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Ethnic


An ethnic group or ethnicity is a category of people who identify with each other based on similarities, such as common ancestral, language, social, cultural or national experiences. Unlike other social groups (wealth, age, hobbies), ethnicity is often an inherited status based on the society in which one lives. In some cases, it can be adopted if a person moves into another society. Membership of an ethnic group tends to be defined by a shared cultural heritage, ancestry, origin myth, history, homeland, language or dialect, symbolic systems such as religion, mythology and ritual, cuisine, dressing style, art, and physical appearance.

Ethnic groups, derived from the same historical founder population, often continue to speak related languages and share a similar gene pool. By way of language shift, acculturation, adoption and religious conversion, it is sometimes possible for individuals or groups to leave one ethnic group and become part of another (except for ethnic groups emphasizing racial purity as a key membership criterion).



  • One is between "primordialism" and "instrumentalism". In the primordialist view, the participant perceives ethnic ties collectively, as an externally given, even coercive, social bond. The instrumentalist approach, on the other hand, treats ethnicity primarily as an ad-hoc element of a political strategy, used as a resource for interest groups for achieving secondary goals such as, for instance, an increase in wealth, power, or status. This debate is still an important point of reference in Political science, although most scholars' approaches fall between the two poles.
  • The second debate is between "constructivism" and "essentialism". Constructivists view national and ethnic identities as the product of historical forces, often recent, even when the identities are presented as old. Essentialists view such identities as ontological categories defining social actors, and not the result of social action.
  • "Primordialism", holds that ethnicity has existed at all times of human history and that modern ethnic groups have historical continuity into the far past. For them, the idea of ethnicity is closely linked to the idea of nations and is rooted in the pre-Weber understanding of humanity as being divided into primordially existing groups rooted by kinship and biological heritage.
    • "Essentialist primordialism" further holds that ethnicity is an a priori fact of human existence, that ethnicity precedes any human social interaction and that it is basically unchanged by it. This theory sees ethnic groups as natural, not just as historical. It also has problems dealing with the consequences of intermarriage, migration and colonization for the composition of modern day multi-ethnic societies.
    • "Kinship primordialism" holds that ethnic communities are extensions of kinship units, basically being derived by kinship or clan ties where the choices of cultural signs (language, religion, traditions) are made exactly to show this biological affinity. In this way, the myths of common biological ancestry that are a defining feature of ethnic communities are to be understood as representing actual biological history. A problem with this view on ethnicity is that it is more often than not the case that mythic origins of specific ethnic groups directly contradict the known biological history of an ethnic community.
    • "Geertz's primordialism", notably espoused by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, argues that humans in general attribute an overwhelming power to primordial human "givens" such as blood ties, language, territory, and cultural differences. In Geertz' opinion, ethnicity is not in itself primordial but humans perceive it as such because it is embedded in their experience of the world.
  • "Perennialism", an approach that is primarily concerned with nationhood but tends to see nations and ethnic communities as basically the same phenomenon, holds that the nation, as a type of social and political organisation, is of an immemorial or "perennial" character. Smith (1999) distinguishes two variants: "continuous perennialism", which claims that particular nations have existed for very long spans of time, and "recurrent perennialism", which focuses on the emergence, dissolution and reappearance of nations as a recurring aspect of human history.
    • "Perpetual perennialism" holds that specific ethnic groups have existed continuously throughout history.
    • "Situational perennialism" holds that nations and ethnic groups emerge, change and vanish through the course of history. This view holds that the concept of ethnicity is basically a tool used by political groups to manipulate resources such as wealth, power, territory or status in their particular groups' interests. Accordingly, ethnicity emerges when it is relevant as means of furthering emergent collective interests and changes according to political changes in the society. Examples of a perennialist interpretation of ethnicity are also found in Barth, and Seidner who see ethnicity as ever-changing boundaries between groups of people established through ongoing social negotiation and interaction.
