Symbolic Ethnicity

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Symbolic Ethnicity





The concept of symbolic ethnicity is most closely associated with the pioneering work of the sociologist Herbert Gans, who attempted to account for the simultaneous decline and resurgence of ethnic identification in the United States after World War II. Gans defined symbolic ethnicity as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (1979, p. 9).


In the postwar decades, researchers documented ethnic assimilation among whites, measured by increases in rates of intermarriage and decreases in non–English language usage and religious observance. Jews and Christians were marrying one another, and second–generation immigrants were speaking only English and not going to church or temple.

Despite these trends toward what was presumed to be an “American” identity—at the expense of a Jewish or Catholic or Irish or Hungarian or other national origin identity—there also appeared to be a rise in ethnic identification during the 1970s. White Americans were reclaiming ethnic affiliations, joining ethnic clubs and organizations, celebrating ethnic holidays, and researching their ethnic ancestries. For instance, many Americans whose parents had been, for instance, Jews or Poles, but who previously had thought of themselves simply as Americans were becoming “Jewish–Americans” and “Polish–Americans.” There was a resurgence, and sometimes an emergence, of ethnic–American identity claims for the first time in many individuals’ biographies.


How could people behave in ways that disregarded traditional ethnic boundaries while at the same time asserting an ethnic affiliation? Many scholars attempted to solve this puzzle of waning and waxing ethnicity by examining the symbolic aspects of ethnicity and the extent to which ethnic identification is volitional. It appeared that individuals were choosing to emphasize some aspects of their ethnic ancestry and ignoring others. This suggested that an individual’s ethnicity is at least partly the result of individual choice and that ethnicity is not primordial or fixed. Rather, ethnic identification can be thought of as an ingoing process that uses material from the past and the present to build new or revitalized ethnic identities and groups. In some cases, history seems to be a relatively weak ingredient in the ethnic reconstruction project. For instance, in her discussion of Armenian–American ethnicity, Anny Bakalian shows how the symbolic aspects of ethnicity become disconnected from many traditional markers of ethnic group boundaries, such as language, religion, culture, community:

For American–born generations, Armenian identity is a preference and Armenianness is a state of mind ... One can say he or she is an Armenian without speaking Armenian, marrying an Armenian, doing business with Armenians, belonging to an Armenian church, joining Armenian voluntary associations, or participating in the events and activities sponsored by such organizations (Bakalian 1993, p. 13).

The renowned sociologist Joshua Fishman documented a similar symbolic “revival of ethnicity,” and Richard Alba, a distinguished professor of Race and Ethnicity at the State University of New York at Albany, has emphasized the transformation of ethnic identity among white ethnics from a set of cohesive nationality—based ethnic groups to a more general racial category marked by few, if any, constraints on behavior. For late twentieth–century white Americans, ethnicity had increasingly become what the Harvard professor Mary Waters terms an “ethnic option”–a choice to be or not to be ethnic. According to this view, once the decision is made in favor of an ethnic identity, whites have a wide variety of ancestral strains to select from, and few limitations in determining the content of their chosen ethnicities.

The notion that ethnicity can be chosen or not, changed or maintained, and excavated or invented, was first systematically articulated by the Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth, who argued that ethnicity is less about a fixed historical culture and more the result of human action:

Ethnic categories provide an organizational vessel that may be given varying amounts and forms of content in different socio–cultural systems… . The critical focus of investigation from this point of view becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses (Barth 1969, p. 14–15).

Barth’s notion of ethnicity is that it resembles a vessel that gets filled with meaning. A more contemporary device for imagining the construction of ethnic culture is the shopping cart. An ethnic group boundary may be thought of as the shape of the shopping cart (size, number of wheels, composition, etc.). Ethnic culture, then, is the contents of the cart, or all of the things an individual puts into ethnicity to give it meaning, such as art, music, dress, religion, norms, food, beliefs, symbols, myths, and customs (Nagel 1994). Ethnicity is not simply a historical legacy, just as culture is not a “shopping cart” that comes already loaded with a set of historical cultural goods. Rather, people construct both culture and ethnicity by picking and choosing items from the shelves of the past and the present. In other words, cultures change; they are borrowed, blended, rediscovered, and reinterpreted. In this way, ethnicity is symbolically modified and deployed in one’s ethnic construction projects.


The idea of symbolic ethnicity has provided valuable insights into white Americans’ relationship to ethnicity. It has also led to some distortions. The emphasis on the voluntary dimensions of ethnic identification, the choices involved in deciding which features of ethnicity individuals will embrace and which they will discard, and the enriching aspects of ethnic “feeling” and “playing” overstates the extent to which ethnicity is under one’s control (Deloria 1999). For many individuals, ethnicity is not an option, and it is not free. Symbolic ethnicity stresses the internal dimensions of ethnic identity and emphasizes the agency of ethnic actors: Individuals have the power to define ethnicity or to deny ethnicity in favor of a national or “American” identity. What is obscured in the symbolic ethnicity model is the powerful external machinery of ethnic ascription and the capacity of observers to determine one’s ethnicity. We are not always who or what we think we are. We are, ethnically, what others, especially others with power, define us to be—no matter what ethnicity we try to assert.

In order to understand the limits of symbolic ethnicity as a model for understanding ethnic identification, persistence, and violence in the contemporary world, it is useful to think of ethnicity as the result of a dialectical process that emerges from the interaction between individuals and those whom they meet as they pass through daily life. An individual’s ethnicity is a negotiated social fact–what individuals think is their ethnicity versus what others think is their ethnicity. Individuals carry a portfolio of ethnic identities, some of which are more or less salient in various situations and among various audiences. As settings and spectators change, the socially defined array of ethnic options open changes: white, Irish, Catholic, black, Jamaican, Navajo, Muslim, American Indian.

