Unlocking the Secrets of Your Cultural Identity – What Does Your Ethnicity Reveal?

By Dinesh Bajaj

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An ethnicity or ethnic group is a collective of individuals who identify with one another based on shared characteristics that differentiate them from other groups. These characteristics may encompass a common place of origin, ancestry, traditions, language, history, society, religion, or social treatment. The term “ethnicity” is often used interchangeably with “nation,” especially in cases of ethnic nationalism.

Ethnicity can be seen as either an inherited or socially constructed concept. Ethnic membership typically revolves around a common cultural heritage, ancestral ties, origin narratives, historical connections, a shared homeland, language, dialect, religious beliefs, mythology, folklore, rituals, cuisine, clothing styles, art, or physical traits. Ethnic groups may exhibit a wide or narrow range of genetic ancestry, depending on the criteria used for group identification, and many groups have mixed genetic backgrounds.

Over time, individuals or groups can transition from one ethnic group to another due to language changes, acculturation, adoption, or religious conversion. Ethnic groups may also have subgroups or tribes, which, with time, can evolve into distinct ethnic groups of their own, often due to endogamy (marriage within the group) or physical isolation from the parent group. Conversely, previously separate ethnicities may merge to form a larger pan-ethnicity and might eventually unify into a single ethnicity. The process of developing a distinct ethnic identity, whether through division or amalgamation, is known as “ethnogenesis.”

Regarding the nature of ethnic groups, there has been historical debate between two perspectives: primordialism and constructivism. “Primordialists” in the early 20th century regarded ethnic groups as genuine entities with enduring, intrinsic characteristics dating back to ancient times. On the other hand, perspectives that emerged after the 1960s increasingly consider ethnic groups as social constructs, with identities assigned by societal norms and rules.


The term “ethnic” originates from the Greek word “ethnos,” particularly from the adjective “ethnikos,” which was borrowed into Latin as “ethnicus.” In Early Modern English until the mid-19th century, “ethnic” was used to refer to heathens or pagans, meaning various “nations” that did not yet follow the Christian faith. This usage was influenced by the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew term “goyim,” which means “foreign nations” or “non-Hebrews” and was translated as “ethne” in Greek.

In early antiquity, the Greek term “ethnos” could refer to any large group, whether human or animal. In Classical Greek, it took on a meaning similar to the modern concept of an “ethnic group,” typically translated as “nation,” “tribe,” or a unique group of people. However, it became more associated with “foreign” or “barbarous” nations during the Hellenistic Greek period, leading to the later meaning of “heathen” or “pagan.”

In the 19th century, “ethnic” evolved to mean something distinctive to a tribe, race, people, or nation, returning to its original Greek meaning. The sense of “different cultural groups,” and in American English, “tribal, racial, cultural, or national minority group,” emerged in the 1930s to 1940s, replacing the term “race” due to its association with racist ideologies.

The term “ethnicity” was first used to stand in for “paganism” in the 18th century but later expressed the idea of an “ethnic character.” “Ethnic group” was first recorded in 1935 and entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1972. Depending on the context, “nationality” may be used interchangeably with either ethnicity or citizenship within a sovereign state.

The process that leads to the formation of an ethnicity is known as “ethnogenesis,” a term introduced in ethnological literature around 1950. It can also be used to describe something unique and exotic, often related to the cultures of recent immigrants who arrived after the dominant population of an area was established.

Depending on which aspect of group identity is emphasized for defining membership, various types of ethnic groups can be identified:

  1. Ethno-linguistic, focusing on a shared language, dialect, and possibly script, for example, French Canadians.
  2. Ethno-national, emphasizing a shared polity or national identity, like Austrians.
  3. Ethno-racial, highlighting shared physical characteristics based on phenotype, as seen in African Americans.
  4. Ethno-regional, emphasizing a distinct local sense of belonging stemming from relative geographic isolation, such as the South Islanders of New Zealand.
  5. Ethno-religious, underlining shared affiliation with a specific religion, denomination, or sect, as seen in Sikhs.
  6. Ethno-cultural, emphasizing a shared culture or tradition, often overlapping with other forms of ethnicity, as in the case of Travellers.

In many instances, more than one factor can determine membership in an ethnic group. For example, Armenian ethnicity may be defined by Armenian citizenship, having Armenian heritage, native use of the Armenian language, or membership in the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Unlocking the Secrets of Your Cultural Identity – What Does Your Ethnicity Reveal?

Definitions and conceptual history

The study of ethnography has its roots in classical antiquity, with early authors like Anaximander and Hecataeus of Miletus. However, it was Herodotus who laid the foundation for both historiography and ethnography around 480 BC. The Greeks developed a concept of their own ethnicity, which they referred to as “Hellenes.” Herodotus provided a famous account of what constituted Greek (Hellenic) ethnic identity during his time, which included:

  1. Shared descent (homaimon – “of the same blood”).
  2. Shared language (homoglōsson – “speaking the same language”).
  3. Shared sanctuaries and sacrifices (theōn hidrumata te koina kai thusiai – “shared religious practices”).
  4. Shared customs (ēthea homotropa – “customs of like fashion”).

