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Ethnic group

Ethnic group

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An ethnic group is a group
Group (sociology)
In the social sciences a social group can be defined as two or more humans who interact with one another, share similar characteristics and collectively have a sense of unity...

 of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage
Cultural heritage
Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations...

, often consisting of a common language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

, a common culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

 (often including a shared religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

) and/or an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy
Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social group, rejecting others on such basis as being unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships. A Greek Orthodox Christian endogamist, for example, would require that a marriage be only with another...

. Another definition is "...a highly biologically self-perpetuating group sharing an interest in a homeland connected with a specific geographical area, a common language and traditions, including food preferences, and a common religious faith".

Members of an ethnic group are conscious of belonging to an 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
Ethnogenesis is the process by which a group of human beings comes to be understood or to understand themselves as ethnically distinct from the wider social landscape from which their grouping emerges...


Terminology and definition

The terms ethnicity and ethnic group are derived from the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 word ἔθνος ethnos, normally translated as "nation". The terms refer currently to people thought to have common ancestry who share a distinctive culture.

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

 is the first who stated the main characteristics of ethnicity in the 5th century BCE, with his famous account of what defines Greek
The Greeks, also known as the Hellenes , are a nation and ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus and neighboring regions. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world....

 identity, where he lists kinship (Greek: ὅμαιμον - homaimon, "of the same blood"), language (Greek: ὁμόγλωσσον - homoglōsson, "speaking the same language"), cults and customs (Greek: ὁμότροπον - homotropon, "of the same habits or life").

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") was used as the LXX translation of Hebrew goyim "the nations, non-Hebrews, non-Jews".

The modern 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
Nationality is membership of a nation or sovereign state, usually determined by their citizenship, but sometimes by ethnicity or place of residence, or based on their sense of national identity....

 depending on context may either be used synonymously with ethnicity, or synonymously with citizenship
Citizenship is the state of being a citizen of a particular social, political, national, or human resource community. Citizenship status, under social contract theory, carries with it both rights and responsibilities...

 (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
Indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples are ethnic groups that are defined as indigenous according to one of the various definitions of the term, there is no universally accepted definition but most of which carry connotations of being the "original inhabitants" of a territory....

; "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. — with the first usage of the term ethnic group in 1935, and entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 1972.

Writing about the usage of the term "ethnic" in the ordinary language of Great Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

 and the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, 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'.

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. Among the first to bring the term "ethnic group" into social studies was the German sociologist
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 Max Weber
Max Weber
Karl Emil Maximilian "Max" Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself...

, 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.

Whether ethnicity qualifies as a cultural universal
Cultural universal
A cultural universal , as discussed by George Murdock, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Donald Brown and others, is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures worldwide. Taken together, the whole body of cultural universals is known as the human condition...

 is to some extent dependent on the exact definition used. According to "Challenges of Measuring an Ethnic World: Science, politics, and reality", "Ethnicity is a fundamental factor in human life: it is a phenomenon inherent in human experience."
Many social scientists, such as anthropologists
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 Fredrik Barth
Fredrik Barth
Thomas Fredrik Weybye Barth is a Norwegian social anthropologist who has published several ethnographic books with a clear formalistic view...

 and Eric Wolf
Eric Wolf
Eric Robert Wolf was an anthropologist, best known for his studies of peasants, Latin America, and his advocacy of Marxian perspectives within anthropology.-Early life:...

, 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.

Conceptual history of ethnicity

According to Hans Adriel Handokho, the study of ethnicity was dominated by two distinct debates until recently.
  • One is between "primordialism
    Primordialism or perennialism is the argument which contends that nations are ancient, natural phenomena.Primordialism can be traced philosophically to the ideas of German Romanticism, particularly in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder. For Herder, the nation was...

    " and "instrumentalism
    In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that a scientific theory is a useful instrument in understanding the world. A concept or theory should be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts phenomena, as opposed to how accurately it describes objective...

    ". In the primordialist
    Primordialism or perennialism is the argument which contends that nations are ancient, natural phenomena.Primordialism can be traced philosophically to the ideas of German Romanticism, particularly in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder. For Herder, the nation was...

     view, the participant perceives ethnic ties collectively, as an externally given, even coercive, social bond. The instrumentalist
    In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that a scientific theory is a useful instrument in understanding the world. A concept or theory should be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts phenomena, as opposed to how accurately it describes objective...

     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
    Political science
    Political Science is a social science discipline concerned with the study of the state, government and politics. Aristotle defined it as the study of the state. It deals extensively with the theory and practice of politics, and the analysis of political systems and political behavior...

