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Who can be considered as a person belonging to a minority? Is the definition of minority essential to a regime protecting a minority?

On the one hand, the more precisely the target group is defined, the more effective the international rules on protection and promotion may be. On the other, an overall definition of minority is not only impossible but it would also lead to a deadlock: No precise rules could be internationally developed because of the differences in situations, needs, traditions, economies, and so on.

Several scholars (e.g., Francesco Capotorti, the United Nations [UN] rapporteur on the topic in the 1970s) have attempted to propose a definition for the term minorities (at least for the purpose of formulating an international legal instrument). Here is Capotorti's definition:

A minority is a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of the State, in a non-dominant position, whose members—being nationals of the State—possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language (1979, p. 96).

Nonetheless, it seems impossible at a universal or even a regional level to arrive at a definition that is operative for and at the same time acceptable to all member states. As a consequence, the related instruments in this field have been adopted without international organizations advancing any precise definition of minorities.

It is clear, however, that for theoretical and practical reasons it would be useful to make a distinction between linguistic, national, or religious minorities on one side, and sexual, political, and social minorities on the other. Even if the principle of nondiscrimination and tolerance should equally apply to both groups, the concrete needs of each (e.g., in case of the first group, the use of a special language in different private and public settings, and the exercise of belief) are motivated and satisfied in a different manner with different financial consequences for the states involved.

For the same reasons it is easier to formulate separate regulations for "traditional/historical minorities" (who often become minorities because of historical retribution, border changes, etc.) and "immigrant workers, refugees, and other new minorities" (whose status in a given state is a result of their personal choice). The attitude vis-à-vis assimilation or the use of language in public varies between these two groups.

In the same way facilities for the physically challenged are regulated separately according to both national and international laws. Even if nondiscrimination is equally applied, concrete rules and needs are promoted in a manner that is partly similar, partly different.

All this does not suggest that such overlap is unimaginable or erroneous. This can be proved, for example, by the complexity of the Romani problem facing contemporary Europe, in which a real mixture of historically rooted ethnic, linguistic, and especially social handicaps exists.

Historical Birth of Minority Issues: Interdependence with the Nation-State

Even if almost all states are composed of different linguistic communities throughout their history, a minority issue (as a legal and political problem) is closely linked to a definite historical period. In the early twenty-first century the basic problem underlying most minority issues is that for various reasons, partly resulting from intolerance but also from the insensitive policies of governments, persons belonging to a minority (and generally their whole community as such) are linguistically, socially, and politically disadvantaged. This has not always been the case during the history of human-kind. One can link modern minority problems to the nation-state concept due to its reductionist tendencies and the temptation it creates to perpetuate linguistic and cultural hegemony. When Central and Eastern Europe embraced the concept and applied it on a broad scale, more tensions than existed in Western Europe soon developed, and border changes and the establishment of new states incited local politicians to take revenge on history by establishing nation-state structures favoring their own linguistic community over others. This particularly occurred following the breakup of empires.

The Lessons of the League of Nations

When U.S. president Woodrow Wilson advanced his ideas about the reconstruction of the world after World War I, he was full of idealism. It was his belief that "open diplomacy" and a golf-club-like international organization could prevent the outbreak of such conflicts that had earlier transformed an act of retaliation against a form of state-sponsored international terrorism (e.g., the murder of Austro-Hungarian archduke and heir Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914) into a genuine world war. Wilson also realized that his ideas about the self-determination of peoples were not actually the deeply held beliefs of political interest groups who had spoken a similar message in their attempts to dissolve a particular government structure, for instance, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and Ottoman Empire. During the final delineation of state boundaries after those events, strategic, economic, and alleged historical factors were taken into account much more seriously than the given ethnic data of the annexed territories. Wilson's ideas about true international cooperation were maintained, however, in the minority protection system of the League of Nations, the first international organization to claim general (and not only sectorial) competencies in this area.

The League of Nations (the de facto predecessor of the UN) was charged with a supervisory role in implementing international commitments for the protection of minorities in defeated states and territorially enlarged or newly created (recreated) states. The commitments outlined in conventions (or in the case of the Baltic states, Albania, and Iraq in unilateral statements) enjoyed constitutional value in national laws and could not be altered without the approval of the Council of the League of Nations. Violations could be deferred by states to the Council, but individuals were also entitled to directly submit petitions to the League of Nations. If these survived several filters (including the so-called committee of three procedure), they could be placed on the Council's agenda. The Permanent Court of International Justice (the predecessor of the International Court of Justice) also had the right to intervene in any such matters, providing advisory opinions at the request of bodies such as the League of Nations (in fact the Council) or judgments in interstate disputes when both states previously fell under the jurisdiction of the Hague World Court—this occurred quite often, contrary to twenty-first-century tendencies. The complex of rules and international proceedings was referred to as procedural or formal minority law.

Material law was embodied in the abovementioned conventions or unilateral declarations. Most of the rules were virtually identical (prohibition of discrimination, free use of language in private intercourse, adequate facilities for the use of minority languages before tribunals or other authorities, and some guarantees for teaching the minority language, mainly in private schools). Despite such unified rules, it is interesting to note that some regions were put under international control, for instance, in the case of the territorial autonomy of the Swedish-speaking Aaland Islands (belonging to Finland) and Ruthenia (belonging to Czechoslovakia at that time), or the personal autonomy of certain subgroups of the Hungarian- or German-speaking minorities of Romania.

In the end no one was satisfied with the League of Nations' mechanisms. Minorities complained about the lengthy nature of the uncertain, endless process, whereby in contrast to governments party to a complaint, their claims were not made in person but only through submitted documents. Respondent governments decried the assymmetry of minority protection:The League of Nations' commitment mostly applied to Central and Eastern European states but not Western European nations. Modern scholars laud some landmark statements of the Permanent Court of International Justice (e.g., those pertaining to the merits of socalled positive discrimination, or affirmative action to use the American term) and some technical details of rulings and procedures that can be construed as precursors of modern international human rights systems (the admissibility criteria of petitions and, in particular, the exhaustion of local remedies, polite and deferential language, etc.). Nevertheless, the system became paralyzed in the mid-1930s when more and more states failed to reply to petitions after Germany's withdrawal from the League. Even though Germany officially departed from the League after Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the collective memory of several states (unjust it may be countered) is that the League of Nations' system was more or less supportive of Nazi subversive or revisionist policy. Despite its merits, the minority protection system of the League of Nations disappeared along with the organization itself, and after World War II the UN chose not to continue on the same path.

The UN and the Protection of Minorities

The UN has presented decidedly different attitudes visà-vis the protection of minorities. The first period of activity may be associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first U.S. ambassador to the UN. She played a very active role in the negotiations on the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the UN General Assembly, and an important part in formulating the UN's human rights concept as such. It stated that the promotion of traditional civil and political rights, with the prohibition of genocide and a strict nondiscrimination policy, is in itself sufficient and neither special social or cultural rights or a group-oriented approach is required, the latter being either useless or even dangerous.

This reductionist approach, combining the American melting-pot concept with the lessons learned from the crimes committed by Nazis and their collaborators, was not adequate for genuinely multicultural countries in which the presence of different ethnicities could be traced not to voluntary immigration but historical phenomena, namely changes in borders. The harrassment of certain ethnic groups because of their difference, the residual role of their language in public life and schooling, not to mention political and legal condemnation on the basis of collective culpability for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, all contributed to the recreation of well-known tensions. Often, legislative acts directed against some minorities may be regarded as being based on purely racial considerations (see, e.g., the Benes' decrees adopted in Czechoslovakia against Germans and Hungarians or the deportation of the Volga German, Chechen, Ingush, and Crimean Tatar population in the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin).

During its first decade of existence the UN did not insist on the inclusion of clauses protecting minorities in the peace treaties of former Axis powers. Moreover, the UN Secretary-General, when pressed about the legal validity of the League of Nations' rules protecting minorities, concluded that they should be extinct for several legal reasons, most linked to the principle of rebus sic stantibus (i.e., a fundamental change in circumstances). (See the UN's 1950 Study on the Legal Validity of Undertakings Concerning Minorities.)

It is true, nonetheless, that the most evident assault on minorities was codified as a crime against humanity when the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted. The Convention is based on the five main categories of indictment, as outlined by the Nuremberg International Tribunal in its well-known statute, the 1945 London Agreement:

[K]illing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (Article 2).

The General Assembly rejected proposals (submitted by Denmark) that attempted to add to the Universal Declaration a minority clause, or to the Genocide Convention the category of so-called cultural genocide. The former Soviet Union backed the proposals as they perfectly complemented its ideological campaign during the cold war. In 1948 politicians apparently considered the clauses of the Genocide Convention as being qualitatively different from "minor" violations of minorities' interests. The end of the 1990s, however, saw the tragedy of the Balkans and that of Rwanda, and examples of ethnic cleansing as a method of warfare surfaced, the cruelty of which its perpetrators tried to justify in terms of their own harassment and humiliation as a former minority. The international community then witnessed the proper codification and punishment of these horrifying acts by different international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Criminal Court, and so on.

In the 1950s, nevertheless, the UN took steps toward the adoption of some specific rules to protect minorities. Beside the nondiscrimination conventions in general, and its efforts in the area of global education, the UN adopted a special clause for minorities in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR). Its Article 27 stipulates: "In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion or to use their own language."

Moreover, since the 1970s (and on a Yugoslav initiative, however strange that may seem after the southeast European tragedy of the 1990s), efforts have been made within the UN General Assembly to pass a comprehensive resolution on the inherent rights of minorities. These efforts have generally met with hostility, not only on the part of some influential European states but also many newly independent countries, former colonies. The number of member nations opposing an international measure of protection for minorities has only increased. Because the boundaries of these countries as inherited from the colonial period did not take ethnic configuration into consideration and as the divide-and-conquer policy of the former administrative power often favored the minority population in terms of the makeup of the local administration, police, and army, the new tribal majority frequently harassed, punished, and intimidated this minority, and only because of the past, national pride, and shortsightedness. Africa's modern history, for the most part, may be tragically linked to ethnically colored pogroms and bloody civil wars. The governments of these countries emphasized economic and social rights and the so-called right to development over civil and political rights. If they were not in favor of comprehensive control, they were even less supportive of adopting new rights. Within the context of American-Soviet rivalry characterizing the world before the 1990s, nepotism and tribal corruption were also forgiven by these close allies.

The collapse of the Soviet empire, the recognition of the United States' unquestionable military omnipotence, and the ethnic tensions and bloody civil wars of the 1990s in the former Soviet territories and Yugoslavia all contributed to the UN General Assembly's adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Resolution GA 47/135).

This document, conceived by several high-ranking politicians as an example of the prevention vs. cure policy, unfortunately could not prevent the tragedy of the Balkans, although it is a worthwhile reflection of the collective opinion of early-twenty-first-century's international community about the importance of a legally guaranteed place for minorities and their languages. It is the greatest achievement of the otherwise not too successful Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities that formulated it.

