An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2013

The Contributions of Immigrants to American Culture

Charles Hirschman

The standard account of American immigration focuses on the acculturation and assimilation of immigrants and their children to American society. This analysis typically ignores the significant contributions of immigrants to the creation of American culture through the performing arts, sciences, and other cultural pursuits. Immigrants and their children are not born with more creative talents than native-born citizens, but their selectivity and marginality may have pushed and pulled those with ability into high-risk career paths that reward creative work. The presence of large numbers of talented immigrants in Hollywood, academia, and the high-tech industries has pushed American institutions to be more meritocratic and open to innovation than they would be otherwise.

CHARLES HIRSCHMAN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1998, is the Boeing International Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at the University of Washington. His publications include The Handbook of International Migration (edited with Josh DeWind and Philip Kasinitz, 1999), Southeast Asian Studies in the Balance: Reflections from America(edited with Charles F. Keyes and Karl Hutterer, 1992), and Ethnic and Social Stratification in Peninsular Malaysia (1975).

The lives of most immigrants are a dialectic between the memories of the world left behind and the day-to-day struggles of learning the ropes of a new society. Mastering a new language, living and working among strangers, and coping with the unfamiliar are only some of the challenges faced by immigrants. It is no wonder that nostalgia has a strong grip on the cultural pursuits of immigrants. Immigrant communities generally find comfort in familiar religious traditions and rituals, seek out newspapers and literature from the homeland, and celebrate holidays and special occasions with traditional music, dance, cuisine, and leisure-time pursuits. Yet not all immigrants look solely to the past to find meaning or to express their longings. Some immigrants, and their children in particular, are inspired by the possibility for innovative expression in American arts, culture, and pastimes. The partially fictionalized biography of the popular entertainer Al Jolson captures this experience. Jolson’s story was expressed, somewhat embellished, in the 1946 Oscar-winning film The Jolson Story, and was foretold in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, in which Jolson plays the lead role.1 . . .


  • 1William Ruhlmann, “Al Jolson Biography,” AllMusic, son-mn0000609215 (accessed July 22, 2012).
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