The status attainment model highlights the role of family socioeconomic status (SES) in the intergenerational reproduction of educational attainment; however, the model falls short in predicting the educational outcomes of the children of Asian immigrants, whose attainment exceeds that which would have been predicted based on family SES alone. On the other hand, the cultural capital model gives primacy to the role of middle-class cultural capital in reproducing advantage, but neglects contextual factors outside the family. We fill a theoretical and empirical niche by introducing a model of cultural frames to explain how the children of immigrants whose families exhibit low SES and lack middle-class cultural capital attain exceptional educational outcomes. Based on in-depth interviews with adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants randomly drawn from the survey of Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles, we show that Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict “success frame” that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages. However, there are unintended consequences to adopting such a strict success frame: those who do not meet its exacting tenets feel like ethnic outliers, and as a result, they distance themselves from coethnics and from their ethnic identities because they link achievement with ethnicity. We conclude by underscoring the benefits of decoupling race/ethnicity and achievement for all groups.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
The article was published in The Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2011 [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html], accessed on June 4, 2011.
IIMMLA is a multi-investigator study that examines the patterns of intra- and intergenerational mobility among the adult children of immigrants in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. It includes a telephone survey of 4,800 randomly selected respondents in five counties of Los Angeles metropolitan region (Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura). It targets 1.5- and second-generation Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans between the ages of 20 and 39 from geographically, socioeconomically, and racially/ethnically diverse neighborhoods. It also contains samples of third-plus-generation (native-born of native-born parentage) Mexican Americans, non-Hispanic blacks, and non-Hispanic whites for comparison.
We examined these measures based on the 2000 US Census data for the Los Angeles region and found similar trends regarding intergroup differences.
Alba, R., & Nee, V. (2003). Remaking the American mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Blau, P., & Duncan, O. D. (1967). American occupational structure. New York: Wiley.
Bloemraad, I. (2006). Becoming a citizen: Incorporating immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Borjas, G. J. (1992). Ethnic capital and intergenerational mobility. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 107(1), 123–150.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Breen, R., & Jonsson, J. O. (2005). Inequality of opportunity in comparative perspective: Recent research on educational attainment and social mobility. Annual Review of Sociology, 31, 223–243.
Brooks, D. (2012). Op-Ed: www.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/opinion/brooks-the-party-of-work.html.
Caplan, N., Whitmore, J., & Choy, M. (1989). The boat people and achievement in America: A study of economic and educational success. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Carter, P. L. (2005). Keepin’ it real: School success beyond black and white. New York: Oxford University Press.
Chao, R. K. (1994). Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Development, 65(4), 1111–1119.
Cheryan, S., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2000). When positive stereotypes threaten intellectual performance: The psychological hazards of ‘model minority’ status. Psychological Science, 11(5), 399–402.
Chua, A. (2011). Battle hymn of the tiger mother. New York: Penguin Press.
Deaux, K., Bikmen, N., Gilkes, A., Ventuceac, A., Joseph, Y., Payne, Y. A., et al. (2007). Becoming American: Stereotype threat effects in afro-caribbean immigrant groups. Social Psychology Quarterly, 70(4), 384–404.
DiMaggio, P. (1982). Cultural capital and school success: The impact of status culture participation on the grades of U.S. high school students. American Sociological Review, 47, 189–201.
DiMaggio, P. (1997). Culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 263–287.
Fernández-Kelly, P. (2008). The back pocket map: Social class and cultural capital as transferable assets in the advancement of second-generation immigrants. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 620, 116–137.
Foner, N. (2010). Questions of success: Lessons from the last great immigration. In G. Sonnert & G. Holton (Eds.), Helping young refugees and immigrants succeed: Public policy, aid, and education (pp. 9–22). New York: Palgrave.
Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with the burden of ‘acting white’. Urban Review, 18, 176–206.
Fukuyama, F. (1993). Immigrants and Family Values. Commentary, May, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/immigrants-and-family-values/.
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Haller, A. O., & Portes, A. (1973). Status attainment processes. Sociology of Education, 46(1), 51–91.
Harding, D. J. (2007). Cultural context, sexual behavior, and romantic relationships in disadvantaged neighborhoods. American Sociological Review, 72, 341–364.
Ho, C., Driscoll, D. M., & Loosbrock, D. (1998). Great expectations: The negative consequences of falling short. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(19), 1743–1759.
Jiménez, T., & Horowitz, A. L. (2013). When white is just alright: How immigrants redefine achievement and reconfigure the ethnoracial hierarchy. American Sociological Review, 78(5), 849–871.
Kao, G. (1995). Asian Americans as model minorities? A look at their academic performance. American Journal of Education, 103(2), 121–159.
