Ethnic and National Groups

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The term ethnic group has no single agreed-on definition in English. Its Greek origins refer to a nation or a people, but by the fifteenth century the word "ethnic" had a connotation of "heathen." A typical modern American definition (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) is "a: of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background; b: being a member of an ethnic group; c: of, relating to, or characteristic of ethnics." However, if "religious," "racial," and "national" groups are included under the general rubric of "ethnic," what explains the common usages "ethnic and national groups," "ethnic and religious groups," and "racial and ethnic groups"? Such linguistic ambiguities cannot be resolved easily; therefore, the use of the term in this article is broad and inclusive.

The Use of Classifications

Governments around the world routinely collect demographic data classified according to ethnic, national, tribal, racial, linguistic, cultural, and other categories. The categorizations are typically country-specific–deemed to be suitable to their particular circumstances–thus, cross-country comparisons are difficult and can be misleading. As an example, although some states collect detailed data on the national origins or religions of their residents, others consider these categories improper in official statistics.

Classifications of ethnic and national groups within a country often are linked to sensitive political issues of power, control, and contested territorial boundaries. Therefore, they typically are determined by political rather than scientific or technical decisions.

Overall, the distinguishing quality of data on ethnic and national groups is variability. Even states with otherwise similar recent histories, cultures, political structures, and economic systems (e.g., the liberal democracies of Europe, North America, Asia, and Oceania) demonstrate marked differences in the manner in which they collect, classify, and report data on ethnic and national groups. Moreover, even within a state attitudes toward parallel categories of data are often inconsistent, applied differentially depending on the degree of historical and political sensitivity.

For example, in the U. S. censuses conducted from 1790 through 2000 more or less detailed data have been collected on race, national origin, ethnic origin, and ancestry. However, over the same period of more than two centuries essentially no official U.S. data have been collected on religion.

Changes in the U.S. Census

Early U.S. racial categories were simple–white, Negro, and Indian–but there have been numerous subsequent revisions, mostly in the direction of greater complexity. Until 1960 a respondent's "race" was determined by census interviewers; since that time it has been based on self-identification on a mailed questionnaire. As a result of pressure from a few influential members of Congress, the 2000 U.S. Census "race" classifications had no fewer than sixteen categories, with most of the new categories identifying a substantial number of distinct "races" in the Asian and Pacific regions. Many of these categories (e.g. "Samoan," "Guamanian or Chamorro," "Asian Indian," "Filipino," "Korean," and "Vietnamese") would more commonly be treated as national rather than racial categories.

After a political debate involving vociferous lobbying by interest groups for and against the change, the U.S. Census Bureau decided that a respondent should be allowed to select more than a single race.

In addition to race, the 2000 U.S. Census contained additional and often overlapping questions on "Hispanic origin" and "ancestry." These questions produced many statistical anomalies. Although the Census Bureau considers that any person self-identified as Hispanic to also have a race, about 40 percent of Hispanic respondents in both the 1980 and 1990 censuses reported no racial or other ethnic identity. Furthermore, in studies in which Hispanic respondents were re-interviewed, about 10 percent of the respondents did not identify themselves as Hispanic in the second interview.

The "ancestry" question that was sent to a 17 percent sample of households also produced responses generally considered highly subjective and variable. Changes in a "for example" list intended solely to illustrate by example what is meant by "ancestry" produced dramatic numerical changes in responses. Apparently, the mere mention or lack of mention of "German" or "Cajun" as examples of "ancestry" leads to dramatic changes in the numbers reporting such an ancestry, making tabulations of U.S. data by ancestry highly unreliable.

Despite the enormous effort by the U.S. government to collect detailed (if sometimes noncredible) data on race, Hispanic origin, and ancestry, essentially no data have been collected on one of the other main cultural markers of societies: religion.

