Ethnicity refers to the differentiation of groups of people who have shared cultural meanings, memories, and descent produced through social interaction. In classical Greek, the terms ethnos and ethnikos were used in a number of ways to refer to a collectivity that shares similar cultural or biological characteristics—for example, a tribe of people or a band of friends—and who were not Greek, came from outside the nation, were foreign and different, and were also considered inferior, barbarian, and less civilized. This distinction between ethnically marked “others” and nonethnically marked “us” persists in modern popular usage with references to ethnic fashion or food.
Sociological accounts of ethnicity are highly varied but tend to break the classical linkage between ethnicity and “other” in asserting that all people are ethnically located in that their subjectivity and identity are contextualized by history, language, descent, and culture. Ethnicity usually refers to the differentiation of social groups on the basis of the following distinct criteria. First, a notion of a “homeland” or place of common origin is a key element. It is often linked to the idea of a diaspora, where an ethnic group has migrated from the homeland to form communities elsewhere whose members identify with their place of origin. Second, a common language, either distinctive in itself or a distinct dialect of a language shared with others, may be central to the construction of shared memories and affective belonging. Identification with a distinct religion—for example, Sikhism—or a religion shared with others can be a central feature of many ethnic groups. A common culture with distinctive social institutions and behavior, diet, and dress, as well as a common tradition or shared history of one’s own “people” or nation are other criteria used in specifying ethnic groups.
Ethnicities may be highly durable over millennia and space, and they can also be formed from new conjunctions of social contexts. This occurs, for example, when migrants shape a new backward-looking sense of ethnic belonging with the construction of national context to produce hyphenated forms, such as British-Asian or Hispanic-American. Ethnic solidarity can provide a deep sense of physical and psychological security, allowing individuals to identify and find a sense of common purpose with a great and long-lasting tradition of people. But if fictive shared beliefs underlie ethnic differentiation, then the boundaries of ethnic groups are inevitably unclear and caution is required in assessing the extent to which external categories accurately reflect social meanings, social roles, and wider social inequalities. There may often be a poor fit between the state and bureaucratic constructions of ethnic categories and dynamic forms of intersubjective ethnic identities.
Scholars have made various attempts to develop global typologies of ethnicity, including those by Thomas Eriksen (1993) and Stephen Castles (2000). These typologies include indigenous peoples dispossessed and overwhelmed by colonizers. The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have similar histories in this respect and contain indigenous minorities—Aborigines, Maoris, Native Americans, and Native Canadians—who remain in unequal marginalized positions. Indigenous groups are also found in Latin America, where there have been massacres, for example, in Guatemala in the 1980s, and in most Asian countries, where native groups may be categorized as “tribal peoples” or “hill tribes” (Castles 2000). Other categories and contexts include: migrant workers and their descendants forming strong ethnic communities—for example, Turks in Germany or Pakistanis in the United Kingdom; ethno-nations—for example, the Quebecois in Canada or the Basques in Spain—with regional ethnic groups contesting national control; postslavery groups in, for example, Brazil, the United States, and the Caribbean; and people living in postcolonial and postcommunist contexts, as in, for example, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, or the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic loyalties have had grave consequences in terms of conflict and violence.
Ethnic hostility, discrimination, and exclusion take many forms, but three broad categories can be identified. The first category includes the most severe acts involving mass societal aggression, such as the annihilation of native peoples in North America, South Africa, and Australia from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries; the Nazi Holocaust during World War II (1939–1945); plantation slavery from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries; or the massacres of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda in 1994 and ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbs in the 1990s. The second category of ethnic exclusion and discrimination involves denial of access to societal opportunities and rewards in such areas as employment, education, housing, health care, and justice. Many instances of such discrimination have been documented in Europe by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, mostly affecting Roma, Sinti, Gypsy, and Traveller groups. Poor mental and physical health, lower levels of educational attainment, restricted access to work, and lower income levels have been linked to poor housing conditions for many of these groups. The lack of social rights has also constrained their opportunities for political participation. A third category of ethnic discrimination includes the use of derogatory or abusive language or forms of representation that are felt to be offensive (e.g., the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons that circulated in 2005 and 2006). Such derogatory expressions, together with racist jokes, the use of Nazi insignia, and unwitting stereotyping and pejorative phrases, may constitute lesser forms of ethnic hostility. Explanations for ethnic conflict must encompass micropsychological processes, individual and group experiences, and competition and socialization, together with structural power relations and aspects of globalization.
