Assimilation is an Issue of Scale

By Kyle Scott - 23 January 2015
Assimilation is an Issue of Scale

In the wake of the Paris shootings Kyle Scott reminds us of devolution’s ability to connect people to their government and to one another.

One of the emerging storylines in the wake of the attacks in Paris is a discussion of assimilation. Experts suggest that when a person fails to assimilate into society’s mainstream there is an opportunity for that person to develop antisocial or even extremist tendencies.

Whether its school shootings or terrorism the agents involved are usually, usually, people who did not quite fit in and experience a sense of alienation, dislocation or are otherwise disaffected. People have a natural tendency to seek belonging, and when they don’t find it within society’s mainstream they will find it elsewhere.

Reformers suggest that if Western nations with liberal immigration policies and porous borders better assimilated immigrants, and the children of immigrants, that the sense of alienation and abandonment would be displaced by a sense of belonging and inclusion and more opportunities for economic success and political involvement would become available.

Assimilation creates two problems. First, assimilation conflicts with core democratic values. Democracies value individuality and the right for people to decide for themselves what they value and how they value it. Democracy is based around the concepts of freedom of association and freedom of thought. Assimilation stands in contrast to these principles as it relates to immigrant populations as it asks people to think and act differently than they had previously; to accept values, cultures and norms they may not otherwise accept. Assimilation transforms or suppresses the authentic whereas democracy is supposed to protect it.

The second problem with assimilation is that it may produce backlash. When a person who identifies strongly with their heritage is forced to give it up, or feel like they are being forced to, they may reject all assimilation measures and become more entrenched in their native culture and can thus be pushed to the extreme.

The concept of devolution, in which political and economic power is devolved from a central body to more localized governing units, holds some promise. Federalism is premised on the concept of devolution but the concept polycentrism more appropriately captures the dynamic pursued here.

In monocentric political systems there is a monopoly over coercive capabilities and decision making whereas in a polycentric system different officials and decision structures are assigned limited and relatively autonomous prerogatives to determine, enforce and alter legal relationships. There is no ultimate center with absolute power over the domain of governance and all actors, including the officials, are constrained by countervailing powers and overarching rules. Cities with culturally diverse populations have multiple unofficial ‘centers’ anyway. Thus, it is possible to structure governance mechanisms that correspond to each of the publics that confront particular policy problems. Because of their overlapping structures polycentric systems can respond to the preferences of publics that may vary enormously in scope.

Polycentrism would include them in the official governing process thereby legitimating the groups they include. As political scientist and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom wrote, “a system that has multiple centers of power at diffing scales provides more opportunity for citizens and their officials to innovate and to intervene so as to correct maldistributions of authority and outcomes. Thus, polycentric systems are more likely than monocentric systems to provide incentives leading to self-organized, self-corrective institutional change.”

Devolution, as manifested through polycentrism, overcomes the two problems typically associated with assimilation. First, it fosters assimilation by including people in the process whereby they can allow their values to affect political and economic change without changing what they value. The practice of democracy will permit a more easy acceptance of the values that make democracy possible without forcing people to change. Second, devolution will not produce pushback as people are being given an outlet, a legitimate outlet, through which they can voice their pleasure or displeasure with any policy or development. The assumption is that the process can condition behavior and engender values which is opposite of the current assimilation assumption that says we have to legislate values and behavior so someone can take part in the process. It seems more humane and efficient to meet people where they are and gently guide them to where we would like them to be.


Kyle Scott, PhD, teaches political science at the University of Houston and is an Affiliate Faculty Member at the Baylor College of Medicine. He has authored four books and dozens of academic articles. He commentary on public affairs has appeared in such outlets as Deseret News, Huffington Post,, Christian Science Monitor, Houston Chronicle and Forbes.

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