Melting Pot? Salad Bowl? Neither.

[This is the continuation of my series of posts turning around the topic of free migration. Here are the first two installments: “Also: Free Migration” and Three Ways to Boost Liberty in the World.]

When it comes to immigration to a country, one of the main concerns that many people have is that it will change the culture. And since almost every society has the modest self-image that it is simply the best imaginable, the obvious conclusion is: It can only get worse.

That’s not obvious. Maybe your culture also has some weak points? If so, a change might also yield improvements. You could learn something from others, or some ominous feature of your culture just withers away because popular demand dissipates. But it’s not obvious either that the effect will be an improvement.

On the whole, positive and negative changes might also mostly cancel out and the net effect could be small. Basically, this is an empirical question that cannot be answered with a slam-dunk argument apriori although both sides in such debates are convinced they can easily do it.

If you take immigration as a given, either because you applaud it or because you think it is inevitable and beyond your control, there are two ways how to think about its effects on a culture.

The Melting Pot

The classical metaphor is that of a “melting pot.” You take the component parts and throw them into the pot. Then you apply heat, the different metals melt, and out comes an alloy. The inputs are still there, but the end-result is homogeneous. It inherits the properties from the different ingredients that contribute to the output according to their shares. Maybe there are also some emergent properties on top as is often the case with alloys.

Of course, if you translate this to a culture, that means change. Immigrants will add their share to the mix. But then the end-result is homogeneous. Since many people think this is desirable in and of itself, it is a vision that even those can get behind who accept immigration only as an inevitable fact.

The metaphor can be understood as descriptive or as normative: A society just is a melting pot, or it should be one. In the latter case, people worry that it might not work out. You have to heat up and scramble, and if you fail to do it, you will not produce the alloy. Especially if someone only puts up with immigration and is already suspicious, claims about a “melting pot” may sound overly optimistic. It might not happen. And what you then often see are demands that the government should set up the “melting pot.”

There is also another side to this, in particular when the metaphor of the “melting pot” is meant as normative and as the basis for more of less coercive policies. This other side are the people who are supposed to be melted down, mostly the immigrants. Someone may stick a thermometer into you to see whether you have already reached the correct temperature, they will try to stir you, and take samples to see whether you have already achieved your goal as an alloy

That causes an understandable revulsion against talk of a “melting pot.” It can also be a promise if you are fine with becoming part of the alloy. But my over-all hunch is that attempts to force people into a “melting pot” are counterproductive. The demand that you should melt down and fast comes across as an intrusion and overbearing. And it is.

The Salad Bowl

That’s why a different metaphor seems to have caught on: the “salad bowl.” You again throw everybody in, stir, but without the heat. So the components mix, but they remain separate. They are only distributed equally over the whole salad. If you now take a sample at some point, it depends on how large it is, unlike for an alloy. If you pick out an individual, it could be any of the ingredients. If it is larger, it would be a more or less representative sample of the whole mix.

For those who are afraid of heterogeneity and its effects, a “salad bowl” is not a satisfactory solution. To appreciate it you have to view the loose mix as good: You celebrate the diversity and view it as strength. Basically, it is not unlike the claim about an alloy where new properties might emerge. But you don’t expect it to happen on the individual level, only on a higher social level.

Of course, this view is much less threatening to immigrants. Actually, the point is that you can keep your original culture and add it to the mix. Often this view is subsumed under concepts like “multiculturalism” and the like. If you think homogeneity is very important, this does not seem like a solution. It might just spread the problem around, and this could make things worse.


Both those who use the “melting pot” metaphor and those who use the “salad bowl” metaphor agree on one thing: The end-result is a proportional mix of the ingredients. The resulting culture has corresponding shares from the original cultures. It only depends on the level of resolution: individual or social on some larger scale.

But then here is a slight problem for both positions: That’s not how it works.

Let me explain this with a stylized example. But the point is much broader. To get effects out of the way that result from an overlap of different developments, let me at first reduce the complexity somewhat by focusing only on one narrow scenario:

Suppose you have a homogeneous country where everybody has the same culture. In a strict sense, that is never the case. A society is rather homogeneous compared to others. But if you look at it from the inside it is always heterogeneous to some extent, except in some totalitarian fantasy.

But let’s assume the internal heterogeneity away for the moment. Take language as the salient point for the culture. Now, typical immigration per year is usually a percentage in the low single digits of the current population. I will take 1% as was the case roughly during the 19th century with mostly free immigration to the US. So 1% with a different language enter the country. However, I assume this happens only in one year to avoid confusing effects from continuing immigration.

Let me also assume that the immigrants do not settle some new lands where they are separate from the natives. That is an important point because otherwise the argument does not have to work. They are also not in a position where natives have to accomodate them, eg. as overlords after a conquest. I think both assumptions are obviously true for immigration under current conditions while they might not apply in all historical cases.

Immigrants disperse over the country and are faced with an overwhelming majority of natives of 99%. They can also not expect that the natives will now learn their language because there is no incentive for them to do that. So the normal situation will be that immigrants find themselves in an almost purely native environment: work, schools, government, etc. Natives will hardly notice the small share of immigrants. They can easily work around them, immigrants cannot do that.

Hence the plausible result is that the immigrants learn the native language, and the natives will not bother to learn the new language of the immigrants at all. They will perhaps notice a few things that are brought in and that they do not have words for. And in that case, they might adopt a new word here and there. But usually only in a clumsy way.

