Definition: Groundbreaking theory in European American immigration studies
Significance: In 1938, shortly before he died, social historian Marcus Lee Hansen revolutionized the understanding of the assimilation of immigrant generations into American life by suggesting that assimilation and ethnic identity within the so-called melting pot of America were far more complex than had been assumed.
At the turn of the twentieth century, immigrant studies within American academia were restricted by a lack of perspective and hard data. The great era of European immigration had not quite ended and historians generally considered the influx of poorly educated, lower-class Europeans into East Coast cities more as a pressing social problem than as a historical phenomenon. Establishment historians drew upon an Anglo-Saxon model to define America, arguing that Anglo-Saxon—that is, northern and western European—families had initially settled the New World, expressed by the New England town system. That tradition—specifically Protestant religious structures, patriarchal communities, and competitive economic markets—created the industrial order, the political dynamic of a constitutional government, and the economic class system that had come to define America.
Scholars paid little attention to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. When historian Frederick Jackson Turner revolutionized the concept of American history during the late nineteenth century by shifting the focus from New England to the frontier, a new impetus was given to studying the impact of immigrants in shaping the American character. Turner argued that in confronting the frontier, immigrants necessarily shed their European customs and forged a kind of American identity.
At issue then was the process of assimilation itself. One of Turner’s history students at Harvard University was Marcus Lee Hansen (1892-1938), a Wisconsinite of northern European descent from the rural Midwest. Hansen came to appreciate the complexity of the question of immigration studies. For more than four years during the early 1930’s, he gathered data in Europe and the Plains states and came to theorize that the melting pot model was inadequate to explain the experience of American immigrants because ethnic identity was not entirely surrendered to the collective identity. In a historical society pamphlet titled The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant (1938), Hansen formulated his thesis: That the third generation, the grandchildren, wished to recover the ethnicity of their grandparents.
According to Hansen’s thesis, the first generation, as foreign born, inevitably maintained the language and customs of their Old World identity. Their children sought to assimilate into the American identity and deliberately distanced themselves from the customs and language of the Old World. However, the grandchildren sought to recover the original ethnic identity. What the son wanted to forget, the argument went, the grandson wished to remember. Hansen proposed that assimilation and ethnic identity could actually be part of the same process, that the third generation could adapt to their New World environments without sacrificing ethnic identity. Ethnicity was then a generational process, with each generation struggling with the implications of its cultural heritage. Thus assimilation was best studied within, rather than across, generations.
Because Hansen died of renal failure while still in his forties, he was never able to examine the experience of nonwhite immigrants and the special problems posed by Native Americans. However, his theory, as a challenge to the melting pot, gained interest. This was particularly true after World War II, when America’s international reputation suffered during the prolonged Cold War, the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, civil rights unrest, and a series of national political scandals. Within that heated environment, Hansen’s thesis was embraced as an early, albeit indirect, proponent of multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity.
See also: Anglo-conformity; Assimilation theories; Cultural pluralism; European immigrants; Families; History of immigration after 1891; Identificational assimilation; Melting pot theory; Migrant superordination; Push-pull factors.