Censuses Elsewhere

Other countries have different sensitivities about ethnic groups and different data-collecting strategies. In France there have been passionate debates about the acceptability of collecting any official data on "race," "ethnic origin," "national origin," or "ancestry." The French republican concept of the citoyen is seen by some as forbidding the government from collecting any information on such matters, and under the jus soli principle the national origin of any child born within French borders is "French." Others argue (on much the same grounds as do civil rights groups in the United States) that it is essential to have such data to determine the extent of, and correct problems caused by, discrimination against racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and religious minorities.

In the neighboring country Germany, which together with France forms the fulcrum of the European Union, wholly different concepts prevail. The German state has long followed the opposing nationality principle of jus sanguinis, that is, nationality by "blood" rather than by place of birth. Thus, in Germany there are large numbers of persons classified as "foreigners" ("non-Germans") who were born and have lived the whole of their lives in Germany. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of aussiedler–populations of German ethnic extraction that have lived for generations in Russia and the former Soviet republics–have been preferentially admitted to Germany for permanent residence and upon admission are automatically classified as "Germans." Current legislation has somewhat modified these traditional concepts of German nationality.

Similar policies are in place elsewhere. The term patrial is used in some countries to describe persons who were born and raised elsewhere and have the nationality of other countries but who by dint of cultural and historical family ties (often limited to the origins of grandparents) are granted special access and residence permits and frequently expedited paths to citizenship in the "home country." Such practices are followed in a diverse range of countries in addition to Germany, including Italy, Spain, Israel, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Categories Created by Governments

Official categories play a role in creating or solidifying ethnic categories and in eliminating or submerging categories that are considered politically problematic. The statistical and now ethnic concept of "Hispanic" was a creation of the U.S. Census Bureau. As was noted above, pressure from influential members of Congress led the Census Bureau to add numerous race categories, most of which involved people from Asia and the Pacific region. The Soviet Union under Stalin established over 100 "nationalities" for citizens of that country, with those designations taken as permanent and recorded prominently both in official statistics and in each individual's internal identification documents. Decisions by government political and statistical organs may have the effect of minimizing the importance of social-cultural-linguistic differences, as in the French government's position that the collection of data on national origins is inconsistent with French concepts of nationality.

Changes and Variations in Ethnic Identity

Ethnic and national groups may experience reduction or blurring of their distinct identities over time as they become integrated into the majority population. The most powerful source of such blurring is intermarriage because the ethnic and/or national identities perceived by the children of those marriages are commonly quite different from those of their parents. Intermarriage among established racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups has been rising in many settings, resulting in far more complex categories of identity in the succeeding generations.

Differing political traditions are also important in the emergence of ethnic categories. Four stylized types can be identified. The first are traditions in which ethnic commonalities are seen as defining the boundaries of the nation, as expressed in the German concept of the Volk (the people) and the Mexican concept of la Raza. (The term raza–literally "race" and colloquially "the people"–refers to the mestizaje, or mixed racial and ethnic identity of indigenous, European, and African heritage found in the former Spanish colonies of the Americas.) The second is the political tradition that defines national membership by religion, as in Israel's openness to Jews from all over the world (although native-born adherents of other religions also are defined by law as citizens of Israel). The third is the tradition in which persons from any national or linguistic background can become citizens if they assimilate culturally and linguistically, as in the French openness to naturalizing all types of foreign-born persons as long as they become fluent in French. The fourth is the tradition that defines membership in solely political terms, in which a foreign-born person may be naturalized with only minimal knowledge of the local language and culture, as in the United States, Canada, and Australia (what the French call, with a far-from-correct ethnic referent, the "Anglo-Saxon" notion of multiculturalism).

There are many circumstances in which ethnic bonds unite groups that straddle national boundaries but do not control their own national state. Several of these cases have presented long-standing problems of national and ethnic identity, resulting in persistent tensions and in some cases separatist or even violent movements. Examples include the cases of the Basque, Kurdish, and Roma groups. Less common are transborder ethnic groups that also identify with a state, (e.g., Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia and Russians in the former republics of the Soviet Union, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Kazakhstan).

See also: Chinese, Overseas; Languages and Speech Communities; Racial and Ethnic Composition; Religious Affiliation; States System, Demographic History of.


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Michael S. Teitelbaum