Classic models of immigrant assimilation define success as incorporation into the non-Hispanic, white middle class. By comparing immigrants with the white middle class, however, researchers have implicitly assumed that all newcomers and their children define success using the same standard. Previous research has failed to raise the question of whether second-generation outcomes are perceived and defined differently by the scholars who study immigrant incorporation and the people they study. Do researchers define success and mobility differently than members of the immigrant second generation? By reconceptualizing these definitions and reframing the analysis, will scholars reach different conclusions about mobility?
Drawing on a sub-sample of the Russell Sage-funded Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles (IIMMLA) dataset, sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou will write a book examining the divergent pathways to mobility of 1.5 and second generation Mexican, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Lee and Zhou argue that, while some members of the immigrant second generation follow the normative course of upward mobility, others choose alternative pathways but achieve success nevertheless. Still others find their routes to upward mobility blocked altogether. In a preliminary analysis, Lee and Zhou found that different national origin groups have different notions of success. The children of Mexican parents felt that they have achieved an extraordinary level of success despite having only graduated from high school and operating small niche businesses, such as gardening services. These respondents tended to compare their achievements to those of their immigrant parents, most of whom arrived in the United States with little education or economic resources. In contrast, Asian respondents tended to take traditional routes to mobility, achieving high levels of educational attainment and prestigious occupational status. The Chinese and Vietnamese respondents often compared their own successes to that of their higher-achieving peers and siblings, rather than to average Americans. Consequently, many Asian respondents felt unsuccessful because their reference group includes those who have far exceeded native-born standards.
In addition to examining the divergent definitions of success, Lee and Zhou will examine the mechanisms that promote and constrain immigrants’ pathways to success, the ways in which immigrants choose to identify themselves, and the ways in which the immigrant 1.5 and second generations differ from their native-born black and white peers with respect to these issues. Family dynamics and cultural conceptions of gender will also play a significant role in their analysis, as will the conception of identity in the multiracial/multiethnic environment of Los Angeles.