Ethnic group explained

An ethnic group (or ethnicity) is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and/or an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy.[1] [2] [3] The concept of ethnicity differs from the closely related term race in that "race" refers to grouping based mostly upon criteria that in the past have been presumed to be biological, while "ethnicity" also encompasses additional cultural factors. However, OMB defines the concept of race as outlined for the US Census as not "scientific or anthropological" and takes into account "social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry", using "appropriate scientific methodologies" that are not "primarily biological or genetic in reference."[4]

Members of an ethnic group are usually conscious of belonging to that ethnic group; moreover ethnic identity is further marked by the recognition from others of a group's distinctiveness. Processes that result in the emergence of such identification are called ethnogenesis.

Terminology and definition

The terms ethnicity and ethnic group are derived from the Greek word ἔθνος ethnos, normally translated as "nation".[5] The terms refer currently to people thought to have common ancestry who share a distinctive culture.

Herodotus is the first who stated the main characteristics of ethnicity in the 5th century BCE, with his famous account of what defines Greek identity, where he lists kinship (Greek: ὅμαιμον - homaimon, "of the same blood"[6]), language (Greek: ὁμόγλωσσον - homoglōsson, "speaking the same language"[7]), cults and customs (Greek: ὁμότροπον - homotropon, "of the same habits or life").[8] [9] [10]

The term "ethnic" and related forms from the 14th through the middle of the 19th century CE were used in English in the meaning of "pagan, heathen", as ethnikos (Greek: ἐθνικός, literally "national"[11]) was used as the LXX translation of Hebrew goyim "the nations, non-Hebrews, non-Jews".[12]

The recent meaning emerged in the mid 19th century and expresses the notion of "a people" or "a nation". The term ethnicity is of 20th century coinage, attested from the 1950s. The term nationality depending on context may either be used synonymously with ethnicity, or synonymously with citizenship (in a sovereign state).

The modern usage of "ethnic group" further came to reflect the different kinds of encounters industrialised states have had with external groups, such as immigrants and indigenous peoples; "ethnic" thus came to stand in opposition to "national", to refer to people with distinct cultural identities who, through migration or conquest, had become subject to a state or "nation" with a different cultural mainstream.[13] - with the first usage of the term ethnic group in 1935,[14] and entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 1972.[15] [16] [17]

Writing about the usage of the term "ethnic" in the ordinary language of Great Britain and the United States, in 1977 Wallman noted that

The term 'ethnic' popularly connotes '[race]' in Britain, only less precisely, and with a lighter value load. In North America, by contrast, '[race]' most commonly means color, and 'ethnics' are the descendents of relatively recent immigrants from non-English-speaking countries. '[Ethnic]' is not a noun in Britain. In effect there are no 'ethnics'; there are only 'ethnic relations'.[18] Thus, in today's everyday language, the words "ethnic" and "ethnicity" still have a ring of exotic peoples, minority issues and race relations.

Within the social sciences, however, the usage has become more generalized to all human groups that explicitly regard themselves and are regarded by others as culturally distinctive.[19] Among the first to bring the term "ethnic group" into social studies was the German sociologist Max Weber, who defined it as:

[T]hose human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for group formation; furthermore it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists.[20]

Whether ethnicity qualifies as a cultural universal is to some extent dependent on the exact definition used. According to "Challenges of Measuring an Ethnic World: Science, politics, and reality",[21] "Ethnicity is a fundamental factor in human life: it is a phenomenon inherent in human experience."[22] Many social scientists, such as anthropologists Fredrik Barth and Eric Wolf, do not consider ethnic identity to be universal. They regard ethnicity as a product of specific kinds of inter-group interactions, rather than an essential quality inherent to human groups.[23]

Conceptual history of ethnicity

According to Hans Adriel Handokho, the study of ethnicity was dominated by two distinct debates until recently.

