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Ethnicity is a salient feature of numerous societies throughout the world. Few societies are ethnically homogeneous, even when they proclaim themselves to be. Consequently, ethnicity has been a preoccupation of sociologists since the early days of the discipline (although more so in the United States than elsewhere).

Yet there is not complete agreement on how the subject should be defined. In the past, it was common to highlight cultural difference as an essential feature of ethnic distinctiveness (see, e.g., van den Berghe 1967). Recently, this has lost favor on the grounds that cultural differences may vary from one setting to another and from one historical period to another. Following an approach attributed to Frederik Barth (1969), recent definitions have therefore focused on the existence of a recognized social boundary. But still among the most useful definitions is the classic one of Max Weber ([1922] 1968): An ethnic group is one whose members "entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration" Weber adds insightfully, "It does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists" (p. 389).

Despite definitional disagreements, there is general recognition that a number of characteristics appear as hallmarks of ethnicity; not all of them will be present in every case, but many will be. They include features shared by group members, such as the same or similar geographic origin, language, religion, foods, traditions, folklore, music, and residential patterns. Also typical are special political concerns, particularly with regard to a homeland; institutions (e.g., social clubs) to serve the group; and a consciousness of kind, or sense of distinctiveness from others (for the full listing, see Thernstrom et al. 1980, p. vi).

There is controversy over whether race should be viewed as a form of ethnicity. In this context, "race" should not be understood as a bundle of genetically determined traits that of themselves generate social differences—a view that has been repudiated by the vast majority of social scientists—but as a kind of social classification used by members of a society. Many scholars distinguish between ethnicity and race. For example, Pierre van den Berghe (1967) defines race as a social classification based on putative physical traits and ethnicity as a classification based on cultural ones (see also Omi and Winant 1994). The contrast between the two can also be formulated in terms of volition vs. external constraint, with racial categories seen as more imposed by outsiders and ethnic ones as more claimed by the group members themselves (see, e.g., Waters 1990). But equally commonly, race is seen as a variant of ethnicity: A racial group is, then, an ethnic group whose members are believed, by others if not also by themselves, to be physiologically distinctive. This is the approach adopted in this article for several reasons. Not only do racial groups typically have the characteristics of ethnic groups (e.g., cultural distinctiveness), but many seemingly nonracial ethnic groups may also be believed to possess some distinctive physical features (e.g., the olive skin tone of Italians). The distinction between the two types of groups is therefore not hard and fast, a conclusion that is underscored by the historical transmutation of some racial groups into nonracial ones, for example, the Irish (Ignatiev 1995; Roediger 1991).

Sociologists recognize that the imprint of history on the contemporary ethnic relations of any society is deep, and this gives rise to another distinction that is potentially central to any discussion of ethnicity. It pertains to the mode of entry of a group into a society, and it has been formulated by Stanley Lieberson (1961; see also Blauner 1972) in terms of the situation that obtains just after contact between an indigenous group and one migrating into an area. One possibility is that the migrant group dominates, typically through conquest (often aided by the introduction of new diseases)—this is exemplified in the contacts between indigenes and European settlers in Australia and the United States. The other is that the indigenous group dominates, as occurred during the century of mass immigration (1830–1930) to the United States. The crux of the matter here is whether a group is incorporated into a society through force or through more or less voluntary migration. Lieberson argues that a group's mode of entry is fateful for its trajectory of development in a society, and this is amply borne out in the literature on ethnicity.

Stated in very broad terms, three approaches have dominated the sociological study of ethnicity; a fourth and much newer one appears to hold the promise of eventual parity with them. Of the older approaches, one, the assimilation perspective, focuses on social processes and outcomes that tend to dissolve ethnic distinctions, leading to the assimilation of one ethnic group by another or by the larger society. The second approach could be labeled as stratification. As the name implies, it addresses the origins and consequences of inequalities of various kinds among ethnic groups. The third approach focuses on ethnic-group resources, and encompasses processes, such as mobilization and solidarity, by which the members of ethnic groups attempt to use their ethnicity to compete successfully with others. The newest approach is a social constructionist one. It stems from the recognition that ethnic boundaries are malleable and is concerned with the ways by which such boundaries are created, maintained, and transformed.

No one of these approaches could be described as preeminent; each is a major presence in contemporary research on ethnicity and has shown that it has something to contribute. Other approaches are possible but are not as theoretically and empirically developed as these four. One other approach seeks a basis for ethnicity in sociobiology, viewing it as a form of genetic nepotism, a generalization of the universal tendency among animals to favor kin. van den Berghe (1981) has been an exponent of such an approach, but as yet no body of evidence has been developed to distinguish it from more sociological approaches; other sociologists have not followed his lead. Ethnicity has also been viewed as "primordial," deriving from deeply seated human impulses and needs that are not eradicated by modernization (Isaacs 1975). But this viewpoint has not led to sociologically interesting research, and it has lacked exponents in recent decades. Another attempt, stemming from "rational choice theory" (Banton 1983; Hechter 1987), seeks to explain ethnic phenomena in terms of the efforts of individuals to maximize their advantages (or, in technical language, utilities). Research using rational choice theory is still too immature to draw up a meaningful balance sheet on it.

The assimilation approach has deep roots in classical social theory as well as in American sociology, where it is often traced to Robert E. Park's 1926 formulation of a race relations cycle of "contacts, competition, accommodation, and eventual assimilation" (quoted from Park 1950, p. 150; cf. Lal 1990). The canonical statement of the assimilation approach is by Milton Gordon (1964; for an updated revision, see Alba and Nee 1997). Although Gordon was addressing the role of ethnicity in the United States, his formulation is so general that it can be readily applied to other societies. At the heart of his contribution is the recognition that assimilation is a multidimensional concept. He distinguished, in fact, among seven types of assimilation, but the critical distinction lies between two of them: acculturation and structural (or social) assimilation. Acculturation means the adaptation by an ethnic group of the cultural patterns of the dominant, or majority, group. Such acculturation encompasses not only external cultural traits, such as dress and language, but also internal ones, such as beliefs and values. Gordon (1964) theorized that acculturation is typically the first of the types of assimilation to occur and that the stage of "'acculturation only' may continue indefinitely" (p. 77)—hence the importance of the second assimilation type, structural assimilation. Structural assimilation is defined by Gordon to mean the entry of an ethnic group's members into close, or primary, relationships with members of the dominant group (or, at least, with ethnic outsiders). The cardinal hypothesis in Gordon's (1964) scheme is that structural assimilation is the key that unlocks all other types: "Once structural assimilation has occurred . . . all of the other types of assimilation will naturally follow" (Gordon 1964, p. 81). Once structural assimilation occurs, the way is open to widespread intermarriage, an abating of prejudice and discrimination, and the full participation of ethnic-group members in the life of a society.

Gordon discussed certain models, or theories, of the assimilation process (they might also be described as ideologies because of their value-laden character). Although these were, again, developed for the U.S. context, Gordon's discussion is so lucid that the models have passed into more general application. One is labeled as "Angloconformity" by Gordon, and it describes an assimilation that is limited to acculturation to the behavior and values of the core ethnic group, taken to be Protestants with ancestry from the British Isles in the American context. A second model is that of the "melting pot." It envisions an assimilation process that operates on cultural and structural planes. One outcome is a culture that contains contributions from numerous ethnic groups and is adopted by their members. A parallel outcome on a structural plane is a pattern of widespread marriage across ethnic lines, in which the members of all ethnic groups participate and which leads ultimately to population made up of individuals of quite intermixed ancestry. The melting-pot idea corresponds with some popular notions about U.S. society, but so does the last model explicated by Gordon—namely, "cultural pluralism." Cultural pluralism corresponds with a situation in which ethnic groups remain socially differentiated, often with their own institutions and high rates of in-group marriage, and retain some culturally distinctive features. It is, in fact, an apt description of many societies throughout the world.

Urban ecology, dating back to the origins of the Chicago School of American sociology, is quite compatible with the assimilation approach. A core tenet of this tradition is that the spatial separation of one group from another mirrors the social distance between them and changes as this does. This ultimately implies a model of spatial assimilation (Massey 1985), according to which residential mobility follows from the acculturation and socioeconomic mobility of ethnic-group members and is often an intermediate step on the way to more complete—that is, structural—assimilation. The model envisions an early stage of residential segregation, as the members of ethnic groups—typically, immigrants and their children—are concentrated in urban enclaves, which frequently results in the displacement of other groups. But as the members of an ethnic group acculturate and establish themselves in the labor markets of the host society, they attempt to leave behind less successful co-ethnics and to convert socioeconomic and assimilation progress into residential gain by "purchasing" residence in places with greater advantages and amenities. This process implies, on the one hand, a tendency toward dispersion of an ethnic group, opening the way for increased contact with members of the ethnic majority, and, on the other hand, greater resemblance in terms of residential characteristics between successful ethnic-group members and their peers from the majority group.

The assimilation perspective has been successfully applied to American ethnic groups derived from European immigration. In a review of the evidence, Charles Hirschman (1983) documents the abating of ethnic differences in the white population in terms of socioeconomic achievement, residential location, and intermarriage. To cite some representative research findings, Stanley Lieberson and Mary Waters (1988), comparing the occupations of men of European ancestry in 1900 and 1980, find a marked decline in occupational concentrations, although these still show traces of the patterns of the past. These authors and Richard Alba (1990) also demonstrate the great extent to which interethnic marriage now takes place within the white population: Three of every four marriages in this group involve some degree of ethnic boundary crossing. The assimilation perspective as applied to European Americans has not been without its critics; Andrew Greeley (1971) has done the most to assemble evidence of persisting ethnic differences.

There can be no doubt that African Americans do not exemplify the patterns expected under the assimilation perspective (e.g., Massey and Denton 1993). A question that now motivates much debate and research is the degree to which the assimilation patterns will be found among contemporary immigrants and their descendants (see Alba and Nee 1997; Portes and Rumbaut 1996). It is too early to answer the question, but reflecting on the potential differences between past and contemporary immigrations, Portes and Zhou (1993) have added a new concept to the ethnicity arsenal—namely, segmented assimilation, which acknowledges that the strata of American society into which individuals assimilate may vary considerably. In their view, the children of dark-skinned, working-class immigrants who grow up in the inner city are at great risk of assimilating into the indigenous lower class and thus experiencing assimilation with little or no upward mobility.

Much of the evidence on assimilation and ethnic change is derived from cross-sectional studies rather than those done over time; the latter are difficult to conduct because of the limited availability of comparable data from different time points. Cross-sectional analyses involve some dissection of an ethnic group into parts expected to display a trajectory of change. One basis for such a dissection is generational groups. Generation here refers to distance in descent from the point of entry into a society. (By convention, generations are numbered with immigrants as the "first," so that their children are the "second," their grandchildren are the "third," etc.) Generally speaking, later generations are expected to be more assimilated than earlier ones. Another basis for dissection is birth cohorts, defined as groups born during the same period. Cohort differences can provide insight into historical changes in a group's position. Both kinds of differences have been used to study ethnic changes in the United States (for an application of the generational method, see Neidert and Farley 1985; for the cohort method, see Alba 1988).

