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

By Safi, Mirna | Population, April-June 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Safi, Mirna, Population


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. It is followed by a descriptive overview of immigrant marriages and an analysis of the explanatory factors for intermarriage. In addition to individual variables affecting the probability of intermarriage, this study also includes contextual variables used to describe the structural characteristics of the marriage market (Blau, 1977; Blau et al, 1982). It ends with an analysis of the relationship between intermarriage and integration in which the marriage behaviour of immigrant groups is considered in the light of their labour market situation.

The question of intermarriage in the sociology of immigration

The sociological literature on immigration approaches immigrant marriage as a fundamental dimension of the assimilation process. Most theoretical work in this field has come from the United States, and two paradigms can be distinguished.

The first paradigm forms part of the "classical"(3) theory of immigrant integration that has dominated sociological study of immigration, notably in the United States. …

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