Ethnic and Racial Boundaries

The study of ethnic and racial boundaries is intimately connected to the constructivist view on race and ethnicity. Rather than individual ethnic or racial ‘‘groups,’’ their history, culture, and social organization, the boundaries between such groups and the mechanisms of their production and transformation move to the foreground. This implies a shift away from concerns with the given culture, identity, and social cohesion of ethnic groups toward strategies of boundary creation and transformation as they relate to the strategies of other individuals and groups. Perceived cultural or racial similarity or historical continuity thus are now seen as consequences rather than causes of the making of ethnic and racial boundaries. Such boundaries form a central dimension of the social organization of complex societies and their stratification systems.

The literature goes back to Frederik Barth’s introduction to an edited volume (Barth 1969) in which he laid out the constructivist agenda for coming decades of research. Studying ethnic boundaries has since then become a major preoccupation of mainstream anthropology and of the sociology of race and ethnicity. Special attention has been given to the mechanisms of boundary maintenance, for example through selection of diacritical elements, linguistic markers,  enforcement of  endogamy, or  more broadly the policing of sexual boundaries.

The constructivist perspective later spilled over into the field of nationalism studies. It has become a commonplace – with the notable exception of Anthony Smith (1986) – to see the boundaries of a national community as resulting from a reversible political process of inclusion and exclusion rather than as a consequence of cultural homogeneity and historical continuity (Wimmer 2002: ch. 3). Spinning off from this nationalism literature, the territorial aspect of the boundary making process has received some attention. A growing literature subsumed under the banner of ‘‘border studies’’ has emerged from this.

In the study of race relations the constructivist stance has also gained ground over the past two decades. While earlier scholarship, especially in the US, took the existence of racial groups for granted, a newer strand has looked at the role of the state in creating and sustaining racial boundaries through strategies of ‘‘racialiation’’ (Miles 1993). The focus on boundary making has greatly been enhanced by the emergence of a literature that compares different countries from a macro (e.g., Marx et al. 1999) or a micro perspective (e.g., Lamont 2000) because it helped to denaturalize racial distinctions and highlight the varying nature and salience of racial boundaries in different contexts. Historical research has uncovered that the characteristics of racial divides may change considerably over time and that individuals and entire ethnic groups may have crossed the racial lines over the past generations, thus supporting a broadly constructivist perspective.

Three  major limitations of the Barthian paradigm have been discussed over the past decades. First, the importance of power relationships in the making and unmaking of ethnic and racial boundaries was greatly underestimated in the original formulation. Recent scholarship emphasizes the role of the powerful apparatus of the modern state in drawing and enforcing ethnic and racial boundaries through policies of nation building, assimilation, ‘‘minority’’ incorporation, and so on. Others, especially those studying individual ethnic political movements, have emphasized ‘‘resistance’’ of individuals or groups against such policies or the everyday ‘‘making’’ of ethnic boundaries in social networking and moral discourses. The exact relationship between dominant and sub ordinate strategies of boundary making remains to be determined by future research.

A second problem associated with the earlier literature is the lack of attention given to individual variability. Most fully fledged analyses of boundary making have developed from a ‘‘groupist’’ perspective, to cite Jenkins’s (1997) term, which takes ethnic groups as actors with a unified purpose and strategy, assumed to be one of boundary maintenance and policing rather than of dissolution and assimilation. This does not fit well with the ethnographic record, which shows that various, sometimes contradicting, claims to groupness are put forward by persons that share an ethnic back ground (Brubaker 2004). However, an equally diverse sample of examples could be cited as support for the opposite proposition: that ethnic boundaries are drawn unambiguously and are agreed upon by a vast majority of individuals. We know that ethnic conflict and violence tend to enhance such unity and produce clear cut boundaries. Beyond such rather general observations, no systematic literature has yet developed which would try to explain the variation in the degree of variability.

The last and most widely discussed problematic refers to the limits to the malleability, transformability, and strategic adaptability of ethnic  boundaries. Recently, a number  of insightful critiques against the more exaggeratedly constructivist interpretations of Barth’s essay have appeared.  This  new  literature acknowledges that it is a matter of degree, not of principle, whether or not ethnic boundaries can be reconstructed and reorganized, following Katherine Verdery’s advice to ‘‘situate the situationalisms’’ of Barth (Verdery 1994). A number of mechanisms have been identified that lead to a ‘‘hardening’’ of ethnic boundaries, less strategic malleability, and thus more stability over time.

Contrary to Barth’s famed assertion that it is the boundary that matters in ethnic relations, not the ‘‘cultural stuff’’ they enclose, a number of authors have emphasized that this stuff may indeed make a difference. In the continuous landscape of cultural variations we may find discontinuities or ruptures, such as brought about by migration or conquest, along which ethnic boundaries will follow with a high likelihood. Various authors have used different language to make this point.

Bentley and Wimmer have used Bourdieu’s habitus theory (Bentley 1987). Cornell (1996) distinguishes between ethnic groups that are held together by shared culture or shared interest, the latter being more prone to boundary manipulation and change. Hale (2004) takes a cognitive perspective and argues that communication barriers or embodied, visible differences will make it more likely that an ethnic or racial boundary emerges and stabilizes. Finally, the precise way boundaries are constructed  may have consequences regarding their stability and manipulability through strategic action. Systematic comparative research will have to establish the validity of these various new approaches in a more precise and empirically solid way.


  1. Barth, (1969) Introduction. In: Barth, F., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Allen & Unwin, London.
  2. Bentley, C. (1987) Ethnicity and Comparative Studies in Society and History 29(1): 24 55. Brubaker, R. (2004) Ethnicity Without Groups. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Cornell, S. (1996) The Variable Ties that Bind: Content and Circumstance in Ethnic Processes. Ethnic and Racial Studies 19(2): 265
  4. Hale, E. (2004) Explaining Ethnicity. Comparative Political Studies 37(4): 458 85.
  5. Jenkins, (1997) Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations. Sage, London.
  6. Lamont, M. (2000) The Dignity of Working Man: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. Harvard University Press,
  7. Marx, W. et al. (1999) Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  8. Miles, (1993) Racism After ‘‘Race Relations.’’ Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  9. Smith, D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Blackwell, Oxford.
  10. Verdery, K. (1994) Ethnicity, Nationalism, and State-Making. In: Vermeulen, & Govers, C. (Eds.), The Anthropology of Ethnicity: Beyond ‘‘Ethnic Groups and Boundaries.’’ Het Spinhuis, Amsterdam.
  11. Wimmer, A. (2002) Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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