Even if the General Assembly's declaration focuses mostly on classic political and civil rights tailored slightly to serve the needs of minorities, it is worth emphasizing the political and pedagogical importance of the multiple refererences to the use of minority language in worship and administration, as well as the effective participation of minorities in public and economic life. The UN also took a historic step when referring to affirmative actions in its Article 8: "Measures taken by States to ensure the effective enjoyment of the rights set forth in the present Declaration shall not prima facie be considered contrary to the principle of equality contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." This reference is slightly more generous than that of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The real merit of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities may be observed in the impact it has had on otherwise inactive UN organizations, inspiring them to play a more assertive role. The Human Rights Committee on Civil and Political Rights (the monitoring organ of the 1966 Covenant) suddenly realized in 1994 that the previously cited Article 27 of the Covenant stipulates not only passive but also active obligations. In addition, it emphasized at the time that the article's scope of application concerns persons belonging to a minority irrespective of their citizenship and does not depend on an earlier recognition of minorities by the state. (See CCPR General Comment No. 23.) The Human Rights Committee has also contributed to the evolution of the concept of minority protection in its examination of some individual applications. Most of them have concerned, however, indigenous problems, for example, the claims of Native Americans (see the Lovelace, Ominayak, and Connors cases), Samis (see the Kitok, Sara, and Länsman cases), and Maoris (see the Mahuika case).

The applications made to the Human Rights Committee have generally dealt with the alleged negative impact of some major industrial or agricultural interventions on the fishing and hunting rights of indigenous peoples. The complaints have been rejected if the governments in question could offer a sufficient amount of water, land, or forest to the aggrieved parties. The Lovelace v. Canada case was particularly interesting in the sense that the state was condemned because it had failed to grant adequate protection to a Native-American woman against the actions of her own tribe. (The case was linked to the fact that marriage outside one's tribe could deprive a woman of her tribal membership, and that a return to tribal territory after the end of such a marriage did not automatically confer on that woman the right to renewal of tribal membership.)

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the UN organization monitoring the 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, also wrote several comprehensive reports, including one on some aspects of reporting minorities and another on the right of self-determination. (See CERD's General Recommendations No. 8 and 21.)

In addition, the specialized institutions of the UN formulated some related instruments of treaty law. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the 1960 Convention on Discrimination in Education, applied in the area of education, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) elaborated Conventions 107 (1957) and 169 (1989), both addressing the rights of indigenous laborers and obligations of governments and employers. Article 30 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child is in its language almost identical to the already cited Article 27 of the 1966 Covenant, and it also promotes the use of minority language in the media and education.

It is a well known that making international law is hostage to the smallest common denominator principle. In the case of the nearly two hundred member states of the UN, reaching an acceptable but at the same time serious and truly comprehensive treaty law is manifestly impossible. Is the situation any better in regional terms?

International Minority Protection: European Results

The nondiscrimination principle is embodied in the three main regional conventions, namely the European Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The basic international treaty of the Council of Europe, an organization established on the initiative of Great Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill to promote international cooperation based on the rule of law, the European Convention of Human Rights is considered to be the most widely used and effective mechanism for protecting human rights. As of 2003 the European Court of Human Rights had reviewed and pronounced judgment on approximately 3,800 cases. Few of them were related to classic national or linguistic minority issues. Scholars mainly attribute this fact to the formulation of Article 14 that—contrary to the UN approach (manifested in Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)—may not be applied by itself but only in conjuction with another article of the Convention. (The same can be said about the nature of nondiscrimination clauses in the Inter-American Convention and the African Charter.)

Because the other articles of the European Convention of Human Rights do not in fact address the traditional needs of minorities (e.g., the use of languages in schooling or before an administration), minorities have had practically no chance of submitting a succesful claim on the basis of a current or future discrimination.

Political efforts and endeavors to supplement the European Convention with an additional protocol covering minority rights were consequently rejected in the 1960s and 1970s. Only in 1999 did the Council of Europe adopt a twelfth additional protocol putting nondiscrimination in a larger perspective, prohibiting discrimination as a right secured by "law."

The same development may be observed in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, whereby the Court's hesitation to tackle minority problems during the second half of the twentieth century (see the judgment in the Belgian linguistic case in which the Court recognized the admissibility of affirmative action; see also Mathieu-Mohin & Clerfayt v. Belgium, Tyrer v. United Kingdom, and Gillow v. United Kingdom concerning legislation and the practice of some special territorial autonomies) was followed by a deeper desire to address these issues at the start of the twenty-first century.

Still in this new phase, the European Court of Human Rights seems poised to examine the problems of minorities within the interrelated context of religious freedom or the right to the integrity of family life. When the freedom of religion of ethnic or linguistic minorities was involved in recent cases (see Serif v. Greece, Hassan & Chaush v. Bulgaria, and Orthodox Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia v. Moldova), the Court decided in favor of the applicants. In 2001 a minority organization won a case linked to freedom of association (see Stankov and Ilinden United Macedonian Organization v. Bulgaria).

On the other hand, the applications submitted by Romani were unsuccesful either because of lack of evidence (Assenov v. Bulgaria) or because of the Court's limited authority over governments in regulating a nomadic way of life and squatting (unlawful settlement) (Buckley v. United Kingdom, Chapman v. United Kingdom).

The most important theoretical breakthrough occurred, however, in a legal dictum delievered by an ad hoc tribunal, the Arbitration Commission of the International Conference on ex-Yugoslavia. This organ, also known as the Badinter Arbitration Commission (named after its chairman, Robert Badinter, the president of the French Constitutional Court), pronounced several advisory opinions in 1992 emphasizing that the protection of minorities falls within the peremptory norms of international law (jus cogens).

The decision on whether or not to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights was not only a political issue but also a legal one. Opponents of an additional protocol generally based their arguments on solid legal grounds, namely the fact that the Convention's control mechanism is based on the existence of an individual victim whose precise right has been violated. Such a philosophy works well when contemplating classic civil and political rights, that is, individual rights. However, mostly everything that is important for minorities is of a collective nature (or at least requires a collective approach), and in these cases, some states are apparently not ready to accept precise norms. As these obligations cannot be deferred to a court, there is no need to envisage such a procedure of complaint.

Within the Council of Europe, the repeated rejection of proposals aiming to complement the European Convention on Human Rights with an additional protocol resulted in a change of attitude among those who were open to a minority breakthrough. Their view was that if the adequate protection of minorities was not possible through traditional human rights safeguards, a fresh approach must be chosen. Defining the obligations of states instead of the rights of minorities became the new watchword.

The Council of Europe benefited from this new approach when drawing up two international treaties, namely the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The aim was to prepare an adequate and effective, but—and this is always the big challenge for those codifying international law—widely acceptable instrument of treaty law.

In the 1992 case of European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the novelty consisted of an optional (à la carte) system of commitments operating in harmony with the real needs of minority languages. The assumption was that by allowing sovereign states to choose from different commitments according to the real situation surrounding minority or regional languages spoken in their territory, and according to the specific uses of those languages (in schooling, administration, the judiciary, economic and social life, the media, culture, and transboundary cooperation), they would demonstrate more willingness to accept them. These options vary from the lowest to the highest level (e.g., teaching all subjects in a minority language, teaching a substantial part of the curriculum in a minority language, or teaching the minority language as such). States, the contracting parties to the Charter, are not obliged to apply these options to all the languages spoken in their territory, only those that are chosen explicitly in the instrument of ratification. For the other languages, general principles enumerated in the Charter are to be applied. Even if the title of the Charter itself seems slightly redundant, according to the original drafters, the wording allows states that do not recognize "minorities" as a distinct category of public law in their constitution to accept it. The Charter was drafted before the admission of Central and Eastern European "new democracies"—but it was approved in their presence and with the active participation of Hungary and Poland.

The 1995 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is the fruit of the second wave of minority codification in the 1990s. This convention addresses not only language issues, but also other aspects of day-to-day minority life. The hot button of minority codification, that is, how the convention or statute might reflect collective interests when several states who must be party to it oppose the recognition of collective rights for minorities, was mollified in three ways: (1) Some classic individual rights were formulated in a minority-friendly style (as also occurred in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities). (2) Instead of the rights of persons or groups, the Convention refers to obligations of states. (3) General legal premises and programmatic norms were formulated.

In this complicated and sometimes very obscure way, the Framework Convention contains rules concerning the use of a minority language in education, the judiciary, and administration; the prohibition of gerrymandering; the protection of minority identity; the promotion of minority culture; and the effective participation of minorities in the decision making of public authorities. It is worth noting that affirmative action is proclaimed here, too, moreover not only as an eventual possibility but as a rule whose application may even be mandatory in certain cases.

The control mechanism of both the European Charter and the Framework Convention is based on periodic reports submitted by states. Even if no possibility of submitting individual or collective applications exists, the independent experts' committees can organize hearings where not only governments but also minority representatives may have their say. In addition, experts can visit the countries concerned: Apparently, governments invite such individuals quite often, on their own initiative. The reports prepared by these expert committees are used to formulate recommendations and resolutions by the Committee of Ministers, composed of ministers of foreign affairs for the member states of the Council of Europe. Despite the genuinely intergovernmental character of this organ, its resolutions closely follow the criticisms developed by the expert committee. Even if such a process concludes without any binding decision, these soft-law-type resolutions enjoy considerable moral and political authority.

It is worthwhile to note the identity and number of contracting parties in an international treaty. More than half the member states of the Council of Europe are contracting parties to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and a good dozen are bound by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was created within the context of the so-called Helsinki process, the series of follow-up conferences since the 1975 summit meeting in Helsinki on security and cooperation in Europe. A landmark of 1970s détente policy, the ad hoc 1975 summit conference of East and West became progressively institutionalized, and the end of bipolar rivalry resulted in a new impetus for this process, composed of followup conferences. From the so-called three baskets (with the first basket signifying disarmament and confidencebuilding measures; the second basket a reduction in the number of obstacles to commerce between capitalist and Marxist economies; and the third basket an emphasis on "human dimensions," a euphemism for human rights), the third was used to establish a code of conduct for the trans-Atlantic protection of minorities. The 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe and especially the Final Act of the 1990 Copenhagen Conference are considered basic documents. Even if the documents do not enjoy a legal value, they repeat legal norms already stipulated elsewhere or proclaim political commitments. This is especially true of the Copenhagen Document, which contains a long list of principles supporting the rights minorities.

The Office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities was established after the 1992 OSCE Conference in Stockholm. Its original mandate concerns fact-finding and early warnings vis-à-vis minority-related tensions (with the exception of international terrorism). In reality the High Commissioner generally mediated between states or states and minorities. With a very small staff but backed by the international scientific community, the Office of the High Commissioner launched an interesting standard-setting activity: Instead of creating new rules, it attempted to compile existing international documents (on both treaty law and soft law). The documents issued are mostly recommendations of a commendable nature, but to a certain extent they also merely reflect the existing customs in the areas of education, use of language, and effective participation (see the Hague, Lund, and Oslo Recommendations).

In the 1990s the OSCE adopted important instruments such as the 1992 Stockholm Convention on Conciliation and Arbitration and the 1995 Pact on Stability in Europe, whose aim was to settle interstate disputes related among other issues to minority protection.

Bilateralism and Unilateralism in Minority Protection

Multilateral instruments on minority protection may be complemented by bilateral agreements. These are generally more comprehensive than multilateral treaties, which nonetheless often encourage states to enter into complementary bilateral treaties.

When regulating minority issues, national law may simply be implementing an already contracted commitment, but it need not be based exclusively on international law. It can be generous beyond that obligation, even also within itself, without any interstate commitment. Besides a nondiscrimination clause and some requirements concerning language, which are specified in the constitution of most European states, certain countries have gone as far as regionalization (Spain) or the recognition of the autonomy of local authorities, as happened recently within the context of devolution in the United Kingdom.

