In a world characterized by massive immigration and high rates of intermarriage, it was inevitable that a new type of ethnicity, polyethnicity, would emerge. Whereas ethnicity is commonly understood to reflect the shared ancestry and history of a people, polyethnicity in this context refers to the ability and willingness of individuals to identify with multiple ethnicities and multiple identities.

Although some scholars have traditionally argued that race and ethnicity are biologically determined, what seems increasingly evident to most scholars today is that race and ethnicity are social constructs, i.e., ideas, assumptions, and classifications that change over time and space (Waters 2000). Thus, ethnic groups are no longer seen as static and unchanging, but as emerging groups whose identities are constantly shifting as groups redefine their boundaries and criteria for membership. Today, for example, there is also the recognition that ethnicity has changed from its initial emphasis on division and exclusion between and among ethnic groups to its increasing importance as an idea and value supporting the intermixing and merger of various ethnicities. This intermixing, through immigration and intermarriage, has not only promoted a sense of interconnectedness and polyethnicity, but has also given rise to new patterns of social organization (Pagnini & Morgan 1990; Spikard & Burroughs 2000) which have served to blur preexisting racial and ethnic lines.

Max Weber (1968 [1922]) anticipated that as the world becomes increasingly modern, traditional attachments such as ethnicity would decline when confronted with advanced rationalization of human action and organization. However, far from eroding, ethnicity and an accompanying heightened sense of ethnic identity have increased in geometric proportion today, with groups fighting over ideology, religion, scarce resources, political spaces, and national identity. Theories of assimilation emphasized by American sociologists (Gordon, Moynihan, and van den Berghe in particular) were based on white European immigrants to the US and argued that, over time, immigrants would be absorbed into the mainstream where they would be indistinguishable from one another and, in the process, adopt an American identity. However, the inadequacy of these theories was revealed when certain groups did not fit the model. For example, they ignored the African Americans for whom economic integration with the mainstream had not been successful. And they did not accommodate the recent immigrants such as Asians and Latinos who have not only kept their ethnicity intact using a pattern of ”segmented assimilation,” but also used it to achieve economic mobility (Portes & Zhou 1993). Further, these theories failed to recognize immigrants as active agents having a hand in the shaping of their ethnic identity in the host environment (Song 2003; Lee & Bean 2004). And lastly, the increased salience of ethnicity is thought to be ”symbolic (Gans 1979) for the white European immigrants who held onto their ethnicity despite their integration into the mainstream.

Polyethnicity challenges the claim that one has to belong to only one ethnicity, and cannot be both or more. It also challenges the assumption that distinctions amongst individuals are readily identifiable and separable (Cornell 2000). The United States has come a long way from the anti miscegenation laws that prevented interracial and interethnic marriages prior to 1967 (Spikard 1989), to a growing polyethnic population that could account for one fifth of the US population by the year 2050 (Lee & Bean 2004). And as interethnic marriages are increasing, both partners and their children are resisting the idea of choosing a singular ethnic identity to define themselves as had once been demanded (Cornell 2000). Further, immigration of various peoples from around the world, especially by the late twentieth century, has also complicated the claim of a single ethnicity, and changed the world’s ethnic landscape. Recognizing this change and the increase in polyethnic individuals, the US Census Bureau, for the first time in 2000, offered multiple choices for race/ ethnicity.

Despite these changes, the idea of polyethnicity has not been free of ambiguities and contradictions. For example, according to Cornell (2000), ”those who carry multiple racial and ethnic identities may struggle not only against the dominant group’s insistence on clear boundaries and unitary classifications, but against the similar insistence on the part of the subordinate groups.” Thus, the discourse around ethnic identity tends to be binary and exclusive in nature, and even though there is growing inter ethnic marriage amongst various groups, the experience of the groups is very different. Lee and Bean (2004) posit the view that Asians and Latinos have much higher rates of interethnic marriages than do blacks, and they are more likely to report polyethnicity than blacks who more often than not claim a single ethnicity and racial identity. This is the case, the authors argue, because blacks have a ”legacy of slavery,” a history of discrimination, and have been victimized by the ”one drop rule” (where having any black blood automatically labeled one black) in the US. However, despite this pressure to identify with one ethnicity or another, polyethnic people are asserting their desired identities and affiliations. But one should keep in mind that those characterized as polyethnics in themselves do not constitute an actual group simply because of the diverse experiences of the individuals in that group. Much research needs to be done in order to capture the varied experiences of polyethnic people, and how they conceive of their identity. Future directions in this area might include multiple ethnic memberships in an increasingly transnational context where national borders are less fixed.


  1. Cornell, S. (2000) That’s the Story of Our Lives. In: Spikard, P. & Burroughs, W. J. (Eds.), We Are a People. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, pp. 41 53.
  2. Gans, H. (1979) Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America. Ethnic and Racial Studies 2: 1 20.
  3. Lee, J. & Bean, F. D. (2004) America’s Changing Color Lines: Immigration, Race/Ethnicity, and Multiracial Identification. American Review of Sociology 30: 221 42.
  4. Pagnini, D. L. & Morgan, S. P. (1990) Intermarriage and Social Distance among US Immigrants at the Turn of the Century. American Journal of Sociology 96: 405 32.
  5. Portes, A. & Zhou, M. (1993) The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and its Variants. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 530 (November): 74 97.
  6. Song, M. (2003) Choosing Ethnic Identity. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  7. Spikard, P. (1989) Mixed Blood. University of Wis­consin Press, Madison.
  8. Spikard, P. & Burroughs, W. J. (2000) We Are a People. In: Spikard, P. & Burroughs, W. J. (Eds.), We Are a People. Temple University Press, Phila­delphia, PA, pp. 1 19.
  9. Waters, M. C. (2000) Multiple Ethnicities and Identity in the United States. In: Spikard, P. & Burroughs, W. J. (Eds.), We Are a People. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, pp. 23 40.
  10. Weber, M. (1968 [1922]) Economy and Society. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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