Ethnic Variation/Ethnicity

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Ethnic Variation/Ethnicity

Ethnicity has been defined as a family's common ancestry through which identity develops as a result of evolved shared values and customs (McGoldrick, Giordano, and Pearce 1996). The definitions of ethnicity, or the more functional term, ethnic group, consist of individuals and families who are members of international, national, religious, cultural, and racial groups that do not belong to the dominant group in a society. They can be differentiated from both the dominant group and other ethnic groups by some combination of their values, expectations, geographic location, language, attitudes, customs, lifestyles, rituals, and celebrations. In addition, ethnicity and sense of peoplehood are recognized by themselves and by others.

A number of other terms, such as minority, people of color, and racial groups are related to the term ethnic group. Some minorities are differentiated on the basis of power and resources, so that to be a member of a minority group is to share a status relationship dissimilar from the dominant group. To be a member of a racial group is to be defined by both physical and cultural characteristics. The same individuals can be a member of a minority group, a racial group, and an ethnic group (Mindel, Habenstein, and Wright 1988).

According to Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan (1975), ethnicity (or, more commonly, ethnic groups) was relatively new to research and the media until the 1960s. The terms ethnicity, ethnic groups, ethnic consciousness, and ethnic identity now appear regularly in both social science writings and in the mass media. In fact, it is rare that one might witness an event or situation in which the consequences are not in some way related to the ethnic identity of the individuals involved. According to the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Thernstrom, Orlov, and Handlin 1980), there are criteria for inclusion in an ethnic group. The following are the criteria most often associated with ethnic group membership: (1) economics or class; (2) geographic origin; (3) political position; (4) migratory statuses; (5) race; (6) language and dialect; (7) religious faiths or faiths; (8) ties that transcend kinship, neighborhood, and community boundaries; (9) shared traditions, values, and symbols; and (10) level of discrimination.

Origins and Importance of Ethnicity

According to early research, there are three dominant theoretical positions related to the understanding of ethnicity and its implications for daily family life. Glazer and Moynihan (1975) stated that the two earliest perspectives associated with ethnicity are the primordialists and circumstantialists. The primordial approach emphasizes history and experiences and may even include genetic transmission, so ethnicity is viewed as a base identity that may be both overt and latent. It implies the existence of a distinct culture or subculture, so that members feel themselves bound together by a number of commonalities, including history, geographic location, language, values, traditions, norms, and behaviors. Most individuals belonging to an ethnic group have a strong sense of ethnic identity and peoplehood. Society also recognizes the distinctiveness of the group (Gil-White 1999). The identity is more likely to be ascribed, rather than voluntary. For the individuals who fit into this particular category, ethnicity is inescapable.

The circumstantialist (or instrumentalist) view is a functional one, with ethnicity serving the economic and political interests of individuals. Ethnicity for this group of persons is more of a convenience. An ethnic group uses traditional beliefs, symbols, and ceremonies in order to develop an informal political organization as it struggles for power (Cohen 1969). As such, it is less permanent and may vary in terms of time, place, and situation. This particular group has the luxury of claiming ethnic identity when needed or desired and are usually only self-identified.

A third perspective (Bernal and Knight 1993) emphasizes the role of marginality in the development and maintenance of ethnicity. Groups that are placed on the fringes and labeled as outsiders (either through their own volition or through barriers such as prejudice, discrimination, and segregation) with seemingly little chance of ever being accepted by the dominant society without total assimilation (the act of conforming to the dominant culture) are most likely to develop an ethnic perspective. The more marginal the group is the higher the possibility of developing and maintaining a strong ethnic identity. Conversely, the more accepted a group, the less likely it is to develop a strong ethnic identity.

Ethnic groups can last over an extended period of time or they can change, merge, or disappear. One way in which change may occur is for ethnic minority individuals to assimilate. According to Milton Myron (1964), groups who assimilate tend to have weak or under developed ethnic identities. Researchers have also suggested that those individuals who are removed from both familiar surroundings and support systems may also assimilate to the dominant culture (Shorti and Kohls 2001). This type of assimilation is often most associated with individuals who live in predominantly majority environments or ethnic minorities who attend majority educational institutions.