In Central and Eastern Europe, one may observe how the links between kin-state and kin-minority have greatly multiplied. States are offering educational or social opportunities to persons belonging to a minority living in another state but speaking their language. As the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission's Report on the Preferential Treatment of National Minorities by Their Kin-States) put it, these legally institutionalized contacts may be matched by current international law when they are restricted to items closely linked to national and cultural identity. The observance of the nondiscrimination rule, reciprocity, and cooperation with one's state of citizenship are, however, important in avoiding interstate conflicts (see the European Commission's Report on thePreferential Treatment of National Minorities by Their Kin-States).


The basic principles of minority protection in the modern world may be summarized as follows: Respect for and the protection of the identity of persons belonging to a minority presuppose the free choice of identity, that is, despite any alleged outside characteristics, one cannot be considered as legally belonging to a group against one's will. International law (in its universal, regional, and bilateral forms) and national law are getting closer to not only sanctioning diversity but also promoting the concrete expression of the most important aspects of minority life, often by affirmative actions necessary for genuine equality. Minority participation in decision making is emphasized in a wide range of legal documents, especially within national legal systems where one can find different forms of self-government or a home rule system, based on territorial or personal approaches. The legal systems of states vary greatly, and the adaptability and tangible expression of the aforementioned legal principles are very different as a result.

It is thus evident that with tolerance of and respect for another's identity, language, religion, and culture and by providing the opportunity for all individuals to have a good life in the contemporary world, countries draw closer to eliminating the animosity, suspicion, and national arrogance that characterized a certain period of history.

SEE ALSO Disabilities, People with; Economic Groups; Ethnic Groups; Political Theory; Racial Groups; Religious Groups



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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (August 24, 1999). Reporting of Persons Belonging to Different Races, National, Ethnic Groups or Indigenous Peoples. General Recommendation no. 8. New York: United Nations.

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Apirana Mahuika v. New Zealand. Application 547/1993 (November 16, 2000). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.

Ilmari Länsman v. Finland. Application 511/1992 (October 26, 1994). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.

Ivan Kitok v. Sweden. Application 197/1985 (March 24, 1994). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.

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Lovelace v. Canada. Application 27/1977 (July 30, 1982). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.

Ominayak and Lubicon Lake Tribe v. Canada. Application 167/1984 (March 26, 1990). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.

O. Sara v. Finland. Application 431/1990 (October 26, 1994). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.

RL & Connors v. Canada. Application 358/1989 (November 5, 1991). Available from http://www.unchr.ch.


Assenov v. Bulgaria. Application 24760/94 European Court on Human Rights (October 28, 1998). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Beard v. United Kingdom. Application 24882/94 European Court on Human Rights (January 18, 2001). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

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Chapman v. United Kingdom. Application 27238/95 European Court on Human Rights (January 18, 2001). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Gillow v. United Kingdom. Application 9063/80 European Court on Human Rights (November 24, 1986). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Hassan & Chaush v. Bulgaria. Application 30985/96 European Court on Human Rights (October 26, 2000). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Lee v. United Kingdom. Application 25289/94 European Court on Human Rights (January 18, 2001). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Mathieu-Mohin & Clerfayt v. Belgium. Application 9267/81 European Court on Human Rights (March 2, 1987). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Orthodox Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia v. Moldova. Application 45701/99 European Court on Human Rights (December 13, 2001). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Serif v. Greece. Application 38178/97 European Court on Human Rights (December 14, 1999). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Stankov and Ilinden United Macedonian Organization v. Bulgaria. Applications 29221/95 and 29225/95 European Court on Human Rights (October 2, 2001). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.

Tyrer v. United Kingdom. Application 5856/72 European Court on Human Rights (April 25, 1978). Available from http://www.echr.coe.int/Eng/Judgments.htm.


Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities & Explanatory Note (October 1996). The Hague: Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations.

Lund Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life & Explanatory Note (June 1999). The Hague: Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations.

Oslo Recommendations Regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities & Explanatory Note (October 1998). The Hague: Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations.


Arbitration Commission of the International Conference on ex-Yugoslavia (1992). Opinions on Questions Arising from the Dissolution of Yugoslavia, 31 International Legal Materials 111448, 1500 (1992).

Péter Kovács


views updated May 14 2018


Minority groups in the United States

Minorities in other parts of the world

The functioning of minorities in society

Research on minorities


Contemporary sociologists generally define a minority as a group of people—differentiated from others in the same society by race, nationality, religion, or language—who both think of themselves as a differentiated group and are thought of by the others as a differentiated group with negative connotations. Further, they are relatively lacking in power and hence are subjected to certain exclusions, discriminations, and other differential treatment. The important elements in this definition are a set of attitudes—those of group identification from within the group and those of prejudice from without—and a set of behaviors—those of self-segregation from within the group and those of discrimination and exclusion from without.

Among those who do not study minority groups, the common tendency is to take the word “minority” literally and simply to say that a minority is a small group of people who live in the midst of a larger group. At least two defects make this simple definition useless. First, groups are not “naturally” or “inevitably” differentiated: cultures (either of the minority or the majority, or—usually—both) must define them as differentiated before they are so. People of different races, nationalities, religions, or languages can live among one another for generations, amalgamating and assimilating or not doing so, without differentiating themselves. Like everything else that is social, minority groups must be socially defined as minority groups, which entails a set of attitudes and behaviors. Second, relative numbers in and out of the group have not been found to be definitionally important. Sociologically speaking, it makes no sense to say that Negroes are not a minority group in those few counties of Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina where they constitute a numerical majority of the population, but that they are a minority group in the rest of the South. Likewise, even though the Bantus constitute around 80 per cent of the population of South Africa, sociologists have defined them as a minority group because they occupy a subordinate position. Many nations have no single “majority group” in terms of numbers. Thus it is necessary either to counterpose a “minority” to a “dominant” group, in terms of power, or to abandon the term “minority” altogether and call it a “subordinate” group.

Origins of national minorities. The origin of the term “national minorities” can be traced to Europe, where it was applied to various national groups who were identified with particular territories by virtue of long residence in them but who had lost their sovereignty over these territories to some more numerous people of a different nationality. In some cases the minority groups ceased altogether to occupy their original territories and were dispersed throughout the nation of which they were now subjects. More often they stayed in the same place but in a subordinate position, since the dominant political and economic institutions were now run mainly for the benefit of the larger national group. The latter usually enacted laws to regulate the political existence of the minorities; for instance, they might have to send their own community leaders to the national assembly instead of being able to vote individually for candidates in a national election. Even the areas in which they could live or the occupations they could pursue might be determined by law; at the least, the dominant nationality regarded them with suspicion, as the Czechs were regarded under the Austro–Hungarian Empire.

Changing social definitions. A minority need not be a traditional group with a long-standing group identification. It can arise as a result of changing social definitions in a process of economic or political differentiation. The increasing saliency of a certain occupation, for example, can set apart the people who practice that occupation, if occupations are more or less hereditary in the society, and cause them to be considered a minority group. Language or religious variations in a society can be considered unimportant for thousands of years, but a series of political events can so sharpen the religious or linguistic distinctions that the followers of one variation who happen to be without much power in the society are thereafter considered a minority.

These processes can be illustrated by developments in India. The Marwaris, allegedly originating in Rajasthan, were until the late eighteenth century merely another occupational caste among the thousands of castes that make up India. They were moneylenders and small merchants, who were of no greater importance in the social structure than any other occupational caste until the rise of capitalism gave a great new importance to their economic functions. The new economic salience of the hereditary occupation created a salience for the people who practiced the occupation and made them into a despised, feared, and envied minority. The process was aided by the increased geographic dispersion of the group caused by a broader demand for their occupational services.

Language differentiation based on geographic dispersal has been going on in India since time immemorial within two great language stocks, the Dravidian of southern India and the Indo-Aryan of northern India. The differentiation of Dravidian into Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada and several dozen lesser languages was not marked by definite historical events any more than was the differentiation of Latin into Italian, French, Spanish, and Rumanian. The modern development of political boundaries, which occurred at first under the British for administrative convenience and, after 1948, under the independent government of India, made language a salient basis of differentiation because the political boundaries were drawn as closely as possible to language boundary lines. Thus, it has been largely within the past few decades that language has become one of the most distinctive marks of a minority in India, and the basis of considerable group conflict.

Minority groups in the United States

In the United States, the term “minority groups” can be applied only in an extended sense. All citizens of the United States belong legally to a single American nationality; there are no laws that regulate the political status of any group of citizens according to their or their ancestors’ national origin. Moreover, there is no single nationality group in the United States that either forms a numerical majority or enjoys a de facto political dominance; this state of affairs has existed at least since 1830.

This is not to say, however, that discrimination and prejudice are unknown in the United States, but that, since there is no one “majority group” with a special claim to American nationality, the handicaps faced by American “minority groups” cannot be explained in terms of their national origin as such. The crucial factor would appear to be the degree to which any group has been allowed to become assimilated into the mainstream of American life and to enjoy the same opportunities as the majority of Americans. Most immigrant nationality groups suffered some discrimination during their early years in the country but were later assimilated. Those groups that were not allowed to assimilate—notably, the Negroes—have continued to be objects of prejudice for most of their fellow citizens, and in this sense they constitute “minorities,” even though the number of Negroes far exceeds that of many a group that does, indeed, have a common national origin outside the United States but now thinks of itself as “American.”

This does not mean that members of assimilating groups in the majority completely lose all their memories of ancestry; they may pass along to successive generations selected aspects of traditional culture—often of a ceremonial nature—and at the very least they pass along knowledge of the name of the ancestral homeland. [SeeAssimilation.]

Racial minorities. Racial groups are distinguished from each other by their possession of certain physical features inherited as the result of endogamy over a long period. Few races, however, are biologically pure, nor do most people use strictly biological criteria in deciding that a person belongs to one racial group rather than another. Thus, in the United States, a Negro is defined as someone of whom it is known that at least one of his ancestors was a Negro; the definition will hold even if, to all appearances, the individual is a “white.” Moreover, although the principal racial minorities of the United States—the American Indians, the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Negroes, and the Japanese—all have members with some Caucasoid ancestry, they are still regarded as “nonwhite.” The dominant white majority generally chooses to over-look the fact that they, too, are not “pure,” since many whom they accept as white have some Negroid or Mongoloid ancestry.

Nationality groups. The principal nationality groups in the United States came originally from Europe and, in spite of some admixture from other races, can plausibly regard themselves as having a common racial ancestry. It is not race, therefore, but culture—and the history of each culture—that provides the most salient distinctions between them. Immigrants of the second and third generations generally adopt English as their major or only language and assimilate their values and manners—at least in the more socially visible aspects of their behavior—to those of the majority. There are thus no permanent physical reminders of their ancestors’ minority status, and they are not usually regarded as belonging to a minority group.

The major exceptions to this are those groups—such as the Scandinavians of Wisconsin and Minnesota—that have remained in isolated rural areas, having little contact with the dominant American culture and therefore being under no pressure to assimilate themselves. Their status as national minorities is not the result of discrimination and prejudice on the part of the majority but of deliberate choice or sheer lack of opportunity. It cannot be said, however, that they surfer from their minority status, since they enjoy the full privileges of American citizenship and are not compelled to maintain their traditional way of life or to inhabit any particular territory.

Finally, a new type of nationality minority is being created by immigration of victims of political persecution; the best example is the Cubans, con centrated mainly in south Florida and New York City, who plan to return to their home country after an expected future political revolution there.

Language minorities. Some groups in the United States speak a language other than English, although they are not recent immigrants; indeed, they have continued to speak their own language over many generations. They are therefore best designated as “language minorities” although they tend to have other distinctive cultural traits, it is principally their language that sets them apart from the majority of the population.