The second major approach to the study of ethnicity and race, labeled above as "stratification," is considerably less unified than the assimilation approach, encompassing quite diverse theoretical underpinnings and research findings. Yet there are some common threads throughout. One is an assumption that ethnic groups generally are hierarchically ordered: There is typically a dominant, or superordinate, group, which is often described as the majority group (even though in some societies, such as South Africa, it may be a numerical minority of the population). There are also subordinate groups, often called minorities (although they may be numerical majorities). Second, these groups are assumed to be in conflict over scarce resources, which may relate to power, favorable occupational position, educational opportunity, and so forth. In this conflict, the dominant group employs a variety of strategies to defend or enhance its position, while minority groups seek to challenge it. Often, the focus of the stratification approach is on the mechanisms that help preserve ethnic inequalities, although there has also been some attention to the means that enable minorities successfully to challenge entrenched inequality.

One tradition in ethnic stratification research has looked to mechanisms of inequality that are rooted in ideologies and outlooks that are then manifested in the behavior of individuals. This is, in fact, a common meaning for the word racism. A longstanding research concern has been with prejudice, which is generally defined as a fixed set of opinions, attitudes, and feelings, usually unfavorable, about the members of a group (Allport 1954). Prejudice is frequently an outgrowth of ethnocentrism, the tendency to value positively one's own group and denigrate others. It can lead to discrimination, which is a behavior: the denial of equal treatment to a group's members, exemplified by the refusal to sell homes in certain neighborhoods to minority-group members. The investigation of prejudice was one of the early testing grounds for survey research. In the United States, this research uncovered a dimension of social distance, expressing the specific gradations of social intimacy the majority is willing to tolerate with the members of various ethnic groups (Bogardus 1928). Recent research has revealed a paradoxical set of changes: on the one hand, a secular decline in traditional prejudice, most notably the prejudiced attitudes and beliefs held by whites about blacks; on the other, little increase in support for government policies that implement principles of racial equality (Schuman et al. 1998). This divergence has led many scholars to theorize about the emergence of modern forms of prejudice, exemplified by the concept of symbolic racism (Kinder and Sears 1981).

However persuasive as explanatory factors prejudice and discrimination may appear to the layperson, sociologists have in recent decades more and more neglected them in favor of institutional, or structural, mechanisms of inequality (see, e.g., Bonilla-Silva 1997). One reason for this shift has been skepticism that prejudice and individual-level discrimination by themselves are adequate to account for the depth and durability of racial and ethnic cleavages in industrial societies, especially since these purported explanatory factors have seemed to decline in tandem with rising educational levels. (However, the emphasis on structural mechanisms can itself be faulted for neglecting the ideological component in racism.)

One expression of the focus on structural factors has been the notion of institutional racism (Blauner 1972). According to it, inequality among racial and ethnic groups depends not so much on individual acts of discrimination as it does on the workings of such institutions as the schools and the police, which process and sort individuals according to their racial and ethnic origins and ultimately impose very different outcomes on them. An assumption of this approach is that this sort of discrimination can occur on a wide scale without equally widespread prejudice. Indeed, it may even be possible without any discriminatory intent on the part of individuals in authority; an example would be educational tracking systems, which sort students according to racial background based on culturally and socially biased cues that are presumed by teachers and administrators to be related to intellectual ability. Studies deriving from the notion of institutional racism have in fact provided some compelling analyses of the perpetuation of inequalities (on education, see Persell 1977), although they also can easily descend into controversy, as when any unequal outcome is declared to indicate the operation of racism.

A crucial arena in which both institutional and individual forms of racism operate to produce inequality is that of residence. Residential segregation is probably the most prominent indicator of the persisting importance of race in the United States; and it is critical to many other inequalities because life chances, especially for children, vary sharply across neighborhoods, which differ in many ways, from the qualities of the housing and schools they contain to the risks that their residents will be victims of crime. Decades of research with highly refined data and measures, such as the well-known Index of Dissimilarity, have shown that levels of neighborhood segregation by race are quite high and, at best, moderating very slowly (Farley and Frey 1994; Massey and Denton 1993). The pattern in many American cities can be described as one of hypersegregation, in the sense that the overwhelming majority of African Americans reside in large, consolidated ghettos containing virtually no whites and few members of other groups (Massey and Denton 1993). Residential segregation is not much explained by the economic inequalities between whites and blacks. So-called audit studies, involving matched pairs of white and black housing applicants, reveal considerable outright discrimination in the housing market. While whites are now more willing than in the past to accept blacks as neighbors, it appears that their tolerance is usually limited to small numbers. Contemporary segregation is also the consequence of government policies, past and present. The policies of the Federal Housing Administration, which effectively led in the 1930s to the modern mortgage instrument but were biased against mortgage lending in areas with many black residents, have had an enduring impact of American residential patterns, reflected in the division between largely white suburbs and largely nonwhite cities. (For a thorough discussion of the mechanisms behind segregation, see Massey and Denton 1993.)

A major theme in the stratification approach is the often complicated relationship, or interaction, between ethnicity and social class. One viewpoint is that ethnicity is, to some degree at least, a manifestation of deeply rooted class dynamics. This has led to analyses that emphasize the economic and material foundations of what appear superficially to be cultural and ethnic distinctions. Analyses of this type have sometimes been inspired by Marxism, but they are hardly limited to Marxists. For example, Herbert Gans ([1962] 1982), in an influential analysis of second-generation Italians in a Boston neighborhood, argued that many of their distinctive traits could be understood as a function of their working-class position, which was not greatly changed from the situation of their southern Italian ancestors. In a related vein, Stephen Steinberg (1989) argues that cultural explanations of ethnic inequalities, which impute "undesirable" characteristics to some groups and "desirable" ones to others, are often rationalizations of economic privilege.

It is sometimes argued that inequalities that once rested on an ethnic basis now rest primarily on one of class. An important, if controversial, instance is William J. Wilson's (1978, 1987) claim of a "declining significance of race" for American blacks. One part of Wilson's argument focuses on an increasing socioeconomic division within the black population. This is held to result from the increasing opportunities available to young, well-educated African Americans since the 1960s. However, while improvements have been registered for a minority of the group, the lot of the black poor has not improved—it has even worsened. Wilson describes their situation as one of an underclass, which he defines in terms of isolation from the mainstream economy and society. His explanations for the emergence of the underclass are structural, not individualistic, and include the spatial concentration of the black poor in rundown urban neighborhoods, which have been stripped of their institutional fabric and middle-class residents, and the exodus of suitable job opportunities from central cities to suburbs and Sunbelt areas. In opposition to Wilson, others have argued that the emergence of underclass ghettos is better understood as a consequence of racism, as exemplified in residential segregation (e.g., Massey and Denton 1993).

An economic approach has also been used to explain ethnic conflict, which is seen as an outgrowth of the conflicting material interests of different ethnic groups. An exempler is provided by the theory of the ethnically split labor market (Bonacich 1972). Such a labor market develops when two ethnically different groups of workers compete (or could compete) for the same jobs at different costs to employers. It is typical in such situations for the higher-priced group of workers to have the same ethnic origins as employers, and therefore for the lower-priced group to be ethnically different from both. Nevertheless, it is in the interest of employers to substitute lower-priced workers for higher-priced ones wherever possible, despite the ethnic ties they share with the latter. Intense ethnic conflict can therefore develop between the two groups of workers, as the higherpriced group seeks to eliminate the threat to its interests. Two strategies may be employed: exclusion of the lower-priced group (for example, through legal restrictions on the immigration of its members) or creation of a caste system, that is, the limitation of the lower-priced group to a separate sphere of undesirable jobs. Split-labor-market theory has been applied to black–white relations in South Africa and the United States.

Yet, even in terms of a strictly economic approach, the precise genesis of the conflict between different ethnic groups of workers is open to question, and the theory of segmented labor markets draws another picture (Piore 1979). This theory divides the economies and labor markets of advanced capitalist societies into a primary sector, which contains relatively secure, well-paid jobs with decent working conditions and the opportunity for advancement, and a secondary sector, made up of insecure, dead-end jobs at low wages. Regardless of their class position, workers from the dominant group prefer to avoid jobs in the secondary sector, and usually they can manage to do so. Even unemployment may not be sufficient to force them into the secondary sector, since the benefits and resources available to most members of the dominant group, such as relatively generous unemployment compensation and seniority rights, enable them to wait out periodic unemployment. Hence, there is a need for another supply of workers, typically drawn from minorities and immigrants, who have no alternative but to accept employment in the secondary sector. Immigrants, in fact, are often willing to take these jobs because, as sojourners, they find the social stigma attached to the work to be less meaningful than do the native-born. In contrast to the theory of the split labor market, which takes the existence of an ethnic difference among workers as a given, segmented-labor-market theory can explain why ethnic differences, especially between natives and immigrants, are so prevalent and persistent in the industrial societies of the West.

An economic explanation of ethnic differences is sometimes placed in a context of worldwide colonialism and capitalist exploitation (Rex 1981). Indeed, ethnic inequalities within a society are sometimes seen as the consequence of international relations between colonizers and the colonized. The notion that subordinate groups form economically exploited internal colonies in Western societies is an expression of this view (Blauner 1972). This notion is compatible with a hypothesis of a cultural division of labor, according to which positions in the socioeconomic order are assigned on the basis of cultural markers and hence ethnic origin (Hechter 1975).

The stratification approach need not focus exclusively on socioeconomic differences. Some scholars, in fact, prefer to see inequalities of power as more fundamental (Horowitz 1985; Stone 1985). This is a very general perspective on ethnic stratification, which is quite compatible with such fundamental notions as dominant and subordinate groups. According to it, social-class relations are but one instance, no matter how important, of the institutionalized inequalities between ethnic groups. Equally important, ethnic dominance cannot be reduced to, or explained solely in terms of, social-class mechanisms. (An implication is that class analysis of ethnic relations can be reductionist, an attempt to explain away ethnicity's causal independence.) Thus, the antagonism and sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is not comprehensible solely in terms of a social-class analysis, even though aggregate class differences between the groups exist as a result of centuries-long Protestant domination. This domination, the legacy of the colonial treatment of Ireland by the British, is manifest in a number of areas—in separate residential neighborhoods and schools, in social relations between members of the two groups, and in the political system. In short, domination encompasses much more than social-class privilege and gives even working-class members of the Protestant group a sense of status and superiority.

