The Melting Pot, Part 2 - America's Cultural-Institutional Core

By Wortham, Anne | The World and I, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Melting Pot, Part 2 - America's Cultural-Institutional Core


Wortham, Anne, The World and I


Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.

In part 1 of this examination of the melting pot ideal ("The Melting Pot: Are We There Yet?" The World & I, September 2001, 261), I argued that the "melting" process, properly defined as biological and cultural amalgamation, has not occurred in America and is not likely to happen in the future. There has been considerable intermarriage and extensive cultural assimilation; however, ethnic groups have retained many aspects of their cultures of origin and have variously failed to attain full structural assimilation. Rather than universal melting of peoples and cultures, what has been occurring is the uneven intermingling of various cultural streams in the crucible of American life. As Martin Marger points out, contemporary ethnic relations involve a paradox: while groups pursue the retention of an ethnic culture, forces such as mass communication, mass transportation, and universal education continue to erode those cultural differences by compressing cultural singularities into common forms. The result is cultural homogeneity alongside extensive differentiation.1

American history clearly shows that the lack of universal melting is not in itself detrimental to social unity or cohesion. America's pattern of simultaneous assimilation and pluralism of ethnic groups results in a society wherein unity is continually joined with diversity. The sources of diversity are obvious enough, though social scientists tend to give greater emphasis to intergroup diversity than to intragroup socioeconomic and subcultural differentiation. But what of unity? What binds Americans together as a society? What accounts for their awareness of shared goals and a common fate? What motivates Americans to make sacrifices so that their society will survive? What enables them to weather a wide range of conflict without jeopardizing the basic institutional structure of the society?

This article offers a partial answer in the content of the metaphorical "pot" that is the nation's distinctive cultural-institutional core. Particular focus is given to American values and beliefs, the nation's political culture, American nationality, the mythical idea of America, and the foundational philosophical paradox that is the source of the cultural and political conflict that is as constant in American life as the consensus underlying its cohesiveness.

AMERICAN VALUES AND BELIEFS

The cultural-institutional core of the United States exists in a stable but ever-differentiating society. For over two centuries it has remained a federal republic that is politically democratic, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws, and pluralistic in its culture; its social relations are shaped by the tension between individualistic and altruistic orientations. The cultural underpinning of this complex of characteristics consists of the prevailing beliefs people have about what is true, ideas about how reality can be effectively manipulated for human purposes, ethical judgments of what is good and right, and norms regarding how most people think they and others should behave. A culture's core beliefs, values, and norms, as expressed in everyday routines, make life meaningful and bind people together. They both derive from and sustain historical behavior; they are what make individuals into a people.

Sociologist Robin Williams has described American culture in terms of sixteen dominant values that influence the social, political, and economic behavior of Americans: achievement and success, activity and hard work, moral orientation, humanitarianism, efficiency and practicality, belief in progress, material comfort, equal rights and equality of opportunity, freedom, external conformity, science and rationality, nationalism, democracy, free enterprise, in-group (racial, ethnic, class, or religious) superiority, and individual development of self-reliance, independence, and self-respect. …

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