Intermarriage and Assimilation: Disparities in Levels of Exogamy among Immigrants in France

Article excerpt

The standard indicators of an immigrant group's assimilation into its host societies usually include the proportion of intermarriages, i.e. marriages between group members and individuals from outside the group. The higher the level of intermarriage, the more advanced the group's integration - including in socioeconomic terms - into the host society. Mirna SAFI uses longitudinal data from INSEE's Permanent Demographic Sample covering an extended period to examine this thesis by comparing the marriage behaviour of various immigrant groups in France - defined by the individuals' countries of birth - in relation to their degree of socioeconomic integration. The comparison takes into account contextual effects such as the sex ratios, numerical size and degree of geographical segregation of the groups in question. For some highly endogamous groups, it reveals strong socioeconomic integration into French society, whereas for other groups among whom intermarriage is common, the degree of integration remains quite low.

Ethnic intermarriage was already a focus of interest in the earliest work on marriage by American sociologists and economists (Heer, 1994; Kalmijn, 1998), while in France these unions did not attract scholarly attention until the 1980s. The sociology of the family in France focused almost exclusively on social homogamy, denned as the union between two people of comparable social status (occupation, educational level, social origin). This emphasis on social homogamy was reinforced by the dominant position of stratification theory in the sociological literature: differentiation in French society is conceived primarily in terms of social classes and the marital bond is a key indicator of the boundaries between these classes (Girard, 1964; Desrosières, 1978; de Singly, 1987; Bozon and Heran, 1987a, 1988).

Ethnie intermarriage has been analysed in a number of French studies over the last twenty years. Most adopt either a qualitative approach that addresses the issue of "inter-culturalism" (Streiff-Fénart, 1989; Santelli and Collet, 2003) or a demographic approach that seeks to quantify intermarriage in France (Munoz-Pérez and Tribalat, 1984; Neyrand and M'Sili, 1987). The present study differs from both of these approaches and is closer instead to the pioneering American studies on the weakening of the ethnic and social boundaries between immigrant groups(1) and the host society. As such it lies at the intersection between the sociology of the family and the sociology of immigration. The empirical analysis deals with the marriage behaviour of immigrants and explores how it relates to their integration. The results are based on data from INSEE's Echantillon Démographique Permanent (Permanent Demographic Sample - EDP), which is a rich empirical source as regards both the period observed (1968-2000) and the number of immigrant groups considered.

Before going any further, some explanation must be given concerning the choice of terminology used in this article. In many studies of marriage among migrant populations, a union between an immigrant and a native-born person is described as "mixed". The aim is to create a distinction with respect to studies on social homogamy by emphasizing the need to examine the notion of "cultural homogamy". In contrast to social homogamy measured by objective criteria such as social origin and educational level, the mixed couple(2) designation refers to subjective differences associated notably with different cultures or settings for socialization. This article focuses on analysing marriage behaviour directly related to the migratory phenomenon. The definition of mixed marriage is therefore based on the objective criteria of country of birth and nationality. The terms endogamy/exogamy and intermarriage thus seem preferable since they relate directly to unions between members of distinctive groups defined by these critieria.

The article opens with a theoretical presentation of the relationship between intermarriage and the process of immigrant integration. …