Distinguishing empirically between ethnic stratification based on power and that rooted in economic structure has proven difficult. In one attempt, Hubert Blalock (1967) formulated a power threat hypothesis, to be contrasted with one derived from economic competition between groups. These two hypotheses can be tested in the relationship between discrimination and the size of a minority group. In particular, threats to the power of the dominant group are expected to result in discrimination that rises sharply with increases in the size of a minority; the same is not true for economic competition. So far, this test has been applied mainly to the American South (Tolnay and Beck 1995).

Theories concerning power differentials among ethnic groups border on the third major approach to the study of ethnicity, with its focus on ethnic-group resources. This approach, like the preceding one, takes its point of departure from the inequalities among groups. However, its vision is less one of the domination of some groups over others than it is of a more balanced competition that is affected by characteristics of the groups, such as their numbers, their solidarity, and their ability to form separate ethnic subeconomies. Such characteristics can give the group and its members relative advantages, or disadvantages, in this competition. Insofar as advantages are conferred, there may incentives for individuals to maintain their attachments to a group rather than assimilate. In a sense, theories of ethnic-group resources can be seen as counterarguments to assimilation theories.

This is certainly clear in Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's ([1963] 1970) politically based explanation for the continuing importance of ethnicity in the United States. These authors acknowledge that immigrant cultures fade quickly under the impact of the assimilation process; assimilation is accomplished to this degree. However, ethnicity comes to coincide with differences in American circumstances, such as residential and occupational concentrations, which are similarly affected by government policies and actions. Hence, ethnicity takes on importance in the political sphere: Ethnic groups become "interest groups," reflecting the interests of many similarly situated individuals. This role breathes new life into what might otherwise languish as an Old World social form. Glazer and Moynihan give many examples of the working of such interest groups in New York City.

Others have argued that ethnicity has become "politicized" in many contemporary societies, including many industrialized ones, and this leads to an unanticipated ethnic "resurgence." Daniel Bell (1975) states one basis for this point of view, claiming that politics is increasingly replacing the market as the chief instrument of distribution and that politics recognizes only group claims, thus enhancing ethnicity's political import. (The direction of change seems to have shifted since then, however.) In a more general fashion, Francois Nielsen (1985) contends that ethnicity offers a wider basis for political recruitment than the chief alternative, social class, and therefore ethnic-based movements have a greater chance for success. Addressing the situation in Third World societies, Donald Horowitz (1985) sees the ethnic political conflict that troubles many of them as originating in part in colonial policies and then being intensified by the anxieties of groups over their status in the postcolonial order.

Students of ethnic politicization have focused especially on the phenomenon of ethnic mobilization, which is epitomized in separatist movements in modern states, as in the Congo, Quebec, and Tibet (Olzak 1983). Mobilization can be regarded as one manifestation of the state of ethnic solidarity, a core concept in the literature on ethnicity. Ethnic groups marked by solidarity can be defined as self-conscious communities whose members interact with each other to achieve common purposes, and mobilization occurs when members take some collective action to advance these purposes. Recent research on ethnic movements appears to demonstrate that they are not generally interpretable in modern polities as the vestiges of traditional loyalties that have yet to be submerged by the modernization processes attendant upon development; rather, such movements can be outcomes of these processes and thus increase as economic development proceeds. The specific causes of this linkage are disputed, however (Olzak 1983).

Culture is another domain in which the search for group resources has been carried out. The group-resources approach is compatible with the cultural-pluralist description of society, described earlier. More commonly in the past than today, the relative success of ethnic groups has been explained in terms of cultural traits. Quite often, the advantages these give have been analyzed in social-psychological terms. A well-known attempt along these lines was that of Bernard Rosen (1959), who matched American ethnic groups against the profile of the "achievement syndrome," a configuration of values that was presumed to predispose individuals to success. Included was an orientation to the future rather than the past and a downplaying of fatalism. In Rosen's analysis, the presence or absence of these traits in the culture of a group was explained according to the group's history and experience, and frequently in terms of the culture of the society from which it came. This sort of analysis, presuming stable cultural traits and rooting socioeconomic success in social-psychological prerequisites, has fallen into disfavor of late. In fact, it is often seen more as popular myth than as social science (Steinberg 1989). Cultural explanations, however, are not limited to the social-psychological realm. As one example, Ivan Light (1972) has devised an intriguing partial explanation for the entrepreneurial proclivities of different groups—in terms of the extent to which their cultures sponsor mechanisms that generate capital for the start-up of small businesses. Light argues that the business success of some Asian groups can be understood in part as an outcome of the rotating-credit association, a traditional social form imported from their home societies. Nevertheless, sociologists recently have stressed the malleability of culture and have tended to view it more as an adaptation to, and hence outcome of, socioeconomic position than as a cause of it. Consequently, cultural interpretations currently play only a minor role in the study of ethnicity. This may be a neglect engendered by cyclical intellectual fashion—in the future, they may loom larger, especially in the analysis of the immigrant groups proliferating in many societies (see, e.g., Zhou and Bankston 1998).

A focus of intense interest in recent years has been on the economic resources some groups are able to attain and thus on the advantages and opportunities adhering to ethnicity for their members. This interest is expressed in somewhat divergent research streams, running along distinctive conceptual channels. One has been carved out around the linkage that appears in many societies between minority-group status and entrepreneurial activity. This linkage makes sense in terms of the disadvantages borne by many minority groups in mainstream economies, where they may suffer from various forms of discrimination and be channeled into low-status positions. Entrepreneurial activity, then, represents an attempt to evade these economic disadvantages. But, as many observers have pointed out, this hypothesis alone cannot account for the wide variation in entrepreneurial levels and forms among groups (Light 1984). An early attempt at a general theory is that of middleman minorities, which begins from the observation that a few groups, such as the Chinese and Jews, have occupied entrepreneurial niches in numerous societies (Bonacich 1973). The theory views entrepreurialism, especially in commercial forms, as consistent with the sojourner status and interstititial position of these groups, between elites and masses. Yet this theory is too specific to account for contemporary immigrant entrepreneurialism, which frequently, for instance, involves nonsojourner groups. Therefore, Ivan Light (1984) has turned toward broader conceptual accounting schemes, seeing a range of ethnic and class resources as behind entrepreneurialism. Very intriguing here is the notion of ethnic resources, which include the established ethnic networks that train newly arrived immigrants and set them up in business. This notion helps to account for the clustering that is so obvious in ethnic small business, such as the concentration of New York's Koreans in greengroceries and dry cleaning.

A second stream of research builds partly on the immigrant proclivity toward entrepreneurialism. The theory of the ethnic enclave, developed by Alejandro Portes and various collaborators, holds that some groups are able to form ethnic subeconomies, which shelter not only entrepreneurs but also workers from the disadvantages they would face in the secondary sectors of the mainstream economy (Portes and Bach 1985). Enclave theory is particularly interesting because it provides a material motive for resisting assimilation. As exemplified in the case of the Cubans of Miami, enclave-forming groups typically contain a high-status stratum composed of individuals with professional occupations, capital, or both, along with lower-status strata of workers seeking employment. A key to a full-fledged enclave is the establishment of networks of firms in interrelated economic sectors. The success of these firms is predicated on ethnic loyalties to an important degree. Workers and bosses may find mutual advantage where they share the same ethnicity. Workers may be willing to work longer hours or for lower wages, thus enhancing the profitability of a business, because they are able to work in a culturally familiar environment (usually speaking their mother tongue, for example). Workers may also have the opportunity to learn about running a business, and some eventually graduate to become entrepreneurs themselves. Enclave economies may be sustained in part by servicing the needs of their own ethnic communities, but if they are to be truly robust, they must also plug into the mainstream economy. This is the case, for instance, with the many ethnic firms in the American garment industry.

Despite its attractiveness on theoretical grounds, the implications of the enclave economy are disputed. One criticism is that such an economy offers few benefits for workers; the economic gains accrue to ethnic entrepreneurs (Sanders and Nee 1987). In addition, there is growing recognition that fully formed enclave economies are uncommon (Logan et al. 1994). These problems have led investigators to reinvigorate a broader notion, that of the ethnic niche, which refers to any economic position where a group is sufficiently concentrated to draw advantage from it, typically by being able to steer its own members into openings (Model 1997; Waldinger 1996). Thus, one can speak of an entreneurial niche, such as the Koreans have established in various lines of small business, or of an occupational niche, exemplified by the former dominance of the Irish in municipal employment in numerous cities. The ethnic-niche idea implicates other notions, such as the operation of ethnic networks that assist group members in finding positions in a niche. The niche idea is also frequently linked to that of an ethnic queue, an hierarchical ordering among minority groups, and to demographic and socioeconomic shifts. The latter open up niches, as exemplified by the withdrawal of white ethnics from some lines of small business in American cities, and the former determine which other groups are best positioned to take advantage of the openings (Waldinger 1996).

Oddly, a relatively neglected dimension of the ethnic-resources perspective concerns ethnic communities themselves, despite an almost universal recognition among scholars that some ethnics prefer to live in communities where their fellow ethnics are a numerous, if not the predominant, element of the population. Ethnic neighborhoods continue to be a salient aspect of metropolitan life in the United States and connected to inequalities that affect the well-being and life chances of their residents; and now they are emerging on a substantial scale in suburban settings (Horton 1995). A longstanding idea is that the residents of "institutionally complete" communities are less likely to assimilate (Breton 1964). Given the burgeoning of immigrant communities in the United States and elsewhere, it seems certain that this scholarly neglect will soon be repaired.

The final orientation, the social constructionist one, is so new that it cannot yet be said to have accumulated a substantial corpus of findings (for general reviews, see Nagel 1994; Omi and Winant 1996). This is not to deny its roots in the classical conception of ethnicity, as exemplified by the Weberian definition cited earlier, with its emphasis on the subjective view and, implicitly, on the relation of ethnic boundaries to social closure. As its name implies, this perspective stresses that ethnic boundaries and meanings are not preordained but malleable and thus that an understanding of ethnic distinctions must generally be sought in contemporary, rather than historical, circumstances. This perspective is especially attuned to the possible emergence of new forms of ethnicity, as some see, for instance, in the cultural hybridity associated with the rising frequency of mixed racial ancestry in the United States. There is also an emphasis on heightened ethnic fluidity, even the potential for revolutionary shifts, in the present because of the rise of the global economy and associated phenomena, such as large-scale migrations across borders, cultural diffusions, and transnational networks (Sassen 1988).

The most striking findings to emerge from this perspective concern historical shifts in racial boundaries, confounding the lay view that racial distinctions are determined by impossible-to-over-look physical differences among humans. Yet, historically, such boundaries have shifted in the United States within relatively brief intervals. During their immigrations, Irish Catholics, Italians, and Eastern European Jews were all perceived as racially different from native-born whites, as nineteenth-century cartoon depictions of the Irish demonstrate. Today, the racial element in the perception of ethnic differences among whites has disappeared. The limited historical studies have not yet fully explicated the decades-long process by which this happened but make clear that it was not benign, as immigrants used violence and stereotyping, among other means, to create social distance between themselves and African Americans and thereby make plausible their candidacy for "whiteness" (see Ignatiev 1995; Roediger 1991). Then, their acceptability to other white Americans grew as they climbed the social ladder and mixed occupationally and residentially with other whites.