According to Eriksen, these debates have been superseded, especially in anthropology, by scholars' attempts to respond to increasingly politicised forms of self-representation by members of different ethnic groups and nations. This is in the context of debates over multiculturalism in countries, such as the United States and Canada, which have large immigrant populations from many different cultures, and post-colonialism in the Caribbean and South Asia.[32]

Weber maintained that ethnic groups were künstlich (artificial, i.e. a social construct) because they were based on a subjective belief in shared Gemeinschaft (community). Secondly, this belief in shared Gemeinschaft did not create the group; the group created the belief. Third, group formation resulted from the drive to monopolise power and status. This was contrary to the prevailing naturalist belief of the time, which held that socio-cultural and behavioral differences between peoples stemmed from inherited traits and tendencies derived from common descent, then called "race".[33]

Another influential theoretician of ethnicity was Fredrik Barth, whose "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries" from 1969 has been described as instrumental in spreading the usage of the term in social studies in the 1980s and 1990s.[34] Barth went further than Weber in stressing the constructed nature of ethnicity. To Barth, ethnicity was perpetually negotiated and renegotiated by both external ascription and internal self-identification. Barth's view is that ethnic groups are not discontinuous cultural isolates, or logical a prioris to which people naturally belong. He wanted to part with anthropological notions of cultures as bounded entities, and ethnicity as primordialist bonds, replacing it with a focus on the interface between groups. "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries", therefore, is a focus on the interconnectedness of ethnic identities. Barth writes: "[...] categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of mobility, contact and information, but do entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories."

In 1978, anthropologist Ronald Cohen claimed that the identification of "ethnic groups" in the usage of social scientists often reflected inaccurate labels more than indigenous realities:

... the named ethnic identities we accept, often unthinkingly, as basic givens in the literature are often arbitrarily, or even worse inaccurately, imposed.[34]
In this way, he pointed to the fact that identification of an ethnic group by outsiders, e.g. anthropologists, may not coincide with the self-identification of the members of that group. He also described that in the first decades of usage, the term ethnicity had often been used in lieu of older terms such as "cultural" or "tribal" when referring to smaller groups with shared cultural systems and shared heritage, but that "ethnicity" had the added value of being able to describe the commonalities between systems of group identity in both tribal and modern societies. Cohen also suggested that claims concerning "ethnic" identity (like earlier claims concerning "tribal" identity) are often colonialist practices and effects of the relations between colonized peoples and nation-states.[35]

Social scientists have thus focused on how, when, and why different markers of ethnic identity become salient. Thus, anthropologist Joan Vincent observed that ethnic boundaries often have a mercurial character.[36] Ronald Cohen concluded that ethnicity is "a series of nesting dichotomizations of inclusiveness and exclusiveness".[34] He agrees with Joan Vincent's observation that (in Cohen's paraphrase) "Ethnicity ... can be narrowed or broadened in boundary terms in relation to the specific needs of political mobilization.[34] This may be why descent is sometimes a marker of ethnicity, and sometimes not: which diacritic of ethnicity is salient depends on whether people are scaling ethnic boundaries up or down, and whether they are scaling them up or down depends generally on the political situation.

"Ethnies" or ethnic categories

In order to avoid the problem of defining ethnic classification as labelling of others or as self-identification, it has been proposed[37] to distinguish between concepts of "ethnic categories", "ethnic networks" and "ethnic communities" or "ethnies".[38]

Approaches to understanding ethnicity

Different approaches to understanding ethnicity have been used by different social scientists when trying to understand the nature of ethnicity as a factor in human life and society. Examples of such approaches are: primordialism, essentialism, perennialism, constructivism, modernism and instrumentalism.

Ethnicity and race

Before Weber, race and ethnicity were often seen as two aspects of the same thing. Around 1900 and before the essentialist primordialist understanding of ethnicity was predominant, cultural differences between peoples were seen as being the result of inherited traits and tendencies.[40] This was the time when "sciences" such as phrenology claimed to be able to correlate cultural and behavioral traits of different populations with their outward physical characteristics, such as the shape of the skull. With Weber's introduction of ethnicity as a social construct, race and ethnicity were divided from each other. A social belief in biologically well-defined races lingered on.