The outstanding example of such a minority is the Spanish-speaking people who live in the sparsely populated rural areas of New Mexico and southern Colorado. Their position is similar to that of some European national minorities, since most of their ancestors were originally Mexican citizens whose territories were incorporated into the United States after the Mexican War of 1846–1848. They have been able to maintain a distinctive way of life because they are both isolated and poor; this same isolation tends to protect them from the discriminatory attitudes of the dominant, English-speaking population, who have not, on the whole, found it necessary to impose any legal or political disabilities upon them.

Religious minorities. Discrimination on grounds of religion, although expressly forbidden by the constitution, has long been practiced in the United States with varying severity against a large number of groups. Chief among these groups are the Jews, the Muslims, Christians of the Eastern Orthodox church, and various Protestant and Orthodox sects. Roman Catholics, too, although their total number in the United States, according to some estimates, was more than forty million in 1960, share some of the disadvantages of minority-group status, though to a decreasing extent. One special feature of membership in a religious minority is that it can be acquired voluntarily, regardless of racial or national origin, though most members, of course, are following the religion of their parents.

The position of the Jews is unlike that of other religious minorities because there are more Jews than there are active believers in the Jewish religion. Indeed, it is likely that in the United States believers and nonbelievers are about equal in number, although most of the latter would undoubtedly regard themselves as Jews nonetheless. This raises the question of whether there is any single objective basis for classifying them as Jews. One criterion can be ruled out completely: there is no such thing as a Jewish race, as should be obvious from the endless variety of racial, national, and linguistic characteristics to be found among Jews. It therefore seems best to describe them, for summary purposes, as recent descendants of persons known to have followed the Jewish faith.

Minorities in other parts of the world

Outside the United States, racial minorities are found predominantly where race is considered important in the culture. This is mainly in Africa, where whites, Negroes, and immigrants from India variously consider themselves or each other as minorities. The Ainus are a racial minority in Japan, but the other group that is subjected to discrimination in that country—the eta—are to be considered a caste minority (some authors would prefer not to call castes “minorities” when they are of the same race, religion, nationality, and language as the majority group). To some extent, native Indians are considered minorities in parts of South America. But in a country like India, where race is not considered important, racial differences are not the basis for the formation of minority groups (religion and language are).

Nationality differences continue to provide the source of minorities throughout Europe (including the Soviet Union, which extends into Asia). Some of these are in the process of disappearing as distinctive minorities because of assimilation, such as the Scots, Irish, and Welsh in the British Isles. Some are of very ancient origin, and their minority status has not changed appreciably in centuries, such as the Basques in Spain and the Greeks in Turkey, who also use a language different from that of the majority in their respective countries. Other minorities are being newly created by virtue of recent migrations for economic reasons, such as the Italian minority in Sweden. Sometimes political refugees form a new nationality minority, such as the Poles in Great Britain and the Baits in Sweden. Some retain their status as minorities through language differences or through international conflict, such as the German-speaking, Austrian-backed Tyrolese in the Italian province of Alto Adige. Mainly outside Europe, some nationality minorities seems to maintain their distinction through politcal differences with the majority, such as the Karens of Burma.

Language is often closely associated with nationality, as we have seen. But there are some linguistic minorities which seem to owe their origin to differences of social class rather than of nationality; notable examples are the Swedish-speaking Finns and the German-speaking people of eastern Europe. Perhaps the contemporary nation with the most salient language minorities is India. When the states of India were divided mainly along linguistic boundaries, only the 14 languages spoken by the largest numbers of people could be assigned a state. As the states quickly assumed political importance and language became socially identified as the main basis for their differentiation, those who spoke languages other than the dominant one of their state became minorities. Such minorities included people who spoke one of the hundreds of “little” languages of India, for whom there was no state at all, including most of the “scheduled tribes,” as the British administrators called the small “primitive” groups living outside the mainstream of Indian life. They also included those who spoke one of the major languages but were not residing in the state where their language was dominant. As language became a national issue in independent India, the language minorities usually became the objects of prejudice and discrimination.

Religious differences are still a prime source of minorities, although in Europe perhaps not as much as in past centuries. Perhaps the most destructive conflict of the post-World War II period has been the one between Muslims and Hindus in India, and a most bitter—though small-scale—conflict has been that between the Muslims and Jews in Palestine. Protestant minorities have been subject to a good deal of discrimination in Catholic Spain and parts of South America. Catholics feel themselves to be a minority in several countries where Protestants form a majority, although the prejudice or discrimination directed at them is not very strong, as it once was. The Jews, who have been the most persecuted minority in modern times, are still the subject of considerable prejudice and discrimination in several countries of Europe, particularly in the Soviet bloc. Religious minorities also include the Christians in Muslim countries, pagans and atheists in Christian countries, the Hutterites and Doukhobors in Canada, the minor religious groups of the Indian subcontinent, and several others.

The functioning of minorities in society

A minority’s position involves exclusion or assignment to a lower status in one or more of four areas of life: the economic, the political, the legal, and the social-associational. That is, a minority will be assigned to lower-ranking occupations or to lower-compensated positions within each occupation; it will be prevented from exercising the full political privileges held by majority citizens; it will not be given equal status with the majority in the application of law or justice; or it will be partially or completely excluded from both the formal and the informal associations found among the majority. Not infrequently, the minority also voluntarily excludes itself partially or completely from participation in these areas of life, partly as a means of maintaining traditional cultural differences. Accompanying the objective subordination and segregation of the minorities are usually to be found some subjective attitudes of mutual hostility, although these may sometimes be publicly denied and camouflaged. Majority-minority relations invariably involve some conflict, although this may take varied forms and operate on different levels.

There seem to be three types of attitudes of hostility or prejudice with which the dominant group regards the minority and with which the minority may attempt to counter the dominant group. The complex etiologies of each of these, which differ somewhat from society to society, cannot be analyzed here. The first is an attitude in which power is the main element: the dominant group wishes to exploit the minority for economic, political, or sexual purposes, or for prestige, and the minority group seeks to escape their exploitation. While the achievement of ascendancy in terms of one or more of these scarce values may be brutal (including enslavement of the minority), it is seldom personal, nor does it, except accidentally, result in the death of a minority person. The second attitude is ideological: the dominant group believes that it has a monopoly on the “truth” (as may the minority group also). The achievement of ascendancy by one ideological group over the other results in drastic efforts to convert the minority to the dominant group’s version of the “truth” failing that, it banishes the minority by exile or death. The third attitude is racist: the dominant group believes itself to be biologically superior to the minority group, and it stereotypes the minority in terms of negatively valued characteristics. (The minority may have the same attitude toward the dominant group, but since it lacks power, this has few or no behavioral consequences.)

Different social systems of conflict accompany these three different attitudes of hostility. For example, the caste system is generally associated only with the racist attitude; this system prohibits mobility across group lines and equal-status relationships and requires endogamy, systematized displays of inferiority by the minority, and occupational division of labor. Racism also has a pathological form which insists on the physical extermination of the minority race because it is alleged to threaten the “purity” of the dominant race. Where power seems to be the main ingredient in the conflict between dominant and minority groups, there is one form or another of exploitation: for example, there may be slavery, piracy, tribute, suzerainty over the minority’s political or military institutions, differential remuneration for work, or seizure of the minority group’s women for sexual purposes. Where the ideological element seems to be the main factor in the hostility of the dominant group toward the minority, the majority group generally offers the minority the alternatives of conversion or extermination. Ideological conflict is at once the most brutal and the most generous toward the minority, depending on whether or not the minority will accede completely to the beliefs of the dominant group.

In the contemporary world, the religious minorities of India and Palestine offer examples of ideological conflict, as do the political minorities of some communist countries. Power conflict is most evident in dominant—minority relations in northern and central Africa and in South America. Racism is today most frequent in South Africa and in the United States, although it is apparently still strong in Germany and in eastern Europe.

Role of minorities in social change. From the preceding discussion, it will readily be understood that the different roles of minorities in the society will affect their impact on general social change. In general, the existence of minorities in a society offers a constant stimulus and a constant irritant that for several reasons provoke social change. Minorities are often carriers of a culture different from that of the dominant group, and the contact and clash of cultures have long been hypothesized as sources of social change. Even when minorities carry no traditional alien culture, their partial exclusion from the general society serves as a basis for the development of some deviant culture.

In addition, apart from their cultural differences, minorities are sources of social dissatisfaction and social unrest, which are conditions for social change. As conflict groups, minorities tend to upset the status quo: they require the dominant to readjust to them regularly, and sometimes they are able to make coalitions with other minorities within the society or with outside societies in order to change the balance of power. Minorities will often join reform or revolutionary factions or parties among the dominant group, since often the best chance for improving their lot within the existing society is offered by a turnover of elites. Some minorities probably include a disproportionate number of inventive and otherwise creative individuals, because their alienation from the society in which they are forced to live without full participation gives such individuals a perspective that is not possible for the more fully integrated; the “marginal man” between two subsocieties has been identified by some sociologists as one type of “creative man” (Stonequist 1937). If necessity be the mother of invention (which it probably usually is not), minority members are more often beset by necessity than are dominant group members. At least in the limited area of seeking expedients to improve their unhappy lot, minority members are influenced by this creative aspect of necessity.

These general sources of social changes created by the existence of a minority in a society are probably best seen in that situation where power considerations by the dominant group maintain the existence of the minority. Where power and material exploitation are not involved, the dominant group is often either generous or unconcerned about letting the minority group go its own way, and that may often create the stimuli for social change. For example, while the powerful dominant group in the society is bent on accumulating wealth or retaining political ascendancy, the weak minority group can concentrate on acquiring knowledge and wisdom, which in the long run become stimulants of social change. The ideational tolerance often practiced by power-controlling groups some-times results in their own destruction; for example, the historian Edward Gibbon held this to be true about the relations between Romans and Christians in the later stages of the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, where ideological or racist considerations maintain the existence of a minority in a society, there is less freedom for it to create conditions that are conducive to social change. Ideational deviation—cultural or individual—is not tolerated where it becomes open and obvious, and racists must constantly prove the incapacity of the minority group by squelching all evidence of creativity whenever it threatens to appear among minority members. Where the dominant group is either racist or believes it holds a monopoly on truth, it is likely to regulate closely the education, cultural expression, and other innovative tendencies of the minority group, thus severely inhibiting the minority as a source of social change. Yet, under these circumstances, the minority group becomes schooled in subtlety and ingeniousness and may stimulate change where it is least expected: the songs, humor, and folk tales of the Negro slaves in the nineteenth-century American South can be seen in retrospect to have had a leavening effect on the white society, and the Jews in medieval Europe—repressed as they were—invented a merchant capitalism which eventually was accepted by the whole society (Sombart 1911).

It should not be assumed that the existence of a minority in a society operates solely to create social change. Dominant–minority relations often inhibit change. They tend to make the dominant group rigid in maintaining the status quo. The existence of an exploited or repressed minority makes even the most powerful dominant group fearful, and fear can discourage all forms of social change. Dominant–minority relations are usually wasteful and inefficient—they waste the time and energy of the dominant group in maintaining the repression, and they prevent the minority group from producing at its maximum potential—and this waste of material and intellectual resources restricts creative social change.

