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Nan Zhang (Max Planck Institute)

11 November 2021 @ 14:00 - 15:30



11 November 2021
14:00 - 15:30
Event Category:
Academic Events

” Cultural Adaptation and Demographic Change: Evidence from Mexican-American Naming Patterns During the California Gold Rush”


Abstract. A large body of research examines the reactions of dominant groups to demographic change.  Existing studies demonstrate that, when faced with the threat of a large and growing outgroup, dominant groups take actions to reinforce existing status hierarchies (e.g. racial discrimination) and sharpen in-group boundaries (e.g. adopting more restrictive definitions of “whiteness”).

To date, much of this work has focused on the contemporary empirical case of Whites in the United States and their reactions to the size or growth of Black and Latino populations.  However, a unique feature of the US case is that the demographic threat to Whites’ status is largely hypothetical — not only because Whites maintain the political and economic upper hand, but also because demographic change is, as of yet, incomplete.  In other words, status hierarchies remain subject to contestation, which works to promote strategies aimed at curbing demographic change and maintaining the status of the dominant group. In contrast, we conjecture that when demographic turnover is overwhelming and rapid, the most appealing strategy may not be to brighten the boundary with outgroups but rather to blur it (e.g. via assimilation).

We empirically evaluate this conjecture using the case of the California Gold Rush of 1849.  Within a decade following the discovery of gold, settlers from the Eastern United States flooded into California, “anglicizing” the state and overwhelming its long-established Spanish-speaking population.  Leveraging this natural experiment in combination with complete count data from the 1860 census, we examine the cultural responses of Mexican Americans to rapid demographic change as measured in parents’ naming choices for their children.  Evidence indicates that Mexican American children born in California after 1849 were significantly less likely to be given distinctly Spanish names.  As a placebo test, we further show that similar patterns do not obtain in areas (e.g. New Mexico) that did not experience a rapid influx of English-speakers.  Finally, we show that “anglicizing” trends emerge particularly strongly in the choice of boys’ names.

Overall, this project speaks to an important sociological literature on assimilation and naming choices, as well as contemporary debates over cultural adaptation and demographic change.


Joint with Maria Abascal (New York University)