Sociological approaches to conceptualizing ethnicity fall into two camps. Primordial approaches, first suggested by Edward Shils in 1957, regard ties of blood, race, language, region, and custom as exterior, coercive, and given. This approach has been criticized as static and naturalistic, and as failing to account for the impact of immigration and intermarriage. In contrast, instrumentalist approaches, represented, for example, by Michael Banton’s work on ethnic competition (1993), view ethnicity as a social, political, and cultural resource that can be used in competition for resources or as a motivation for conflict. This approach has been criticized for underplaying durable, affective, and persisting constructions of ethnic identity. The transactionalist mode of enquiry advocated by Fredrik Barth is seen as making a vital contribution to the instrumentalist approach in arguing that “the critical focus of investigation from this point of view becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff which it encloses” (Barth 1969, p.15). The conceptual separation of culture and ethnicity and the focus on processes of interaction and boundary-maintenance have been highly influential.
As with culture, the concepts of race and nation crosscut the specification of ethnicity. As Steve Fenton (2003) has argued, the word nation also refers to groups of people with common descent, culture, and a shared sense of territory. But what differentiates a nation from an ethnic group is its members’ construction as a state or a statelike political form. Also, ethnic groups are more frequently conceived as a subset of the nation-state, particularly where states do not have a pure monoethnic form. The word race also refers to groups with a common descent and culture, but race carries an explicit reference to physical or visible difference. Race may operate as a subset of ethnicity, being one of the many markers used to differentiate a particular ethnic group. On the other hand, ethnicity may operate as a subset of a race, where one racial group is seen as encompassing many ethnic groups—for example, the community of black British within which Caribbean ethnicities have been erased.
Competing sociological accounts of ethnicity have been classified and critically differentiated by Siniša Malešević (2004). Classical sociology, neo-Marxism, functionalism, symbolic interactionism, sociobiology, rational-choice theory, elite theory, neo-Weberian approaches, and antifoundationalist positions have all been used to theorize ethnicity. Malešević illustrates how each position can be used to provide an explanation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and he highlights key epistemological tensions. Differing approaches prioritize different determining factors, ranging from the legacy of German and Belgian colonial divide-and-rule policies in the region; the downfall of the Rwandan economy; the lack of a common cultural system; the primordial ethnic differentiation between shorter, darker Hutus and taller, light-skinned Tutsi; the individual self-interest of those involved; the motives and behavior of Hutu power holders; status differentiation between Tutsi aristocracy and Hutu farmers; and the rationalist urge to impose order on difference using modernist methods. Central factors in such cases also include, as Helen Fein (1993) has argued in relation to Armenian genocide during World War I (1914–1918) and the Nazi Holocaust, the rise of new elites in declining states who see their idealized political vision as exclusive and who position minorities as outside moral obligation, and where extermination is less visible and operates with little fear of sanction.
Ethnic relations encompass highly varied, complex forms of social relations where attachment to cultural difference is paramount. Milton Esman (2004) has identified differing categories of ethnic relations. Exclusionary domination involves enforcing an ethnically stratified system of unequal rights, status, and opportunities. This was common in European colonial societies on all continents, in apartheid-era South Africa, and in many of the more extreme cases previously noted. Inclusionary domination or assimilation involves dismantling ethnic cultures, languages, and attachments by facilitating acculturation to the nation. The classic French republican model of aggressive assimilation, the Thai government’s approach to its Chinese minority, and the Turkish government’s approach to Turkey’s large Kurdish minority are all examples of this form of ethnic relations.
Granting rights to minority groups can also ensure their domination. Limited rights have been granted to Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel, but these rights serve to confirm their second-class status, and there remains entrenched opposition to equal rights with Jewish Israelis. In Malaysia, domination with significant but unequal rights for Chinese and Indian citizens is well established. Power-sharing solutions have been developed in many national contexts where ethnic divisions have not produced conflict or separation. Belgium, India, and Switzerland provide examples where forms of federalism and consociationalism have enabled the establishment of multiethnic states. This approach supports ethnic pluralism, while the final position, integration, foresees its decline with the gradual building of social and cultural cohesion. This position is strongly advocated in the United Kingdom, where multiculturalism was officially abandoned in 2004 due to its perceived effect as ethnically divisive, in favor of policies concerned with community cohesion ad integration. Here, integration is seen as encompassing the goals of ethnic equality and ethnic interaction, with strong concern over ethnic groups that lead parallel and separated lives.