In conclusion, one must acknowledge that the literature on ethnicity remains unsettled in its theoretical core. The persistence—perhaps even the resurgence—of ethnic difference and conflict in societies throughout the world has attracted much attention from sociologists and other social scientists. But the paradoxes associated with ethnicity, evidenced in the United States by the assimilation of some groups and the continued separateness and even subordination of others, have yet to be resolved. They remain fruitful for sociology, nevertheless: The study of ethnicity has produced some of the discipline's most striking findings and, no doubt, will continue to do so.


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Ignatiev, Noel 1995 How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.

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Richard D. Alba


views updated May 23 2018





Ethnicity refers to the differentiation of groups of people who have shared cultural meanings, memories, and descent produced through social interaction. In classical Greek, the terms ethnos and ethnikos were used in a number of ways to refer to a collectivity that shares similar cultural or biological characteristicsfor example, a tribe of people or a band of friendsand who were not Greek, came from outside the nation, were foreign and different, and were also considered inferior, barbarian, and less civilized. This distinction between ethnically marked others and nonethnically marked us persists in modern popular usage with references to ethnic fashion or food.

Sociological accounts of ethnicity are highly varied but tend to break the classical linkage between ethnicity and other in asserting that all people are ethnically located in that their subjectivity and identity are contextualized by history, language, descent, and culture. Ethnicity usually refers to the differentiation of social groups on the basis of the following distinct criteria. First, a notion of a homeland or place of common origin is a key element. It is often linked to the idea of a diaspora, where an ethnic group has migrated from the homeland to form communities elsewhere whose members identify with their place of origin. Second, a common language, either distinctive in itself or a distinct dialect of a language shared with others, may be central to the construction of shared memories and affective belonging. Identification with a distinct religionfor example, Sikhismor a religion shared with others can be a central feature of many ethnic groups. A common culture with distinctive social institutions and behavior, diet, and dress, as well as a common tradition or shared history of ones own people or nation are other criteria used in specifying ethnic groups.

Ethnicities may be highly durable over millennia and space, and they can also be formed from new conjunctions of social contexts. This occurs, for example, when migrants shape a new backward-looking sense of ethnic belonging with the construction of national context to produce hyphenated forms, such as British-Asian or Hispanic-American. Ethnic solidarity can provide a deep sense of physical and psychological security, allowing individuals to identify and find a sense of common purpose with a great and long-lasting tradition of people. But if fictive shared beliefs underlie ethnic differentiation, then the boundaries of ethnic groups are inevitably unclear and caution is required in assessing the extent to which external categories accurately reflect social meanings, social roles, and wider social inequalities. There may often be a poor fit between the state and bureaucratic constructions of ethnic categories and dynamic forms of intersubjective ethnic identities.

Scholars have made various attempts to develop global typologies of ethnicity, including those by Thomas Eriksen (1993) and Stephen Castles (2000). These typologies include indigenous peoples dispossessed and overwhelmed by colonizers. The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have similar histories in this respect and contain indigenous minoritiesAborigines, Maoris, Native Americans, and Native Canadianswho remain in unequal marginalized positions. Indigenous groups are also found in Latin America, where there have been massacres, for example, in Guatemala in the 1980s, and in most Asian countries, where native groups may be categorized as tribal peoples or hill tribes (Castles 2000). Other categories and contexts include: migrant workers and their descendants forming strong ethnic communitiesfor example, Turks in Germany or Pakistanis in the United Kingdom; ethno-nationsfor example, the Quebecois in Canada or the Basques in Spainwith regional ethnic groups contesting national control; postslavery groups in, for example, Brazil, the United States, and the Caribbean; and people living in postcolonial and postcommunist contexts, as in, for example, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, or the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic loyalties have had grave consequences in terms of conflict and violence.


Ethnic hostility, discrimination, and exclusion take many forms, but three broad categories can be identified. The first category includes the most severe acts involving mass societal aggression, such as the annihilation of native peoples in North America, South Africa, and Australia from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries; the Nazi Holocaust during World War II (19391945); plantation slavery from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries; or the massacres of Tutsi by Hutu in Rwanda in 1994 and ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbs in the 1990s. The second category of ethnic exclusion and discrimination involves denial of access to societal opportunities and rewards in such areas as employment, education, housing, health care, and justice. Many instances of such discrimination have been documented in Europe by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, mostly affecting Roma, Sinti, Gypsy, and Traveller groups. Poor mental and physical health, lower levels of educational attainment, restricted access to work, and lower income levels have been linked to poor housing conditions for many of these groups. The lack of social rights has also constrained their opportunities for political participation. A third category of ethnic discrimination includes the use of derogatory or abusive language or forms of representation that are felt to be offensive (e.g., the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons that circulated in 2005 and 2006). Such derogatory expressions, together with racist jokes, the use of Nazi insignia, and unwitting stereotyping and pejorative phrases, may constitute lesser forms of ethnic hostility. Explanations for ethnic conflict must encompass micropsychological processes, individual and group experiences, and competition and socialization, together with structural power relations and aspects of globalization.

Sociological approaches to conceptualizing ethnicity fall into two camps. Primordial approaches, first suggested by Edward Shils in 1957, regard ties of blood, race, language, region, and custom as exterior, coercive, and given. This approach has been criticized as static and naturalistic, and as failing to account for the impact of immigration and intermarriage. In contrast, instrumentalist approaches, represented, for example, by Michael Bantons work on ethnic competition (1993), view ethnicity as a social, political, and cultural resource that can be used in competition for resources or as a motivation for conflict. This approach has been criticized for underplaying durable, affective, and persisting constructions of ethnic identity. The transactionalist mode of enquiry advocated by Fredrik Barth is seen as making a vital contribution to the instrumentalist approach in arguing that the critical focus of investigation from this point of view becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff which it encloses (Barth 1969, p.15). The conceptual separation of culture and ethnicity and the focus on processes of interaction and boundary-maintenance have been highly influential.

As with culture, the concepts of race and nation crosscut the specification of ethnicity. As Steve Fenton (2003) has argued, the word nation also refers to groups of people with common descent, culture, and a shared sense of territory. But what differentiates a nation from an ethnic group is its members construction as a state or a statelike political form. Also, ethnic groups are more frequently conceived as a subset of the nation-state, particularly where states do not have a pure monoethnic form. The word race also refers to groups with a common descent and culture, but race carries an explicit reference to physical or visible difference. Race may operate as a subset of ethnicity, being one of the many markers used to differentiate a particular ethnic group. On the other hand, ethnicity may operate as a subset of a race, where one racial group is seen as encompassing many ethnic groupsfor example, the community of black British within which Caribbean ethnicities have been erased.

Competing sociological accounts of ethnicity have been classified and critically differentiated by Siniša Malešević (2004). Classical sociology, neo-Marxism, functionalism, symbolic interactionism, sociobiology, rational-choice theory, elite theory, neo-Weberian approaches, and antifoundationalist positions have all been used to theorize ethnicity. Malešević illustrates how each position can be used to provide an explanation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and he highlights key epistemological tensions. Differing approaches prioritize different determining factors, ranging from the legacy of German and Belgian colonial divide-and-rule policies in the region; the downfall of the Rwandan economy; the lack of a common cultural system; the primordial ethnic differentiation between shorter, darker Hutus and taller, light-skinned Tutsi; the individual self-interest of those involved; the motives and behavior of Hutu power holders; status differentiation between Tutsi aristocracy and Hutu farmers; and the rationalist urge to impose order on difference using modernist methods. Central factors in such cases also include, as Helen Fein (1993) has argued in relation to Armenian genocide during World War I (19141918) and the Nazi Holocaust, the rise of new elites in declining states who see their idealized political vision as exclusive and who position minorities as outside moral obligation, and where extermination is less visible and operates with little fear of sanction.


Ethnic relations encompass highly varied, complex forms of social relations where attachment to cultural difference is paramount. Milton Esman (2004) has identified differing categories of ethnic relations. Exclusionary domination involves enforcing an ethnically stratified system of unequal rights, status, and opportunities. This was common in European colonial societies on all continents, in apartheid-era South Africa, and in many of the more extreme cases previously noted. Inclusionary domination or assimilation involves dismantling ethnic cultures, languages, and attachments by facilitating acculturation to the nation. The classic French republican model of aggressive assimilation, the Thai governments approach to its Chinese minority, and the Turkish governments approach to Turkeys large Kurdish minority are all examples of this form of ethnic relations.

Granting rights to minority groups can also ensure their domination. Limited rights have been granted to Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel, but these rights serve to confirm their second-class status, and there remains entrenched opposition to equal rights with Jewish Israelis. In Malaysia, domination with significant but unequal rights for Chinese and Indian citizens is well established. Power-sharing solutions have been developed in many national contexts where ethnic divisions have not produced conflict or separation. Belgium, India, and Switzerland provide examples where forms of federalism and consociationalism have enabled the establishment of multiethnic states. This approach supports ethnic pluralism, while the final position, integration, foresees its decline with the gradual building of social and cultural cohesion. This position is strongly advocated in the United Kingdom, where multiculturalism was officially abandoned in 2004 due to its perceived effect as ethnically divisive, in favor of policies concerned with community cohesion ad integration. Here, integration is seen as encompassing the goals of ethnic equality and ethnic interaction, with strong concern over ethnic groups that lead parallel and separated lives.

The strength of ethnic loyalties and their practical adequacy for many people in making sense of their position in the world in premodern, modern, and contemporary times indicates the likelihood that ethnic conflict will continue, despite international declarations and interventions, creative national policies, and interethnic mixing. Ethnic conflict is a world-wide phenomenon that has become the leading source of lethal violence in international affairs (Esman 2004, p. 26). In the context of insecure national states and global inequalities, population mobility and international migration will lead to greater cultural diversification of national populations. New technologies and changing patterns of consumption are driving the construction of larger regional and global cultures. These globalizing, cosmopolitan forces are also stimulating new forms of ethnic defensiveness and hostility toward new migrants, as is occurring in the United States, as well as toward long-established minorities, as evident in the development of anti-Semitic movements and anti-minority hate speech in Russia. Nevertheless, social science failed to predict the demise of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, as John Stone and Rutledge Dennis (2003) remind us, and this one example indicates the importance of theorizing and understanding the potential for constructive conflict resolution.