Research on minorities

Research on minorities can be considered as having taken place within two frameworks. One is the framework of the ethnologist, who is concerned with describing the culture of a specific society where the society is the minority group. Whereas the usual ethnological study is of a geographically separated society, the ethnological study of a minority group has to consider its subject group living in physical proximity to one or more other groups. The institutions, the customs, and the daily life of the minority groups are considered under this approach. The second framework is that of the sociologist, who concentrates on the relationship between minority and majority groups, not on the distinctive cultural characteristics of either group, except insofar as they are pertinent to understanding the relationship. The relationship between majority and minority is analyzed in terms of general processes, such as conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. A variation on this approach has been one which treats minority–majority relations as social problems, with special emphasis on aspects (e.g., Brown & Roucek 1937), causes (e.g., Hughes & Hughes 1952), and results of discrimination and prejudice (e.g., Myrdal 1944).

There are other variations in the literature. J. H. Franklin (1947) has analyzed the American Negro problem as a historian, M. R. Konvitz (1946) has examined the position of the alien under American law, and Gordon Allport (1954) has analyzed majority–minority relations in terms of the psychological concept of prejudice. Yet these authors also treat their subject matter as social problems. Practically all monographic studies are limited to a single majority–minority group situation, as is Ruth Glass’s study of the West Indians in London (1960). However, other empirical studies attempt to draw together the findings of a number of monographs: for example, A. H. Richmond’s work The Colour Problem (1955) or Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris’ more ethnologic Minorities in the New World (1958).

The largest number of empirical studies, usually published as articles in the professional social science journals, are highly specialized studies of the history, demography, economic status, political and legal rights, educational attainments, or other achievements of specific minorities. In addition, there are studies of prejudice, group identification, social change, or other such broad concepts, which are, however, usually based on very narrow and limited samples of the population.

Much of the literature soon becomes irrelevant, partly because it is limited to description and partly because of the value orientations guiding the research; these orientations are seldom made explicit and thus cannot be readily taken into account by the reader. There is a need for research using analytic concepts, thus permitting nomothetic rather than purely empirical generalizations. There is also a need for research that considers the dynamics of social change affecting and affected by minorities and majority–minority relations. The rapid changes in intergroup relations in contemporary life, occurring under a great diversity of cultural conditions, permit unrivaled opportunities for sociologists wishing to study the dynamic principles involved in all social change.

Arnold M. Rose

[See alsoAnti-Semitism; Assimilation; Constitutional law, article oncivil rights; Ethnic Groups; Prejudice; Race; Race Relations; Sects and cults.]


Allport, Gordon W. 1954 The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1958 by Doubleday.

Brown, Francis J.; and Roucek, Joseph S. (editors) (1937) 1952 One America: The History, Contributions and Present Problems of Our Racial and National Minorities. 3d ed. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Burma, John H. 1954 Spanish-speaking Groups in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Clark, Kenneth B. 1965 Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York: Harper.

Claude, Inis L. 1955 National Minorities: An International Problem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Conference ON Race Relations IN World Perspective, Honolulu, 1954 1955 Race Relations in World Perspective. Edited by Andrew W. Lind. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Drake, ST. Clair; and Cayton, Horace R. (1945) 1962 Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. 2 vols., rev. & enl. New York: Harcourt.

Finkelstein, Louis (editor) (1949) 1960 The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion. 3d ed., 2 vols. New York: Harper.

Franklin, John H. (1947) 1956 From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes. 2d ed., rev. … enl. New York: Knopf.

Freedman, Maurice (editor) 1955 A Minority in Britain: Social Studies of the Anglo-Jewish Community. London: Vallentine.

Glass, Ruth (1960) 1961 London’s Newcomers: The West Indian Migrants. Center for Urban Studies, University College, London, Report No. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published as Newcomers: The West Indians in London. Chapters 2 and 3 analyze geographical distribution and discrimination in housing.

Hughes, Everett C.; and Hughes, Helen M. 1952 Where Peoples Meet: Racial and Ethnic Frontiers. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Kane, John J. 1955 Catholic–Protestant Conflicts in America. Chicago: Regnery.

Konvitz, Milton R. 1946 The Alien and the Asiatic in American Law. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Lincoln, Charles E. 1961 The Black Muslims in America. Boston: Beacon.

Myrdal, Gunnar (1944) 1962 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper. -→ A paperback edition was published in 1964 by McGraw-Hill.

Richmond, Anthony H. (1955)1961 The Colour Problem. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Penguin.

Rose, Arnold M.; and Rose, Caroline B. (editors) 1965 Minority Problems. New York: Harper.

Schermerhorn, R. A. 1964 Toward a General Theory of Minority Groups. Phylon 25:238–246.

Shibutani, Tamotsu; and Kwan, K. M. 1965 Ethnic Stratification: A Comparative Approach. New York: Macmillan.

Simpson, George E.; and Yinger, J. MILTON (1953) 1965 Racial and Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination. 3d ed. New York: Harper.

Sombart, Werner (1911) 1913 The Jews and Modern Capitalism. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Stonequist, Everett V. (1937) 1961 The Marginal Man. New York: Russell.

Sulkowski, JÓzef 1944 The Problem of International Protection of National Minorities: Past Experience as a Basis for Future Solution. New York: Privately published.

Taeuber, Karl E.; and Taeuber, Alma F. 1965 Negroes in Cities: Residential Segregation and Neighbor-hood Change. Chicago: Aldine.

Vander Zanden, James W. (1963) 1966 American Minority Relations: The Sociology of Race and Ethnic Groups. 2d ed. New York: Ronald Press.

Wagley, Charles; and Harris, Marvin 1958 Minorities in the New World. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Williams, Robin M. JR. 1964 Strangers Next Door: Ethnic Relations in American Communities. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


views updated May 21 2018


ethnonationalism and the nation-state
ethnicity, immigration, and national minorities

In approaching the history of ethnicity in nineteenth-century Europe, one must immediately consider it in the context of two other social concepts, nation and race. All three gained significance during this period from a central fact of European life: the rise of state units based on citizenship and internally united not just by a single ruler but by language, history, and culture. This shift from multinational empire to homogeneous nation-state would dominate much of nineteenth-century life, culminating in the 1919 Paris peace settlement. It produced the modern idea of the nation as a sovereign entity that aligned political and cultural boundaries to emphasize the unity of the people who composed it. At the same time, European concepts of race became more sharply defined and more prominent. While the Enlightenment had pioneered the classification of different peoples according to physical characteristics, during the nineteenth century the idea of human races as unchanging and completely separate gained popularity, spurred on by new theories in anthropology and the physical sciences. By the end of the century, concepts of nation and race had merged to an important extent, so that references to "the British race" or "German race" had become common in educated European discourse.

Between two such massive conceptual frameworks, what was the place of ethnicity in nineteenth-century Europe? Unlike nation and race, the term ethnicity did not appear widely, owing more to twentieth-century American social science. And yet ideas of ethnicity played a significant role in the development of modern European society and culture. Let us start with definitions. Ethnicity refers to a sense of commonality between individuals based on several factors, including at times language, history, biology, a common territory, family ties, and rituals. Scholars have generally differentiated between ethnicity and race, the latter based on major hereditary physical differences, and between ethnicity and religion, although both religion and race can play a role in defining ethnic identifications. Ethnic groups, like other social units, define themselves by both inclusions and exclusions. They can be very small or very large, as large as (or larger than) nation-states. As late-twentieth-century scholarship has made clear, ethnic groups (like nations and races) arise from historical conjuncture and evolve over time. Essentialist ideas of ethnicity are not literally true, but rather represent strategies of self-definition on the part of ethnic groups.

In nineteenth-century Europe ethnicity became, more than ever before, a function of the nation-state. The creation of the modern nation-state to a large extent centered on the struggle for ethnonational homogeneity, or what some call ethnic nationalism. States strove to enforce a common language and history over their entire territory, bringing together the political and cultural boundaries of the nation. Paradoxically, nations that achieved this goal ceased to regard their dominant cultures as ethnic, but rather as national and hegemonic. The elevation of certain dialects to the status of national languages, underscored by the rise of mass education in the nineteenth century, is perhaps the clearest example of this. This process did not destroy ethnicity, however, but rather made it more and more synonymous with cultural difference, relegating it to the margins of the nation-state. Therefore, the rise of ethnic nationalism was complemented by the rise of ethnic minorities, peoples whose cultures lay at variance with the increasingly homogeneous culture of the nation. Peoples, like the Irish, the Gypsies, the Jews, and most of the peoples of eastern Europe, who had existed as subject nations in multinational empires, became increasingly viewed not as separate entities but as foreign bodies within the nation-state. This was especially true of groups that, through either migration or involuntary displacement, had left their traditional homelands for a diasporic mode of existence.

This entry will consider the history of both ethnic nationalism and ethnic minorities in Europe during the nineteenth century. It will outline the ways in which the rise of state power and the increasing importance of both political and cultural unification in the formation of ethnic groups and nations transformed European society in the era between 1789 and 1914. It will argue that ethnicity in nineteenth-century Europe arose both at the behest of the nation-state and in reaction to (sometimes against) it. Throughout European society, from the elites to the peasantry, ethnicity gradually became a key component of collective and individual identity. The fact that ethnic customs and cultures were often portrayed as traditional and unchanging should not be taken at face value, but rather as an indication of the powerful shock of the new in a rapidly changing continent.

ethnonationalism and the nation-state

The rise of national cultures in the nineteenth century gave a new significance to ideas of ethnicity. The elevation of certain ethnic or regional traditions at the expense of others both underscored the importance of cultural traditions and challenged minority ethnic groups and the legitimacy of ethnic difference as a whole. As with so many other aspects of the history of modern Europe, there is perhaps no better place to start than the French Revolution. Not only in France but throughout Europe the Revolution fostered the idea of national cultures, even while it in theory rejected them in favor of an internationalist liberalism. Whereas in France itself the heritage of the Revolution became a powerful aspect of national identity, in other countries, notably Germany, the resistance to revolutionary occupation and ideology proved decisive in the constitution of ethnonationalism.


In France the French Revolution fostered two paradoxical (even contradictory) ideas of the nation and national unity. The most prominent was the universalist tradition, the belief that the core of national identity resided in the ideological principals of liberty and citizenship enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). To be French (as opposed to a member of the internationalist aristocracy) meant to subscribe to these principles and, if need be, to dedicate one's life to championing them. Frenchness resided in the acceptance of core beliefs, not in one's ancestry nor culture. It therefore followed that anyone who accepted these beliefs could become French. This universalist ideal, historically grounded in the experience of the Revolution, defined the nation around citizenship and equality before the law, and has remained a key component of what it means to be French down to the present. At the same time, the Revolution also spurred the creation of a specific national identity based on language and culture. For example, during its most radical phase the Revolution elevated Parisian French to the status of the national language, suppressing Alsatian German, Provençal, and other languages as counterrevolutionary. In this way languages became dialects, reducing ancient regional cultures to subnational ethnic minorities. The revolution thus produced a specifically French universalism, a phrase that accurately expresses its contradictory vision of the nation. All men could share in the benefits of Enlightenment and liberty, but in order to do so fully they must in effect become French. Napoleon I's conquest of Europe thus represented both the extension of liberty to the peoples of the Continent, and the aggrandizement of the French nation.

The paradox of revolutionary nationalism survived both the Bourbon and Orleanist restorations to become the dominant approach to national identity in nineteenth-century France. In many respects, the political aspect of French identity seemed most important, both because nationalists throughout Europe and beyond hailed the French Revolution as the great symbol of liberty, and because until the late nineteenth century conservative and reactionary forces tended to oppose both liberalism and nationalism. No one expressed this idea of French and modern nationalism better than the historian Joseph-Ernest Renan in his 1882 Sorbonne lecture "What Is a Nation?" Rejecting the idea of a racial basis to national identity (an idea that was in fact growing more powerful in Europe) Renan portrayed the modern nation as a political and historical construct, a deliberate creation of citizens rather than a natural entity. And yet, while Renan emphasized the importance of politics and ideology in constituting a nation, he also acknowledged the significance of culture. "A community of interest is assuredly a powerful bond between men. Do interests, however, suffice to make a nation? I do not think so. Community of interest brings about trade agreements, but nationality has a sentimental side to it; it is both soul and body at once; a Zollverein is not a patrie" (p. 18). As the legacy of the Revolution itself became not just one of principles but also one of historical triumphs and collective memories, so did the idea of national universalism become the cornerstone of French identity.

