Anthropology of Ethnicity Research Paper

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The concept of ‘ethnicity’ derives from the ancient Greek ethnos, referring to human collectivities living and acting together. It is typically translated today as ‘people’ or ‘nation.’ Since the 1900s, the linked concepts of ethnicity and ethnic group have passed into everyday discourse. They have become central to the politics of group differentiation and advantage in the culturally diverse social democracies of Europe and North America. With notions of ‘race’ in disrepute since 1945, ethnicity has become a rallying cry in the bloody re-ordering of the post-Cold War world: ‘ethnic cleansing’ stands shoulder to shoulder with earlier euphemisms such as ‘racial hygiene’ and ‘the final solution.’ In the markets of the affluent west and north, to call a commodity ‘ethnic’ is to imply the value of ‘authenticity.’ In the social sciences, ethnicity—including related topics such as ‘race,’ ‘nationalism,’ and ‘difference’—has become a rapidly expanding specialism.

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1. Corporate Groups And Cultural Differences

One of anthropology’s earliest ambitions as a comparative scientific enterprise was to explain and understand human diversity. This aspiration has remained central to the social and cultural anthropological imagination—and to the limited, but significant, unity of purpose that divergent national and intellectual anthropological traditions have succeeded in maintaining—ever since. The different approaches to this quest which have characterized the discipline’s twentieth-century history have, for most of that period, been rooted in two interrelated anthropological axioms. On the one hand, there is an understanding of human social life as based in membership in definite, bounded corporate groups. On the other, the basic unity of humankind is understood as crisscrossed by patterns of cultural differentiation.

These fundamental concepts emphasize similarity (corporate groups) and difference (cultural differentiation), the two basic dimensions of all processes of social identification. In groups, we are both together (as us) and apart (from them). Although the two notions, and their implication in each other, remain constant, how they are defined, and the relationship between them, has changed since the nineteenth century. This process can be understood as a gradual shift from documenting the social structure and customs of ‘tribes,’ to attempting to understand the complex dynamics of ‘ethnic groups.’

During the colonial and immediately postcolonial eras, anthropology’s theoretical preoccupation with corporate groups was manifest in the assumption that ‘primitive peoples’ were characteristically organized into tribal groups. In one move, the concept of ‘the tribe’ distanced tribal society from civilized society, in both common-sensical and analytical discourse, and provided the anthropologist with a theoretical model of the nature of ‘noncivilized’ social organization which could organise ethnographic data and function as a framework for cross-cultural comparison. At the same time as the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ was established, the basic similarity between different sorts of ‘them’ was proclaimed. This ‘tribe-group’ model was not, however, an explicit analytical framework; it was, rather, implicit in most ethnographic studies, neither examined nor questioned.

2. The Anthropology Of Ethnicity

One of the earliest anthropologists to doubt the usefulness of the notion of the tribe was Leach (1954), who argued, in his study of highland Burma, that tribes, as discrete bounded entities, were essentially models developed by outsiders, for their own purposes, not locally meaningful principles of everyday social organization. Locals might talk about themselves as if there were clear-cut collective identities and entities, but everyday interaction and organization revealed a more complex pattern of overlap, variation, and fluidity.

By the 1960s, the notion of ‘the tribe’ was gradually being replaced in British social anthropology by the, perhaps less colonial-sounding, ‘ethnic group.’ However, the underlying assumptions about corporate groups and cultural difference had probably not changed much. Within American anthropology, the increasing use of an ethnicity model, over the same period, can also be understood as part of a long-term, incremental shift in the discipline’s axiomatic metatheoretical model of difference: from ‘race,’ to ‘culture,’ to ‘ethnicity’ (Wolf 1994).

2.1 Ethnic Groups And Boundaries

The paradigm shift towards a social constructionist model of ethnic groups followed the publication of the Norwegian symposium edited by Barth (1969). The subtitle of this collection of essays—The Social Organization of Culture Difference—tells us a great deal about both anthropological understandings of ethnicity (cultural differentiation), and Barth’s take on it (as social organization). In the ‘Introduction,’ he argued against the presumption that the social world was made up of ‘distinct named groups.’ Ethnicity, the boundaries of ethnic groups, and indeed their ontological status as collectivities, could not be accepted uncritically as fixed aspects of the social reality in question. Instead, Barth insisted that ethnic identity— and its production and reproduction in routine social interaction—must be treated as essentially problematic features of social life, as emergent properties of everyday interaction. The ethnographer must examine the practices and processes whereby ethnicity and ethnic boundaries are constructed socially.

Barth and his colleagues shifted the anthropological emphasis from the static evocation of tribal identity as a feature of social structure, to a recognition of ethnic identity as a dynamic aspect of social organization: ethnic identification is something that people can and do manipulate, depending on the needs and possibilities of the context. People are not ‘at the mercy’ of their ethnicity, nor do they do things simply because they are ethnically ‘X’ or ‘Y.’ Ethnicity is not an imperative. In acknowledging this, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries marked a shift from an interest in the uncivilised peoples of the colonies and ex-colonies, to a more equitable concern with the complex heterogeneity of all societies.

