Laura, Laubeová (2000)

 Encyclopedia of The World’s Minorities, 

Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers

Melting Pot vs. Ethnic Stew                                                                 

The term melting pot refers to the idea that societies formed by immigrant cultures, religions, end ethnic groups, will produce new hybrid social and cultural forms. The notion comes from the pot in which metals are melted at great heat, melding together into new compound, with great strength and other combined advantages. In comparison with assimilation, it implies the ability of new or subordinate groups to affect the values of the dominant group. Sometimes it is referred to as amalgamation, in the opposition to both assimilation and pluralism.

The concept of ethnic stew is similar to that of melting pot, though the degree of cultural distinctiveness is higher in the former, however not reaching the level of the “salad bowl” thesis (different groups keep their differences, while maintaining relations among each other).

Although the term melting pot may be applied to many countries in the world, such as Brazil, Bangladesh or even France, mostly referring to increased level of mixed race and culture, it is predominantly used with reference to USA and creation of the American nation, as a distinct “new breed of people” amalgamated from many various groups of immigrants. As such it is closely linked to the process of Americanisation. The theory of melting pot has been criticised both as unrealistic and racist, because it focused on the Western heritage and excluded non-European immigrants. Also, despite its proclaimed “melting” character its results have been assimilationist.

The history of the melting pot theory can be traced back to 1782 when J. Hector de Crevecoeur, a French settler in New York, envisioned the United States not only as land of opportunity but as a society where individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause changes in the world (Parrillo, 1997). The new nation welcomed virtually all immigrants from Europe in the belief that the United States would become, at least for whites, the "melting pot" of the world. This idea was adopted by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1893) who updated it with the frontier thesis. Turner believed that the challenge of frontier life was the country´s most crucial force, allowing Europeans to be “Americanised” by the wilderness (Takaki, 1993).  A major influx of immigrants occurred mainly after the 1830s, when large numbers of British, Irish, and Germans began entering, to be joined after the Civil War by streams of Scandinavians and then groups from eastern and southern Europe as well as small numbers from the Middle East, China, and Japan. Before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the American public generally took it for granted that the constant flow of newcomers from abroad, mainly Europe,  brought strength and prosperity to the country. The metaphor of the "melting pot" symbolized the mystical potency of the great democracy, whereby people from every corner of the earth were fused into a harmonious and admirable blend. A decline in immigration from northwestern Europe and concerns over the problems of assimilating so many people from other areas prompted the passage in the 1920s of legislation restricting immigration, one of the measures reflecting official racism.

One of the early critiques of the melting pot idea was Louis Adamic, novelist and journalist who wrote about the experience of American immigrants in the early 1900s and about what he called the failure of the American melting pot in Laughing in the Jungle (1932). Both the frontier thesis and the melting pot concept have been criticised as idealistic and racist as they completely excluded non-European immigrants, often also East and South Europeans. The melting pot reality was limited only to intermixing between Europeans with a strong emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon culture while the input of minority cultures was only minor.  Some theorists developed a theory of the triple melting pot arguing that intermarriage was occurring between various nationalities but only within the three major religious groupings: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Milton Gordon and Henry Pratt Fairchild proposed the assimilation theory as an alternative to the melting pot one (Parrillo, 1997).

Many current proponents of the melting pot are inspired by the  “English only” movement with exclusive emphasis on Western heritage and argument against pluralism and accommodation and related policies, such as bilingual education.

Ideally the concept of melting pot should also entail mixing of various “races”, not only “cultures”. While promoting the mixing of cultures the ultimate result of the American variant of melting pot happened to be the culture of white Anglo Saxon men with minimum impact of other minority cultures. Moreover, the assumption that culture is a fixed construct is flawed. Culture should be defined more broadly as the way one approaches life and makes sense of it. Group’s beliefs are determined by conditions and so culture is a continuous process of change and its boundaries are always porous. In a racist discourse, however the culture needs to be seen as a predetermined and rigid phenomenon that would be appropriate for replacing the no longer acceptable concept of race in order to perpetuate inequalities. Many multicultural initiatives aiming at integration/ inclusion of minorities, while following the melting pot ideal, often result in assimilationist and racist outcomes. Melting pot would assume learning about other cultures in order to enhance understanding, mixing, and mutual enrichment;  in practice it often tends to ignore similarities of different “races” as it does not allow to include them.

The shortages of the melting pot and salad bowl paradigms can be expressed in the following summarising parables: In the case of the melting pot the aim is that all cultures become reflected in one common culture, however this is generally the culture of the dominant group - I thought this was mixed vegetable soup but I can only taste tomato. In the case of the salad bowl, cultural groups should exist separately and maintain their practices and institutions, however, Where is the dressing to cover it all? Hopefully the solution may be offered by the concept of the ethnic stew where all the ingredients are mixed in a sort of pan-Hungarian goulash where the pieces of different kinds of meat still keep their solid  structure.


Further reading:

Parrilo, Vincent, Strangers to These Shores. Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States. Boston - London: Allyn and Bacon, 1997

Gazer, Nathan, Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Beyond the Melting Pot,  Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2nd edition, 1970.

Gordon, Milton M., Assimilation in American Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964

Yankelowich, Daniel, New rules, New York: Random House, 1981

Takaki, Ronald, A Different Mirror. A history of Multicultural America, Boston-Toronto-London: Little, Brown and Company, 1993

Parrilo, Vincent, Diversity in America, Pine Forge Press/ A Sage Publications Company, 1996

Parekh, Bhikhu, Rethinking Multiculturalism. Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, London: Macmillan Press, 2000

Willet, Cynthia, editor, Theorizing Multiculturalism: a guide to current debate, Basil Blackwell Press, 1998

© Laubeová, 2000