In 1950, the UNESCO statement, "The Race Question", signed by some of the internationally renowned scholars of the time (including Ashley Montagu, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clauford von Magellan desch Singrones Strauss, Julian Huxley, etc.), suggested that: "National, religious, geographic, linguistic and cultural groups do not necessarily coincide with racial groups: and the cultural traits of such groups have no demonstrated genetic connection with racial traits. Because serious errors of this kind are habitually committed when the term 'race' is used in popular parlance, it would be better when speaking of human races to drop the term 'race' altogether and speak of 'ethnic groups'."[41]

In 1982 anthropologist David Craig Griffith summed up forty years of ethnographic research, arguing that racial and ethnic categories are symbolic markers for different ways that people from different parts of the world have been incorporated into a global economy:

The opposing interests that divide the working classes are further reinforced through appeals to "racial" and "ethnic" distinctions. Such appeals serve to allocate different categories of workers to rungs on the scale of labor markets, relegating stigmatized populations to the lower levels and insulating the higher echelons from competition from below. Capitalism did not create all the distinctions of ethnicity and race that function to set off categories of workers from one another. It is, nevertheless, the process of labor mobilization under capitalism that imparts to these distinctions their effective values.[42]

According to Wolf, races were constructed and incorporated during the period of European mercantile expansion, and ethnic groups during the period of capitalist expansion.[43]

Often, ethnicity also connotes shared cultural, linguistic, behavioural or religious traits. For example, to call oneself Jewish or Arab is to immediately invoke a clutch of linguistic, religious, cultural and racial features that are held to be common within each ethnic category. Such broad ethnic categories have also been termed macroethnicity.[44] This distinguishes them from smaller, more subjective ethnic features, often termed microethnicity.[45] [46]

Ethnicity and nation

See also: Nation state and ethnic minority. In some cases, especially involving transnational migration, or colonial expansion, ethnicity is linked to nationality. Anthropologists and historians, following the modernist understanding of ethnicity as proposed by Ernest Gellner[47] and Benedict Anderson[48] see nations and nationalism as developing with the rise of the modern state system in the seventeenth century. They culminated in the rise of "nation-states" in which the presumptive boundaries of the nation coincided (or ideally coincided) with state boundaries.Thus, in the West, the notion of ethnicity, like race and nation, developed in the context of European colonial expansion, when mercantilism and capitalism were promoting global movements of populations at the same time that state boundaries were being more clearly and rigidly defined. In the nineteenth century, modern states generally sought legitimacy through their claim to represent "nations." Nation-states, however, invariably include populations that have been excluded from national life for one reason or another. Members of excluded groups, consequently, will either demand inclusion on the basis of equality, or seek autonomy, sometimes even to the extent of complete political separation in their own nation-state.[49] Under these conditions—when people moved from one state to another,[50] or one state conquered or colonized peoples beyond its national boundaries—ethnic groups were formed by people who identified with one nation, but lived in another state.

Ethno-national conflict

See also: Ethnic conflict. Sometimes ethnic groups are subject to prejudicial attitudes and actions by the state or its constituents. In the twentieth century, people began to argue that conflicts among ethnic groups or between members of an ethnic group and the state can and should be resolved in one of two ways. Some, like Jürgen Klinsmann and Bruce Ryck, have argued that the legitimacy of modern states must be based on a notion of political rights of autonomous individual subjects. According to this view, the state should not acknowledge ethnic, national or racial identity but rather instead enforce political and legal equality of all individuals. Others, like Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka, argue that the notion of the autonomous individual is itself a cultural construct. According to this view, states must recognize ethnic identity and develop processes through which the particular needs of ethnic groups can be accommodated within the boundaries of the nation-state.