Barth’s emergent alternative framework had several key features. First, the analysis of ethnicity starts from the definition of the situation held by social actors. Second, the focus of attention then becomes how ethnic boundaries are maintained or changed in the structured interaction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which takes place across boundaries. Third, the ethnicity of actors is not necessarily fixed; it is defined situationally. Fourth, ethnic identity depends on ascription, by members of the ethnic group in question and by outsiders with whom they interact. Fifth, ethnicity is not a matter of ‘real’ cultural differentiation; differences are in the eye of the beholder, the ‘cultural stuff’ which had been hitherto believed to determine group identification is somewhat irrelevant. Finally, ecological issues are influential in producing and reproducing ethnic identity: economic competition for scarce resources plays an important role in the generation of ethnicity.

2.2 Ethnicity As Socially Constructed

This social constructivist model of ethnicity can be traced back to the ideas of sociologists such as Max Weber, Everett Hughes, and Erving Goffman. Although Ethnic Groups and Boundaries was the model’s most systematic, extended, and influential statement, similar arguments can also be found in the work of contemporary North American anthropologists such as Moerman (1965) and Cohen (1969). It has dominated discussions of ethnicity within European and North American anthropology since.

This basic paradigm was developed by Handelman (1977). Acknowledging the importance of boundaries, and the situational negotiability of ethnic membership, he argued that Barth overemphasised the centrality of social interaction in establishing boundaries, at the expense of acknowledging the role of culture. For Handelman, the cultural content of ethnicity is an important aspect of its social organization. A dichotomy between the cultural and the social is misleading. He argues further that ethnicity is incorporated— made socially significant—in differing degrees of intensity and territoriality, on which depends its salience in individual experience. Moving from ‘the casual to the corporate,’ Handelman distinguished the ethnic set, the ethnic category, the ethnic network, the ethnic association and the ethnic community. Ethnicity can, for example, organize everyday life without ethnic groups featuring locally as meaningful social forms.

What we can call ‘the basic anthropological model of ethnicity’—it has become a ‘normal science paradigm’ of sorts—has many virtues. In stressing social process and the practices of actors, it encouraged a move away from the various strands of determinism of the 1970s and early 1980s. The emphasis upon social construction discourages the intrusion of biological conceptions of ethnicity or ‘race’ into social analysis. Finally, the importance that is attached to the views and self-perceptions of social actors themselves undermines the taken-for-granted ethnocentrism of much social science. These are important gains, and in all of these respects the approach may be said to have anticipated some of the most valuable aspects of postmodernism and poststructuralism.

However, the approach has suffered at the hands of some of those who have most wholeheartedly embraced it. In stressing concepts such as ‘group,’ ‘category,’ and ‘boundary,’ and processes of ‘maintenance,’ Barth—despite his intentions to the contrary—contributed to the further reification of the ethnic group as a perduring corporate entity. In particular, the spatial and physical overtones of the notion of the ‘boundary’ allow the superficial or the careless to celebrate the situational flexibility of ethnicity without taking on board the more difficult questions about the nature of collective social forms in which Barth is interested. In their enthusiasm for processes of boundary maintenance—negotiation and strategizing—many of those whose analyses owe much, if not everything, to Barth have taken for granted what he did not, i.e., the ‘group’ that is the object of the research.

Three other, related, criticisms are worth mentioning. First, although the locations where Leach, Barth, and others did their fieldwork—South-East Asia and the Middle East, for example—do allow for flexibility and a degree of choice with respect to identification, the same is not true everywhere. In many other contexts—such as Northern Ireland/or Kosovo—there may be much less room for maneuver. Second (although this is changing), many anthropologists, in their celebration of the positivities of everyday life, still appear reluctant to recognize power imbalances. The third criticism concerns the relative lack of theoretical attention which has been given to the relationships between ethnicity, on the one hand, and other principles of social identification, particularly class and stratification, on the other.

None of these problems, however, are inescapable theoretical weaknesses of the general anthropological approach. Recently, a solution to some of them has been put forward in the application to the study of interethnic relations of the distinction between groups and categories (Jenkins 1997). It is important to distinguish between two analytically distinct processes of ascription: group identification and social categorization. The first occurs inside the ethnic boundary (group members identify themselves), the second outside and across it (a collectivity and its members are categorized by nonmembers). Social categorization, in particular, is intimately bound up with power relations. It reflects the capacity of one group successfully to impose its categories of ascription upon another set of people, and the resources which the categorized collectivity can draw upon to resist that imposition. Acknowledging the significance of this distinction places relationships of domination and subordination on the theoretical center-stage.

2.3 Ethnicity As Personally Meaningful

If ethnic identity is a flexible matter, dependent on situation, it is legitimate to ask what it really means to the individuals concerned. This question has generated discussion about the nature of ethnic identity and is a perennial topic in the textbooks. Is ethnicity a fundamental, primordial aspect of human existence and self-consciousness, essentially unchanging and unchangeable in the demands it makes upon individuals and the bonds which it creates between the individual and the group? In other words, is ethnicity an aspect of ‘human nature’? Or is it, to whatever extent, defined situationally, strategically or tactically manipulable, and capable of change at both the individual and collective levels? Is it, indeed, wholly socially constructed, as the post-Barth conventional wisdom might suggest?