The prime mover in this process during the nineteenth century was the French state. The triumph of republicanism, first in 1848 and then more definitively after 1870, made the principles of 1789 the leitmotiv of national politics. At the same time the Third Republic in particular completed the Revolution's mission of transforming France into an internally unified nation of citizens equal before the law. The expansion of state power also took the form of the homogenization of regional traditions into a synthetic national culture. In his celebrated study Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914, Eugen Weber has outlined the ways in which the French state integrated the provinces into its own vision of the nation. A variety of institutions paved the way for the conquest of rural France, frequently viewed by Parisians at the beginning of the century as a land of savages. The establishment of a state railway network centered around Paris both enabled people to travel around the country more easily and helped create national economic markets. The establishment of mandatory national military service brought together young men from different regions, training them in the defense of a common motherland. Most important, the republic created a system of obligatory primary education that not only taught an awareness of France's history, geography, and common culture (complete with national flags and maps in classrooms) but also created the mass literacy necessary for an appreciation of French identity. Finally, the republic's renewal of France's overseas empire, especially under Prime Minister Jules Ferry in the 1880s, also fostered an ethnic sense of national identity. Although in theory the principles of the Revolution applied wherever the French flag flew, in reality France's civilizing mission reinforced the idea that only those who adopted French culture, not just French politics, could be full-fledged citizens. The practices of republican empire distinguished the French from their colonies on the basis not only of ethnicity but of race as well, since in large part greater France was an empire of nonwhite colonial subjects dominated by white citizens in the metropole.


If in France the state drove the creation of an ethnically unified nation, in Germany almost the reverse occurred in the nineteenth century. In contrast to France, in Germany the existence of a distinct national culture preceded the 1871 final unification of the German state by several decades. After 1871 the imperial government did pursue policies to unify the German population ethnically, in a manner comparable to France's Third Republic. Yet not until well into the twentieth century did Germany achieve a similar level of cultural unification in the context of the nation-state. For Germany, the French Revolution (in particular the Napoleonic occupation) also played a key role in fostering a sense of German national identity, although in a very different way from France. Napoleon's rationalization of German state structures, in particular his reduction in the number of German states from over three hundred to less than fifty, began to create a more regionally and even nationally based sense of German identity. Perhaps more important was the resistance movement against the French that the Germans created. Many young German intellectuals had originally embraced the ideals of the French Revolution and supported the victories of the revolutionary armies against aristocratic Europe. Napoleon's occupation, however, revealed the extent to which the universalism of the Revolution had degenerated into the imperialism of the French state. In doing so, it helped spawn a nationalist revolt, of German particularism against French universalism. The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) called on all Germans, by which he meant all those who spoke the German language, to rise up in the struggle for a free Germany. The playwright Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller's William Tell (1804) transformed a Swiss legend into an allegory of national resistance. The guerrilla wars of liberation against France not only helped create a sense of common German identity against the invader, but also became over time a central myth of national glory.

The wars of liberation came at a time when Germans had begun to elaborate a new sense of cultural nationalism. By the late eighteenth century German intellectuals had begun writing in German and seeing hoch Deutsch (High German) in particular as key to the nation's culture. This also represented a reaction against the Enlightenment and the intellectual predominance of French. This concern with language gradually developed into an interest in folklore and mythology, as researchers began to investigate local traditions and customs to understand what was unique about the German character. In 1812 the brothers Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Carl Grimm (1786–1859) published the first volume of their famous Grimm's Fairy Tales, which not only became a classic of children's literature but also sought to revive a forgotten part of the nation's heritage. Such concerns with national culture both arose out of and fostered the idea that each nation had a particular character, even "soul." Starting in the 1780s, the Protestant pastor Johann Gottfried von Herder argued that the essence of Germanness was the Volksgeist, or culture and spirit of the common people. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the burgeoning Romantic movement gave added weight to the idea of national consciousness and culture. In particular, Romanticism emphasized the crucial role of history in shaping national identity, arguing that each nation had its own specific history. The idea of the nation as organic rather than contractual would become a powerful aspect of mystical nationalism in Germany, distinguishing it in the eyes of many from the more classical national idea of France.

Yet while German Romanticism may have championed the national soul, it did not create the German nation-state. Ultimately the idea of unifying Germany along the lines of liberal nationalism failed, signaled by the collapse of the Frankfurt Parliament in 1849. Instead national unification came from above, in the shape of the authoritarian Prussian state. This state-driven idea of nationhood, championed above all by Otto von Bismarck (German chancellor, 1871–1890), regarded Germany primarily as a political creation, subject to the kaiser, rather than as an expression of cultural nationalism. In fact large numbers of ethnic Germans, including the populations of Austria and the Sudetenland, were excluded from membership in the Second Empire. However, though it did not exercise state power, the ethnocultural image of Germany remained a powerful force to be reckoned with in the life of the new nation-state.

Some have overemphasized the contrast between French and German notions of nationhood, seeing it as a conflict between "civilization" and "culture." In both countries, and throughout most of Europe in the nineteenth century, political and cultural ideas of national identity coexisted. Nonetheless, in general German nationalism gave its ethnic and cultural component greater weight, at least in theory, than did that of the French. By the early twentieth century the definition of citizenship based on jus soli, or birthplace, in France, versus jus sanguinis, or blood, in Germany, would highlight these different approaches to national identity. In different ways, the cases of France and Germany demonstrated the pressure toward the ethnicization of European ideas of the nation-state during the nineteenth century.

ethnicity, immigration, and national minorities

The idea of ethnic minorities developed in tandem with the ethnic nation state in nineteenth-century Europe. The rise of dominant national cultures reduced those communities that did not share (or refused to embrace) those cultures to the status of minority groups. Moreover, the rise of ethnonationalism gave a new character to migration, especially that across national boundaries. The extent to which immigrants adopted dominant national cultures became an important index of the unity of nation-states, while the immigrants themselves had to contend not only with the difficulties of displacement, but also new pressures to assimilate. Therefore, in studying the history of ethnicity in Europe between the French Revolution and World War I, one must consider both insiders and outsiders, ethnic nations and ethnic minorities. The rest of this entry will focus on two particular groups: Irish immigrants in Britain, and Jews in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. While at first glance one of Europe's most unified nations would seem to differ markedly from the rambling multinational empire of the Habsburgs, these two ethnic minorities in fact had much in common. In both cases large numbers of people migrated from imperial hinterlands to metropolitan centers, balancing between assimilation into the minority culture and the establishment of distinctive ethnic minority traditions. And in both cases, ethnicity interacted with class, gender, and especially religion in shaping the immigrants' experiences in their new homelands. As culturally unified nation-states became more normative in nineteenth-century Europe, these and other immigrant minorities gradually came to symbolize the very meaning of ethnicity.

The Irish in Britain and the Jews of Austria-Hungary were of course only two of the many ethnic groups in nineteenth-century Europe. Most minority groups came from elsewhere in Europe; however, the nineteenth century also witnessed the growth of small non-European communities. The presence of peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean on European soil reflected the growth of European colonial empires and existed before the French Revolution. Eighteenth-century Paris had a small but visible black community, for example. But the dramatic imperial ventures of Britain, France, and other European powers in the late nineteenth century sharply increased the nonwhite population of Europe, a trend that would only accelerate during the twentieth century.

This phenomenon appeared most noticeably in Britain, the heart of the world's greatest empire. While precise statistics are rare, it seems that by 1900 Britain was home to several thousand "blacks," or people of color. London alone had nearly 4,000 by the 1870s. Colonial migrants to Britain generally fell into one of two groups: members of the elite in search of education and immigrant workers in search of jobs. Mohandas Gandhi studied law in London during the 1880s and by 1910, 700 Indian students were enrolled in British universities. In 1913 colonial students founded the African Students Association. At the same time large numbers of colonial immigrants worked in British ports as sailors and long-shoremen. By the end of the nineteenth century, London and Liverpool were home to a few hundred Chinese immigrants; although a tiny population, they nonetheless became targets of racist fears of cheap labor.

Irish in Britain

The impact of colonial migrants paled in comparison with the huge Irish immigration into nineteenth-century Britain. Many have termed Ireland Britain's first colony, and the Irish presence in Britain goes back to the medieval beginnings of English imperial domination. The nineteenth century brought a massive increase in travel across the Irish Sea, however, thanks to the cataclysm of the Irish famine. This disaster, which killed a million Irish and forced the flight of many more, is best known for having brought a huge new immigrant population to the United States. Many Irish refugees from hunger traveled to Britain as well, either to await transport to North America, or else to settle there permanently. For example, 300,000 Irish arrived in Liverpool alone during 1847, and while 130,000 subsequently left, the rest stayed. Irish immigration constituted the greatest migration to Britain since the Norman Conquest, so that by the 1860s the Irish-born population of the island numbered over 800,000 people, by far the largest immigrant group in the country.

Forging an Irish community overseas did not happen automatically. The Irish population in Britain was not only large but also diverse. Not all of it settled there permanently: earlier patterns of seasonal migration continued, although now dwarfed by the postfamine exodus. Large numbers of Irishwomen migrated, more than traditionally the case for nineteenth-century European migrants, and significant numbers of middle-class and of Protestant Irish came to Britain as well. However, the Irish population in Britain was dominated by poor people from the countryside, for whom migration to Britain constituted not just displacement but also their first experience with urban industrial life. Once arrived in Britain, the Irish generally set up autonomous communities, Irish urban villages in the heart of British cities. The majority of Irish inhabitants of London, Manchester, and Liverpool lived in predominantly Irish streets and neighborhoods. This segregation facilitated the establishment of ethnic community networks. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain's Irish had developed a wide range of community associations, ranging from music societies to political clubs to celebrations of Saint Patrick's Day. No organization played a greater role in creating Irish community life than the Catholic Church. Irish immigrants effectively took over Catholicism in Britain, transforming it from a small elite organization to a mass-based one. The church not only performed missionary work among the Irish poor, but also established schools, boys' and girls' clubs, and a variety of other social organizations.

The development of Irish community life in nineteenth-century Britain constituted not only an attempt to preserve Irish culture, but also a defensive reaction against British hostility and prejudice. Anti-Irish bigotry in Britain has a history as long as the Irish presence there, but it reached its most virulent levels in the nineteenth century. British hostility to the Irish had numerous roots, including anti-Catholicism, a colonial sense of superiority to a subject people, and a tendency to blame Irish workers, some of the poorest people in Britain, for their own misery. Stereotypes of "Paddy" as lazy, dirty, stupid, violent, and criminal abounded, often drawing on racist images of blacks and other nonwhite groups. Enmity often led to violence, as Irish communities faced attacks by British mobs during the 1850s and 1860s in particular. Community solidarity and ethnic cultural assertion was one response to British antagonism. At the same time, however, Irish immigrants did gradually assimilate into British society, winning a greater level of acceptance by 1914 and the advent of Home Rule in 1922. This generally did not mean a loss of Irish identity, but rather a sense of hybridity, of being both British and Irish at the same time. Over the course of the nineteenth century, therefore, the Irish evolved from foreign immigrants to an ethnic group in Britain.