    , although most scholars' approaches fall between the two poles.
  • The second debate is between "constructivism
    Constructivism may refer to:* Constructivist epistemology, the philosophical view* Constructivism in international relations* Constructivism , a philosophical view on mathematical proofs and existence of mathematical objects...

    " and "essentialism
    In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described...

    ". 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.

According to Eriksen
Eriksen is a surname, see*Eriksen It may also refer to:* Eriksen flanker task* Marshall Eriksen, fictional character in the American TV series How I Met Your Mother, played by actor Jason Segel* Stein Eriksen Lodge Botanical Garden...

, these debates have been superseded, especially in anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, 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
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

 and South Asia
South Asia
South Asia, also known as Southern Asia, is the southern region of the Asian continent, which comprises the sub-Himalayan countries and, for some authorities , also includes the adjoining countries to the west and the east...


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".

Another influential theoretician of ethnicity was Fredrik Barth
Fredrik Barth
Thomas Fredrik Weybye Barth is a Norwegian social anthropologist who has published several ethnographic books with a clear formalistic view...

, 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. 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.

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.

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. Ronald Cohen concluded that ethnicity is "a series of nesting dichotomizations of inclusiveness and exclusiveness". 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. 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 to distinguish between concepts of "ethnic categories", "ethnic networks" and "ethnic communities" or "ethnies".
  • An "ethnic category" is a category set up by outsiders, that is, those who are not themselves members of the category, and whose members are populations that are categorised by outsiders as being distinguished by attributes of a common name or emblem, a shared cultural element and a connection to a specific territory. But, members who are ascribed to ethnic categories do not themselves have any awareness of their belonging to a common, distinctive group.

  • At the level of "ethnic networks", the group begins to have a sense of collectiveness, and at this level, common myths of origin and shared cultural and biological heritage begins to emerge, at least among the élites.

  • At the level of "ethnies" or "ethnic communities", the members themselves have clear conceptions of being "a named human population with myths of common ancestry, shared historical memories, and one or more common elements of culture, including an association with a homeland, and some degree of solidarity, at least among the élites". That is, an ethnie is self-defined as a group, whereas ethnic categories are set up by outsiders whether or not their own members identify with the category given them.

  • A "Situational Ethnicity" is an Ethnic identity that is chosen for the moment based on the social setting or situation.

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.
  • "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
    Kinship is a relationship between any entities that share a genealogical origin, through either biological, cultural, or historical descent. And descent groups, lineages, etc. are treated in their own subsections....

     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. This understanding does not explain how and why nations and ethnic groups seemingly appear, disappear and often reappear through history. It also has problems dealing with the consequences of intermarriage, migration and colonization for the composition of modern day multi-ethnic societies
      A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

    • "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
      Clifford Geertz
      Clifford James Geertz was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, and who was considered "for three decades...the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States." He served until...

      , 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" holds that ethnicity is ever changing, and that while the concept of ethnicity has existed at all times, ethnic groups are generally short lived before the ethnic boundaries realign in new patterns. The opposing perennialist view holds that while ethnicity and ethnic groupings has existed throughout history, they are not part of the natural order.
    • "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
      Social stratification
      In sociology the social stratification is a concept of class, involving the "classification of persons into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions ... a relational set of inequalities with economic, social, political and ideological dimensions."...

      , 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
      Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculine and feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity...

      . 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
      Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one's own. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with...

       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
      Group conflict
      Group conflict, or hostilities between different groups, is a pervasive feature common to all levels of social organization .. Although group conflict is one of the most complex phenomena studied by social scientists, the history of the human race evidences a series of group-level conflicts that...


  • "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 nationstates beginning in the early modern period. Proponents of this theory, such as Eric Hobsbawm
      Eric Hobsbawm
      Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm , CH, FBA, is a British Marxist historian, public intellectual, and author...

      , 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.

Ethnicity and Musicology

Ethnicity, the characteristic of being ethnic, applies to social groups in which members share a common cultural identity not necessary linked to race nor geographic location. This sense of shared cultural heritage is of a flexible nature and is not determined by biological descent, although it could convey ideals of class and race.
The concept of ethnicity became important in the social sciences during the 1960s at the peak of the process of decolonization in Africa and Asia and the subsequent wave of migration of post-colonial societies into Europe.

