middleman minorities 3009

their strong ethnic ties/solidarity. Middleman
minorities tend to maintain ethnic traditions and
solidarity over generations. Although their lack
of assimilation and ethnic solidarity may be
partly caused by their group characteristics, it
is largely the result of their economic segrega
tion and reactions to their experiences with host
Social scientists consider Jews in medieval
Europe and in pre war Poland, Asian Indians
in South and West Africa, and Chinese in var
ious Asian countries (Thailand, the Philippines,
and Vietnam) as typical middleman minorities
(Eitzen 1971; Bonacich 1972; Zenner 1991).
These groups concentrated in small retail busi
nesses (moneylending in the case of Jews in
medieval Europe). They also experienced boy
cotts and other forms of rejection by minority
customers. In addition, they maintained strong
ethnic ties and solidarity. Bonacich and Modell
(1980) consider Japanese truck farmers and
Japanese wholesalers and retailers of farm pro
ducts in the first half of the twentieth century as
middleman merchants. Min (1996) has exam
ined contemporary Korean immigrant mer
chants in black neighborhoods as middlemen
that distribute white corporate products to
low income minority customers.
Bonacich and other scholars (Bonacich 1972;
Bonacich & Modell 1980; Light 1980; Light &
Bonacich 1988: 1718) have used the term
middleman minority to refer to immigrant
and ethnic groups with high concentrations
in commercial occupations. In this definition,
the group characteristics of middleman minori
ties, such as the proclivity to take risks,
sojourning orientation, and the separatist
mentality, mainly contributed to their middle
man role. However, it is better to use the term
trading minorities to refer to these immigrant
and minority groups that are or were merely
concentrated in commercial occupations. As
noted above, classical theorists have reserved
middleman minorities for the immigrant and
minority groups that played the economic
intermediary role between the ruling group of
producers and the consuming masses. Since
middleman minorities were needed to bridge
the two socially stratified groups, the social
structure of the host society in the form of a
status gap, rather than the characteristics of
middleman minorities, was the main cause of
the development of a middleman minority in a
particular society.
The middleman literature shows that mid
dleman minorities existed in two forms of
societies with extreme types of social stratifica
tion. First, middleman minorities existed in
pre industrial, aristocratic societies such as
those found in medieval Europe or pre war
Poland (Eitzen 1971; Zenner 1991). Jews
played the role of the economic intermediaries
as moneylenders or merchants in these pre
industrial societies because there was no inter
mediate class that could have bridged the gap
between the ruling group and the consuming
masses. Second, middleman minorities devel
oped in colonial societies, such as the Philip
pines or South Africa. The colonial ruling
groups, Spaniards in the Philippines and whites
in South Africa and other African countries,
did not allow, or at least discouraged, the indi
genous populations from developing economic
power, which they feared might have been used
to overthrow the colonial governments (Palmer
1957; Eitzen 1971). Thus, they brought in or
encouraged the alien groups, Chinese in the
Philippines and other Asian countries, and
Asian Indians in South Africa and other Afri
can countries, to specialize in minority oriented
As noted above, middleman minorities
existed in pre industrial or colonized societies
where social strata were more or less polarized
and fixed, and which had no significant middle
class. The twentieth century United States,
with the middle class accounting for a signifi
cant or a majority of the population, was not a
society favorable for the development of a mid
dleman minority. However, Rinder (1959: 257)
pointed out that although strata boundaries are
continuous and flexible in American society, a
status gap is apparent in the margins of white
Negro relations. In the early twentieth century,
Jews in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago,
and other cities dominated retail businesses in
black neighborhoods, playing a middleman min
ority role bridging white manufacturers and
suppliers on the one hand and poor black resi
dents on the other (Cohen 1970).