Ethnic self-identification and membership in an ascribed ethnic group are important because they control, limit, and/or enhance opportunities for well being in society. Ethnic identification and membership have been linked to most aspects of human existence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is often said to predict educational and professional outcomes, networking opportunities, economic status, living conditions, partner selection, and marital success.

The diversity between and within ethnic families defies simple generalizations. The historical background, the gender role affiliation, the religion or spirituality, the availability of resources, and the educational and employment opportunities, often offers clues for understanding the ethnic family.

It is impossible to present the full spectrum of international ethnic groups and their families, but the following divisions provide useful categories. The divisions are (1) African families, (2) Asian families, (3) Latino families, and (4) Middle Eastern families.

African Families

The continent of Africa is slightly less than 12 million square miles and has several hundred ethnic groups and different languages. As a result of Africa's diversity, it is difficult to identify common family characteristics. Two of the African family forms often discussed include Jamaican (British West Indies) and Haitian families. African culture defines family as immediate or nuclear and includes individuals related by blood regardless of generation (extended kin). Traditional African families are close-knit and kinship groups were the foundations of the larger social structure of the tribe and the nation (McGoldrick, Giordano, and Pearce 1996). Extended family ensures support (such as childrearing, economic support, and housing) during times of crisis. Within the African community children and the elderly are highly regarded. Children are thought to carry family values and expected to provide economically for aging parents. Elders are appreciated for their life experiences and are, in most cases, considered wise.

African families are more accepting of women working outside the home than most other ethnic groups are. African history notes the importance of women's work and has long valued their contribution beyond childbearing and childrearing responsibilities. Women are traditionally responsible for organizing the community and gathering food, and many are leaders and rulers in their communities. Although families report practicing indigenous religions, Christianity and Islam were most often reported (Mbiti 1992). However, as previously stated, not every African family experience is the same.

Jamaican families. In the Jamaican family, young women are taught domestic and childrearing practices and given little freedom to explore opposite gender relationships. On many occasions, young women are only allowed to date males known well by the family. Womanhood is connected with motherhood and childrearing (socialization and discipline) and is the responsibility of the mother.

Young males are taught to be responsible. They are encouraged to obtain an education in order to secure respectable employment with upward mobility. Males are often asked to assume economic responsibility in the absence of the father. Single males are encouraged to experiment sexually; however, once married, although discouraged from having extramarital affairs, it is seen as successful if a male is able to provide economically for a mistress and any out-of-wedlock children.

Haitian families. Haitian family structure tends to follow class-system patterns. Middle- and upper- class families tend to follow a more Western structure (formalized marriages), whereas lower socioeconomic status families were most often identified as common-law (placage) marriages. Although men may not be present in the household on a regular basis, they are expected to support the family financially.

Family roles are clearly delineated within the Haitian family. Men are financially responsible for any family they create in-wedlock or out-of-wedlock. Women are the domestic caretakers of the family. Children are taught unconditional respect for elders and family privacy and disrespectful behaviors are not tolerated. They are expected to care (financially) for their parents when they are no longer able to care for themselves. The elderly often provide childrearing assistance and are thought to have enormous amounts of wisdom as a result of age and overall years of experience.

Catholicism was the reported religion in Haiti for centuries. However, the early twenty-first century has seen an increase in various Protestant (charismatic and evangelical) groups (Nobles 1980). Haitians are also known to practice varying forms of voodoo. Voodoo (a religion derived from African ancestor worship involving sorcery), combined with religious beliefs, is often used to explain the incongruence between the supernatural and "real" worlds.

Asian Families

Asian families include the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Indonesian families. There is remarkable diversity between and within the groups in terms of history, language, and demographic variables (including education, population, income, religion, and occupation). The most pronounced belief in Asian culture, except in Filipino culture, is the Confucian value system. This code of conduct determined relationships an individual had with people and their obligations to them (obey your parents, be a good citizen, take care of your family).

