Ethnic group

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An ethnic group or ethnicity is a population of human beings whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry.[1] Ethnicity is also defined from the recognition by others as a distinct group[2] and by common cultural, linguistic, religious, human behaviour or Race biological traits.[1][3]

According to some, "Ethnicity is a fundamental factor in human life: it is a phenomenon inherent in human experience."[3] According to others, however, ethnic identities only arise under specific conditions.[4] Processes that result in the emergence of such identification are summarized as ethnogenesis. Members of an ethnic group, on the whole, claim cultural continuities over time, although historians and cultural anthropologists have documented that many of the values, practices, and norms that imply continuity with the past are of relatively recent invention.[5]

Defining ethnicity

The sociologist Max Weber once remarked that "The whole conception of ethnic groups is so complex and so vague that it might be good to abandon it altogether."[6]

In any case, Weber proposed a definition of ethnic group that became accepted by many social scientists:

[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.[6]

Anthropologist Ronald Cohen, in a review of anthropological and sociological studies of ethnic groups since Weber, claimed that while many ethnic groups subjectively claimed common descent and cultural continuity, objectively there was often evidence that countered such claims.[7] Harold Isaacs has identified other diacritics (distinguishing markers) of ethnicity, among them physical appearance, name, language, history, and religion;[8] this definition has entered some dictionaries.[9] 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.[10] Ronald Cohen concluded that ethnicity is "a series of nesting dichotomizations of inclusiveness and exclusiveness".[7] 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.[7] 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.

Ethnicity and race

Ethnicity and race are related concepts in that both are usually defined in terms of shared genealogy.[11] Often, ethnicity also connotes shared cultural, linguistic, behavioural or religious traits. Race, by contrast, refers to "some concentrations, as relative to frequency and distribution, of hereditary particles (genes) and physical characters, which appear, fluctuate, and often disappear in the course of time by reason of geographic and or cultural isolation." 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, Gunnar Myrdal, 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'." [12]

Ethnicity and nation

In some cases, especially involving transnational migration, or colonial expansion, ethnicity is linked to nationality. Many anthropologists and historians, following the work of Ernest Gellner[13] and Benedict Anderson[14] see nations and nationalism as developing with the rise of the modern state system in the seventeenth century, culminating 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.[15] Under these conditions - when people moved from one state to another,[16] or one state conquored or colonized peoples beyond its national boundaries - ethnic groups formed by people who identified with one nation, but who lived in another state.

Ethno-national 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 Habermas and Bruce Barry, 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 Johann Gottfried von Herder. 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 Third (Greater German) Reich, each promoted on the pan-ethnic idea that these governments were only acquiring lands that had always been ethnically German. 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 that usually occurs within multi-ethnic states, as opposed to between them, in other regions of the world; thus, those other conflicts are often misleadingly labelled and characterized as "civil war."

In last decades of the twentieth century, mass migrations have occurred in most countries of the Northern hemisphere. The legal system as well as the official ideology emphasized race equality, and prohibited ethnic-based discrimination.

Ethnicity in specific countries

In the United States of America, collectives of related ethnic groups are typically denoted as "ethnic". Most prominently in the U.S., the various Latin American ethnic groups plus a racial mix of the Spanish or Portuguese are typically collectivized as, depending on the part of the country you are in, either "Hispanics" or "Latinos". The many previously designated 'Oriental' ethnic groups are designated as Asian ethnic groups and similarly lumped together as "Asians". The terms "Black" and "African-American," while different, usually describe the descendants whose ancestors, usually in predominant part, were indigenous to Africa. Even the racial term "White Americans" are generally peoples originally from Europe, who now live in North America. "Middle Easterners" are peoples from the Middle-East, i.e. Southwest Asia and North Africa. These countries include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, et cetera. (For a list of official ethnic categories according to the U.S. Census Bureau, see Ethnicity (United States Census)).

In the United Kingdom, the classification of ethnic groups has attracted controversy in the past: particularly at the time of the 2001 Census where the existence and nature of such a classification, which appeared on the Census form, became more widely known than general. Different classifications, both formal and informal, are used in the UK. Perhaps the most accepted is the National Statistics classification, identical to that used in the 2001 Census in England and Wales (for list, see Ethnicity (United Kingdom)). In terms of use as opposed to official policy there is one main difference, the use of the term Oriental is widespread and without negative connotation in the UK and Europe while in the UK Asian is generally reserved for people from the Indian subcontinent (see Oriental and British Asian for more details).

China officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups of which the most numerous are the Han Chinese. Many of the ethnic minorities maintain their own individual culture and language, although many are also becoming more like the Han Chinese. Some of these groups suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Han Chinese dominate the whole of China with the exception of Tibet and Xinjiang where the Han are still in the minority. Sometimes people are given the choice of which ethnic group they wish to belong to, but 'mixed-race' is not an option. All ID cards in China state which ethnic group the holder belongs to. (For more details, see List of ethnic groups in China and Ethnic minorities in China.)

Currently, the world's most ethnically diverse city is Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Smith 1987
  2. "Anthropology. The study of ethnicity, minority groups, and identity," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Statistics Canada Definition of Ethnicity
  4. Frederick Barth ed. 1969 Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference; Eric Wolf 1982 Europe and the People Without History p. 381
  5. Friedlander 1975 Being Indian in Hueyapan, Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983 The Invention of Tradition, Sider 1993 Lumbee Indian Histories.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Max Weber [1922]1978 Economy and Society eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischof, vol. 2 Berkeley: University of California Press, 389
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Ronald Cohen 1978 "Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology" in Annual Review of Anthropology 7: 385 Palo Alto: Stanford University Press
  8. Isaacs, H. 1975 Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change New York: Harper
  9. 2006 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Boston:Houghton Mifflin
  10. Joan Vincent 1974 "The Structure of Ethnicity" in Human Organization 33(4): 375-379
  11. Abizadeh 2001
  12. A. Metraux (1950) "United nations Economic and Security Council Statement by Experts on Problems of Race" in American Anthropologist 53(1): 142-145)
  13. Gellner 2006 Nations and Nationalism Blackwell Publishing
  14. Anderson 2006 Imagined Communities Verson
  15. 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 multitude ab uno principle 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.
  16. Aihway Ong 1996 "Cultural Citizenship in the Making" in Current Anthropology 37(5)

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