Preserving Multiple Ancestry: Intermarriage and Mixed Births in Hawaii

By Labov, Teresa; Jacobs, Jerry A. | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Preserving Multiple Ancestry: Intermarriage and Mixed Births in Hawaii


Labov, Teresa, Jacobs, Jerry A., Journal of Comparative Family Studies


A fundamental indicator of the extent to which cultural boundaries between groups are being preserved or being eroded is to be found in data on intermarriage. Many studies have taken an increase in intermarriage to indicate a decline in social distance between two groups (Muhsam, 1990; Pagnini and Morgan, 1990; Telles, 1993). Early work focused on intermarriage among European ethnics (Glenn, 1982; Gordon, 1978; Kennedy, 1944), while more recent studies have examined a broader range of intermarriage patterns (Root, 1992; Alba, 1990; Spickard, 1989). The extent of marriage between Whites and Asians (Lee and Yamanaka, 1990; Sung, 1990a) and between Whites and Hispanics (Fernandez, 1992; Murguia, 1982) has been increasingly prominent in recent research. Hawaii has long been a focus for studies of intermarriage because of its plural character (Adams, 1937; Ho and Johnson, 1992; Labov and Jacobs, 1986; Schmitt, 1968).

In examining state vital statistics data in Hawaii, a curious anomaly appears concerning the race of children. Three sets of figures are available for the number of births to each racial and ethnic group each year: one for each parent and one for the child. (1) For example, of the 20,438 live births in Hawaii in 1990, 5,805 births were to White mothers, 5,678 births were to White fathers, and 4,475 were listed as White births by race of child. The answer to the question, "How many White (or Samoan or Portuguese or Japanese) children were born last year?" thus depends on how membership in these groups is assigned. Regardless of which assignment rule is accepted, any mixed ancestry--whether of the child or its parents--is erased in the process. Any procedure which assigns individuals to a single category thus loses three things: the fact that the individual has a mixed heritage, the race or ethnicity of its parents, and whatever mixed heritage the parents might have. The assignment of a child to one race or ethnic group is clearly problematic in a context where almost half of all children have mixed ancestry.

This practice of ignoring family history is a common feature of most studies of intermarriage. They usually treat individuals as having a single race or ethnicity, thus ignoring whatever mixed ancestry an individual may bring to a marriage. This omission is the stalling point for our paper. We propose simple adjustments to recent birth and marriage data in order to reflect prior mixed births. By incorporating what we know about the mixing that has already occurred in the adult population, the growth of different mixes in the population and the overall direction of mixing can be charted.

A second important goal of this paper is to highlight the recursive nature of intermarriage. It has been shown that the children of mixed marriages are themselves more likely to intermarry (Lieberson and Waters, 1988). They found that, for twenty of twenty-two groups in the U.S., individuals of mixed ancestry were more likely to intermarry than were their single-ancestry counterparts. We use the term recursive to refer to an additional way in which intermarriage is self-reinforcing. The larger the pool of individuals with mixed ancestry, the greater the chances of individuals marrying someone with at least some mixed ancestry. In this way, an increase in intermarriage tends to reinforce itself. The growth in the size of the mixed population creates increased chances for intermarriage. The recursive nature of our analysis takes this into account. We develop below specific predictions regarding trends in intermarriage and mixed births that follow from this idea.

It is important to know the extent of mixing between groups for both theoretical and practical reasons. First, mixing is evidence that boundaries have eroded between some groups. Secondly, extensive social mixing between groups reduces the chances for intergroup conflict, while the persistence of strong barriers to intermarriage is indicative of a high potential for social conflict. …

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