    • "Instrumentalist perennialism", while seeing ethnicity primarily as a versatile tool that identified different ethnics groups and limits through time, explains ethnicity as a mechanism of social stratification, meaning that ethnicity is the basis for a hierarchical arrangement of individuals. According to Donald Noel, a sociologist who developed a theory on the origin of ethnic stratification, ethnic stratification is a "system of stratification wherein some relatively fixed group membership (e.g., race, religion, or nationality) is utilized as a major criterion for assigning social positions". Ethnic stratification is one of many different types of social stratification, including stratification based on socio-economic status, race, or gender. According to Donald Noel, ethnic stratification will emerge only when specific ethnic groups are brought into contact with one another, and only when those groups are characterized by a high degree of ethnocentrism, competition, and differential power. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture, and to downgrade all other groups outside one's own culture. Some sociologists, such as Lawrence Bobo and Vincent Hutchings, say the origin of ethnic stratification lies in individual dispositions of ethnic prejudice, which relates to the theory of ethnocentrism. Continuing with Noel's theory, some degree of differential power must be present for the emergence of ethnic stratification. In other words, an inequality of power among ethnic groups means "they are of such unequal power that one is able to impose its will upon another". In addition to differential power, a degree of competition structured along ethnic lines is a prerequisite to ethnic stratification as well. The different ethnic groups must be competing for some common goal, such as power or influence, or a material interest, such as wealth or territory. Lawrence Bobo and Vincent Hutchings propose that competition is driven by self-interest and hostility, and results in inevitable stratification and conflict.
  • "Constructivism" sees both primordialist and perennialist views as basically flawed, and rejects the notion of ethnicity as a basic human condition. It holds that ethnic groups are only products of human social interaction, maintained only in so far as they are maintained as valid social constructs in societies.
    • "Modernist constructivism" correlates the emergence of ethnicity with the movement towards nation states beginning in the early modern period. Proponents of this theory, such as Eric Hobsbawm, argue that ethnicity and notions of ethnic pride, such as nationalism, are purely modern inventions, appearing only in the modern period of world history. They hold that prior to this, ethnic homogeneity was not considered an ideal or necessary factor in the forging of large-scale societies.
  • "Essentialist primordialism" further holds that ethnicity is an a priori fact of human existence, that ethnicity precedes any human social interaction and that it is basically unchanged by it. This theory sees ethnic groups as natural, not just as historical. It also has problems dealing with the consequences of intermarriage, migration and colonization for the composition of modern day multi-ethnic societies.
  • "Kinship primordialism" holds that ethnic communities are extensions of kinship units, basically being derived by kinship or clan ties where the choices of cultural signs (language, religion, traditions) are made exactly to show this biological affinity. In this way, the myths of common biological ancestry that are a defining feature of ethnic communities are to be understood as representing actual biological history. A problem with this view on ethnicity is that it is more often than not the case that mythic origins of specific ethnic groups directly contradict the known biological history of an ethnic community.
  • "Geertz's primordialism", notably espoused by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, argues that humans in general attribute an overwhelming power to primordial human "givens" such as blood ties, language, territory, and cultural differences. In Geertz' opinion, ethnicity is not in itself primordial but humans perceive it as such because it is embedded in their experience of the world.
  • "Perpetual perennialism" holds that specific ethnic groups have existed continuously throughout history.
  • "Situational perennialism" holds that nations and ethnic groups emerge, change and vanish through the course of history. This view holds that the concept of ethnicity is basically a tool used by political groups to manipulate resources such as wealth, power, territory or status in their particular groups' interests. Accordingly, ethnicity emerges when it is relevant as means of furthering emergent collective interests and changes according to political changes in the society. Examples of a perennialist interpretation of ethnicity are also found in Barth, and Seidner who see ethnicity as ever-changing boundaries between groups of people established through ongoing social negotiation and interaction.
