Monday, April 22, 2013

1930s Ethnic Study: Franco-Americans Break Sociological Mold

Recently, I examined select results from a 2012 sociological study of Maine Franco-Americans. This research bears comparison with a study conducted in the 1930s that included not only Franco-Americans but other ethnic groups as well.

Published as The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups, by W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945; parenthetical page numbers below refer to this book), this study investigated a New England mill town the authors called “Yankee City.” Successive waves of immigration had brought the Irish, French-Canadians, Jews, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians to the town.

In terms of population, the Irish and French-Canadian groups dwarf the others. With the exception of the Irish, the French-Canadians had more than twice the headcount of any of the other groups studied (28).

The modern reader notices that the book refers to Yankees, i.e. Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as “native Americans.” Of course, this term has a very different meaning in today’s identity-political discourse. For the purposes of the study, the world of Yankee City divides into “regular Americans,” i.e. Yankees, and others who are called “ethnics.”

French-Canadians began to arrive in Yankee City in the 1880s, the second oldest group among the “ethnics.” The thesis of the study is that the longer a group’s sojourn in the USA, the more it becomes assimilated to “regular American” ways and the higher its economic and social status (2). The Franco-Americans in town contradict this hypothesis.

The researchers quantified the residential, occupational, and social status of the various ethnic groups. Despite their relatively long tenancy in the town, the Franco-Americans ranked fifth among the eight ethnic groups in terms of the status of the neighborhoods in which they tended to live (40).

With respect to home ownership, the Franco-Americans ranked dead last as compared with the other groups. Only 25.9 percent of the Franco-American group owned a home, as opposed to 63.4 percent of the Jewish population and 55.5 percent of the Russians (80).

With respect to occupational status, the Franco-American group ranked lower than all of the others with the exception of the Poles and the Russians, the latter groups having arrived in Yankee City only about 10 to 20 years before the study was conducted (60).
Data from an Ethnic Study of "Yankee City"
Source: Warner and Srole, 60
In terms of a general measure of class status, which takes into account social connections among other measures, the Franco-American group appears somewhere in the middle. They are ahead of the more recently arrived Poles, Russians, and Greeks but of lower status than the Irish, Jews and Armenians (70).

The authors propose an elaborate theory regarding the social status associated with physical characteristics (such as skin color and facial features), religion, and language (284-296).

Their theory holds that the closer an ethnic or racial group approximates to the physical, religious, and linguistic norm of the “regular Americans,” the lower the socio-economic barriers and the greater the ease with which that group assimilates to the Yankee way of life.

Fascinatingly, the authors recognize that “the Catholic French,” presumably the “French-Canadians” of the study, are "out of place" within their scheme (289). The authors are indeed correct. The study shows that the Franco-American in Yankee City did not occupy the slot in the ethno-racial caste system that the authors' model predicted.

I assume that the intelligence and capacities of the Franco-American group fall within the same range as those of any other group of human beings. How, then, do the authors account for the relatively low status of the Franco-Americans given the length of their tenancy in Yankee City?

The authors find one possible explanation in the traditional family system of Québec. In this system, the father of the family determined the station in life of his children. The family rather than the individual was the unit of measure as regards social status. Successful family members transfer their success to the family as a whole (100-101).

Young adult children were not self-determined. They did not make their own career decisions based on self-perceived talents or their own desires. Their lot depended on their position in the family as perceived by their parents, especially the family’s patriarch. I don’t need to explain how the assumptions of this system differ from those that favor the self-made man or the rugged individualist of “regular American” lore. 

There is another factor, not mentioned by the authors, retarding the Franco-American’s assimilation and relative socio-economic status: the history of domination of the French North American groups by Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Other groups in Yankee City, such as the Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, were also under foreign domination for centuries. However, with the exception of the Irish, none of these groups were under the domination of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and none of them under a North American culture of this type before their arrival in the USA.

I contend that the Canadien immigrants of this period saw only minor differences between les anglais of Canada and les anglais of the USA. In both countries, their elites had an express ideology of determined resistance to assimilation by the Anglo-Saxons.

Even a desire to rise in the Yankees' social order implies a degree of assimilation to their worldview, a view that many Canadiens were taught was poisonous and destructive to faith and morals. The authors are measuring the degree of social cohesion with an Anglo-Saxon group, the very type against which the “Catholic French” had a long history of bitter conflict and separatist resistance.

The study looks at the “ethnics” through the lens of Yankee values. Its measures of success include the house on the hill, a white-collar job, and membership in the golf club. “Ethnics” also have their own measures of success, their own values and priorities.

The authors recognize that these values may interact in a complex way with those of the dominant culture (100). The complexity created by competing value systems may impede both the immigrants' acceptance of the dominant culture and the latter's acceptance of them.

For instance, the researchers found that the index of residential status for the Franco-American group was lower than expected because a disproportionate number of them resided in the poorest section of town. This is the section where the group began to form a cluster shortly after their arrival in Yankee City.