The strength of ethnic loyalties and their practical adequacy for many people in making sense of their position in the world in premodern, modern, and contemporary times indicates the likelihood that ethnic conflict will continue, despite international declarations and interventions, creative national policies, and interethnic mixing. Ethnic conflict is “a world-wide phenomenon that has become the leading source of lethal violence in international affairs” (Esman 2004, p. 26). In the context of insecure national states and global inequalities, population mobility and international migration will lead to greater cultural diversification of national populations. New technologies and changing patterns of consumption are driving the construction of larger regional and global cultures. These globalizing, cosmopolitan forces are also stimulating new forms of ethnic defensiveness and hostility toward new migrants, as is occurring in the United States, as well as toward long-established minorities, as evident in the development of anti-Semitic movements and anti-minority hate speech in Russia. Nevertheless, social science failed to predict the demise of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, as John Stone and Rutledge Dennis (2003) remind us, and this one example indicates the importance of theorizing and understanding the potential for constructive conflict resolution.
SEE ALSO Assimilation; Immigrants to North America; Multiculturalism; Race
Banton, Michael. 1993. Racial and Ethnic Competition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Barth, Fredrik, ed. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference. London: Allen and Unwin.
Castles, Stephen. 2000. Ethnicity and Globalization: From Migrant Worker to Transnational Citizen. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Eriksen, Thomas. 1993. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London and Boulder, CO: Pluto.
Esman, Milton J. 2004. An Introduction to Ethnic Conflict. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
Fein, Helen. 1990. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Fenton, Steve. 2003. Ethnicity. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity
Malešević, Siniša. 2004. The Sociology of Ethnicity. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Shils, Edward. 1957. Primordial, Personal, Sacred, and Civil Ties. British Journal of Sociology 8 (2): 130–145.
Stone, John, and Rutledge Dennis, eds. 2003. Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and Theoretical Approaches. Oxford: Blackwell.
"Ethnicity." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/ethnicity
"Ethnicity." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/ethnicity
This entry probes the intersections of religion and science from a cultural perspective. Culture and ethnicity are crucial to the ongoing dialogue about meaning, nature, and the role of humankind in the cosmos, Historically, it was assumed that dominant cultures provided the only reliable scientific methodologies and theological interpretations. This preoccupation with rationality, objectivity, and neutrality relegated the wisdom of indigenous people to myth and mystery. Yet scientific findings are more congruent with ancient wisdom than modernist deductions. Ancient intuitions hint at a universe that is expansive rather than exclusive, connected rather than isolated.
Both religion and science offer intriguing insights about the universe, culture, and human nature. Both disciplines, however, have been complicit in the oppression of racial/ethnic people. Historically, religion was used as a catalyst for domination, wars, atrocities, and abuses of humankind are still perpetrated in the name of God. In North America, Christian slave masters hoped that Christian conversion would encourage slave to accept their fate. The promise of freedom in heaven relieved owners of the need to redress immediate and grievous breaches of human rights. During the civil rights movement, it was the unified efforts of local clergymen who urged Martin Luther King Jr. to slow his initiatives for justice.
Theological discourses also rely upon problematic dyads of light and dark to signify good and evil. This is done even though biblical texts refer to a God who is identified with light but who also dwells in darkness. People live in a world that is seduced by light, intrigued by its properties, and theologically persuaded that evil is synonymous with darkness. This paradigm allows people with dark skin to be deemed pariahs and strangers within the world community.
Despite cultural assumptions to the contrary, most scholars agree that race is not a biological or physical category, yet racial perceptions persist. Race always develops within a matrix of superiority and inferiority. Distinctions based on color, physical traits, or ethnicity mask issues of power, fear of difference, and social control. Those who envision an egalitarian society in the twenty-first century will be challenged to use all of the resources at hand to deconstruct mythologies about race.
Seekers of justice usually rely on the discourses of religion to describe their visions of freedom and reconciliation, but reject the metaphors of science when they try to delineate the contours of the beloved community. Even though both science and religion incorporate issues of power, hierarchy, and the assignment of inferiority, ethnic communities have a historical mistrust of scientific contributions to issues of race.