A person’s ethnicity is, then, a matter of structure and power: Which ethnic categories are available in a society for one to be sorted into, and who gets to do the sorting. The symbolic ethnicity model emphasizes the emotional and volitional dimensions of ethnic identification, but it does not address the political and dialectical aspects of ethnic categorization.

There is another important consequence of embracing fully the notion that symbolic ethnicity: It is primarily a matter of individual choice. Ethnic options are much more available to white Americans than to individuals of color, and they can thus be understood as a manifestation of white privilege. Whether or not to have an ethnicity is something over which nonwhites have much less control. As Waters notes, the result is that having ethnic options tends to reinforce whites’ view of nonwhites as resisting assimilation, rejecting a color–blind society, and clinging to racial difference: If whites can choose not to have an ethnicity, can blacks choose not to have a race?

Despite the limitations and critiques of the symbolic ethnicity model of contemporary ethnic identification in the West, researchers continue to note the power and allure of the symbolic aspects of ethnicity. In Ethnicity and Race (1998), Steven Cornell and Douglas Hartmann discuss “thick” and “thin” ethnicity to distinguish between aspects of ethnicity that have a significant impact on individuals’ lives and behaviors (“thick’’) and the more symbolic, optional (“thin’’) form of ethnicity. Christopher Fries, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, argues that ethnicity can be seen as a repository of symbolic capital, or personal social worth, where cultural meanings are symbolically negotiated and where individuals can emphasize ethnicity to obtain a sense of belonging while downplaying inconvenient ethnic traditions. Research shows that ethnic symbols can be imbued with great meaning and link individuals to their ethnic community and that social ties with families or other ethnic networks reinforce the importance of ethnicity in adding meaning and solidarity to social relationships. The Indian journalist Syed Ali notes that while symbolic ethnicity is elective, it often occurs in a collective framework, and that it sometimes has the capacity to subvert or challenge stereotypical views of outsiders.

Symbolic ethnicity is both ubiquitous and dynamic. Ethnic identities can change over time, depending on geographical considerations, residential patterns, political opportunities, and economic resources. As Mary Kelly points out in her 2000 article “Ethnic Pilgrimages,” patterns of ethnic identification can also be affected by events in ancestral homelands and can take the form of ethnic pilgrimages. Instead of being passively influenced by events that they read about in newspapers, ethnic pilgrims decide to experience the “authentic” life of their ancestors by visiting their ancestral homelands, and sometimes by participating in redevelopment projects. Ethnic pilgrims often develop ties with relatives who never immigrated, start businesses in their homeland, or simply take a vacation in a country that has symbolic meaning for them. Although such pilgrimages can reinforce or strengthen ethnic identity, they also can weaken ethnic identity if previously held ideal expectations about the ancestral homeland are violated. In fact, a common complaint of ethnic pilgrims is that the food they eat in their homeland is not “authentic” because it does not taste like the Americanized version of the food. Sometimes the reality confronted in ethnic homelands can overwhelm symbolic ethnic identities. But it can also strengthen them or make them more “authentic.” In fact, upon their return, ethnic pilgrims are often regarded as “experts” by their co–ethnics.

Symbolic ethnicity emphasizes the immigrant experience in the United States, and for that reason, the model has been taken to task by scholars who insist that researchers need to take into account the importance of ethnicity to people in postcolonial settings as well as those facing the fragmentation and refragmentation of industrial societies. Ethnic resurgences, symbolic or otherwise, can lead to increased conflict over ethnicity, particularly in postcolonial societies such as India, the Philippines, or Nigeria. Because of the role of migration in the production of new ethnic groups and identities, transnationalism and globalization promise a continuing place for symbolic ethnicity in contemporary states.


Alba, Richard. 1992. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ali, Syed. 2002. “Collective and Elective Ethnicity: Caste among Urban Muslims in India.” Sociological Forum 17 (4): 593–620.

Bakalian, Anny. 1993. Armenian–Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian. New Brunswick, NY: Transaction Books.

Barth, Fredrik. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown.

Cornell, Stephen, and Douglas Hartmann. 1998. Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Deloria, Philip J. 1999. Playing Indian. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Erdmans, Mary. 1998. Opposite Poles: Immigrants and Ethnics in Polish Chicago, 1976–1990. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Fishman, Joshua. 1985. The Rise and Fall of the Ethnic Revival. Berlin: Mouton.

Fries, Christopher. 2005. “Ethnocultural Space and the Symbolic Negotiation of Alternative as ‘Cure.’” Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal 37: 87–100.

Gans, Herbert. 1979. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (1): 1–20.

Kelly, Mary E. 2000. “Ethnic Pilgrimages: People of Lithuanian Descent in Lithuania.” Sociological Spectrum 20 (1): 65–91.

Kivisto, Peter, and Ben Nefzger. 1993. “Symbolic Ethnicity and American Jews: The Relationship of Ethnic Identity and Group Affiliation.” Social Science Journal 30: 1–12.

Nagel, Joane. 1994. “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture.” Social Problems 41 (1): 152–176.

Waters, Mary. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yancey, William, Eugene Erickson, and Richard Juliani. 1976. “Emergent Ethnicity: A Review and Reformulation.” American Sociological Review 41 (3): 391–403.

Mary E. Kelly
Joane Nagel