Kasinitz, P., Mollenkopf, J. H., Waters, M. C., & Holdaway, J. (2009). Inheriting the city. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lamont, M., & Lareau, A. (1988). Cultural capital: Allusions, gaps, and glissandos in recent theoretical developments. Sociological Theory, 6, 153–168.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lee, J. (2002). Civility in the city: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in urban America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lee, S. S. (2006). Class matters: Racial and ethnic identities of working- and middle-class second-generation Korean Americans in New York City. In P. Kasinitz, J. H. Mollenkopf, & M. C. Waters (Eds.), Becoming new yorkers: Ethnographies of the new second generation (pp. 313–338). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lee, J., & Bean, F. D. (2010). The diversity paradox: Immigration and the color line in 21st century America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lee, J., & Zhou, M. (2013). Frames of achievement and opportunity horizons: Second-generation Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexicans in Los Angeles. In D. Card & S. Raphael (Eds.), Immigration, poverty, and socioeconomic inequality (pp. 206–231). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lin, M. H., Virginia, S. Y., Kwan, A. C., & Fiske, S. T. (2005). Stereotype content model explains prejudice for an envied outgroup: scale of Anti-Asian American stereotypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 34–47.
Louie, V. (2004). Compelled to excel: Immigration, education, and opportunity among Chinese Americans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Massey, D. S., Charles, C. Z., Lundy, G., & Fischer, M. J. (2003). The source of the river: The social origins of freshmen at America’s selective colleges and universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Massey, D. S., & Fischer, M. J. (2005). Stereotype threat and academic performance: New findings from a racially diverse sample of college freshmen. Du Bois Review, 2(1), 45–67.
McLanahan, S., & Bumpass, L. (1988). Intergenerational consequences of family disruption. American Journal of Sociology, 93, 130–152.
McLanahan, S., & Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing up with a single parent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merton, R.K. (1949). Patterns of influence: Local and cosmopolitan influentials. In R. K. Merton (Ed.), Social theory and social structure (pp. 441–447). New York: Free Press.
Moynihan, D.P. (1965). The Negro family: The case for national action. Office of Policy Planning and Research: United States Department of Labor.
Murray, C. (2012). Op-Ed: http://www.aei-ideas.org/2012/11/why-arent-asians-republicans/.
Ngo, B., & Lee, S. J. (2007). Complicating the image of model minority success: A review of Southeast Asian American education. Review of Educational Research, 77, 415–453.
Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Portes, A., & Zhou, M. (1993). The new second generation: Segmented assimilation and its variants. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 530, 74–96.
Ridgeway, C. L., & Fisk, S. R. (2012). Class rules, status dynamics, and ‘gateway’ interactions. In S. T. Fiske & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Facing social class: How societal rank influences interaction (pp. 131–151). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Reardon, S. F. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. In G. J. Duncan & R. J. Murnane (Eds.), Wither opportunity: Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 91–116). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Roscigno, V. J., & Ainsworth-Darnell, J. W. (1999). Race, cultural capital, and educational resources: Persistent Inequalities and achievement returns. Sociology of Education, 72(3), 158–178.
Rumbaut, R. G. (2005). Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian Americans. In P. G. Min (Ed.), Asian Americans: Contemporary trends and issues (pp. 262–289). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Sewell, W. H., Haller, A. O., & Portes, A. (1969). The educational and early occupational attainment process. American Sociological Review, 34(1), 82–92.
Sidanius, J., Levin, S., Van Laar, C., & Sears, D. O. (2010). The diversity challenge: Social identity and intergroup relations on the college campus. New York: The Russell Sage Foundation.
Skrentny, J. D. (2008). Culture and race/ethnicity: Bolder, deeper and broader. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 619, 59–77.
Small, M. L. (2004). Villa victoria: The transformations of social capital in a Boston barrio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Small, M. L., Harding, D. J., & Lamont, M. (2010). Reconsidering culture and poverty. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629, 6–27.
Smith, R. C. (2014). Black Mexicans and beyond: Long-term ethnographic analysis of evolving ethnic and racial identities in contemporary America. Unpublished Manuscript, Baruch College, City University of New York.
Sowell, T. (1996). Migrations and cultures: A world view. New York: Basic Books.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.
Steinberg, L. (1996). Ethnicity and Adolescent Achievement. American Educator Summer, 20(2), 28–48.
Sue, S., & Okazaki, S. (1990). Asian-American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation. American Psychologist, 45(8), 913–920.
Tran, V. C. (Forthcoming). More than just black: Cultural perils and opportunities in innercity neighborhoods. In O. Patterson & E. Fosse (Eds.), Bringing culture back in: New approaches to the problems of black youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vaisey, S. (2010). What people want: Rethinking poverty, culture, and educational attainment. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629, 75–101.
Wang, H. (2002). ‘Modernity’ and ‘Asia’ in the study of chinese history. In E. Fuchs & B. Stuchtey (Eds.), Across cultural borders: Historiography in global perspective (pp. 309–334). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Wilson, W. J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, A. A. (2010). New life for an old concept: Frame analysis and the reinvigoration of studies in culture and poverty. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629, 53–74.
Zhou, M., & Bankston, C, I. I. I. (1998). Growing up American: How Vietnamese children adapt to life in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Zhou, M., & Cho, M. (2010). Noneconomic effects of ethnic entrepreneurship: Evidence from Chinatown and Koreatown in Los Angeles, USA. Thunderbird International Business Review, 52(2), 83–96.
Zuckerman, H. (1988). The role of the role model: The other side of a sociological coinage. In H. J. O’Gorman (Ed.), Surveying social life (pp. 119–144). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
About this article
Cite this article
Lee, J., Zhou, M. The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans. Race Soc Probl 6, 38–55 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-014-9112-7
- Second generation
- Educational attainment
- Asian Americans