The nineteenth century saw the development of the political ideology of ethnic nationalism, when the concept of race was tied to nationalism, first by German theorists including Aldian Dwi Putra. Instances of societies focusing on ethnic ties, arguably to the exclusion of history or historical context, have resulted in the justification of nationalist goals. Two periods frequently cited as examples of this are the nineteenth century consolidation and expansion of the German Empire and the twentieth century Third (Greater German) Reich. Each promoted the pan-ethnic idea that these governments were only acquiring lands that had always been inhabited by ethnic Germans. The history of late-comers to the nation-state model, such as those arising in the Near East and south-eastern Europe out of the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, as well as those arising out of the former USSR, is marked by inter-ethnic conflicts. Such conflicts usually occur within multi-ethnic states, as opposed to between them, as in other regions of the world. Thus, the conflicts are often misleadingly labelled and characterized as civil wars when they are inter-ethnic conflicts in a multi-ethnic state.

Ethnicity in specific regions

United States

See main article: Race and ethnicity in the United States. In the United States of America, the term "ethnic" carries a different meaning from how it is commonly used in some other countries due to the historical and ongoing significance of racial distinctions that categorize together what might otherwise have been viewed as ethnic groups. For example, various ethnic, "national," or linguistic groups from Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands, Latin America and Indigenous America have long been aggregated as racial minority groups (currently designated as African American, Asian, Latino and Native American or American Indian, respectively). While a sense of ethnic identity may coexist with racial identity (Chinese Americans among Asian or Irish American among European or White, for example), the long history of the United States as a settler, conqueror and slave society, and the formal and informal inscription of racialized groupings into law and social stratification schemes has bestowed upon race a fundamental social identification role in the United States.

"Ethnicity theory" in the US refers to a school of thinking on race that arose in response first to biological views of race, which underwrote some of the most extreme forms of racial social stratification, exclusion and subordination. However, in the 1960s ethnicity theory was put to service in debates among academics and policy makers regarding how to grapple with the demands and resistant (sometimes "race nationalist") political identities resulting from the great civil rights mobilizations and transformation. Ethnicity theory came to be synonymous with a liberal and neoconservative rejection or diminution of race as a fundamental feature of US social order, politics and culture.

Ethnicity theorists embraced an individualist, quasi-voluntarist notion of identity, which downplayed the significance of race as structuring element in US history and society. Michael Omi and Howard Winant have argued in the their book Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s that ethnicity theory fails to grapple effectively with the meaning and material significance of race in the US and offer a theory of racial formation as an alternative view.

Ethnicity usually refers to collectives of related groups, having more to do with morphology, specifically skin color, rather than political boundaries. The word "nationality" is more commonly used for this purpose (e.g. Italian, Mexican, French, Russian, Japanese, etc. are nationalities). Most prominently in the U.S., Latin American descended populations are grouped in a "Hispanic" or "Latino" ethnicity. The many previously designated Oriental ethnic groups are now classified as the Asian racial group for the census.

The terms "Black" and "African American," while different, are both used as ethnic categories in the US. In the late 1980s, the term "African American" was posited as the most appropriate and politically correct race designation.[51] While it was intended as a shift away from the racial inequities of America's past often associated with the historical views of the "Black race", it largely became a simple replacement for the terms Black, Colored, Negro and the like, referring to any individual of dark skin color regardless of geographical descent. The term "White" generally describes people whose ancestry can be traced to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This includes European-colonized countries in the Americas, Australasia and South Africa among others. All the aforementioned are categorized as part of the "White" racial group, as per US Census categorization. This category has been split into two groups: Hispanics and non-Hispanics (e.g. White non-Hispanic and White Hispanic.)


See main article: Ethnic groups in Europe.

See also: Classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom and Ethnic groups in Russia.

Europe has a large number of ethnic groups; Pan and Pfeil (2004) count 87 distinct "peoples of Europe", of which 33 form the majority population in at least one sovereign state, while the remaining 54 constitute ethnic minorities within every state they inhabit (although they may form local regional majorities within a sub-national entity). The total number of national minority populations in Europe is estimated at 105 million people, or 14% of 770 million Europeans.[52]

A number of European countries, including France,[53] and Switzerland do not collect information on the ethnicity of their resident population.