SEE ALSO Assimilation; Immigrants to North America; Multiculturalism; Race


Banton, Michael. 1993. Racial and Ethnic Competition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Barth, Fredrik, ed. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference. London: Allen and Unwin.

Castles, Stephen. 2000. Ethnicity and Globalization: From Migrant Worker to Transnational Citizen. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Eriksen, Thomas. 1993. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London and Boulder, CO: Pluto.

Esman, Milton J. 2004. An Introduction to Ethnic Conflict. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Fein, Helen. 1990. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Fenton, Steve. 2003. Ethnicity. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity

Malešević, Siniša. 2004. The Sociology of Ethnicity. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shils, Edward. 1957. Primordial, Personal, Sacred, and Civil Ties. British Journal of Sociology 8 (2): 130145.

Stone, John, and Rutledge Dennis, eds. 2003. Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and Theoretical Approaches. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ian Law


views updated Jun 08 2018


The term ethnicity was coined by American sociologists in the 1920s to describe the phenomena and the politicization of the basic concept of an ethnic group. It derives from the Greek word ethnos, meaning "peoples." The problem is that ethnic groups are almost always seen as minorities, not as peoples.

Ethnicity has been the dominant motif in most modern genocides and acts of mass violence in the twentieth century, particularly in the deadliest "genocides-in-whole" (according to the UN Convention of 1948), which were all committed by perpetrators from ruling national majorities against members of ethnic and religious minority groups. Examples are the large-scale genocides committed by the regime of the Young Turks against the Armenians (AGHET), Pontian Greeks, and Assyrians in the 1920s; the Holocaust committed by the German Nazis and their allies and vassal regimes between 1939 and 1945 throughout most of Europe against the Jews (SHOA), Roma (PORRAJMOS), Soviet POWs, Slavic peoples, and twenty other groups; and the widespread slaughter committed in 1994 between April 6 and mid-July by the Hutu power regime in Rwanda against the Tutsi. Colonial genocides begun in the fifteenth century but in some cases continued into the twentieth century. One of the most devastating was committed by the Belgian colonizers in the Congo Free State, the later Belgian Congo, from the 1870s to the 1920s against the indigenous African peoples of the Great Congo Basin (taking 12 to 18 million victims), as well as the smaller but almost total genocide by the German colonialists against the Herero and Nama in Namibia (that time German Southwest Africa) from 1904 to 1907.

Ethnic category killing was predominant in genocide as well as in violent conflict. In the 20th century, genocide directed against ethnic and religious groups has been the dominant form of both extermination-in-whole and in-part. Additionally, the ethnic factor has been predominant in two thirds of some 300 intra-state violent conflicts since World War II—more precisely, since the period of decolonization that started in 1948—as well as in a number of inter-state conflicts.

The ethnic factor also plays a leading role in what has been termed ethnic cleansing, which is more accurately termed expulsions or deportations. Another euphemistic expression for ethnic cleansing is "population transfer," although atrocities may be included as a part of such activities. Contrary to genocide and violent ethnic conflict, the aim of ethnic cleansing is not to kill all the members of an ethnic group in a territory, but to drive that ethnic group from their ancestral lands and settlement area. Ethnocide or cultural genocide, on the other hand, is an attempt to wipe out the culture of a particular group and replace it with the majority "national" culture by means of repression and assimilation, not by killing the members of a distinct ethnic or cultural group.

The ethnic factor is delimited, but contentiously, within certain boundaries, in the older social science disciplines of ethnology and social/cultural anthropology. There are quite a variety and number of categorizations offered by the different ethnological and anthropological schools, but any combination of the more accessible definitions is not really possible, given the differing approaches and standards used by various scholars. The most frequently mentioned elements of ethnicity are shared origin and similar culture, religion, class, and language. However, two of these (class and religion) are not apposite. Language is seen as the most objective attribute for an ethnically distinct group and, thus, questions have been raised about whether Hutus and Tutsis can be referred to as different ethnic groups, since both groups share the same language and cultural practices as well as religious affiliations.

The ethnic form of socialization must be distinguished from socialization into social classes. The extent and boundaries of the two are often congruent, but they can also merely overlap, as can be seen in more complex societies, or exclude one another entirely, as occurs in egalitarian societies. Religion must be rejected as a criterion for ethnicity, since it is an ideological domain that within the framework of colonialism, was mostly externally imposed and fortuitously selected. Imported, colonially induced religions and syncretistic variants are more common and dominant than indigenous religions.

Whereas there are less than 200 formally constituted states in the world, there are between 2,500 to 6,500 ethnic groups as defined according to linguistic criteria. Lately the figure of 10,000 or more ethnic groups has been mentioned. The variation in figures is due to the differences in the criteria or attributes used to define an ethnos. One of several possible approaches to identifying distinct ethnicities focuses on attributes other than language, for instance on clusters of "special features" or social specializations, which are both seen as contributing to the defining characteristics of a particular ethnos. Such clusters are called "ethnic markers," and are only relevant within the framework of inter-ethnic relations. Often they only become a major focus of perception when situations of conflict arise.

Understanding ethnicity and the ethnic factor can best be done by considering key attributes of an ethnic community:

  1. a historically generated or (in some cases) rediscovered community of people that largely reproduces itself;
  2. a distinct name, which often simply signifies 'person' or 'people' in the ethnic community's language;
  3. a specific, heterogeneous culture, including, particularly, a distinct language;
  4. a collective memory or historical remembrance, including community myths (myths of foundation or emergence relating to shared ancestry); and
  5. solidarity between members of the community, generating a feeling of belonging.

Attributes of ethnic community by no means constitute a definitive checklist. They are, rather, an attempt to get closer to an appropriate understanding of ethnicity, the individual elements of which can be examined more closely for each concrete instance. Maintaining ethnic borders—and thus also being able to delimit different ethnic groups—has its problems. Most peoples live closely and intermingled with other groups. (There is no such thing as ethnically homogeneous or pure "areas," if not as a result of violence and ethnic cleansing.) Over-emphasizing certain elements, such as participation in a shared culture or the social dimension (which sees ethnic groups as a particular form of social organization), would also appear to be problematic. Ethnic communities may be imagined, but as imagined entities they are significantly more concrete and more tangible than that of the nation.

Perspective—that is, whether or not one views ethnicity from inside or outside the group in question—seems crucial to understanding ethnicity. The point of view of group insiders is called an emic perspective, as opposed to the etic view of the outsiders. Emically speaking, most ethnic group members see themselves as a people or as a nation, and the idea of shared origin is crucial. This shared origin does not have to be based on historical fact, and is usually putative, mythical, or fictitious in nature. Emically speaking, however, ethnic affinity is generally not perceived in any way as ideologically generated or as primordial.

In the anthropological literature, theories of ethnicity vary widely depending on the scholarly framework employed, be it primordialism, constructivism, situationism or other orientation. Vastly different statements about group affinity and personal identity can be generated depending on the terms of reference used in the underlying context. In modern societies, for instance, very different conditions of group affinity obtain than in traditional societies. The ethnic and sociocultural identity of an individual also varies according to the location or standpoint of the observer; and the terms by which the Other and the Self (i.e., outgroup and ingroup characteristics) can also vary.

Conflict brings about fundamental changes in frames of reference. In a situation of threat, individual elements of personal and collective identity become enhanced. Alternatively, the political instrumentalization of mechanisms of demarcation is often done for the purposes of exclusion of certain groups. Exclusion marks the crucial step which leads from simple discrimination to more profound instances of ethnic conflict and genocide. Ethnic identity constitutes itself via processes of demarcation that do not occur within a nonauthoritarian space and whose modalities cannot be determined freely and independently. The abstract difference of others poses no problem, but the experience of real threat from others, or a construed feeling of superiority vis-à-vis others, are, in contrast, results of processes of exclusion and polarization. Constant injury to central elements of the shared ethnic identity, either from within or from without the group, elicits specific forms of resistance in each particular case, ranging from withdrawal to armed rebellion.

Since World War II, more than 300 wars and instances of mass murder have taken place worldwide—most of them, until the end of the 1980s, in the less-developed nations. Among the possible conflict types, the most deadly are genocides and certain forms of nonwar mass violence. (Genocide is often committed behind a smoke-screen of war and crisis.) Claims by the governments (usually despotic governments) of a number of nation-states in regard to the national groups, which happen to live on the territory of the respective state (often unwanted) and in regard to ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, seem to become increasingly aggressive in times of change. In empirical and historical terms, this state of affairs has the most dangerous potential, and has been the source of real conflicts and wars both in the underdeveloped world and, since 1989–90, in Eastern Europe, within the former socialist multinational states.

Almost two-thirds of current violent conflicts are susceptible to ethnic interpretation. It was only when the Janus-like countenance of nationalism reappeared in Europe (after the dissolution of the Soviet Socialist Republics) that the media and broad sections of the public in the West became aware of this global trend towards ethnic nationalism, of which there had been evidence since the period of decolonization. It was a long-established fact that this belated nationalism represented a renegotiation of the situation left behind by the colonial world-order. It involved a fundamental struggle between liberation and oppression, between emancipation and barbarity.

The global trend toward an increase of intra-state conflicts and a decrease—if not near disappearance—of the classic Clausewitzean "war between states" has grown steadily greater over the second half of the twentieth century. The trend reflects the increasing importance of intra-state conditions in the generation of conflict, but the violence that ultimately erupts often spills over borders. There is a multiplication of actors in some complex new conflicts, with the Congo and Sudan being the best examples.

In empirical research, different types of contemporary conflicts can be observed. Their dominant character is either anti-regime or ethno-nationalistic, followed by interethnic wars, often without state actors being involved, and gang wars and warlordism, which have been named "post-modern wars" despite the fact that this type of conflict has a long history. There are some decolonization conflicts, as well. A recent example of this type of conflict occurred in East Timor, which was brought under Indonesian occupation by a genocide that reduced the Timorese population by one-third from 1975 to the 1980s. Terrorist conflicts, which in the form of international gang wars gained much attention since September 11, 2001, are neither a new phenomenon nor a particular deadly form of mass violence. Their death toll is relatively low—in 2001 such conflicts may have caused 0.2 percent of all conflictrelated fatalities worldwide.

Conflict types suited to ethnic interpretation—with ethnicity as the mobilizing force—seem to be rapidly increasing in incidence and ferocity, although they have been prominent for quite some time. Increases in violent ethno-nationalist conflicts have been observed in the wake of a number of phases of decolonization. Ethnic conflicts of a violent kind are both products and causes of colonial creation and of the inherent instability of newly formed states. Thus, ethno-nationalism appears to be a response to serious ongoing crises. Its primary cause, the struggle against the neo-colonial state, has strong structural aspects and, therefore, a truly global spread. However, the level of conflict varies considerably in the different regions of the world. As the example of the Community of Independent States (CIS) shows, the structure and dynamics of the process of fragmentation in the recently emerged states of Eastern Europe followed its own rules and differed significantly from the situation in the nations of Africa and other less developed, formerly colonized regions of the world.

