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  • Toward a “Borderlands School” for American Urban Ethnic Studies?
  • Philip J. Ethington (bio)
Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. By George Sánchez. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. $35.00 (cloth), $15.95 (paper).

Modernist social science in the United States grounded itself one century ago in the study of the immigrant experience in New York City and Chicago. It stressed linear progress from traditional to modern, from peripheral otherness to central sameness. All of the great fin-de-siècle theorists of modernity—Durkheim, Weber, Tönnies, Cooley, Mead—modeled their ideas on the movement of “traditional” rural peoples to the great industrial cities. The transatlantic movement of peoples to the United States was widely understood as the most extreme case of becoming modern, and American urban ethnic studies—even in revision—has been held in thrall to the modernist paradigm since the publication of Jane Addams et al., Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895). 1

In Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945, George Sánchez has not only produced a masterful landmark in the history of what may prove to be the pivotal [End Page 344] twentieth-century ethnic group; he has written a social-scientific monograph that ushers the long-standing modernist paradigm toward a genuine departure and into a “borderlands” framework that may at last answer the challenges that postmodernity poses to social science.

In many ways, scholarship since the 1960s has worked to recover the positive features of the great masterpiece of U.S. ethnic-immigration studies: W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. 2 Social democratic and social constructivist in outlook, Thomas lost his chance to chart the course of U.S. social science when the University of Chicago summarily dismissed him for his Mann Act arrest at a Chicago hotel with a woman who was not his wife. 3 Robert Park and his colleagues dominated U.S. studies of ethnicity through the 1960s with their ecological model; Oscar Handlin simplified Thomas and Znanieki’s ideas and set the standard for immigration history in his 1951 classic, The Uprooted. Handlin argued that immigrants were socially disorganized and became functional again once they learned to assimilate into U.S. institutions and culture. Since Handlin, revisionist immigration studies have established the empirical underpinnings for what we call multiculturalism: immigrants in the work of John Bodnar, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Donna Gabaccia, and many others are transplanted rather than uprooted. They have carried their social networks with them and built distinctive communities of strength within a plural society. 4

Nineteen sixty-five marked the beginning of the end for the modernist paradigm, but the end of the end has yet to be achieved. The Watts Rebellion signaled the failure of Parkian urbanist policy making and launched the nationalist movements that emerged by the end of the decade. The Immigration Act of that year also lowered the barriers to immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Left revisionism in race-ethnic-immigration studies did not need to break with the modernist paradigm of Jane Addams’s and W. I. Thomas’s generation: it needed only to recover the pluralist (as opposed to the assimilationist) strands of that paradigm and to emphasize the social-democratic goals of the scholars who were active before Robert Park become dominant in the 1920s. A recent synthesis of the post-Handlin revisionism, edited by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, convincingly demostrates the capacity of positive social science to handle the main themes of multiculturalism: bringing African migration back into the picture, incorporating the Asian and Latin American experiences, and replacing the Handlinian assumption of cultural disintegration and social disorganization with proof of cultural strength and community resources. 5 [End Page 345]

The rise in the 1970s of a postmodern challenge to the master narratives of modernism poses far greater difficulties. Sensitive as they have been to questions of power, domination, marginality, and otherness, the vast majority of revisionist immigration-ethnicity scholars have been working with models of “world systems” and have, with quantitative and other positivist, behavioral methods, charted the adaptation of immigrants to the...

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