The question of whether ethnicity can be considered a cultural universal depends on the specific definition used. Many social scientists, including anthropologists like Fredrik Barth and Eric Wolf, do not view ethnic identity as universal. Instead, they see it as a product of particular types of inter-group interactions, rather than an inherent quality of human groups.

The study of ethnicity has been shaped by two main debates, according to Thomas Hylland Eriksen:

  1. The debate between “primordialism” and “instrumentalism,” where primordialists view ethnic ties as inherent and externally given, while instrumentalists see ethnicity as a political tool used for various interests.
  2. The debate between “constructivism” and “essentialism,” with constructivists considering ethnic and national identities as products of historical forces, even when presented as ancient, and essentialists viewing them as inherent categories defining social actors.

These debates have been evolving, particularly in anthropology, in response to the politicized self-representation of different ethnic groups and nations. In multicultural societies with diverse immigrant populations, such as the United States and Canada, and in post-colonial contexts like the Caribbean and South Asia, these issues have gained significance.

Max Weber suggested that ethnic groups are artificial constructs based on a subjective belief in shared community (Gemeinschaft), rather than inherent traits. He argued that this belief doesn’t create the group; instead, the group creates the belief, often driven by the desire to gain power and status.

Another influential figure in the study of ethnicity is Fredrik Barth, who emphasized the constructed nature of ethnicity. He viewed ethnic groups as entities that are perpetually negotiated through both external ascription and internal self-identification. Barth focused on the interconnectedness of ethnic identities and how they are not fixed but rather adapt to changing social processes.

Ronald Cohen pointed out that the identification of “ethnic groups” by outsiders may not always align with the self-identification of the group members. He also highlighted that claims about ethnic identity can often be colonialist practices and the result of relations between colonized peoples and nation-states.

In conclusion, the study of ethnicity has evolved over time, with a focus on how markers of ethnic identity become relevant and change. Ethnicity can be fluid and subject to political and social influences, making it a complex and dynamic concept.

Approaches to understanding ethnicity

Various approaches have been employed by social scientists to understand the nature of ethnicity in human life and society. World War II marked a significant turning point in ethnic studies, as the consequences of Nazi racism discouraged essentialist interpretations of ethnicity and race. Ethnic groups began to be defined as social rather than biological entities, and their coherence was attributed to shared cultural elements such as myths, descent, kinship, place of origin, language, religion, customs, and national character. Ethnic groups are considered mutable rather than stable, constructed through discourse rather than predetermined by genetics.

Here are examples of different approaches to understanding ethnicity:

  1. “Primordialism”: This perspective suggests that ethnicity has existed throughout human history, and modern ethnic groups have historical continuity dating back to the distant past. It is rooted in the concept of humanity divided into primordial groups based on kinship and biological heritage.
  2. “Essentialist primordialism”: This approach posits that ethnicity is an inherent, unchangeable fact of human existence, preceding any social interaction. It views ethnic groups as natural entities rather than historical constructs.
  3. “Kinship primordialism”: This view sees ethnic communities as extensions of kinship units, where cultural characteristics like language, religion, and traditions are chosen to emphasize biological affinity. However, this approach can conflict with known biological histories of ethnic communities.
  4. “Geertz’s primordialism”: Anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s view asserts that humans attribute immense significance to primordial factors like blood ties, language, territory, and cultural differences, even though ethnicity is not intrinsically primordial.
  5. “Perennialism”: Perennialism sees nations and ethnic communities as closely related phenomena, existing immemorially. It distinguishes between “continuous perennialism,” where specific nations have existed for long periods, and “recurrent perennialism,” which focuses on the emergence, dissolution, and reappearance of nations over time.
  6. “Instrumentalist perennialism”: This perspective views ethnicity as a versatile tool for identifying different ethnic groups and serving as a mechanism of social stratification, based on attributes like race, religion, or nationality. Ethnic stratification emerges when specific ethnic groups come into contact, characterized by ethnocentrism, competition, and differential power.
  7. “Constructivism”: This approach challenges both primordialist and perennialist views, rejecting the idea of ethnicity as a basic human condition. It argues that ethnic groups are products of social interaction and are only maintained as valid social constructs in societies.
  8. “Modernist constructivism”: Correlates the emergence of ethnicity with the movement toward nation-states during the early modern period. Proponents of this theory argue that notions of ethnic pride and nationalism are modern inventions.

Ethnicity is a crucial way through which people identify with larger groups, and the process leading to the emergence of such identification is called ethnogenesis. Ethnic groups can form a cultural mosaic in society, contributing to social and cultural differentiation, multilingualism, competing identity offers, multiple cultural identities, and the development of concepts like the “melting pot” and “salad bowl.” Ethnic groups are distinct from other social groups, such as subcultures or social classes, as they evolve and change over historical periods, a process known as ethnogenesis.

In summary, various approaches offer diverse perspectives on the nature of ethnicity, with each approach shedding light on different aspects of ethnic identity and its historical development.