Take the word “yogurt.” Its origin is the Turkish word “yoğurt.” But here is the funny part: In Turkish the ‘ğ’ is not pronounced as a ‘g’ but means that you stop between the two vowels. In other words: the people who picked up the word in English or in German, only saw it in writing and never listened to anyone who actually spoke Turkish!

The first generation of immigrants will have to learn the native language willy-nilly. People who are concerned that the melting pot works too slowly will point out, though, that immigrants still speak their language among themselves and never learn the native language to perfection.

But here comes the second generation. Children until age 12 or 13 can pick up a new language from just listening to it. They then speak it on a par with native speakers. They are effectively native speakers apart from a quibble that they were perhaps born somewhere else and have not sprung up from the ground.

Will the second generation of natives learn the foreign language? No. A few may do it out of interest or for some reason like in the first generation. But the second generation has even less of an incentive as their peers from the second generation of immigrants speak the native language fluently. So in the second generation, the mix has become even more native than before.

Now go through the generations: The usual observation is that the children of immigrants still have a working knowledge of the language of their parents. It may not be on the level back home, though. But then they are already bilingual and closer to the native language. So the third generation has even less input than they had. Typically, they only have some rudimentary knowledge of the language of their grandparents. That means there is even more attrition in the next step, and the fourth generation has usually forgotten their forefathers’ language completely.

All in all, there is an extreme pull towards the native language that is hard to escape. Only in cases, where a group remains very isolated, eg. because they are excluded from society, it can sometimes take very long or it may never happen. For this to happen, there must be almost no pull from the native language, which is really hard to do if people are continually immersed in a society as is the usual case with immigration in our times.

The Native Culture Always Wins

The end-result is that the native language goes on almost unchanged, apart from a few new words that are picked up. The only people who have reason to worry that their descendants will not speak their language are the immigrants. And it is reasonable to assume that this will happen. Since this is drawn out over generations, you would not even notice it, though, as it is so slow. It does not feel like an intrusion because all the steps are more or less voluntary.

Compare this to the “melting pot” metaphor: The outcome is not that everybody speaks a language that is 99% the native language and 1% that of the immigrants. And it is also not the “salad bowl:” 99% speak the native language and 1% the language of the immigrants. It is practically 100% the native language after some time.

The More General Case

I have focused on a scenario with one-time immigration. Let’s relax this assumption. If you have continual immigration of 1% of the population, there will be a build-up of the share of immigrants in the population to perhaps 15% or so. However, every new immigrant is still faced with an overwhelmingly native culture. Every new 1% has to deal with that.

What comes on top: Immigrants are usually not a homogeneous group who all speak “foreign.” Even among themselves they have to use one language to communicate. Since no one will learn like 50 languages, they will fall back on the natural choice: the native language. And from there it works the same way over time. Surely, because always new people arrive, it will not converge to 100% for the native language now. There are also overlapping generations with their respective progress. But they will still always be pulled in the direction of the native language.

Zelinksky’s Doctrine of First Effective Settlement

Actually, it almost impossible to edge out a language, and broadly a culture, that has once been established. This is known as “Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Effective Settlement”:

Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been.

Note that my argument does not work if a territory is settled for the first time. That’s why people in Quebec still speak French. And Americans speak English. But once this is so, it is extremely hard to overcome this.

It would take regular annual immigration of upwards from 5% of a population. And then immigration would have to be also homogeneous and in additions immigrants would have to be very stubborn not to assimilate in the least. Then it can happen. But in normal situations it is not possible.

That’s also why English was never threatened even with massive immigration in the 19th century. Perhaps 70% of more of the population in the US would not be there if there had been no immigration after the founding of the Republic. Most of them came had a background other than English. Still English won out easily.

Neither the “melting pot” not the “salad bowl” are hence adequate descriptions of how immigration impacts a culture. It is more like the native culture sucks everything in that comes its way.

The US is a perfect example here: 15% of the population are of German descent according to their self-declaration. That’s the largest ethnic group by the way.

But if you conclude from this that it is a “salad bowl” and about every seventh person on the street speaks German, you might be in for a surprise: They speak English. German is hardly spoken in the US these days. It has only survived with some rather isolated communities like the Amish. And you can find it some times with recent immigrants. But that’s it.

It is not a “melting pot” either. I can assure you that not 15% of all words in American English are now German, or you shpeak viz a notissable Cherman aktsent. Americans have not even adopted the useful word “an.” Sad!

It just doesn’t work this way. Those who worry about homogeneity can relax: Native culture will win hands down. There is at most some slight additional heterogeneity with continual immigration. And those who have a vision of a multicultural society will be disappointed: It won’t happen. You may celebrate diversity now, but it will just fade away over time.

The outcome is that, apart from minor additions, the original native culture of the first settlers goes on and on. If you are concerned about homogeneity, that might make you less nervous about immigration. Only immigrants have to think about whether they want to get into this. For natives, the change will be minimal. And it also does not forcing by the government because it might not work out. The pull towards the native culture is so strong that it is hardly conceivable that it might develop otherwise.


If someone has an idea what a good metaphor for the actual process is, I would really appreciate to learn about it. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Both the “melting pot” and the “salad bowl” are misleading in my view. This is unfortunate because it spawns useless discussions about a phantom. Some other gripping image might convey a better understanding of what is really going on.