Chinese families. Morrison Wong (1988) indicates that the Chinese family is the product of social, legal, political, and economic factors interacting with culture through generations of families. The majority of Asian families can trace their roots to the traditional family structure of China, which included (1) patriarchal rule, with clearly defined roles of male dominance; (2) patrilocal residence patterns, where married couples lived with the husband's parents; and (3) extended families; in which many generations lived with their offspring under one roof.

Traditional Chinese family roles are governed by prescribed roles defined by hierarchy, obligation, and duty. The family is thought of as a collective unit and an individualistic perspective is seen as disruptive and disrespectful to the family. Marriages are commonly arranged and spousal relationships are secondary to parent-child relationships. Males within the Chinese culture are dominant and fathers handle familial disciplinarian responsibilities. On the other hand, women are affectionate, self-sacrificing, and caring as mothers; taught to assist with household responsibilities as daughters; and adhere to the thrice-obeying rule (comply with fathers/eldest brother in youth, husbands in marriage, and sons when widowed) as wives (Tung 2000).

Because ancestor worship is emphasized, having sons to carry on the family name and serving in-laws is also a cherished value. Another important value is filial piety; family relations are characterized by duty, obligation, importance of the family name, self-sacrifice for the good of the elders, and respect for status (Williams-Leon and Nakashima 2001).

Japanese families. Like many other Asian cultures, the Japanese family assigns responsibility according to gender. Women are considered the transmitters of tradition and handle most housework and childcare. Men, on the other hand, provide financially for the family.

The Japanese are encouraged to think first of being part of a group. In other words, one is never fully independent; therefore, one must always be conscious of others. Examples of the Japanese we orientation include: (1) hiring practices, (2) decision making, (3) language, and (4) nonverbal expressions (Varley 2000).

Korean families. Korean families are hierarchical by gender, generation, age, and class. There is differentiation by gender and men and women have traditional gender roles. Parents support children and children are obligated to respect their parents.

Jip-an (within the house) identifies family membership, values, and traditions practiced within a particular family. Marriage is considered a union among families rather than individuals (Coleman and Steinhoff 1992). Prior to marriage, the family's community standing, as well as the specific credentials of the family members, is considered.

Vietnamese families. China has long influenced Vietnamese culture. Vietnam adopted Chinese Confucianism enthusiastically, and this code of conduct governed its society for centuries. Like many other Asian cultures, Vietnamese hold elders in high regard and respect their position in the family. Both adults and children are taught to remain quiet when in the midst of elders and to listen with great intent. Eye contact is seen as disrespectful and shaking hands with both hands is expected.

In most Vietnamese families rules of etiquette were followed. Couples wed through parental arrangement or by their own initiative. Once married, the union is considered permanent unless the woman committed adultery. Until the mid-1950s, adultery by men was overlooked unless the position of the wife was in jeopardy in the extended family or children were not guaranteed financial security.

In traditional Vietnamese families, the husband is the head of the family, chief financial provider, and the rest of the family looks to him for guidance. The wife is the caregiver and comforter of the family and only deals with the outside community by choice (Trinh 2002).

Cambodian families. Cambodian people are a racial mix of indigenous tribal people and people who came during the invasion from India and Indonesia in 1970. Unlike many of the neighboring countries, the majority of the people are Buddhists with a small Muslim following. The Cambodian family is based on close relationships (extended kin). Central values within the Cambodian family are built around harmony and balance (Sun-Him 1987).

The husband is considered the head of the household and expects to be consulted at all times prior to decision making. Women in Cambodian culture hold stereotypical gender roles within the family (Sun-Him 1987).

Indonesian families. Indonesia is one of the largest Muslim nations with over 90 percent of its people reporting it as their primary religion. There are over 100 distinct groups in Indonesia, each with its own cultural identity related to language, class, custom, and value. In the Indonesian family, family closeness and loyalty, obligation, and respect for parents is important (Collins and Bahar 1995).

Indonesian culture recognizes the responsibility of the male to be the economic provider for the family. Muslim men in Indonesia may have up to four wives, but few do, because the husband must secure the permission from previous wives and treat each equally.