Ethnicity theory in the United States

Ethnicity theory asserts that race is a social construct and is just one of several factors that contribute to one’s ethnic identity. Other criteria in determining ethnicity include religion, language, customs, nationality, and political identification. This theory, rooted in the concept of culture, was proposed by sociologist Robert E. Park in the 1920s.

Before the emergence of ethnicity theory, the dominant paradigm regarding race for over a century was biological essentialism. This paradigm held that certain races, particularly white Europeans, were biologically superior, while non-white races were inherently inferior. This viewpoint emerged as a means to justify the enslavement of African Americans and the oppression of Native Americans in a society founded on the principle of freedom for all. Over time, it became a major concern for scientists, theologians, and the public. Questions were raised within religious institutions about whether different races had multiple origins (polygenesis) and whether some races were created as lesser by God. Prominent scientists of the era also espoused the belief in racial differences, asserting the superiority of white Europeans.

Ethnicity theory was based on the assimilation model, as outlined by Robert E. Park. This model consisted of four stages: contact, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Rather than attributing the marginalized status of people of color in the United States to their inherent biological inferiority, Park attributed it to their failure to assimilate into American culture. According to this perspective, equality could be achieved if individuals from marginalized groups abandoned their cultures and fully embraced American culture.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s theory of racial formation directly challenges the foundations and practices of ethnicity theory. They argue that ethnicity theory was primarily based on the immigration patterns of the white population and did not consider the unique experiences of non-white communities in the United States. While Park’s theory identified different stages in the immigration process for white communities, it overlooked the complexities that race added to the interactions of non-white communities with social and political structures.

The idea of assimilation, shedding the distinctive qualities of one’s native culture to blend into the dominant culture, did not address the issue of racism and discrimination for some groups, while it did work for others. After the removal of legal barriers to equality, the responsibility for addressing racism fell squarely on the already disadvantaged communities. It was assumed that if a Black or Latino community did not meet the standards set by whites, it was because they held the wrong values or were resisting dominant norms out of a desire not to assimilate. Omi and Winant’s critique of ethnicity theory highlights how focusing on cultural deficiencies as the source of inequality neglects the concrete socio-political dynamics that underlie racial issues in the U.S. This approach discourages a critical examination of the structural aspects of racism and perpetuates a “benign neglect” of social inequality.

In summary, ethnicity theory emphasizes the role of culture in shaping ethnic identity and challenges the notion of inherent racial differences, highlighting the importance of social and political structures in understanding racial dynamics.

Ethnicity and race

The distinction between ethnicity and race is often based on their different uses and connotations. Ethnicity is primarily a matter of cultural identity for a group, often rooted in shared ancestry, language, and cultural traditions. In contrast, race is typically applied as a taxonomic grouping, based on physical similarities among groups. Race is a more contentious and politically charged term due to its common usage in such contexts.

Ramón Grosfoguel from the University of California, Berkeley, argues that “racial/ethnic identity” is a unified concept, and the concepts of race and ethnicity cannot be treated as separate and autonomous categories.

Before the work of Max Weber (1864–1920), race and ethnicity were often viewed as two intertwined aspects of the same concept. Before 1900, the primordialist perspective on ethnicity predominated, where cultural differences between people were attributed to inherited traits and tendencies. Weber’s introduction of ethnicity as a social construct led to a clearer separation between race and ethnicity.

In 1950, the UNESCO statement “The Race Question,” signed by internationally renowned scholars, stressed that national, religious, geographic, linguistic, and cultural groups do not necessarily align with racial groups. It also highlighted that the cultural traits of these groups have no proven genetic connection with racial traits. As a result, it advocated using the term “ethnic groups” when discussing human diversity instead of “race.”

In 1982, anthropologist David Craig Griffith emphasized that racial and ethnic categories serve as symbolic markers to differentiate how people from various parts of the world have been incorporated into the global economy. These distinctions play a role in allocating different categories of workers to specific labor market positions, often relegating stigmatized populations to lower levels while protecting higher echelons from competition.

Eric Wolf, a prominent anthropologist, suggested that racial categories emerged during the era of European mercantile expansion, while ethnic groupings gained prominence during the period of capitalist expansion.

Notably, the usage and connotations of the term “ethnic” vary between different English-speaking regions. In Britain, “ethnic” is often understood to conflate with “[race],” albeit with a less precise and lighter value load. In North America, “[race]” more commonly pertains to color, and “ethnics” refer to the descendants of relatively recent immigrants from non-English-speaking countries. In Britain, “ethnic” is not used as a noun; instead, the focus is on “ethnic relations.”

In the United States, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) emphasizes that the definition of race for purposes like the US Census is not purely “scientific or anthropological.” Instead, it considers “social and cultural characteristics” as well as ancestry, using scientific methods that are not primarily biological or genetic in nature.

In summary, the distinction between ethnicity and race is influenced by their different historical and social connotations, with ethnicity focused on cultural identity and race more often associated with physical characteristics and biological aspects.

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Dinesh Bajaj

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