In scientific circles, eugenics attempted to tie social constructions of inferiority to physical attributes. In the eighteenth century, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1708) created "scientific" racial classifications and descriptive characteristics. In the nineteenth century, Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), a Swiss-born Harvard professor, argued that human beings do not share a common ancestry (monogenism); instead, he argued that God created the races as separate and distinct human categories (polygenism). On the medical front, the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments conducted at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1932 to 1972 allowed syphilis to advance untreated in African-American male subjects despite the eventual availability of penicillin. Nazi experiments on Jewish prisoners are also ignominious moments in history.
The sciences also influence social institutions, laws, and theological perspectives. As physicist Nick Herbert notes, Isaac Newton's description of the world "as a giant clock" was translated in cultural contexts into "atomicity, objectivity, and determinism" (p. xi). A rigid and mechanistic view of the universe influenced political and social initiatives that oppressed those deemed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. The case can be made that both science and religion can reflect the best and the worst in human culture.
Despite these problems, the quest for justice is not just a social and spiritual construct; it also reflects the view of the universe and the human task within the cosmos. Accordingly, liberation initiatives require the resources of both science and religion. The questions change when science and religion inform discussions of race and ethnicity. What does race mean in a scientific context, when darkness is no longer an indicator of inferiority, but instead becomes a cosmological metaphor for the power and predominance attributed to dark matter? Biology teaches that social separations based on difference are false. People are connected through a common human ancestry and genome. Cosmology teaches that separation is not the way of the universe. Instead connections that defy rational processes abound. By means of the Uncertainty and Complementarity Principles, physics demonstrates that observations and attempts to know other humans connect people at the most fundamental levels.
Conflicts based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality are power struggles that attempt to define social acceptability through force or appropriation of the public narrative. The addition of religious and scientific concepts and discourses offer a rhetorical corrective to social and legal theories about life in diverse and multicultural spaces.
See also Anthropology; Eugenics; Liberation Theology; Womanist Theology
herbert, nick. quantum reality: beyond the new physics. new york: anchor/doubleday, 1985.
montagu, ashley. man's most dangerous myth: the fallacy of race, 6th edition. walnut creek, calif.: altamira press, 1997.
rothman, barbara katz. the book of life: a personal and ethical guide to race, normality and the implications of the human genome project. boston: beacon press, 2001.
barbara a. holmes
"Ethnicity." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ethnicity
"Ethnicity." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved October 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ethnicity
The term was coined in contradistinction to race, since although members of an ethnic group may be identifiable in terms of racial attributes, they may also share other cultural characteristics such as religion, occupation, language, or politics. Ethnic groups should also be distinguished from social classes, since membership generally cross-cuts the socio-economic stratification within society, encompassing individuals who share (or are perceived to share) common characteristics that supersede class. The Jews in the United States thus constitute a typical ethnic group, since they include individuals of different racial origins (from East Europe to North Africa), social classes, mother-tongues, political beliefs, and religious commitment (from orthodox to atheist), yet still consider themselves to share a common Jewish identity that distinguishes them from, while not necessarily placing them in opposition to, wider American society.
Ethnic groups are therefore fluid in composition and subject to changes in definition. New ethnic groups are constantly being formed as populations move between countries. Indians in Britain, for example, constitute an ethnic group—although as individuals in India they would be seen to be members of quite different groups in terms of caste and language. The concept of ethnicity is particularly important when it forms the basis for social discrimination (as, for example, in the case of Jews in Nazi Germany) or for independence movements (as in the Soviet Union).
The relevant literature is voluminous. John Rex and David Mason's Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations (1986) demonstrates the range and diversity of current approaches in the field. Michael Banton's Racial and Ethnic Competition (1983) is an excellent summary of the American and British substantive literature. For America see Nathan Glazer , Ethnic Dilemmas, 1964–1982 (1983)
. Anthony Smith 's The Ethnic Revival (1981)
demonstrates the importance of the concept to a sociological understanding of conflict and change in the modern world. Frank Bean and Marta Tienda's The Hispanic Population in the United States (1990) uses quantitative data in a case-study of ethnicity in modern America. Ira Katznelson's history of the urban politics of Northern Manhattan (City Trenches, 1981) is a case-study of the interaction of ethnicity and class. See also CULTURE; NATIONALISM.
"ethnicity." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ethnicity
"ethnicity." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved October 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ethnicity