Ethnic Groups

Ethnic groups are fundamental units of social organization which consist of members who define themselves, or are defined, by a sense of common historical origins that may also include religious beliefs, a similar language, or a shared culture. Their continuity over time as distinct groups is achieved through the inter generational transmission of culture, traditions, and institutions. Ethnic groups can be distinguished from kinship groups in as much as ties of kin arise largely from biological inheritance. The term is derived from the Greek word ethnos, which can be translated as a people or a nation. The sociologist Max Weber provided one of the most important modern definitions of ethnic groups as ‘‘human groups (other than kinship groups) which cherish a belief in their common origins of such a kind that it provides the basis for the creation of a community.’’

There are two competing perspectives on ethnic  groups:  objectivist and  subjectivist. Objectivists, taking anetic stance, assert that ethnic groups are inherently distinct social and cultural entities that possess boundaries which delineate their  interaction and socialization with others. Subjectivists, on the other hand, embrace anemic perspective and regard ethnic groups as self categorizations that determine their social behavior within and outside the group. Subjectivists like Frederik Barth argued that ethnic groups should be defined on the basis of self identification or categorical ascription. Such a standpoint has led to the creation of legislation such as an Australian government policy in the early 1970s which classified Aboriginal people on the basis of self identification by an individual and acceptance by an Aboriginal community. Conversely, the objectivists have adopted the idea that  ethnic groups are characterized by cultural and historical traits that have been passed down from generation to generation rather than on pure self conception. Despite the lack of consensus while defining ethnic groups, it is safe to assume that such groups are distinct entities with boundaries, be they real or constructed. The boundaries of ethnic groups often overlap with similar or related categories such as ‘‘races’’ or nations. There is a consensus among scholars that ‘‘race’’ is a socially defined category that has no biological significance, despite lingering popular beliefs that still regard ‘‘races’’ as bio logical groups made up of a people with a distinct genetic heritage. There is no scientific evidence to support these notions. However, one could regard race as a variant of ethnic group, for racial groups are perceived to be physiologically different by outsiders, if not by the group members themselves.

The term nation implies a self conscious ethnic group mobilized with the goal of creating or preserving a political unit in which it is the predominant or exclusive political force. According to Weber, nations are politically mobilized ethnic communities in which members and their leaders try to create a special political structure in the form of an independent state. Ethnic groups may also embrace solidarity and group enclosure in order to achieve advantages over other groups. Such enclosure tactics could take several forms, such as endogamous marriage, which is marriage within a social group, or business practices such as the dominance of Jews in the Antwerp diamond cutting industry.

In those societies that have been influenced by large scale immigration – like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina – the importance of ethnic groups can be seen as a central feature of their social, economic, and political life. However, it is useful to note that immigrants having the same region of origin are often categorized under generic ethnic groups despite the absence of cohesion and common culture. Systematic re search on American ethnic groups can be traced to the sociologists of the Chicago School during the 1920s, led by W. I. Thomas and Robert Ezra Park, who were concerned with the processes of ethnic group assimilation into the dominant white Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) mainstream. Park’s race relations cycle, which outlined a sequence of stages consisting of ‘‘contact, competition, accommodation, and assimilation,’’ implied that successive immigrant groups would be gradually absorbed into a relatively homogeneous US  society. The underlying assumption of ethnic group theory was that these long term trends would result in the disappearance of separate ethnic communities as they merged into a wider American melting pot.

This model implying a straight line progression gave way to more pluralistic conceptions of ethnicity in the US, in which various dimensions of assimilation were identified by sociologists like Milton Gordon, who wrote the classic work on the subject. In Assimilation in American Life (1964), Gordon distinguished between cultural  assimilation (acculturation) and structural assimilation, the former signifying the adoption of the language, values, and ideals of the dominant society, while the latter reflected the incorporation of ethnic groups into the institutions of mainstream society. While cultural assimilation did not necessarily result in an ethnic group’s inclusion within the principal institutions of society, structural assimilation invariably meant that assimilation on all other dimensions – from personal identification to intermarriage – had already taken place.

Scholarly concern with ethnic groups and ethnic conflict became increasingly salient in the second half of the twentieth century. Inadequate assumptions about the nature of modernization and modernity have been demonstrated by the pattern of social change under capitalism, socialism, and in the developing world. Expectations that modernity might lead to a smooth transition from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft, accompanied by the gradual dissolution of ethnic group affiliations, were no longer plausible. Some social scientists argued that there was a primordial basis to ethnic group attachments, while others explained the apparent persistence of ethnicity as a criterion of group closure in more instrumental terms, as a political resource to be mobilized in appropriate situations which may be activated by power or guided by cultural factors. Not only has ethnicity failed to recede in industrial and post industrial societies, but also ethnic divisions have continued to stand in the way of movements to promote democracy and economic growth in large sectors of the non industrial or industrializing world. The failure of the political regimes in the communist bloc unleashed an upsurge in ethnic and national identity, some of which filled the void created by the demise of Marxism, while other elements of the same development, notably in the former Yugoslavia, turned into bloody ethnonational  conflicts  and  ethnic  cleansing (Sekulic 2003).