Women are taught to respect their husbands and are the primary caretakers of the family; women are responsible for domestic maintenance. Children are taught to obey and respect both parents. It is also common for children to remain in the homes of their parents for extended lengths of time. In fact, it has been reported that most young Indonesian individuals live with either their parents or extended family until they marry (Collins and Bahar 1995).

Latino Families

Latino families include the Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, and Central America families. The most extensive research relates to Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican families. The background of each of these groups is that of foreign influences in their homelands, first by Europeans, primarily the Spanish, then by the United States.

Mexican families. Traditional Mexican families consist largely of unskilled workers in the low-wage sectors of the economy (Seymour and Stuart 1998). The traditional structure is based on the socioeconomic needs of the agrarian and craft economics of Mexico: an extended, multigenerational group of persons with special ascribed roles. The division of roles and functions, which include mutual support, enables the family to survive during difficult times. The family, in both work and leisure times, is the most important structure in traditional Mexican society (Hoobler and Hoobler 1998).

A popular stereotype concerning the role of the Mexican male was that of machismo. It was often equated with the absolute power of the male—including excessive aggression and sexual prowess—and a secondary role for women. Rafael Ramirez and Rosa Casper (1999) indicate that genuine machismo is characterized by bravery, valor, courage, generosity, and a concern for others. It serves to protect and provide for the family, and includes the use of just authority and a respect for wife and children.

Figures indicate the Mexican family income is low and fertility rates are high. Mexican families are less likely to have extended kin residing in the same household, and the traditional family system is characterized more by voluntary interaction than by the necessity of family survival.

Cuban families. The traditional Cuban nuclear family recognizes the importance of extended family relationships. The tightly knit nuclear family allows for the inclusion of relatives and godparents (padrinos). There is an emphasis on lineal family relations, and it is expected that children show absolute obedience to their parents, and wives to husbands (Perez 2001).

Puerto Rican families. The traditional Puerto Rican family is an extended family, with the primary responsibility for childrearing vested in the nuclear family. Although husbands are the traditional source of family authority, childrearing is the major responsibility of the wives (Steward 1956). Kinship bonds are strong, and interdependence is a major theme among family and kinship members. Co-parenthood (compadrazgo) and the practice of informal adoption of children (hijos de crianza) are two components of extended kinship (Sanchez-Ayendez 1988).

Middle Eastern Families

Until the late twentieth century, Middle Eastern family research focused on Arab, Iranian, Lebanese, and Armenian families. Of the Middle Eastern families studied, the best known is the Arab family. Arabs may be described as a heterogeneous group that is a "multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic mosaic population" (Abudabbeth and Nydell 1993). The term Arab is based on the person's language and culture and is not an ethnic origin: as a result, there is a great deal of diversity among Arabs. One distinctive difference is religion.

Between the seventh and tenth centuries one of the most profound historical changes in the Arab world took place: the spread of Islam. The essence of Islam, as preached by the Prophet Mohammed, was transmitted through the Qur'an (believed to be the literal word of God). The Prophet's own sayings (hadith) and practices (sunna) were combined with the Qur'an to elaborate or extend the laws of society. Except by implication, the Qur'an does not contain explicit doctrines or instructions—basically, it provides guidance. However, the hadith and sunna provide concrete commands on issues related to the rights and responsibilities of marriage, the division of property, the daily habits of believers, and the manner in which people should treat one another (Ali 2001).

Although many Arabs report following the Islamic religion, there are approximately 14 million Arab Christians. Those following Christianity are primarily reported in Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The largest Christian congregation in the Middle East is the Coptic Orthodox Church with nearly 6 million believers.

Arabic is the official language of the Middle East. Arabs are extremely conscious of their language and consider it a great art and their greatest cultural achievement (Nydell 1987). Although spoken Arabic language is as varied as the different parts of the Arab world, classical Arabic and written Arabic are the same in all the Arab countries and are used for formal speech, broadcasting, and writing (Rouchdy 1992).

