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10.2A: Ethnicity

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    An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with one another through a common cultural heritage.

    Learning Objectives

    • Criticize the concept of ethnicity from the perspective of Max Weber’s and Ronald Cohen’s theories of social constructionism, referencing the approaches of primordialism, perennialism, and constructivism

    Key Points

    • An ethnicity is a socially constructed category, the traits and parameters of which can change depending on the prevailing social and political context.
    • A situational ethnicity is an ethnic identity that is particular to a social setting or context.
    • The various approaches to understanding ethnicity include primordialism, essentialism, perennialism, constructivism, modernism and instrumentalism.
    • Ethnicity is distinct from race, because ethnicity is based on social traits, while race is based on the belief that a certain group of people share particular biological characteristics.
    • Ethnicity is distinct from race, because ethnicity is based on social traits, while race is based on the belief that a certain group of people share particular biological characteristics.
    • Ethnic nationalism is a political ideology which is the result of tying the concepts of cultural heritage and nationalism together.

    Key Terms

    • instrumentalism: A perspective towards ethnicity that sees ethnic classification as a mechanism of social stratification or as the basis for a social hierarchy.
    • modernism: A school of thought with regards to ethnicity that ties the emergence of ethnic groups to the emergence of modern nation-states.

    Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture —the practices, values, and beliefs of a group. This might include shared language, religion, and traditions, among other commonalities. An ethnic group is a collection of people whose members identify with each other through a common heritage, consisting of a common culture which may also include a shared language or dialect. The group’s ethos or ideology may also stress common ancestry, religion, or race. The process that results in the emergence of an ethnicity is known as ethnogenesis.

    Conceptual History of Ethnicity

    Ethnicity is a constructed category, the characteristics and boundaries of which have been renegotiated and redefined over the years to suit different contexts and objectives.

    Sociologist Max Weber asserted that ethnic groups were künstlich (artificial, i.e. a social construct ) for three reasons. Firstly, they were based on a subjective believe in shared Gemeinschaft (community). Secondly, this belief in shared Gemeinschaft did not create the group; rather, the group created the belief. Thirdly, group formation resulted from the drive to monopolize power and status.

    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. 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.

    Therefore, the socio-cultural and behavioral differences between peoples of different ethnicities do not necessarily stem from inherited traits and tendencies derived from common descent; rather, the identification of an ethnic groups is often socially and politically motivated.

    “Ethnies” or Ethnic Categories

    The following categories – “ethnic categories,” “ethnic networks,” “ethnies” or “ethnic communities,” and “situational ethnicity” – were developed in order to distinguish the instances when ethnic classification is the labeling of others and when it is a case of self-identification.

    • An “ethnic category” is a category set up by those who are outside of the category. The members of an ethnic category are categorized by outsiders as being distinguished by attributes of a common name or emblem, a shared cultural element and a connection to a specific territory.
    • At the level of “ethnic networks”, the group begins to have a sense of collectiveness; at this level, common myths of origin and shared cultural and biological heritage begin to emerge, at least among the elites of that group.
    • 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 elites”. In other words, an ethnie is self-defined as a group.
    • 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 have been used by different social scientists to attempt to understand the nature of ethnicity as a factor in human life and society. Examples of such approaches include primordialism, perennialism, constructivism, modernism, and instrumentalism.

    • Primordialism holds that ethnicity has existed at all times of human history and that modern ethnic groups have historical roots far into the past. According to this framework, the idea of ethnicity is closely linked to the idea of nations and is rooted in the pre-Weber understanding of humanity as being divided into primordially existing groups rooted by kinship and biological heritage.
    • 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.
    • Constructivism sees both primordialist and perennialist views as basically flawed, and 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.
    • Modernism
    • Instrumentalism

    Ethnicity and Race

    Ethnicity, while related to race, refers not to physical characteristics but social traits that are shared by a human population. Some of the social traits often used for ethnic classification include nationality, religious faith and a shared language and culture.

    Like race, the term ethnicity is difficult to describe and its meaning has changed over time. And like race, individuals may be identified or self-identify to ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian American, Russian, Jewish, and Serbian might all be groups whose members are predominantly included in the racial category “white. ” Conversely, the ethnic group British includes citizens from a multiplicity of racial backgrounds: black, white, Asian, and more, plus a variety of racial combinations. These examples illustrate the complexity and overlap of these identifying terms. Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the census, affirmative action initiatives, non-discrimination laws, or simply in personal day-to-day relations.

    A Tour of Chinese Ethnic Minorities (Preview) – YouTube: Provides a glimpse into the many and diverse ethnic groups to be found in China.

    Modern meets Traditional: The women above are wearing an interesting fusion of modern and ethnic clothing.



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    • Introduction to Sociology/Race and Ethnicity. Provided by: Wikibooks. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
    • Ethnicity. Provided by: Wikipedia. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
    • modernism. Provided by: Wiktionary. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
    • Boundless. Provided by: Boundless Learning. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
    • All sizes | Ethnic and modern clothes mix | Flickr - Photo Sharing!. Provided by: Flickr. Located at: License: CC BY: Attribution
    • A Tour of Chinese Ethnic Minorities (Preview) - YouTube. Located at: License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright. License Terms: Standard YouTube license

    10.2A: Ethnicity is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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