in its creation of a totalizing narrative, one that cannot fully account for varied usages or conceptions of race over time, nor the people whose experiences lie in between, encompassing prejudice and relative privilege simultaneously depending on their position on a hierarchy. Asian and Latino/a immigrants have found themselves among those in-between peoples. While also viewing race as constructed, Natalia Molina’s How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts offers a corrective to the broad brush of whiteness studies. It examines the racialization of Mexicans, recognizing that the experience was not uniform. Paul Spickard’s Almost All Aliens draws on the work of ethnic studies scholars to challenge what he terms the “immigrant assimilation model,” which suggests that all immigrant groups follow similar pathways to Americanization. He offers an alternate paradigm that centers on race and colonialism. While any model, old or new, can be problematic in papering over difference, Spickard’s ideas should nonetheless stimulate further debate.

Finally, since the 1990s scholarship on transnationalism, and the related concepts of globalization and diaspora, has flourished in what became known as the “transnational turn.” All of these concepts focus on movements and connections across national borders and thus are particularly well suited to the study of migration, not only immigration. It was perhaps no accident that these trends emerged from the rubble of a wall with the end of the Cold War, the further integration of the European Union, and the development of the World Wide Web. Donna Gabaccia’s Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective considers immigrants’ transnational connections and sees American immigration policy as foreign policy, not only of domestic concern. It thus addresses a fundamental paradox: migrants’ lives have always transcended borders, and yet even as movement and communication have become easier, nations seek to exert greater controls that migrants must navigate.

Handlin wrote The Uprooted at a time when immigration from Europe ebbed. Exclusionary and problematic as his work may be, it helped to validate immigration history as a field, thereby creating an opening for more varied scholarship that has challenged and refined our understanding. Handlin himself may not have seen it that way: the epilogue to the text’s second edition, published in 1973, reads not so much as a reevaluation of his earlier findings as an invective against the rise of ethnic identity in American life. But the door once opened would not close.

Works Cited