Ethnic identity can be seen as a set of shared sentiments and attitudes associated with a specific culture and is influenced by social, economic and political conditions.
Anthropologist T. H. Eriksen understands ethnicity as a relationship between socio/cultural agents that see themselves as distinctive from members of other groups. This idea of a relational context where there’s a feeling of differentiation is usually applied to minority groups living in large cosmopolitan cities, multicultural countries or in the diaspora. In these cases ethnic identity seem to be defined by contrast to the hegemonic character of the society.
Certain types of music related to specific ethnicities are not restricted to a geographical area nor are always played by the members of the associated ethnic group and have been developed historically into styles, such as in the case of the alla Turca style of the orientalist period.
Another curious aspect of ethnic identity is that it can evolve or change during the life of a person as a way of attaining a higher social status or a wider sphere of influence.
Globalization has become a key factor in the problem of defining ethnic boundaries as musical styles are adopted by diverse ethnic groups in different parts of the world to express similar ideological realities.
Ethnomusicology, the study of music applied to specific ethnic groups, may be perceived as “the study of music in culture” or “the study of society in music”.

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. This was the time when "sciences" such as phrenology
Phrenology is a pseudoscience primarily focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules...

 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
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations...

 statement, "The Race Question
The Race Question
The Race Question is the first of four UNESCO statements about issues of race. It was issued on 18 July 1950 following World War II and Nazi racism. The statement was an attempt to clarify what was scientifically known about race and a moral condemnation of racism...

", signed by some of the internationally renowned scholars of the time (including Ashley Montagu
Ashley Montagu
Montague Francis Ashley Montagu was a British-American anthropologist and humanist, of Jewish ancestry, who popularized topics such as race and gender and their relation to politics and development...

, Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called, along with James George Frazer, the "father of modern anthropology"....

, Clauford von Magellan desch Singrones Strauss, Julian Huxley
Julian Huxley
Sir Julian Sorell Huxley FRS was an English evolutionary biologist, humanist and internationalist. He was a proponent of natural selection, and a leading figure in the mid-twentieth century evolutionary synthesis...

, 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'."

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.

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

Often, ethnicity also connotes shared cultural, linguistic, behavioural or religious traits. For example, to call oneself Jewish or Arab
Arab people, also known as Arabs , are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing...

 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. This distinguishes them from smaller, more subjective ethnic features, often termed microethnicity.

Ethnicity and nation

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 and Benedict Anderson 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
A nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and/or history. In this definition, a nation has no physical borders. However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic make-up...

, developed in the context of European colonial expansion, when mercantilism
Mercantilism is the economic doctrine in which government control of foreign trade is of paramount importance for ensuring the prosperity and security of the state. In particular, it demands a positive balance of trade. Mercantilism dominated Western European economic policy and discourse from...

 and capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

 were promoting global movements of populations at the same time that state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

 boundaries were being more clearly and rigidly defined. In the nineteenth century, modern states generally sought legitimacy through their claim to represent "nations." Nation-state
The nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity...

s, 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. Under these conditions—when people moved from one state to another, 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

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
Jürgen Klinsmann
Jürgen Klinsmann is a German football manager and former player who is currently the coach of the United States Men's National Team. As a player, Klinsmann played for several prominent clubs in Europe and was part of the West German team that won the 1990 FIFA World Cup and the German one that...

 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
Will Kymlicka
Will Kymlicka is a Canadian political philosopher best known for his work on multiculturalism. He is currently Professor of Philosophy and Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen's University at Kingston, and Recurrent Visiting Professor in the Nationalism Studies program at the...

, 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
Ethnic nationalism
Ethnic nationalism is a form of nationalism wherein the "nation" is defined in terms of ethnicity. Whatever specific ethnicity is involved, ethnic nationalism always includes some element of descent from previous generations and the implied claim of ethnic essentialism, i.e...

, when the concept of race was tied to nationalism
Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms, i.e. a nation. In the 'modernist' image of the nation, it is nationalism that creates national identity. There are various definitions for what...

, 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
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

 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
Ethnic war
An ethnic conflict or ethnic war is a conflict between ethnic groups often as a result of ethnic nationalism. They are of interest because of the apparent prevalence since the Cold War and because they frequently result in war crimes such as genocide...

. 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 war
Civil war
A civil war is a war between organized groups within the same nation state or republic, or, less commonly, between two countries created from a formerly-united nation state....

s when they are inter-ethnic conflicts in a multi-ethnic state.

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 concomitant 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
Michael Omi
Michael Omi is an American sociologist. Professor Omi is best known for developing the theory of racial formation along with Howard Winant. Omi serves on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. Omi's work includes race theory, Asian American studies, and antiracist...

 and Howard Winant
Howard Winant
Howard Winant is an American sociologist and race theorist. Professor Winant is best known for developing the theory of racial formation along with Michael Omi...