Jews in Austria

Like the Irish in Britain, the Jews in Austria went from being immigrants to creating distinctive communities in the nineteenth century. Not only did migration mean for them going from imperial borderlands to urban centers, it also entailed leaving the traditional Jewish ghetto and assimilating into mainstream European society. Both groups were variously described in terms of ethnicity, nationality, religion, and race, and both ultimately experienced a certain amount of assimilation while at the same time creating well-defined community cultures. However, a crucial difference between them was the contrast between Britain and Austria (Austria-Hungary after 1867). Austria was a multinational empire, not a state, and its central institutions made no claims to representing the culture of all the empire's subjects. Yet it was also an empire increasingly battered by the forces of ethnonationalism, as the nations that composed it demanded more and more cultural and political autonomy. For the Jews of Austria-Hungary, especially those living in urban centers like Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, the tension between waning imperial control and waxing ethnonationalism shaped their ability to choose either assimilation or ethnic separatism in the nineteenth century.

Jewish migration into Austria's urban centers took place in the broader context of nineteenth-century Jewish emancipation. The revolution of 1848, in which Austrian Jews participated heavily, made them citizens of the empire and lifted residential restrictions on them, freeing them to travel. Over the next few decades hundreds of thousands migrated from the hinterlands, especially Galicia, Bukovina, Bohemia, and Moravia, to the cities. By the end of the century Vienna had a Jewish population of 175,000, Prague 13,000, and Budapest 200,000. They came drawn by not only greater economic opportunities but also the lure of German culture, the means by which many eastern European Jews had come into contact with Enlightenment modernity. Many assimilated successfully into Austro-German culture, to the extent that they often abandoned Yiddish for German and looked down on their more recently arrived brethren from Galicia. Yet although a few became so Austrian as to convert to Christianity, most retained a strong sense of Jewish identity, forging a new sense of themselves as modernized Austrian Jews. This included the creation of numerous community institutions, such as synagogues, community and charitable societies, and political organizations. In Vienna, for example, most Jews lived in Jewish neighborhoods, attended mostly Jewish schools, and married other Jews. Although the Habsburg imperial administration formally considered the Jews of Austria a religion, in actual fact they functioned as both a religious and an ethnic community.

As with the Irish in Britain, prejudice from the dominant society reinforced Austrian Jews' own sense of separateness. Unlike Britain, however, Austria was a multinational empire, not a nation-state, one in which the imperial forces strove to keep in check the nationalist desires of Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and other groups. The nationalist revolutions of 1848 that emancipated Austria's Jews had also produced major popular anti-Semitic movements, and anti-Semitism continued to exist as a potent political force during the nineteenth century. The reaction of the Jewish community to this situation took different forms. It is perhaps no accident that modern Zionism arose in Austria, as some Jews responded to the assertiveness of other peoples in the empire by arguing that they, too, constituted a subject nation. In fact, one strand of Austrian Jewish nationalism advocated the creation of a Jewish state in central Europe, not Palestine. The majority of Austria's Jews rejected both Zionism and popular nationalism, preferring to view themselves as Austrians of Jewish faith and heritage. They clung to the institutions of the Habsburg Empire, seeing in it a political force that, by resisting the pressure of potentially anti-Semitic popular nationalism, could assure a place for them. Only in a state where no one culture dominated completely could the Jews feel truly at home. They therefore asserted the idea of themselves as an ethnic group in a multinational empire, engaging in ultimately futile resistance against the nationalist forces that would soon tear the empire apart.

For both insiders and outsiders, therefore, ethnicity represented an increasingly important component of both individual and national identity in Europe between the French Revolution and World War I. The idea of ethnic community was most important in relationship to nations and nationalism: ethnonationalism reinforced the power of the nation-state, whereas ethnic minority communities called its unity into question. Like nationalism and race, nineteenth-century ethnicity paradoxically championed "ancient" traditions with mass literacy, state intervention, and other aspects of modernity. Ethnicity represented a kind of intermediate level of community between the family and the nation. As life in Europe became more and more complex, ethnic groups both provided a sense of familiarity in an alien world and exemplified the extent to which the traditional worlds they so often celebrated had vanished.

See alsoCitizenship; Colonialism; Immigration and Internal Migration; Imperialism; Jews and Judaism; Nationalism; Romanies (Gypsies).


Primary Sources

Clare, George. Last Waltz in Vienna. New York, 1983.

Renan, Ernest. "What Is a Nation?" Translated by Martin Thom. In Nation and Narration, edited by Homi K. Bhabha. London and New York, 1990.

Secondary Sources

Brubaker, Rogers. Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford, U.K., 1983.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Lees, Lynn Hollen. Exiles of Erin: Irish Migrants in Victorian London. Ithaca, N.Y., 1979.

MacRaild, Donald M. Irish Migrants in Modern Britain, 1750–1922. New York, 1999.

Mosse, George. Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. Madison, Wisc., 1985.

Panayi, Panikos. Outsiders: A History of European Minorities. Rio Grande, Ohio, 1999.

Rex, John. Race and Ethnicity. Milton Keynes, U.K., 1986.

Rozenblit, Marsha L. The Jews of Vienna, 1867–1914: Assimilation and Identity. Albany, N.Y., 1983.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1976.

Weil, Patrick. Qu'est-ce qu'un Français?: Histoire de la nationalité française depuis la révolution. Paris, 2002.

Wicker, Hans-Rudolf, ed. Rethinking Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Struggle for Meaning and Order in Europe. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Tyler Stovall


views updated May 23 2018




The term minority and how it is used and defined has changed over time. Typically, social scientists use the term to define a groups social, political, and economic power in a society. Historically, in society, the term has also been used to focus on physical traits such as phenotype in African Americans and other people of color (Parrillo 2006).

According to Joe Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin, Louis Wirth defined minorities as a group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination (Feagin and Feagin 2003, pp. 1011). Vincent N. Parrillo explains that not everyone agrees with Wirths definition:

Richard Schermerhorn, for example, notes that this victimlogical approach does not adequately explain the similarities and differences among groups or analyze relationships between majority and minority groups. A third attempt to define minority groups rests on examining relationships between groups in terms of each groups position in the social hierarchy. This approach stresses a groups social power, which may vary from one country to another, as, for example, does that of the Jews in Russia and in Israel. The emphasis on stratification instead of population size explains situations in which a relatively small group subjugates a larger number of people (e.g., the European colonization of African and Asian populations). Schermerhorn adopts a variation on this viewpoint. He also viewed social power as an important variable in determining a groups position in the hierarchy, but he believes that other factors are equally important. Size (a minority group must be less than half the population), ethnicity (as defined by Wirths physical and cultural traits), and group consciousness also help to define a minority group. (Parrillo 2006, pp. 1516)

Social scientists hold a variety of views about what it means to be a minority. The anthropologists Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris listed five defining characteristics shared by minority groups throughout the world (Parillo 2006, p. 16):

minority groups receive unequal treatment;

they are easily identifiable because of physical or cultural characteristics, as in, for example, the phenotype of African Americans and other minorities of color;

they tend to share a sense of peoplehoodthat each of them shares something in common with other members;

membership in the minority group has an ascribed status; a person who is considered a member of a particular minority group is born into it; and

they have a tendency to marry within their own minority group, either by choice or by necessity, because of the social isolation that they experience in their lives.

The term minority often is used to describe people who have less power, are oppressed, or are a subordinate segment within a political unit (Myers 2007, p. 42). A person can be classified as a minority based on his or her religious affiliation, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, or gender. And a person can belong to both a minority group and the majority group. For example, An American Roman Catholic who is white belongs to a prominent religious minority group but also is a member of the racially dominant group (Parrillo 2006, p. 17). Women are considered a minority group based on their gender and because they have been oppressed and controlled (Myers 2007), and women of color are often considered a minority within a minority. One can be born a member of a majority group and later become a member of a minority group (e.g., the elderly). People can be born with disabilities such as polio, blindness, and missing limbs, or disabilities can occur over the course of a persons life (Parrillo 2006).

Contemporary scholars hold that it is not accurate to classify a group as a minority based on the numerical representation of that group. Scholars today consider it more accurate to use the term dominant group for the majority group and the term subordinate group for a minority group. This usage is appropriate because a majority group in this sense can be numerically a minority.... [I]f current trends continue, the white majority, in population terms, is likely to become a statistical minority in the United States by the middle of the twenty-first century (Feagin and Feagin 2003, p. 11). But whites will still constitute the majority based on their economic and political power.


The struggle for equal rights has been an ongoing challenge for minority groups, which historically have been discriminated against in the United States. They have also been subject to stereotypes that are psychologically harmful and deny a people their humanity. Along with racial discrimination, the belief in stereotypes can affect the physical, economic, and life chances of minority groups (Feagin and Feagin 2003). Negative stereotypes and images of African Americans and other Americans of color are constantly used, refurbished, played with, amended, and passed along in millions of white kinship and friendship networks, from one community to the next and one generation to the next (Feagin 2006, p. 44). These racial stereotypes and prejudices are useful for whites in explaining why certain people of color do not have as much or do as well as whites across multiple areas of the society (Feagin and Vera 2001, p. 8). The stereotypes applied to different minority groups are remarkably similar. African Americans are depicted as lazy, violent, criminal, untrustworthy, and unintelligent. Latinos have been viewed as inferior, criminal, and uninterested in education or their families (Suarez-Orozco and Paez 2002). In contrast, Asian Americans have been stereotyped as the model minority, a term created by whites as an example of what other minorities groups should becomehardworking, intelligent, and docile (Feagin and Feagin 2003). Some might view this stereotype as positive, but others contend that the model minority myth hurts Asian Americans (Wu 2002, p. 67). It is a stereotype that pits other minorities and Asian Americans against each other, implying to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans that they too can have the American dream if they model themselves after Asian Americans. Native Americans have struggled for years with the stereotypes and racist images that portray them as savages; currently they are fighting the use of racist Native American images that are used for sports mascots. Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Arab Americans have been battling stereotypes that depict them as terrorists, treacherous, and cruel (Feagin and Feagin 2003).

Minority groups, specifically African Americans, have been instrumental in fighting for the equal rights of all citizens in the United States. In the 1960s the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement led the way for minority groups of all ethnicities to receive equal rights in the United States. The success of the movement prompted other movements, such as the womens rights movement and, more recently, a movement to secure rights for undocumented immigrants in the United States.


The political voice of minority groups has changed over time. In the U.S. Senate in 2007 there was one African American, Barack Obama from Illinois; two Asian Americans, Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka, both from Hawaii; three Hispanic Americans, Ken L. Salazar from Colorado, Melquiades R. Martinez from Florida, and Robert Menendez from New Jersey; and no Native Americans (though Ben Nighthorse Campbell from Colorado served in the Senate from 1993 to 2005). In 2007 sixteen Senate seats were held by women.

In the United States, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans are all considered minorities in society, based on their economic and political standing. Presently, these minority groups are still underrepresented in politics. However, in South Africa, black South Africans are the statistical majority but white South Africans, the statistical minority, control a majority of the land and much of the economic power. Some scholars would say that black South Africans are the minority group because they are the subordinate group. Furthermore, white South Africans are the majority group in this sense, even though they are numerically the minority, because they are the dominant group and control all of the economic power.