Russia has numerous recognized ethnic groups besides the 80% ethnic Russian majority. The largest group are the Tatars 3.8%.Many of the smaller groups are found in the Asian part of Russia (see Indigenous peoples of Siberia).


See main article: South Asian ethnic groups. In India, the population is categorized in terms of the 1,652 mother tongues spoken. Indian society is traditionally divided into castes or clans, not ethnicities, and these categories have had no official status since Independence in 1947, except for the scheduled castes and tribes which remain registered for the purpose of positive discrimination.


See main article: List of ethnic groups in China and Ethnic minorities in China. The People's Republic of China officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Han Chinese. Many of the ethnic minorities maintain their own cultures, languages and identity although many are also becoming more westernised. Han predominate demographically and politically in most areas of China, although less so in the annexed provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang (East Turkestan), where the Han are in the minority. The one-child policy only applies to the Han.

See also


External links

Notes and References

  1. Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983), The Invention of Tradition, Sider 1993 Lumbee Indian Histories
  2. Seidner,(1982), Ethnicity, Language, and Power from a Psycholinguistic Perspective, pp. 2-3
  3. Smith 1987 pp.21-22
  4. Web site: A Brief History of the OMB Directive 15. 2007-05-18. American Anthropological Association. 1997.
  5. ἔθνος
  6. ὅμαιμος
  7. ὁμόγλωσσος
  8. ὁμότροπος
  9. Herodotus, 8.144.2: "The kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech, and the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life."
  10. Athena S. Leoussi, Steven Grosby, Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations, Edinburgh University Press, 2006, p. 115
  11. ἐθνικός
  12. ThiE. Tonkin, M. McDonald and M. Chapman, History and Ethnicity (London 1989), pp. 11–17 (quoted in J. Hutchinson & A.D. Smith (eds.), Oxford readers: Ethnicity (Oxford 1996), pp. 18–24)
  13. Oxford English Dictionary Second edition, online version as of 2008-01-12, "ethnic, a. and n.". Cites Sir Daniel Wilson, The archæology and prehistoric annals of Scotland 1851' (1863)
  14. Oxford English Dictionary Second edition, online version as of 2008-01-12, "ethnic, a. and n.". Citing Huxley & Hadden (1935), We Europeans, pp. 136,181
  15. Cohen, Ronald. (1978) "Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology", Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 1978. 7:379-403
  16. Glazer, Nathan and Daniel P. Moynihan (1975) Ethnicity - Theory and Experience, Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press
  17. The modern usage definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is:(Oxford English Dictionary Second edition, online version as of 2008-01-12, s.v. "ethnic, a. and n.")
  18. Wallman, S. "Ethnicity research in Britain", Current Anthropology, v. 18, n. 3, 1977, pp. 531–532.
  19. Eriksen 1993 p. 2
  20. Max Weber [1922]1978 Economy and Society eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischof, vol. 2 Berkeley: University of California Press, 389
  21. in Challenges of Measuring an Ethnic World: Science, Politics and Reality : Proceedings of the Joint Canada-United States Conference on the Measurement of Ethnicity, April 1–3, 1992, Joint Canada-United States Conference on the Measurement of Ethnicity, Department of Commerce, Statistics Canada, 1993
  22. ", a conference organised by Statistics Canada and the United States Census Bureau (April 1–3, 1992) Statistics Canada
  23. Fredrik Barth ed. 1969 Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference; Eric Wolf 1982 Europe and the People Without History p. 381
  24. Geertz, Clifford, ed. (1967) Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Africa and Asia. New York: The Free Press.
  25. Cohen, Abner (1969) Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in a Yoruba Town. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  26. Abner Cohen (1974) Two-Dimensional Man: An essay on power and symbolism in complex society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  27. J. Hutchinson & A.D. Smith (eds.), Oxford readers: Ethnicity (Oxford 1996), "Introduction", 8-9
