With immigration and its attendant population diversity on the rise all around the world, how do we understand why people migrate, what they do when they arrive at their destinations, and what happens to the places they left? While immigration and migration are potentially rich sites of communication inquiry, communication theory and research is not well represented in the immigration studies literature.
There are excellent reviews of the wide scope of immigration literature (Foner et al. 2000; Joppke & Morawska 2003; Waldinger 2001). Our present aim is to focus upon two important areas of overlap between immigration and communication research: (1) models of cultural adaptation, namely the rejection of the 1940s static linear model of assimilation in favor of dynamic models of adaptation, and (2) the negotiation of identity in places with relatively easy contact with the home country via new communication technologies and/or relatively inexpensive travel. Immigration scholars of the 1960s and 1970s shifted from the assumption of powerful structural constraints to assimilate (à la powerful media) to the idea that people could simply and with abundant agency transplant the home culture to the host country context. From the 1980s forward, we see more refined models of adaptation that privilege neither the host nor the home culture, but the dynamic and multidimensional process by which immigrants located in macro-structural contexts – but also in meso-level contexts of media, family, and social networks – negotiate their identities (Alba & Nee 2003; Morawska 2003).
Variations in preferred level of analysis are readily apparent in immigration studies. For example, a major debate centers on the issue of what we should call the immigrant identity negotiation process. Some ethnographers who study the daily practices of new immigrant groups characterize their identity negotiations as instances of “transnationalism”; that is, the bridging or linking of two societies (Levitt 2001).
Others take exception to the term transnationalism, citing the absence of any implication of state-to-state relations (macro) and the presence of “highly particularistic attachments” to “here” and “there” (micro) that might be better characterized as “bi-localism” (Waldinger & Fitzgerald 2004).
The unanswered question is whether the immigrants of today will behave like the immigrants of yesterday. Will they construct a hybrid identity that is neither their “home” nor the “host” identity, but a dynamic product of the two? Is there any general pattern or do different groups living in different spaces (e.g., a global city or a suburban enclave) negotiate identity differently? Or will some, due to race, education, or other characteristics, be afforded upward mobility opportunities and, thus, appear to assimilate, and others be locked into the lower and underclass, and thus appear to resist assimilation (Morawska 2003)?
Communication processes and practices are the milieu through which identity negotiations, individual and collective, occur. The consumption and production of what used to be called immigrant media (Park 1922), but are today more commonly called minority, ethnic, or geo-ethnic media (Kim et al. 2006), are central to processes of identity negotiation. The shift in terminology from immigrant to ethnic media is telling – immigrant suggesting that the problematic is assimilation, while minority or ethnic refers to group identity and boundaries that seemingly proliferate in a globalizing world where movements of peoples over space is one of the hallmarks. Immigrant social networks are constructed and maintained through interpersonal communication in kin and household networks and hometown associations, through ethnic media that afford a shared negotiation of home/ host gaze, and through new communication technologies.
Communication research programs that seem particularly well positioned to contribute to immigration studies include the growing body of social and personal networks research (e.g., Monge & Contractor 2003), which affords a multilevel framework for tracking the communicative actions of immigrants and their consequences. Consequences would include migration decision-making, identity construction, and the effects of continued communication between networks back home and in the new place. For communication researchers to become more involved in immigration studies, they should broaden their focus (typically upon mainstream traditional media or Internet and computer-based media) to include the world of ethnic media of traditional and new media forms. The multilevel and ecological communication infrastructure perspective (Kim & Ball-Rokeach 2006) reflects such broadening, and affords a grounded methodology for observing the everyday practices of adaptation among new immigrants and between new and old immigrants, a central feature of the globalization of everyday life.
- Alba, R., & Nee, V. (2003). Remaking the American mainstream: Assimilation and contemporary immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Foner, N., Rumbaut, R., & Gold, S. (eds.) (2000). Immigration research for a new century: Multidisciplinary perspectives. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Joppke, C., & Morawska, E. (eds.) (2003). Toward assimilation and citizenship: Immigrants in liberal nation states. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Kim, Y.-C., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16(2), 173 –197.
- Kim, Y.-C., Jung, J.-Y., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (2006). Geo-ethnicity and neighborhood engagement: A communication infrastructure perspective. Political Communication, 23, 421– 441.
- Levitt, P. (2001). The transnational villagers. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Monge, P. R., & Contractor, N. S. (2003). Theories of communication networks. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Morawska, E. (2003). Immigrant transnationalism and assimilation: A variety of combinations and the analytic strategy it suggests. In C. Joppke & E. Morawska (eds.), Toward assimilation and citizenship: Immigrants in liberal nation states. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, pp. 175 –212.
- Park, R. (1922). The immigrant press and its control. New York: Harper.
- Waldinger, R. (ed.) (2001). Strangers at the gate: New immigrants in urban America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Waldinger, R., & Fitzgerald, D. (2004). Transnationalism in question. American Journal of Sociology, 109, 1177–1195.