 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
Latin Americans
Latin Americans are the citizens of the Latin American countries and dependencies. Latin American countries are multi-ethnic, home to people of different ethnic and national backgrounds. As a result, some Latin Americans don't take their nationality as an ethnicity, but identify themselves with...

 descended populations are grouped in a "Hispanic
Hispanic is a term that originally denoted a relationship to Hispania, which is to say the Iberian Peninsula: Andorra, Gibraltar, Portugal and Spain. During the Modern Era, Hispanic sometimes takes on a more limited meaning, particularly in the United States, where the term means a person of ...

" or "Latino
The demonyms Latino and Latina , are defined in English language dictionaries as:* "a person of Latin-American descent."* "A Latin American."* "A person of Hispanic, especially Latin-American, descent, often one living in the United States."...

" ethnicity. The many previously designated Oriental ethnic groups are now classified as the Asia
Asia is the world's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres. It covers 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area and with approximately 3.879 billion people, it hosts 60% of the world's current human population...

n racial group for the census.

The terms "Black
Black people
The term black people is used in systems of racial classification for humans of a dark skinned phenotype, relative to other racial groups.Different societies apply different criteria regarding who is classified as "black", and often social variables such as class, socio-economic status also plays a...

" and "African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...

," 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. 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
White people
White people is a term which usually refers to human beings characterized, at least in part, by the light pigmentation of their skin...

" generally describes people whose ancestry can be traced to Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

, the Middle East
Middle East
The Middle East is a region that encompasses Western Asia and Northern Africa. It is often used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East...

 and including European-colonized countries in the Americas
The Americas, or America , are lands in the Western hemisphere, also known as the New World. In English, the plural form the Americas is often used to refer to the landmasses of North America and South America with their associated islands and regions, while the singular form America is primarily...

, Australasia
Australasia is a region of Oceania comprising Australia, New Zealand, the island of New Guinea, and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean. The term was coined by Charles de Brosses in Histoire des navigations aux terres australes...

 and South Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

 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
Hispanic and Latino Americans
Hispanic or Latino Americans are Americans with origins in the Hispanic countries of Latin America or in Spain, and in general all persons in the United States who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino.1990 Census of Population and Housing: A self-designated classification for people whose origins...

 and non-Hispanics (e.g. White non-Hispanic and White Hispanic
White Hispanic and Latino Americans
White Hispanic and Latino Americans are citizens and residents of the United States who are racially White and ethnically Hispanic or Latino.White American, itself an official U.S...



Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

 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.

A number of European countries, including France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, and Switzerland
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

 do not collect information on the ethnicity of their resident population.

Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 has numerous recognized ethnic groups
Ethnic groups in Russia
Russian Federation is a mono-national state with over 170 ethnic groups designated as nationalities, population of these groups varying enormously, from millions in case of e.g. Russians and Tatars to under ten thousand in the case of Samis and Kets...

 besides the 80% ethnic Russian
The Russian people are an East Slavic ethnic group native to Russia, speaking the Russian language and primarily living in Russia and neighboring countries....

 majority. The largest group are the Tatars
Tatars are a Turkic speaking ethnic group , numbering roughly 7 million.The majority of Tatars live in the Russian Federation, with a population of around 5.5 million, about 2 million of which in the republic of Tatarstan.Significant minority populations are found in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,...

Many of the smaller groups are found in the Asian part of Russia (see Indigenous peoples of Siberia
Indigenous peoples of Siberia
Including the Russian Far East, the population of Siberia numbers just above 40 million people.As a result of the 17th to 19th century Russian conquest of Siberia and the subsequent population movements during the Soviet era, the demographics of Siberia today is dominated by native speakers of...



In India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, the population is categorized in terms of the 1,652 mother tongues spoken
Languages of India
The languages of India belong to several language families, the major ones being the Indo-European languages—Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian languages...

. 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
Scheduled Castes and Tribes
The Scheduled Castes , also known as the Dalit, and the Scheduled Tribes are two groupings of historically disadvantaged people that are given express recognition in the Constitution of India...

 which remain registered for the purpose of positive discrimination.


The People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 officially recognizes 1 million ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Han Chinese
Han Chinese
Han Chinese are an ethnic group native to China and are the largest single ethnic group in the world.Han Chinese constitute about 92% of the population of the People's Republic of China , 98% of the population of the Republic of China , 78% of the population of Singapore, and about 20% of the...

. 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
Tibet Autonomous Region
The Tibet Autonomous Region , Tibet or Xizang for short, also called the Xizang Autonomous Region is a province-level autonomous region of the People's Republic of China , created in 1965....

 and Xinjiang
Xinjiang is an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China. It is the largest Chinese administrative division and spans over 1.6 million km2...

 (East Turkestan
East Turkestan
East Turkestan is a controversial political term with multiple meanings depending on context and usage...