Attempts to clarify or resolve sub-national conflicts must be preceded by the realization that existential questions relating to the survival of an ethnic group are not factors that are open to negotiation but essential prerequisites to dialogue. There are a number of highly destructive forms of interaction between states, nations, and nationalities that have resulted in the exclusion and persecution of national groups but that have not yet been subject to systematic investigation and for which the international community has not yet developed any consistent policy. This was demonstrated with devastating clarity in the case of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The crime of genocide not only calls for prevention but for its elimination. Genocide prevention requires different means than the prevention of ethnic violence in general and ethno-nationalism in particular. The political and humanitarian concern to find ways of avoiding violent forms of ethno-nationalism from below and ethnicization from above leads to the questions of (1) how ethnic and cultural difference can be understood and acknowledged; (2) how destructive forms of interaction between states and nations or nationalities can be prevented; and (3) which institutions, legal measures, and policies are most appropriate for that purpose.

Procedures aimed at the "structural prevention" of violence are required. Structural prevention seeks to end repression and injustice, which is ingrained in state policies and underdevelopment, and which is also inherent in the cultural attitudes held by many dominant groups. "Structural" means that new political frameworks and institutions are created to avert the possibility of direct and indirect violence such as discrimination against non-dominant groups. Johan Galtung developed the concept of structural violence in the 1970s, based on his path-breaking distinction between direct personal violence (massacres or war) and structural violence (e.g., impoverishment of a group to the point of lethality). Galtung also reflected on cultural violence, noting, for example, the values that promote and/or justify violence and superiority complexes that result into aggressive attitudes. Here the contribution of systemic peace research can be crucial.

Preventive activities range from initiatives by popular local and regional movements to the elaboration of norms and legal instruments for the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups within the framework of international and universal organizations. Efforts to change violence-promoting conditions through disarmament, controls and bans on arms production and trade, demobilization, and the strengthening of civil society are often neglected in the debate about how to deal with or prevent violent conflicts. Political and institutional consultancy in peaceful dispute-settlement is often carried out by third party go-betweens in the case of protracted ethnic conflicts. Mediation and facilitation in such conflicts can undoubtedly be successful as an instrument of international politics and should not be left solely to state and interstate actors. Efforts at go-between mediation by civil actors and initiatives for preventing and transforming violent ethnic conflicts are arduous, however, and generally hold little attraction for the media.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Cleansing; Ethnic Groups; Ethnocide; Nationalism


Anderson, Benedict (1991). Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. Edition. London: Verso.

Barth, Frederik, ed. (1969). Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown.

Dadrian, Vahakn N. (1997). The History of the Armenian Genocide. Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucuses. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books.

Galtung, Johan (1996). Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. London: Sage Publications.

Isajiw, Wsevolod (1980). "Definitions of Ethnicity." In Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations in Canada, ed. Rita M. Bienvenue and Jay E. Goldstein. Toronto: Buttersworth.

Melson, Robert (1996). Revolution and Genocide. On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sherrer, Christian P. (2001). Genocide and Crisis in Central Africa. Westport, Conn.: Príger.

Scherrer, Christian P. (2002). Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Violence. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.

Scherrer, Christian P. (2002). Structural Prevention of Ethnic Violence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, Anthony D. (1991). National Identity. London: Penguin Books.

Smith, Paul, ed. (1991). Ethnic Groups in International Relations. Aldershot, U.K.: Dartmouth Publishing.

Christian P. Sherrer


views updated Jun 11 2018



Ethnicity is a powerful glue for many groups in society. It typically includes several factors, such as race, religion, culture, and language. The idea of ethnic identity can be found in every culture in the world, and it is often what groups use to separate themselves from other groups in a multicultural society. Ethnic groups can be either a minority or a majority in a society. The dominant group sets its own standards for what is considered "normal" in their society. Stories that deal with ethnicity often tell of minority groups, or of those that are oppressed, discriminated against, ostracized, or even simply misunderstood. Distinct ethnic groups inside a society are frequently from minority groups and also often immigrants. Immigrants from other cultures are most likely to stand out from the overall culture.

Desire to Fit In

Sometimes an individual within an ethnic group is ostracized for exhibiting the very traits the group most wants to reject in themselves. For example, Pecola Breedlove, the young African American girl in Toni Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye (1970), rejects herself and experiences the rejection of her peers because she is "black and ugly." She wants nothing more than to be the very opposite of what she is. The other African Americans in Pecola's town shun and abuse her because they have designated her family the lowest in town, the one that makes the others feel better because they are higher than the Breedloves: "All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her." When her father rapes and impregnates her, Pecola escapes into madness. The children laugh at her and the adults blame her for her misfortune: "when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late."

Those who shun Pecola and laugh at her impossible dream do so precisely because they, too, secretly long to be blonde, blue-eyed, and white. Pecola's blackness makes them so ashamed of their own that they reject her. They hate her because they hate themselves. Their ethnic identity is based on what they can never be—someone else.

Similarly, Archie and Samad in Zadie Smith's uproarious novel White Teeth (2000) both discover that life in multicultural London of the 1970s is tough. Samad accepts an arranged marriage to a woman from his own culture and ends up with two alienated sons. Archie marries a Jamaican woman. They first meet when Samad saves Archie from a suicide attempt. The characters in the novel are basically unhappy with themselves, regardless of their ethnic group. Archie's daughter, Irie, thinks, "Sometimes you want to be different. And sometimes you'd give the hair on your head to be the same as every-body else." At the hairdresser, Irie has tamed her Afro in favor of short, straight hair, hating her non-English appearance. But Irie's friends and family do not approve, and her attempts to pass as white like her father go in vain. About this self-hatred among immigrants and their children in England, the author muses, a "churchgoing lady was determined to go to her grave with long fake nails and a weave-on. Strange as it sounds, there are plenty of people who refuse to meet the Lord with an Afro."

Mixed-Race Identity

Irie comes from two different ethnic groups, Jamaican and English, belonging entirely to neither and rejected by one or both. This lack of a specific ethnic identity also occurs in James McBride's memoir about his white mother, The Color of Water (1997), and in the young half-Vietnamese girl, Loi, in Sherry Garland's young adult novel Song of the Buffalo Boy (1994). McBride's Jewish mother left her immigrant Polish family, who rejected her, married McBride's African American father, and converted to Christianity. Her children found themselves caught between two worlds. But their mother's love turned this mix of cultures into a strength, not a weakness. In contrast, Loi, the child of her Vietnamese mother's liason with an American soldier, is an outcast. The bitter villagers reject her because to them, she represents the American invaders who destroyed their homes and killed their relatives, and their shame at not being able to stop this invasion. But they also reject her out of their own rigidity and racism against outsiders. Refusing to accept this injustice, Loi flees to Saigon to find her father and to escape an arranged marriage. Her search ends unhappily, but it does lead to find a place in Vietnamese society with the one she loves, Khai the "Buffalo Boy."


Stories about ethnicity often explore uncomfortable and taboo subjects. The Bluest Eye, for example, explores incest, child rape, and selfhatred. Song of the Buffalo Boy explores the Vietnam War and the plight of the despised mixedrace children in its aftermath. Conflict between and within ethnic groups can result in shameful acts on both sides, as well as oppression and even genocide.

Gwendolyn Brooks's 1981 poem, "To the Diaspora," for example, evokes the shameful legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which millions of Africans were kidnapped and sold to the Americas as slaves. She asks the people of the diaspora (people of African ancestry living outside Africa) what they might find when they come home to Africa. David Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) explores lives changed by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In the novel, Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese fisherman living in the Pacific Northwest during the 1950s, is arrested for murdering another fisherman. His arrest is a result of his Japanese ethnicity, as suspicion and discrimination remained issues for Japanese Americans on the West Coast for at least a decade after World War II. A local white journalist, Ishmael Chambers, tries to defend him. But Ishmael has an ulterior motive—he is in love with Kabuo's wife Hatsue, with whom he grew up. Kabuo is finally released when the death is ruled an accident. Ishmael's story ends less happily when Hatsue stays with her husband. He sees Hatsue and Kabuo as essentially inscrutable:

[T]he palpitations of Kabuo Miyamoto's heart were unknowable finally. And Hatsue's heart wasn't knowable, either, nor was Carl Heine's [the dead fisherman]. The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious.

For Ishmael, everyone is an "other," an alien person of incomprehensible thoughts, feelings, and cultural attitudes.

Similarly, the young hero of Larry Watson's novel Montana, 1948 (1995) at first sees the behavior of his family's Sioux housekeeper as a mystery. In both novels, white male protagonists tell the stories of female, nonwhite women who are deprived of their voices in society. When the housekeeper falls ill, she refuses to be treated by the protagonist's uncle, the town doctor. When she is later found dead, she appears to have caused her own death by refusing medical treatment. Then, accusations against the uncle begin to surface, and there are rumors that he sexually abused Sioux women under his care. The protagonist tells his story from the distance of adulthood, piecing together a story of prejudice and buried secrets from his own memories and the memories of those who still live and will speak to him. Even dominant groups in society cannot escape the poison that results from oppressing others.

Conflict can even result in the ostracism or attempted destruction of a group or individual, as in Rumer Goddon's young adult novel Gypsy Girl (1972). In it, Kizzy Lovell lives on the edge of a village after her grandmother dies and her wagon burns. The villagers hate and fear gypsies as thieves and tramps and try to drive her out. Only after great struggle is Kizzy able to make them accept her.


People in minority ethnic groups often live in poverty, as they are denied equal education, housing, and professional opportunities. In Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984), young Esperanza Cordero finds her impoverished life on Mango Street oppressive. Even though her family owns their house, she dreams of growing up to have better house of her own. For her, poverty means her family's small house and the humiliations they must endure because they cannot afford anything better. At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza explains the situation:

The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we'd thought we'd get.

Poverty means adjusting one's dreams downward, something that Esperanza longs to escape.

Stories about ethnicity also frequently illustrate the social and economic shocks that immigrant groups suffer when moving to another, often larger, society. The Garcia de la Torre girls, of Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), for example, come from the very top of a rich, but oppressive society in the Dominican Republic. When they move to America, their father struggles for work and their mother struggles with a much lower place in her new society. In assimilating into American society, the four daughters are not just attracted by the wider opportunities of America, but also repelled by the closed and oppressive nature of their old society. The young Dominican men are similarly confused. They like the freedoms of America, but they do not want to share them with the women of their families:

Mundín's eyes do a double blink. For all his liberal education in the States, and all his sleeping around there and here, and all his eager laughter when his Americanized cousins recount their misadventures, his own sister has to be pure.

Even those who want to assimilate the most do not want to change the old system if it means that others in their group will get ahead of them.

