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Ethnic group

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An ethnic group is a group of people who identify with one another, or are so identified by others, on the basis of a boundary that distinguishes them from other groups. This boundary may take any of a number of forms -- racial, cultural, linguistic, economic, religious, political -- and may be more or less porous. Because of this boundary, members of an ethnic group are often presumed to be culturally or biologically similar, although this is not in fact necessarily the case.

Another characteristic of ethnic groups is continuity in time, that is, a history and a future as a people. This is achieved through the intergenerational transmission of common language, institutions and traditions. It is important to consider this characteristic of ethnic groups if we are to distinguish them from a group of individuals who share a common characteristic, such as ancestry, in a specific point in time. On the political front, ethnic groups are distinguished from nation-states by the former's lack of sovereignty.

In the United States, the collectivity of immigrants from a region of the world and their descendants are called "ethnic groups" despite their lack of internal cohesion and common institutions and their inability to transmit language to the next generation. Immigrants are socialized into identifying as a member of one of the list of "ethnic groups" provided by the US Census Bureau and with various "traditions" which, although often of recent invention, appeal to some notion of the past. Thus Mexican nationals, upon crossing the border, become Hispanic ethnics.

In the West, the notion of ethnicity, like race and nation, developed in the context of European colonial expansion, when mercantilism and capitalism were promoting global movements of populations at the same time that state boundaries were being more clearly and rigidly defined. In the nineteenth century, modern states generally sought legitimacy through their claim to represent "nations." Nation-states, however, invariably include indigenous populations that were excluded from the nation-building project and such people typically constitute ethnic groups. Members of ethnic groups, consequently, often understand their own identity in terms of something outside of the history of the nation-state -- either an alternate history, or in ahistorical terms, or in terms of a connection to another nation-state.

In non-Western civilizations, such as the Mesoamerican, the concept of "ethnic group", and indeed ethnic groups, existed before contact with Europeans. The Spaniards called the different indigeneous communities of Mexico pueblos or naciones (communities or nations) depending on their size and importance. In contemporary Mexico, "ethnic group" refers to the surviving indigenous territorial communities that maintain their distict language and political, economic and social systems. The Zapatista movement, which demands legal status for ethnic groups and their right to a common future as such, can only be understood with a definition of ethnic group as a territorial and social organization.

Sometimes ethnic groups are subject to prejudicial attitudes and actions by the state or its constituents. In the twentieth century, people began to argue that conflicts among ethnic groups or between members of an ethnic group and the state can and should be resolved in one of two ways. Some, like Jürgen Habermas and Bruce Barry , have argued that the legitimacy of modern states must be based on a notion of political rights of autonomous individual subjects. According to this view the state ought not to acknowledge ethnic, national or racial identity and should instead enforce political and legal equality of all individuals. Others, like Charles Taylor Will Kymlicka argue that the notion of the autonomous individual is itself a cultural construct, and that it is neither possible nor right to treat people as autonomous individuals. 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.


Ethnicity is the cultural characteristics that connect a particular group or groups of people to each other. The term "ethnicity" is sometimes improperly used to refer to a minority group or race.

While ethnicity and race are related concepts, the concept of ethnicity is rooted in the idea of societal groups, marked especially by shared nationality, tribal afilliation, religious faith, shared language, or cultural and traditional origins and backgrounds, whereas race is rooted in the idea of biological classification of homo sapiens to subspecies according to morphological features such as skin color or facial characteristics.

It is a term also used to justify real or imagined historic ties as well. In English, Ethnicity goes far beyond the modern ties of a person to a particular nation (e.g., citizenship), and focuses more upon the connection to a perceived shared past and culture. See also Romanticism, folklore. In other languages, the corresponding terms for ethnicity and nationhood can be closer to each other.

The 19th century saw the development of the political ideology of ethnic nationalism, when the vague concept of race was tied to nationalism, first by German theorists including Johann Gottfried von Herder. Instances of societies focusing on ethnic ties to the exclusion of history or historical context arguably have resulted in almost fanatical self-justifying nationalist and/or imperialist goals. Two periods frequently cited as examples of this are the 19th-century consolidation and expansion of the German Empire, and the Third Reich, each promoted on the theory that these governments were only re-possessing lands that had "always" been ethnically German. The history of the Balkans is particularly riddled with inter-ethnic conflicts.

The term "ethnicity" may also be used to refer to a particular ethnic group: "People of various ethnicities."

Historically, the word "ethnic" signified "gentile," coming from the Greek adjective "ethnikos." The adjective is derived from the noun ethnos, which meant foreign people or nations. The noun "ethnic" ceased to be related to "heathen" in the early 18th century. The use of the term ethnic in the modern sense began in the mid-20th century.

See also

Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46