), where the Han are in the minority. The one-child policy
One-child policy
The one-child policy refers to the one-child limitation applying to a minority of families in the population control policy of the People's Republic of China . The Chinese government refers to it under the official translation of family planning policy...

 only applies to the Han.

See also

  • Ancestry
  • Clan
    A clan is a group of people united by actual or perceived kinship and descent. Even if lineage details are unknown, clan members may be organized around a founding member or apical ancestor. The kinship-based bonds may be symbolical, whereby the clan shares a "stipulated" common ancestor that is a...

  • Diaspora
    A diaspora is "the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established or ancestral homeland" or "people dispersed by whatever cause to more than one location", or "people settled far from their ancestral homelands".The word has come to refer to historical mass-dispersions of...

  • Ethnic autonomous regions
  • Ethnic cleansing
    Ethnic cleansing
    Ethnic cleansing is a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic orreligious group from certain geographic areas....

  • Ethnic flag
    Ethnic flag
    An ethnic flag is a flag that symbolizes a certain ethnic group. Ethnic flags are often introduced to the ethnic community through the respective cultural or political ethnic movements...

  • Ethnic minority
  • Ethnic nationalism
    Ethnic nationalism
    Ethnic nationalism is a form of nationalism wherein the "nation" is defined in terms of ethnicity. Whatever specific ethnicity is involved, ethnic nationalism always includes some element of descent from previous generations and the implied claim of ethnic essentialism, i.e...

  • Ethnicity and health
  • Ethnocentrism
    Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one's own. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with...

  • Ethnocultural empathy
    Ethnocultural empathy
    Ethnocultural empathy refers to the understanding of feelings of individuals that are ethnically and/or culturally different from ones’ self. This concept casts doubts on global empathy, which assumes that empathy is “feeling in oneself the feelings of others” and is not specifically targeting any...

  • Ethnogenesis
    Ethnogenesis is the process by which a group of human beings comes to be understood or to understand themselves as ethnically distinct from the wider social landscape from which their grouping emerges...

  • Genealogy
    Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members...

  • Genetic genealogy
    Genetic genealogy
    Genetic genealogy is the application of genetics to traditional genealogy. Genetic genealogy involves the use of genealogical DNA testing to determine the level of genetic relationship between individuals.-History:...

  • Human Genome Diversity Project
    Human Genome Diversity Project
    The Human Genome Diversity Project was started by Stanford University's Morrison Institute and a collaboration of scientists around the world. It is the result of many years of work by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, one of the most cited scientists in the world, which has published extensively in the use...

  • Identity politics
    Identity politics
    Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the self interest and perspectives of self-identified social interest groups and ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through race, class, religion, sexual orientation or traditional dominance...

  • Intersectionality
    Intersectionality is a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw . Intersectionality is a methodology of studying "the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations"...

  • Kinship and Descent
  • List of ethnic groups
  • List of indigenous peoples
  • List of stateless ethnic groups
  • Meta-ethnicity
    Meta-ethnicity is a relatively recent term that arises occasionally in academic literature or public discourse, and when it does, seems to be an attempt to describe a level of commonality that is wider and more general than ethnicity, but does not necessarily correspond to nation or...

  • Multiculturalism
    Multiculturalism is the appreciation, acceptance or promotion of multiple cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place, usually at the organizational level, e.g...

  • Nation
    A nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and/or history. In this definition, a nation has no physical borders. However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic make-up...

  • National minority
  • National symbol
  • Passing (ethnic group)
  • Polyethnicity
    Polyethnicity refers to the close proximity of people from different ethnic backgrounds within a country or other specific geographic region. It also relates to the ability and willingness of individuals to identify themselves with multiple ethnicities...

  • Population genetics
    Population genetics
    Population genetics is the study of allele frequency distribution and change under the influence of the four main evolutionary processes: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene flow. It also takes into account the factors of recombination, population subdivision and population...

  • Race and ethnicity in the United States Census
  • Race (classification of human beings)
  • Stateless nation
    Stateless nation
    A stateless nation is a group, usually a minority ethnic group, considered as a nation entitled to its own state for that nation. Since there are few objective criteria for whether a particular group is a nation, or which particular group "has" any given multinational state, usage of the term is...

  • Tribe
    A tribe, viewed historically or developmentally, consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states.Many anthropologists use the term tribal society to refer to societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups .Some theorists...

  • Y-chromosome haplogroups by populations
    Y-chromosome haplogroups by populations
    The following articles are lists of human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups found in populations and various ethnic groups by regions or continents around the world based on relevant studies, and the samples have been taken from individuals identified by linguistic designation.General*Y-DNA haplogroups...

  • External links