  • "Instrumentalist perennialism", while seeing ethnicity primarily as a versatile tool that identified different ethnics groups and limits through time, explains ethnicity as a mechanism of social stratification, meaning that ethnicity is the basis for a hierarchical arrangement of individuals. According to Donald Noel, a sociologist who developed a theory on the origin of ethnic stratification, ethnic stratification is a "system of stratification wherein some relatively fixed group membership (e.g., race, religion, or nationality) is utilized as a major criterion for assigning social positions". Ethnic stratification is one of many different types of social stratification, including stratification based on socio-economic status, race, or gender. According to Donald Noel, ethnic stratification will emerge only when specific ethnic groups are brought into contact with one another, and only when those groups are characterized by a high degree of ethnocentrism, competition, and differential power. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture, and to downgrade all other groups outside one's own culture. Some sociologists, such as Lawrence Bobo and Vincent Hutchings, say the origin of ethnic stratification lies in individual dispositions of ethnic prejudice, which relates to the theory of ethnocentrism. Continuing with Noel's theory, some degree of differential power must be present for the emergence of ethnic stratification. In other words, an inequality of power among ethnic groups means "they are of such unequal power that one is able to impose its will upon another". In addition to differential power, a degree of competition structured along ethnic lines is a prerequisite to ethnic stratification as well. The different ethnic groups must be competing for some common goal, such as power or influence, or a material interest, such as wealth or territory. Lawrence Bobo and Vincent Hutchings propose that competition is driven by self-interest and hostility, and results in inevitable stratification and conflict.
  • "Modernist constructivism" correlates the emergence of ethnicity with the movement towards nation states beginning in the early modern period. Proponents of this theory, such as Eric Hobsbawm, argue that ethnicity and notions of ethnic pride, such as nationalism, are purely modern inventions, appearing only in the modern period of world history. They hold that prior to this, ethnic homogeneity was not considered an ideal or necessary factor in the forging of large-scale societies.
  • Abizadeh, Arash, "Ethnicity, Race, and a Possible Humanity" World Order, 33.1 (2001): 23-34. (Article that explores the social construction of ethnicity and race.)
  • Barth, Fredrik (ed). Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969
  • Beard, David and Kenneth Gloag. 2005. Musicology, The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Billinger, Michael S. (2007), "Another Look at Ethnicity as a Biological Concept: Moving Anthropology Beyond the Race Concept", Critique of Anthropology 27,1:5–35.
  • Craig, Gary, et al., eds. Understanding 'race'and ethnicity: theory, history, policy, practice (Policy Press, 2012)
  • Danver, Steven L. Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures and Contemporary Issues (2012)
  • Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (1993) Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives, London: Pluto Press
  • Eysenck, H.J., Race, Education and Intelligence (London: Temple Smith, 1971) ()
  • Hartmann, Douglas. "Notes on Midnight Basketball and the Cultural Politics of Recreation, Race and At-Risk Urban Youth", Journal of Sport and Social Issues. 25 (2001): 339-366.
  • Hasmath, R. ed. 2011. Managing Ethnic Diversity: Meanings and Practices from an International Perspective. Burlington, VT and Surrey, UK: Ashgate.
  • Healey, Joseph F., and Eileen O'Brien. Race, ethnicity, gender, and class: The sociology of group conflict and change (Sage Publications, 2014)
  • Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, editors, The Invention of Tradition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
  • Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian empire: A multi-ethnic history (Routledge, 2014)
  • Levinson, David, Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook, Greenwood Publishing Group (1998), .
  • Magocsi, Paul Robert, ed. Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples (1999)
  • Merriam, A.P. 1959. "African Music", in R. Bascom and, M. J. Herskovits (eds), Continuity and Change in African Cultures, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Morales-Díaz, Enrique; Gabriel Aquino; & Michael Sletcher, "Ethnicity", in Michael Sletcher, ed., New England, (Westport, CT, 2004).
  • Omi, Michael; Winant, Howard (1986). Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Inc. 
  • Seeger, A. 1987. Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Seidner, Stanley S. Ethnicity, Language, and Power from a Psycholinguistic Perspective. (Bruxelles: Centre de recherche sur le pluralinguisme1982).
  • Sider, Gerald, Lumbee Indian Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • Smith, Anthony D. (1987). "The Ethnic Origins of Nations". Blackwell. 
  • Smith, Anthony D. (1998). Nationalism and modernism. A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. London – New York: Routledge.
  • Smith, Anthony D. (1999). "Myths and memories of the Nation". Oxford University Press. 
  • Thernstrom, Stephan A. ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1981)
  • ^ U.S. Census Bureau State & County QuickFacts: Race.
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