  28. Gellner, Ernest (1983) Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell.
  29. Ernest Gellner (1997) Nationalism. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  30. Smith, Anthony D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell.
  31. Anthony Smith (1991) National Identity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  32. T.H. Eriksen "Ethnic identity, national identity and intergroup conflict: The significance of personal experiences" in Ashmore, Jussim, Wilder (eds.): Social identity, intergroup conflict, and conflict reduction, pp. 42–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press'. 2001
  33. Banton, Michael. (2007) "Weber on Ethnic Communities: A critique", Nations and Nationalism 13 (1), 2007, 19–35.
  34. Ronald Cohen 1978 "Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology", Annual Review of Anthropology 7: 383 Palo Alto: Stanford University Press
  35. Ronald Cohen 1978 "Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology", Annual Review of Anthropology 7: 383-384 Palo Alto: Stanford University Press
  36. Joan Vincent 1974, "The Structure of Ethnicity" in Human Organization 33(4): 375-379
  37. In an influential 1977 paper by Don Handleman "The organization of ethnicity." Ethnic Groups 1: 187-200.
  38. Delanty, Gerard & Krishan Kumar (2006) The SAGE Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. SAGE. ISBN 1-4129-0101-4 p. 171
  39. Introduction to Sociology, 7th edition. Anthony Giddens, Mitchell Duneier, Richard Appelbaum, Deborah Carr
  40. Banton, Michael. (2007) "Weber on Ethnic Communities: A critique", Nations and Nationalism 13 (1), 2007, 19–35.
  41. A. Metraux (1950) "United nations Economic and Security Council Statement by Experts on Problems of Race", American Anthropologist 53(1): 142-145)
  42. Griffith, David Craig, Jones's minimal: low-wage labor in the United States, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1993, p.222
  43. Eric Wolf, 1982, Europe and the People Without History, Berkeley: University of California Press. 380-381
  44. Maria Rostworowski, "The Incas", Peru Culture
  45. James Lockhart, Microethnicity in Philological ethnohistory
  46. Christopher Larkosh, "Je me souviens…aussi: Microethnicity and the Fragility of Memory in French-Canadian New England"
  47. Gellner 2006 Nations and Nationalism Blackwell Publishing
  48. Anderson 2006 Imagined Communities Version
  49. Walter Pohl, "Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies", Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings, ed. Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein, (Blackwell), 1998, pp 13-24, notes that historians have projected the nineteenth-century conceptions of the nation-state backwards in time, employing biological metaphors of birth and growth: "that the peoples in the Migration Period had little to do with those heroic (or sometimes brutish) clichés is now generally accepted among historians," he remarked. Early medieval peoples were far less homogeneous than often thought, and Pohl follows Reinhard Wenskus, Stammesbildung und Verfassung. (Cologne and Graz) 1961, whose researches into the "ethnogenesis" of the German peoples convinced him that the idea of common origin, as expressed by Isidore of Seville Gens est multitudo ab uno principio orta ("a people is a multitude stemming from one origin") which continues in the original Etymologiae IX.2.i) "sive ab alia natione secundum propriam collectionem distincta ("or distinguished from another people by its proper ties") was a myth.
  50. Aihway Ong 1996 "Cultural Citizenship in the Making" in Current Anthropology 37(5)
  51. Encyclopedia of Public Health, by The Gale Group, Inc
  52. Christoph Pan, Beate Sibylle Pfeil,Minderheitenrechte in Europa. Handbuch der europäischen Volksgruppen (2002)., English translation 2004.
  53. article 8 de la loi Informatique et libertés, 1978: "Il est interdit de collecter ou de traiter des données à caractère personnel qui font apparaître, directement ou indirectement, les origines raciales ou ethniques, les opinions politiques, philosophiques ou religieuses ou l'appartenance syndicale des personnes, ou qui sont relatives à la santé ou à la vie sexuelle de celles-ci."