The Arab family is the dominant social institution through which persons inherit their religion, social class, and identity. The family is often thought of as a patriarchal, hierarchical pyramid (as far as age and sex are concerned) and what befell one member is thought to bring honor or shame to the entire family. The communication style of many Arabic families tends to be hierarchical in nature. This vertical style can lead to miscommunication between persons in authority (parents) and subordinates (children).

Marriage (nikah) is seen as a highly religious and sacred ceremony central to the growth and stability of society. It legalizes sexual intercourse and the procreation of children. Hanafi law allows a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman as long as she belongs to the people of the Book ( Jewish or Christianity). Women, however, are not allowed to marry a man who is not Muslim (Esposito 1982). Traditionally, Islamic law allows men to marry four wives. However, the Qur'an qualifies multiple marriages by suggesting a man not marry more than one woman unless he is able to treat them equally.

The traditional Iranian family is patriarchal. Fathers are considered the dominant force and completely control the family. No one questions his authority over his wife, children, and grandchildren (Hillman 1990). He is a strict disciplinarian and he demands respect and obedience from the family. Although seen as the enforcer of domestic rules, he is also affectionate and caring. When the father dies, the eldest son inherits the authority and accepts responsibility for his mother and any unmarried siblings.

Iranian families. In Iranian marriages, women are generally ten to fifteen years younger than their partner. Upon marriage, the two families unite to combine their wealth and increase their power. To marry, a woman must obtain permission from her father first. Generally, women reside with the family of their husbands. According to religious law, women are required to be submissive to their husband. They are taught to take care of the domestic responsibilities at home and to be ever cognizant of their actions publicly and privately. Women address men more formally in public and are taught to never openly disagree with a mate. In difficult situations, women often use children or in-laws to intercede on their behalf.

In Iran, an individual's life is dominated by the nuclear and extended family relationships. People rely on family connections for position, security, influence, and power. It is not uncommon to see an extended family that consists of a married couple and any of their children (both married and unmarried), and grandchildren. In the extended family, authority is almost always given to the oldest male (Hillman 1990). He can discipline his siblings, as well as any nieces or nephews who reside in the household. The responsibility of the male head of household is to unify the family and to resolve internal conflict.

Lebanese families. The typical Lebanese views family as an extension of him or herself. The family is patrilineal, endogamous, and extended, with complex kin relationships that help sustain traditional functions of the culture (Hassan, Healy, and McKenna 1985). The extended family is a means of support and often provides financial resources, childrearing support, and assistance during medical emergencies.

Although other religions have been reported by Lebanese families, Christianity is the most represented religion. Lebanese Christians have a strong affiliation with the church and look to religion as a source of their identity (Abridge 1996).

Armenian families. The traditional Armenian family structure usually consists of several generations living together within the same household. The family is strongly patriarchal, with elder males dominating the affairs of the family. Most marriages are arranged, and a new bride is expected to live with her husband's family, where she is clearly subservient to the eldest female in the household (Miller and Miller 1993).


The late twentieth century has seen an increase in the research related to ethnicity, culture, custom, and tradition. According to research, the definition of family, ethnicity, and culture varies from one ethnic group and country to another. For example, for many Africans, the definition of family suggests the importance of extended family and community. The Chinese culture includes ancestors and descendents in their definition of family.

Research has also alluded to cultural differences in such aspects as gender roles, religion or spirituality, education, and celebrations. Studying family and ethnicity helps one appreciate differences in groups' attitudes and behaviors. As a result of these differences, it is imperative that one develop a sufficient level of cultural competency, a process of continuous learning that leads to an ability to effectively respond to the challenges and opportunities posed by the presence of social cultural diversity in a defined social system.

Finally, research related to the diversity of family form, structure, and obligations underscores the significance of a flexible social system with fluid boundaries—so that individuals are able to define themselves by their groupings that relate to their heritages and practices and go beyond labels such as minority, Africans, or Latinos.

See also:African-American Families; Asian-American Families; Caribbean Families; China; Fictive Kinship; Hispanic-American Families; Indonesia; Intergenerational Transmission; Iran; Islam; Japan; Korea; Latin America; Mexico; Vietnam


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deborale richardson-bouie