Social Change

Some people find strength in embracing not only the successes among their ethnic group, but also the tragic failures in their midst. In Ernest Gaines's novel A Lesson before Dying (1993), an African American teacher, Grant Wiggins, is asked by his aunt to help Jefferson, a condemned man from his community, face death with dignity. Jefferson, a mentally challenged man who witnessed a liquor store shootout that killed two black men and the white store owner, is tried as an accomplice to murder. His defense attorney tells the allwhite jury, "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

Jefferson is condemned to death, despite clearly being unable to comprehend the charges against him or the crime he was supposed to have committed. Grant does not want to help Jefferson at first. Jefferson symbolizes everything about his town that Wiggins tried to leave behind by going to college. But eventually, he realizes that Jefferson is teaching him something far more important about dying that Grant is teaching him. A witness to the execution later tells Grant, "He was the strongest man in that crowded room."

People who embrace their ethnic identity may also find great strength in the specialness it confers. Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928) celebrates her African American heritage instead of dwelling on the pain of slavery, segregation, or forced assimilation. "I am not tragically colored," she insists. She describes going to a nightclub with a white friend. She is caught up, willingly and joyfully, in the wild mood of the jazz music. At the end of the piece, she turns to her white friend, who has been completely unmoved by the music, and she feels sorry for his ignorance. His tonal deafness seems, to her, a function of his drab, colorless ethnic background and she wants no part in it, dominant or not.


In Yoshiko Ushida's novel Picture Bride (1997), Hana Omiya, a young Japanese woman, comes to America at the turn of the century for an arranged marriage with a young, rich businessman. When her husband turns out to be both poor and middleaged, she is disappointed, but remains true to him. She does so by trying to maintain a Japanese home in the United States. Her English remains limited and broken as she proudly clings to her Japanese language and customs. Language becomes a link to her identity.

Language also marks those who assimilate into a new society. In How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Yolanda resists maintaining her Spanish roots, fearing it will affect her English:

The more she practices, the sooner she'll be back into her native tongue, the aunts insist. Yes, and when she returns to the States, she'll find herself suddenly going blank over some word in English or, like her mother, mixing up some common phrase.

To Yolanda, assimilation is easier than a daily compromise between different cultures, because it is less confusing. But it also leads to losing a part of one's self. By refusing to keep her Spanish, Yolanda loses that childhood part of her that speaks and thinks in her native tongue.

Keeping one's culture can go even further than holding onto language and daily customs. Antonio, the young hero of Rudolpho A. Anaya's novel Bless Me Ultima (1994), learns Native American shamanic traditions in 1940s New Mexico. These magical traditions give a surreal quality to the boy's memories when he grows up, but they also enable him to preserve his Native ethnic identity. Not only does his the old healer Ultima speak a different language from English and freely live an impoverished lifestyle that most immigrants would avoid and try to escape, but she has mysterious traditions that defy Western rational thought. The protagonist strives to retain these traditions, even to the point of rejecting the dominant American culture. They give him an especially strong ethnic identity.


When ethnic identity makes the person feel stronger rather than weaker, superior rather than inferior, that person will struggle to retain that identity. When a person holds a weaker position in the old culture than in the new one, his or her attachment to the old ethnic identity likewise becomes weaker. Thus, the Garcia girls lose their accents and Esperanza flees Mango Street. In traditional, non-Western cultures, women are usually required to suppress their own identities as individuals in favor of bolstering their ethnic culture and the identities of their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. They are expected to bear the burden of carrying on the culture by maintaining their households and raising their children in traditional ways, like Hana Omiya in Picture Bride. Stories about ethnic identity often show women fighting and rejecting traditional ethnic ties as too hostile and confining.

However, people like Hurston and characters like Antonio and Ultima can surmount these weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Hurston freely adopts the traditionally male persona of a hunter when listening to jazz music. She converts traditional roles to her own use, making something new and vibrant out of something that is neither purely African nor purely American. Antonio juggles Spanish and Native American culture and comes up with something of both that works for him. Fiction about ethnicity rarely shows such a happy blend of traditions, but the protagonists of such stories often hope for such a solution to their confusion. A healthy culture can mix new traditions with old ones and maintain continuity.


Alvarez, Julia, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, pp. 7, 125.

Cisneros, Sandra, The House on Mango Street, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, pp. 3-4.

Gaines, Ernest J., A Lesson Before Dying, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, pp. 8, 253.

Guterson, David, Snow Falling on Cedars, Harcourt Brace, 1994, p. 345.

Hurston, Zora Neale, How It Feels to Be Colored Me, Barnard Electronic Archive and Teaching Library, (February 4, 2006).

Morrison, Toni, The Bluest Eye, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, pp. 203-204.

Smith, Zadie, White Teeth, Random House, 2000, pp. 227, 237.


views updated May 09 2018


Ethnicity is generally defined as a learned behavior that is transmitted through cultural and social patterns such as norms, values, traditions, social networks, and adaptation to environmental conditions. Although the term "ethnicity" is often used synonymously with the word "race," a major distinction is that ethnicity emphasizes culture rather than genetic or biological factors to explain disease risks or health outcomes. An epidemiological overview of tobacco use among ethnic and minority groups in the United States shows the role of the tobacco industry in promoting consumption among targeted groups.

African Americans

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the smoking prevalence among African Americans is approximately 22 percent, and these smokers consume on average twelve cigarettes per day. Smoking prevalence among African Americans is comparable to smoking among all U.S. adults (22.8% among the general population). African Americans born in the United States, however, are more likely to smoke than their foreign born counterparts.

Smoking-related health problems, such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory illnesses, have disproportionately affected African Americans compared to other ethnic or racially classified social groups. African American adolescents are more likely to begin smoking at later ages, and smoking prevalence among African American youth is significantly lower than that of white, Hispanic American, or American Indian adolescents. However, as adults African Americans smoke at rates similar to whites, but are less likely to quit smoking over their lifetime. These, and other factors, contribute to tobacco-related health disparities (unequal health status).

Asian Americans

Seven of the 10 leading causes of death in Asian Americans are related to smoking. Smoking prevalence has generally decreased among Asian Americans since 1980 (including Pacific Islanders) and was 12.4 percent in 2001 (excluding Pacific Islanders). Similar to the general U.S. population, Asian American smoking prevalence tends to be highest in the twenty-five- to forty-four-year age group.

Asian American women consume considerably fewer cigarettes than Asian American men. However, substantial variation in smoking occurs among Asian American subgroups. Studies indicate that Chinese Americans have the lowest (11.7%) and Korean Americans have the highest (23.5%) overall smoking prevalence among Asian Americans.

Hispanic Americans

Hispanic Americans are the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, and their smoking prevalence is approximately 17 percent, which is due primarily to low cigarette use (12%) among Hispanic American women. Hispanic Americans consist of several diverse cultural groups of which Mexican Americans comprise the largest proportion. Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans are more likely to be smokers than Mexican Americans.

Hispanic men smoke at rates slightly lower than white men (21.6% and 25.4% respectively). Hispanic Americans are more likely to smoke during adolescence (26.6%) compared to African Americans (14.7%) and Asian Americans (12.6%). Studies have found that acculturation (preferred language and ethnic self-identification) is associated with increased smoking among Hispanic women, but not men.

Native Americans

Among the main ethnically or racially classified social groups in the United States, Native Americans (including Alaskan Natives) have the highest prevalence of cigarette smoking (32.7%), and this proportion has been steadily increasing since 1983. Native American populations also show a significantly higher prevalence of smokeless tobacco use than other groups.

Native American adolescents smoke in greater proportions than all other youth (approximately 41.1% of boys and 39.4% of girls by twelfth grade). Less stringent laws governing the sale and promotion of tobacco products on reservations have contributed to greater access by minors to tobacco products and a lower average age of initiation for Native American youth than other populations.

The importance of tobacco in the Native American culture (excluding Alaskan Natives) often presents an enormous challenge in promoting conventional antitobacco messages. In this regard, some studies have suggested that antismoking messages from family members may be most effective in curbing adolescent smoking.

Tobacco Industry Marketing and Ethnic Minority Groups

The tobacco industry has a long history of targeting ethnic and racial minority groups through advertising and funding of community events and organizations. A study of leading African American magazines revealed that tobacco company advertisements appeared more frequently when compared to other types of magazines. Targeted advertising has been employed to promote the use of mentholated (menthol ) cigarettes by African Americans. Researchers estimate that approximately 75 percent of African American smokers prefer mentholated cigarettes.

Japan Tobacco Inc. has marketed its top-selling brand to Asian Americans as being the cigarette manufactured "by Asians for Asians." For the Hispanic American community, tobacco companies have created products with Spanish brand names. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tobacco industry has been highly effective in promoting smoking among Native Americans by funding cultural events such as powwows and rodeos, as well as by using Native American cultural symbols to promote certain tobacco products. By associating their product with positive images of ethnic pride, history, and aspirations, tobacco companies attempt to secure a market niche, increase social acceptability, and expand the use of their products.

Other ethnic populations whose rates of smoking and use of tobacco products are substantial include Pacific Islanders and Alaska Natives. These groups are often classified with either Asian Americans or Native Americans. Additional research that focuses on these smaller populations, as well as social differences within the larger ethnic or racially classified social groups, is needed.

See Also Advertising; Consumption (Demographics); Menthol Cigarettes; Women.





Griesler, Pamela C., and Denise B. Kandel. "Ethnic Differences in Correlates of Adolescent Cigarette Smoking." Journal of Adolescent Health 23 (1998): 167–180.

King, Gary, et al. "Cigarette Smoking Among Native and Foreign-Born Americans." Annals of Epidemiology 9 (1999): 236–244.

Ma, Grace X., and George Henderson, eds. Ethnicity and Substance Abuse: Prevention and Intervention. Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas, 2002.

Perez-Stable, Eliseo J., et al. "Cigarette Smoking Behavior Among U.S. Latino Men and Women from Different Countries of Origin." American Journal of Public Health 91 (2001): 1,424–1,430.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tobacco Use Among U.S. Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups—African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Ga: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998.

epidemiological pertaining to epidemiology, that is, to seeking the causes of disease.

menthol a form of alcohol imparting a mint flavor to some cigarettes.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The Middle East is distinguished by its ethnic and cultural diversity. This diversity, often referred to as a "human mosaic," is the product of long historical processes of which the people themselves are acutely aware. Almost every country in the region has local communities and groups that are distinct from the larger society as a whole and are recognized as such both by themselves and by others. In fact, the recognition and acceptance of communal or ethnic differences has been a basic component of social and political organization in the Middle East. This is best exemplified by the Ottoman millet system whereby the ruling Sunni Muslim Ottomans formally recognized the authority of the religious and communal leaders of the different sectarian communities in their empire. By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman list consisted of about seventeen millets, which included Jews, Druze, Alavis, Armenians, and a number of Christian sects. Ethnicity basically refers to a social or group identity that individuals ascribe to themselves and that is accepted by others; ethnic identities are most commonly based on shared religious affiliation, language or dialect, tribal membership, and regional or local customs.