According to Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Mariela Paez, in a widely cited report, scientists at the U.S. Bureau of the Census concluded that by the year 2050, some 50 percent of the U.S. population would be members of ethnic minorities (2002, p. 1). According to Dale Maharidge, By 2050 Hispanics will make up about 21 percent of the American population, blacks 15 percent, and Asians and Pacific Islanders 10 percent (Maharidge 1996, p. 13). According to a May 2007 U.S. Census Bureau press release, the minority population in the United States surpassed the 100 million mark in 2006. The report noted, Hispanic remained the largest minority group, with 44.3 million on July 1, 200614.8 percent of the total population. [African-American] was the second-largest minority group, totaling 40.2 million. They were followed by Asian (14.9 million), American Indian and Alaska Native (4.5 million), and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (1 million).... [N]on-Hispanic whites who indicated no other race totaled 198.7 million in 2006. The U.S. census report also indicated that the District of Columbia, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Texas are majority-minority. However, unless minorities gain additional political and economic power, they will remain minorities.

The report stated that the minority population is growing, but will this pattern continue as younger generations of Hispanic groups self-identify as white and racial boundaries shift? According to Jonathan W. Warren and France Winddance Twine, In the 1990 census, more than half of the Hispanic population racially self-identified as white and in 1992 that about 95 percent of Latinos self-identified as white (Warren and Twine 1997, p. 213). According to Clara E. Rodriguez, what Latinos say they are in standard U.S. racial terms is not necessarily what they are perceived to be by others (Rodriguez 2000, p. 136). Ethnic minorities self-identify as white based on their age, education, socioeconomic status, citizenship, length of time in the U.S., and language (Rodriguez 2000). As immigrants self-identify as white, the white population will grow and they will most likely remain the dominant majority numerically, economically, and politically.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Ethnicity; Ethnocentrism; Intergroup Relations; Jingoism; Majorities; Model Minority; ationalism and Nationality; Other, The; Racism; Subaltern; Whiteness


Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.

Feagin, Joe R., and Clairece Booher Feagin. 2003. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Feagin, Joe R., and Hernan Vera. 2001. White Racism. New York: Routledge.

Maharidge, Dale. 1996. The Coming White Minority. New York: Vintage.

Myers, John P. 2007. Dominant-Minority Relations in America: Convergence in the New World. New York: Pearson Education.

Parrillo, Vincent N. 2006. Strangers to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States. New York: Pearson Education.

Rodriguez, Clara E. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M., and Mariela M. Paez. 2002.Latinos: Remaking America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

United States Census Bureau. 2007. Minority Population Tops 100 Million.http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/010048.html.

United States Senate. Minorities in the Senate.http://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_index_subjects/Minorities_vrd.htm.

Warren, Jonathan W., and France Winddance Twine. 1997. White Americans, the New Minority? Non-Blacks and the Ever-Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness. Journal of Black Studies 28 (2): 200218.

Wu, Frank H. 2002. Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. New York: Basic Books.

Ruth Thompson-Miller


views updated Jun 08 2018


Subdominant or subordinate groups.

The term minorities is misleading and inappropriate when discussing subdominant or subordinate groups in Middle Eastern history and society. It is a term rooted in the naive assumption of Western social scientists that minor demographic groups can wield only minor political and economic power. In the states of the Middle East, demographic minorities have exercised considerableeven dominantpolitical and economic power. In the past, an ethnically distinctive minority, Muslims from the Caucasus, ruled the Arabic-speaking majority for centuries (the Mamluk dynasty of Syria [12501516] and Egypt [12501517]). During the twentieth century, in Iraq and Lebanon, the only two Arab states where Sunni Muslim Arabs are a minority, the traditional dominance of Sunni Islam has given its adherents disproportionatein Iraq, dominantpower. The internal disorders that have torn these polities apart are due in no small part to the contradiction between the majoritarian democratic principles to which all pay lip service and the very different realpolitik.

Furthermore, the basesreligious, ethnic, or linguisticby which one defines such groups are inconsistent over time and place. In addition, the very existence of such groups and the markers that define them have become a controversial political and intellectual issue. A given group might be considered part of the majority by one criterion in one century; in the next, by very different criteria, it might be considered ormore significantlymight consider itself an oppressed minority. The process also may be reversed so that an oppressed minority may attempt to join the formerly oppressing majority.


Groups in the Islamic Middle East have been defined largely by religion. The traditional minoritiesor, more accurately, subdominant groupshave been Christian and Jewish. Within these there have been further divisions by virtue of dogma, rite, and ethnic-linguistic identity. The Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East and North Africa into the twentieth century, recognized most such groups as components of the so-called Millet System. The traditional states of Morocco and Iran followed practices that reflected their different social and religious needs. Because in Morocco, unlike the Ottoman Empire, the Jews were the only significant indigenous non-Muslim group, the institutional arrangements governing them were less elaborate, and their status tended to vary with the reigning Alawite dynasty (1654). The most significant Christian and Jewish groups in Iran under Qajar rule (17951925) were the Armenians, with small groups of Jews and Nestorians, as well as Zoroastrians. Because of the hostile attitude of Iranian Twelver Shi`ism toward non-Muslims, the opportunities of such groups have been much more restricted than in the Sunni world. However, because of their larger number and economic importance, Armenians in Iran on the whole have fared better than other non-Muslims.

In addition to Christians and Jews, there was another religiously defined subdominant category, Muslim sectarians. For the Ottomans these were Shiʿites. In Iran, in addition to Sunni Muslims, there arose a messianic syncretistic offshoot of Shiʿism, the Baha'i faith. Such groups, unlike Christians and Jews, presented a unique threat to Muslim states because they articulated claims to power based on a similar religious discourse. Unlike Christians and Jews, who had been conditioned by more than a millennium of Muslim rule to accept the principle of status quo, religiously dissenting Muslims had to be retaught that principle from time to time.

Shiʿism represented a significant challenge to Ottoman authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the rival Safavid dynasty in Iran attempted to use its Shiʿa coreligionists in eastern Anatolia as a fifth column in the Persian-Turkish wars. As this conflict diminished, both Ottoman Sunni rulers and Shiʿite subjects pretended that their differences did not really exist. This process was hastened by the Shiʿite application of the Islamic principle of taqiyya (caution), a doctrine of dispensation that justifies concealing one's true beliefs lest they antagonize the authorities. In the mid-nineteenth century an offshoot of Shiʿism, the Druze of Syria and Lebanon, emerged as a short-lived irritant to Ottoman rule in the region when they helped precipitate a conflict with a rival sectarian group, the Christian Maronites. However, it was only in the last quarter of the twentieth century, decades after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, that Shiʿa became a force in the Arab world. In Lebanon, as a result of the urbanization of previously rural populations and emigration of the Christian elite brought on by years of civil war and foreign invasions, the poor and ignored Shiʿite community of southern Lebanon became a majority that could no longer be ignored. In Iraq, despite comparable upheaval, a Shiʿite community nearly as large, in relative terms, failed to gain comparable influence.

By the nineteenth century in Iran, as a result of the Safavids' successful campaign to convert the country to Twelver Shiʿism centuries earlier, Sunni Islam was reduced to the unaccustomed status of a statistically insignificant religion largely limited to the rural Kurdish community, and thus trebly marginalized. There was also a smaller Sevener Shiʿite community. A far more dangerous religious challenge arose from within Twelver Shiʿism. At first it manifested itself in the Bab movement, which arose in open rebellion to proclaim a new scripture superseding the Qurʾan. Once defeated, it reemerged nonviolently as the Bahaʾi religion, whose tolerant outlook proved attractive in the twentieth century. However, Shiʿite religious authorities regard it as heresy.

Ethnicity and Linguistics

In the twentieth century, recognized markers of group identity became newly significant in political terms, with extremely disruptive consequences. Ethno-linguistic-regional identity, as it was called, tried to superimpose itself on strong religious affiliations. The quality of being Aleppine, Arab, Azeri, Berber, Cairene, Damascene, Egyptian, Hijazi, Khorasani, Kurdish, Jerusalemite, Najdi, Persian, Syrian, Turkish, and so forth had always existed. Traditionally such identities had been sources of group feeling, of ethnic pride and humor, of poetry, of distinctive cuisine and speech; but they had not been the basis for political organization, power, and sovereignty. Muslims (whether Arabic-speaking or Turkish-speaking or whatever) ruled non-Muslims (whether Arabic-speaking or Turkish-speaking or whatever). Although the latter might on occasion have wealth and exercise political influence, it was always behind the scenes and under the table. Modeling themselves on the newly dominant European notions of national political sovereignty, in the wake of the collapse of the traditional Islamic polities during and after World War I, Middle Eastern peoples attempted to fit the round peg of their traditional religious communal identities into the square hole of ethno-linguistic politics. This seemed to change the basis for determining dominant versus subdominant roles. And it required a number of uneasily and inconsistently reached decisions, none of which wereor areself-evident. What were the new identities to be? Egyptian, Syrian, or Arab? Turkish or Turanian? Azeri, Turcoman, or Persian? These are merely samples of the host of complex questions that had to be answered for new nations and states to emerge.

In the new nation-states of the Arab world all speakers of ArabicChristian, Jew, and Muslim (both Sunnis and Shiʿa)were to be equal; there no longer were to be religious minorities. But that theory hardly described the far more complex and tortured reality. Different Christian groups chose different responses to these opportunities. By and large the Orthodox of Syria and Lebanon identified themselves with their traditional allies, Sunni Muslims, and attempted to support the cause of Arab nationalism. The Maronites, by contrast, preferred the independence of Lebanese identity. Although individual Copts had played a notable role in the rise of Egyptian nationalism, they grew marginalized as it increasingly transformed into Arab nationalism. Even less than Christians, some individual Jews participated in the early stage of Egyptian and Syrian nationalism; but the rise of Zionism and the conflict over Palestine, along with strong religious discrimination, excluded them from any lasting role. There has, however, been one political success story in the politics of religious minorities: the Alawites who dominate Syria's ruling elite, a small Shiʿite sect so extreme that some Muslims deny they are part of Islam. Two factors explain their unique achievement. During the colonial period the French recruited them for military service, so that by the 1960s they were overrepresented in the Syrian officer corps, the country's only electorate. They also denied their sectarian traditions and flocked to the Baʿth party, a bastion of secular Arab nationalism.

The smaller ethnic groups of the Muslim world that lost in the game of national musical chairsnotably the Kurds of western Asia and the Berbers of North Africa, who previously had some claim to power and dominant status by virtue of their Sunni identityare now ignored and suppressed minorities within new political boundaries. During the 1920s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Turkish Republic, through war and diplomacy, rid Anatolia of most of its Armenians and Greeksthough a large proportion of them in fact spoke Turkish as their first languageand then tried to redefine the only non-Turkish group remaining, the Kurds, as Mountain Turks. Iran has been more successful than most states in the Middle East in welding its varied subdominant groupsTurkic-speaking Az-eris, Turcomans, Qashqaʾis, as well as the Arabs of Khuzistan and the Sunnisinto a relatively coherent polity. Although Persian speakers constitute a bare majorityif thatthey have successfully used the appeal of Shiʿite Islam, to which 90 percent of the population adheres, to maintain the country's unity.

The redrawing of the map of the Middle East and North Africa after World War I created new sub-dominant groups without abolishing the old. In short, the region suffers from the worst of both worlds: it is riven both by the old confessional loyalties and by the new political demands of ethnic nationalism.

see also bahaʾi faith; christians in the middle east; druze; jews in the middle east; maronites; millet system; shiʿism; sunni islam; zionism.


Braude, Benjamin, and Lewis, Bernard, eds. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. 2 vols. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

benjamin braude


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Patrick Franke


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