Perhaps some families stayed in the poorer section because they wished to remain where they had raised their families, where they were surrounded by friends of their own cultural group. Maybe they wished to be near their church where it was easy to “make a visit” or attend daily Mass. Maybe such considerations were more important to them than “moving up” on the Yankee social scale.

The study points to the important and overlooked fact that the French North American groups fit poorly into the categories of American ethno-racial identity-politics. We are not what are now called people of color nor are we “regular Americans” per the standards of the 1930s. Although many of us have Native ancestry we’re not First Nations either. We landed at neither Plymouth Rock nor Ellis Island.

We're unique in that our cultures are North American, and yet predate the existence of the United States and of today’s Canada. Our peoples occupied parts of what is now the USA before they were parts of the USA. And our peoples were, for the most part, conquered by the English and Americans before the latter imagined themselves as distinct from the former.

There is no pigeonhole for us in the accepted racial and ethnic narratives and these narratives are central to one’s place in the American story. In a future post, I intend to explore how this anomalous position contributes to our general invisibility.


  1. Fascinating. It's interesting to see how sociological analysis reflects the thinking of the time. I think you're quite right in your two main contentions. That Francos measured success differently brings to mind the assumption that the appropriate career for an intelligent boy was the priesthood. I also would agree that for many Canadiens, Anglos were Anglos, no matter which side of the border they lived. And surely the experience of discrimination and domination validated this notion.

    I also think that the authors of the study overlooked two other differences - French Canadians arrived in larger numbers than many of these groups (with the possible exception of the Irish, depending on the community). This gave them less incentive to assimilate and it was possible to live one's life primarily or entirely in Petit Canada alongside other Francos. The other missing piece is the connection to the homeland - none of the European immigrants could go home on the train at regular intervals. These two factors also apply to today's Latino diaspora in the US.

    1. James, thanks for your comment. The study found something interesting with respect to your last point. It found that other groups such as the Greeks and Italians, like the Francos, intended at first to return home after "making good" in the States. It is often said that this intention was unique to Francos, but the research found that this profile fit some of the other groups as well. However, the study found that groups that had faced violent persecution in their homelands, such as the Jews and Armenians, had every intention of remaining in the States from their first steps onto American soil. They had burned their bridges, and this gave them an incentive and a determination to establish themselves rapidly, which meant accepting the mainstream culture more readily.

  2. Excellent post and a great way to begin talking about the place of French Canadians in the wider American context. This is an area that I think will help many people who belong to this ethnic group more fully understand their place in the American scene. There is a sense I get in following public discussions among F/C that there is a "pride" attached to our ethnic heritage, but they cannot really tie it to something concrete. Let's hope this ongoing conversation will create more awareness of our unique culture.

    1. Bravo pour votre magnifique travail. Il est essentiel.

      Sortira sur nos écrans demain le 12 juillet 2013 un film Québécois relatant l'histoire extraordinaire de Louis Cyr, ce Fraco-Américain devenu célèbre dans le monde entier. A voir

      jF Drapeau

  3. David I think much of this due to two things the strong Nationalism and resistance to assimilate to an Anglo-culture and a strong prejudice among New England Wasps towards French Canadian especially Catholic ones. I know there was a strong dislike of anything to do with the United Kingdom among my Grandparents and any relative I met visiting from Quebec. I know many of my Father's First Cousins would almost be labeled insurgents during the 1960s and 1970s for their involvement in groups seeking an independent Quebec Nation. I know the families like my Grandfather; his brother and others from Quebec who emmigrated to cut timber and work in the lathe mill founded; owned and operated by my Grandpa's Uncle in very rural Minnesota kept to themselves and when the lumber business had run its course, many other than my Grandpa and his brother who had started businesses of their own, returned to Quebec. I know my Father was given a hard time that us kids did not speak French. Had their been a community of Quebecois here in Northern Illinois, my Grandparents would have associated with that community almost exclusively as they had in Minnesota, although they had been in the US well over a decade, my Grandmother did not learn English until she moved to Northern Illinois, my Grandfather had to in order to conduct business with English speakers. I think some of the resistance to assimilate is out of anger, anger that we were abandoned to the English, the Candadiens, did not choose to become part of the United Kingdom Empire as other immigrant groups, they did not make some great journey to a land of opportunity, it was forced on us and even the ones who did emmigrate to New England did so not so much out of choice but to escape the discrimination and abject poverty they faced in Quebec to work in the Mills and fill other jobs that others did not want to do. Much like what many of the Hispanics face now, I grew up around many of them, the ones of my youth had been in America for generations and families that trace their roots to what is now America for 100s of years. But my Catholic parish is well over 60% Hispanic and of the more recent arrival, I see less of a desire to assimilate, much of it motivated by the exploitation many of the undocumented ones face in the work place and some of the blatant hatred expressed towards them. Why try to assimilate into a community that uses them, doesn't want them here except for the money they can make off the backs of their labor. We wouldnt have any undocumented workers if someone wasn't giving them work. I think some of the zest for an independent Quebec was lost when the referendums lost. But that dislike for the British Empire and a desire for a Independent Quebec State was passed on to me; I guess that is part of what drives my desire to preserve and learn more of my Canadien Ancestry.