Ethnic identity, which tends to be perceived as immutable and ascribed at birth, is most commonly a cultural construction that, in practice, is both malleable and contextual. Individuals may choose to stress their ethnic identity in one context and mute it in another; thus an individual may claim to be a Kurd, a Muslim, or an Iranian depending on the particular social or political context. In the Middle East, the primary significance of ethnic identity is its role in the social and political structure of the society. Until the mid-1950s, for example, particular ethnic groups tended to be associated with specific occupational niches: the Jews of the Iranian city of Isfahan specialized in fine metal work and trading in gold and silver, Assyrian Christians of Iraq dominated the hotel and restaurant business, Azeri Turks in Iran were car mechanics and long-distance truck drivers, and most of the cooks in Egypt were Nubians. Today this pattern is changing; mass education, social mobility, and the emergence of new occupations have all but eroded the traditional ethnic divisions of labor in the region.

What are the basic sources of ethnic differentiation in the Middle East? The single most important source of individual and group identity and, by extension, social cleavages, is religious affiliation. Coreligionists perceive themselves as having rights and obligations to each other and interfaith marriage is generally discouraged if not strictly prohibited by all the communities. On a larger scale sectarian divisions have important implications for political action. Secular nationalistic movements within any one country or those like pan-Arabism that seek to transcend national frontiers are usually undermined by sectarianism. Likewise, pan-Islamist movements that presume to encompass all Muslims tend to fracture along Muslim sectarian divisions of Sunnis, Shi˓a, and Alawis, among others. And while non-Muslim communities like the Jews (until the mid-fifties) and the various Christian sects have, on the whole, accommodated themselves to the dominant Muslim rule throughout the Middle East, questions of what constitutes nationality and full citizenship have yet to be resolved in most of the states in the area. This includes the modern Jewish state of Israel as well as that of the Muslim Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Ethnicity in the Middle East is also structured along linguistic differences which, in general, set the largest cultural boundaries between groups. There are three major language families in the region: Semitic, Indo-European, and Altaic or Turkic. Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages. Hebrew is spoken exclusively in Israel while Arabic, with its many dialects, is the national language of the countries of North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf states. Modern Persian and Kurdish are Indo-European languages; Turkish and Azeri belong to the Altaic family of languages. The Berbers of North Africa who, like the Arabs, are Muslims, speak different dialects of Berber, an Afro-Asiatic language and generally refer to themselves as Imazighin (or Imazighen). In countries where large linguistically differentiated populations exist, such as the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran and the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria, language assumes a political dimension. National governments tend to strongly promote one national language and may even at times seek to suppress minority languages, as happened in Turkey with Kurdish. To educate their children and to participate fully in the national economy and culture, members of minority ethnic groups must adopt the national language and, to a certain extent, dissociate themselves from their mother tongue.

Of all the elements that may be used to define groups or social categories, phenotypic race or biological variation is the least important in the Middle East, where the vast majority of the people from the west in Morocco to the east in Afghanistan tend to fall within the same racial category often referred to as "Mediterranean." Where a markedly differentiated population exists such as the ˓abid or blacks in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, the Nubians in Egypt, or the Turkmen of Iran (with their pronounced Mongolian features); such phenotypic differences are locally recognized but are not necessarily associated with an ethnic identity as such. Islam has no racial ideology based on color and, while slavery was practiced throughout the Islamic world, it was not exclusively associated with Africans or any other particular population. The Ottomans recruited slaves from both eastern Europe and the Caucasus and their descendants today do not form either racially or ethnically distinct groups. Outside of a few towns in southern Arabia, slavery in the Middle East was not a primary means of organizing menial labor; as a consequence, the association of class and race or ethnicity and race is not well developed and has no significant implication or social and political organization in the region.

See alsoPluralism: Legal and Ethno-Religious ; Tribe .


Banuazizi, Ali, and Weiner, Myron, eds. The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Bates, Daniel G., and Rassam, Amal. Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.

Gross, Jo-Ann, ed. Muslims in Central Asia: Expressions of Identity And Change. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.

Weekes, Richard V., ed. Muslim Peoples: A World of Ethnographic Survey. 2d edition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Amal Rassam


views updated May 23 2018


This entry probes the intersections of religion and science from a cultural perspective. Culture and ethnicity are crucial to the ongoing dialogue about meaning, nature, and the role of humankind in the cosmos, Historically, it was assumed that dominant cultures provided the only reliable scientific methodologies and theological interpretations. This preoccupation with rationality, objectivity, and neutrality relegated the wisdom of indigenous people to myth and mystery. Yet scientific findings are more congruent with ancient wisdom than modernist deductions. Ancient intuitions hint at a universe that is expansive rather than exclusive, connected rather than isolated.

Both religion and science offer intriguing insights about the universe, culture, and human nature. Both disciplines, however, have been complicit in the oppression of racial/ethnic people. Historically, religion was used as a catalyst for domination, wars, atrocities, and abuses of humankind are still perpetrated in the name of God. In North America, Christian slave masters hoped that Christian conversion would encourage slave to accept their fate. The promise of freedom in heaven relieved owners of the need to redress immediate and grievous breaches of human rights. During the civil rights movement, it was the unified efforts of local clergymen who urged Martin Luther King Jr. to slow his initiatives for justice.

Theological discourses also rely upon problematic dyads of light and dark to signify good and evil. This is done even though biblical texts refer to a God who is identified with light but who also dwells in darkness. People live in a world that is seduced by light, intrigued by its properties, and theologically persuaded that evil is synonymous with darkness. This paradigm allows people with dark skin to be deemed pariahs and strangers within the world community.

Despite cultural assumptions to the contrary, most scholars agree that race is not a biological or physical category, yet racial perceptions persist. Race always develops within a matrix of superiority and inferiority. Distinctions based on color, physical traits, or ethnicity mask issues of power, fear of difference, and social control. Those who envision an egalitarian society in the twenty-first century will be challenged to use all of the resources at hand to deconstruct mythologies about race.

Seekers of justice usually rely on the discourses of religion to describe their visions of freedom and reconciliation, but reject the metaphors of science when they try to delineate the contours of the beloved community. Even though both science and religion incorporate issues of power, hierarchy, and the assignment of inferiority, ethnic communities have a historical mistrust of scientific contributions to issues of race.

In scientific circles, eugenics attempted to tie social constructions of inferiority to physical attributes. In the eighteenth century, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (17071708) created "scientific" racial classifications and descriptive characteristics. In the nineteenth century, Louis Agassiz (18071873), a Swiss-born Harvard professor, argued that human beings do not share a common ancestry (monogenism); instead, he argued that God created the races as separate and distinct human categories (polygenism). On the medical front, the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments conducted at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1932 to 1972 allowed syphilis to advance untreated in African-American male subjects despite the eventual availability of penicillin. Nazi experiments on Jewish prisoners are also ignominious moments in history.

The sciences also influence social institutions, laws, and theological perspectives. As physicist Nick Herbert notes, Isaac Newton's description of the world "as a giant clock" was translated in cultural contexts into "atomicity, objectivity, and determinism" (p. xi). A rigid and mechanistic view of the universe influenced political and social initiatives that oppressed those deemed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. The case can be made that both science and religion can reflect the best and the worst in human culture.

Despite these problems, the quest for justice is not just a social and spiritual construct; it also reflects the view of the universe and the human task within the cosmos. Accordingly, liberation initiatives require the resources of both science and religion. The questions change when science and religion inform discussions of race and ethnicity. What does race mean in a scientific context, when darkness is no longer an indicator of inferiority, but instead becomes a cosmological metaphor for the power and predominance attributed to dark matter? Biology teaches that social separations based on difference are false. People are connected through a common human ancestry and genome. Cosmology teaches that separation is not the way of the universe. Instead connections that defy rational processes abound. By means of the Uncertainty and Complementarity Principles, physics demonstrates that observations and attempts to know other humans connect people at the most fundamental levels.

Conflicts based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality are power struggles that attempt to define social acceptability through force or appropriation of the public narrative. The addition of religious and scientific concepts and discourses offer a rhetorical corrective to social and legal theories about life in diverse and multicultural spaces.

See also Anthropology; Eugenics; Liberation Theology; Womanist Theology


herbert, nick. quantum reality: beyond the new physics. new york: anchor/doubleday, 1985.

montagu, ashley. man's most dangerous myth: the fallacy of race, 6th edition. walnut creek, calif.: altamira press, 1997.

rothman, barbara katz. the book of life: a personal and ethical guide to race, normality and the implications of the human genome project. boston: beacon press, 2001.

barbara a. holmes


views updated Jun 11 2018

ethnicity, ethnic group Ethnicity defines individuals who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to share common characteristics which differentiate them from the other collectivities in a society, within which they develop distinct cultural behaviour.

The term was coined in contradistinction to race, since although members of an ethnic group may be identifiable in terms of racial attributes, they may also share other cultural characteristics such as religion, occupation, language, or politics. Ethnic groups should also be distinguished from social classes, since membership generally cross-cuts the socio-economic stratification within society, encompassing individuals who share (or are perceived to share) common characteristics that supersede class. The Jews in the United States thus constitute a typical ethnic group, since they include individuals of different racial origins (from East Europe to North Africa), social classes, mother-tongues, political beliefs, and religious commitment (from orthodox to atheist), yet still consider themselves to share a common Jewish identity that distinguishes them from, while not necessarily placing them in opposition to, wider American society.

Ethnic groups are therefore fluid in composition and subject to changes in definition. New ethnic groups are constantly being formed as populations move between countries. Indians in Britain, for example, constitute an ethnic group—although as individuals in India they would be seen to be members of quite different groups in terms of caste and language. The concept of ethnicity is particularly important when it forms the basis for social discrimination (as, for example, in the case of Jews in Nazi Germany) or for independence movements (as in the Soviet Union).

The relevant literature is voluminous. John Rex and David Mason's Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations (1986) demonstrates the range and diversity of current approaches in the field. Michael Banton's Racial and Ethnic Competition (1983) is an excellent summary of the American and British substantive literature. For America see Nathan Glazer , Ethnic Dilemmas, 1964–1982 (1983)
. Anthony Smith 's The Ethnic Revival (1981)
demonstrates the importance of the concept to a sociological understanding of conflict and change in the modern world. Frank Bean and Marta Tienda's The Hispanic Population in the United States (1990) uses quantitative data in a case-study of ethnicity in modern America. Ira Katznelson's history of the urban politics of Northern Manhattan (City Trenches, 1981) is a case-study of the interaction of ethnicity and class. See also CULTURE; NATIONALISM.