The increasing visibility of ethnic diversity due to postcolonial migration and globalization has engendered remarkable responses, ranging from expulsion or persecution of ethnic groups to their integration and assimilation into dominant cultures. The extermination of Jews and Gypsies during World War II under the Nazi regime is a classic example of the persecution of people to dispose of ‘‘undesired’’ ethnic groups; hence, it is claimed, deterring potential ethnic discord. The expulsion of ethnic groups can take the form of a forced exodus as well. Forced eviction of more than 100,000 of the Lhotshampas ethnic groups from Bhutan, starting from 1989 and still continuing under  the ‘‘Driglam Namzha’’ decree, is another example of ethnic cleansing. The royal decree, declaring the recent ‘‘one country, one people’’ policy, seeks to homogenize the Bhutan population by imposing the indigenous Buddhist culture of the majority Drukpa, including their language, dress code, and customs, on the rest of the people (Hutt 2003). In contrast to the aforementioned policies, the majority of contemporary responses have been toward assimilation or acculturation and pluralism.

The example of more or less voluntary assimilation is seen in the US, where ethnic groups, including immigrants and natives, have embraced the mainstream American culture. This is advantageous to ethnic minorities in terms of upward mobility in the economic and political spheres of the society. An archetypal pluralistic society is Switzerland, which has separate cantons for different ethnic groups. Ethnic groups remain socially and politically differentiated, and enjoy a certain degree of autonomy within the democratic federation. Besides assimilation and pluralism, a new trend of embracing pan ethnic identity is emerging. Ethnic groups form a conglomerate and join together under larger umbrella groups. Such practice is common among South Asians and Latinos in America.

The escalating incidence of interethnic conflicts has incited heated debate amongst policy makers and scholars as to how the state should respond to ethnic divisions. Some scholars such as Jurgen Habermas assert that all people should be treated equally, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or national origin. Hence, they are entitled to equal legal and political rights  as  autonomous  individual  subjects. Others, like Will Kymlicka, have criticized the notion of autonomous individual subjects as being impractical. Kymlicka advocates the re cognition of ethnic group membership and a pluralistic approach in policymaking to accommodate the distinctive needs of ethnic groups. Some also stress the point that ethnic conflicts are not really ‘‘ethnic’’ but mainly political or economic.

At the end of the millennium, the focus of research on ethnic groups was shifting away from studies of specific groups toward the broad processes of ethnogenesis, the construction and perpetuation of ethnic boundaries, the meaning of ethnic identity, the impact of globalization (Berger & Huntington 2002), and the importance of transnationalism (Levitt & Waters 2002). While traditional patterns of international migration continue to play an important role in the generation of ethnic diversity, they have been modified and changed by political and economic factors in complex and unpredictable ways. In the United States, large numbers of Mexican migrants, both legal and undocumented, have contributed to the growth of the Latino population into the largest single minority group (Bean & Stevens 2003).

In Germany, the central economic component of the European Union, the relations with immigrants and ethnic minority groups will be a crucial element in determining the progress and stability of the emerging political structure, no matter whether it becomes a superstate or remains a loose federation (Alba et al. 2003).


  1. Alba, , Schmidt, P., & Wasmer, M. (2003) Ger mans or Foreigners? Attitudes Toward Ethnic Minorities in Post Reunification Germany. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
  2. Bean, & Stevens, G. (2003) America’s Newcomers and the Dynamics of Diversity. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
  3. Berger, & Huntington, S. (Eds.) (2002) Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World. Oxford University Press, New York.
  4. Gordon, (1964) Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. Oxford University Press, New York.
  5. Hutt,  (2003) Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Levitt, & Waters, M. (Eds.) (2002) The Changing Face of Home: The Transnational Lives of the Second Generation. Russell Sage  Foundation, New York.
  7. Sekulic, (2003) The Creation and Dissolution of the Multi-National State: The Case of Yugoslavia. In: Stone, J. & Dennis, R. (Eds.), Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and  Theoretical Approaches. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  8. Weber, (1978 [1922]) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Ed. G. Roth & C. Wittich. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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