This debate takes its place alongside a range of essentially philosophical controversies about human nature, the human condition, and the capacity of humans to intervene in their own lives, to determine or to be determined. But the ‘primordial model’ also has other historical roots, in the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment rationalism. Finding some of its more respectable voices in Herder and Hegel, this is much more than an academic point of view. Tragically, it has provided the intellectual charter for terrible—to the point of murderous—ethnic chauvinism, nationalism, and genocide. The ideology of primordialism naturalizes ethnic groups and justifies chauvinistic ethnic sentiments. Academically speaking, it can, for example, be identified at play in the ongoing debate about the modernity and nature of nationalism (e.g., Smith 1994).

Within anthropology, the name that is most often identified with a primordial model of ethnicity is Geertz (1973). Writing originally in 1963, Geertz was concerned to understand the obstacle that ‘primordial attachments’—known variously as tribalism, parochialism, or communalism, and encompassing more than ethnicity—posed to the development of the modern political sentiment of citizenship in emergent post–colonial ‘new states.’ This was an important recognition—if one was needed—that whatever else it is about, ethnicity is also about affect and the sometime power of culture to move people.

So on the one hand we have negotiable identities, while on the other there are primordial attachments. The apparent conflict between the ‘primordialist’ and ‘situationalist’ perspectives is, however, not as clearcut as it seems. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the debate has generated more heat than light. Both positions arguably have at least as much in common as not, and the protagonists are certainly usually misrepresented, sometimes to a remarkable degree.

To look, for example, at what Geertz actually said, he recognized explicitly the role of culture in defining the primordial ‘givens,’ and that primordial attachments are historically and situationally variable in their power to move people. He is also clear that what matters is that ties of blood, language, and culture are seen by actors to be ineffable and obligatory; that they are seen as natural. He is concerned with the terms in which attachments are understood and mobilized locally; with what people believe. Finally, Geertz further argues that these putative ‘primordial attachments,’ far from being necessarily ancient, may actually be stimulated and quickened by the political modernization of nation-building.

Barth, for his part, has never neglected the power and stability of ethnic identifications. As much concerned with the persistence of ethnic boundaries as with their flux, what he said was that under certain, not uncommon, circumstances ethnic change can happen, not that it must. Furthermore, his point of view is often presented fossilized in its 1969 incarnation. Since then he has explored the importance of ongoing, and historically relatively stable, ‘streams of tradition’ or ‘universes of discourse,’ within the constraints of which ethnic identities are produced and reproduced in practice. Most recently, he has acknowledged the need to add micro- and macrolevels of analysis to the intermediate level upon which his original arguments concentrated. This means looking at what ethnicity means for individuals.

There are other reasons for becoming impatient with this debate. In the evocative words of one teaching text, it offers a contrast between ‘ethnicity in the heart’ and ‘ethnicity in the head’ (Banks 1996). This alerts us to the need to acknowledge affect and emotion in our considerations of ethnicity. But there is no necessary contradiction between instrumental manipulation, on the one hand, and sentiment, on the other. They may, in fact, go hand in hand. They may also, of course, conflict. But so may different sentiments or opposing instrumental goals.

There is, however, good reason to reject totally any strongly primordialist view. Too much ethnographic evidence exists of the fluidity and flux of ethnic identification and of the differing degrees to which ethnicity organizes social life in different settings, for any other position to be sensible. However, nor, on the other hand, can we deny the longevity and stubbornness, under particular circumstances, of ethnic attachments. But to acknowledge this point does not necessitate either embracing a primordial model, or abandoning the idea of social construction. It is not stretching the point to regard ethnic differentiation— the social construction of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ marked in cultural terms—as a ubiquitous feature of human sociability, and hence of all human societies. Arguments about whether or not ethnicity is ‘situational’ or ‘primordial’ confuse the ubiquity of a social phenomenon such as ethnicity with ‘naturalness’ (implying determinism and presocial powers of causation). To suggest that ethnicity is ever present, as one of the ‘givens’ of human social life, is not to endorse the primordialist point of view.

Within anthropology, the primordial intellectual position is unconvincing largely because it is something of a straw man. The scholarly debate about ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘primordialism’ exaggerates the differences between, for example, Geertz and Barth, and it does neither justice. More widely, it is tempting to suggest that the notion of the ‘primordial’ should be banished from the social-science lexicon altogether. On the other hand, however, it would be irresponsible to forget the debate altogether. Crude primordialism is essentially a common-sense view, with enormous power in the world. In sheep’s clothing it occasionally makes an academic showing, indirectly, in the guise of sociobiology and discussions about territoriality. These views cannot be simply ignored, and an anthropological perspective—rooted in social constructionist assumptions—has much to offer as a critique of the naturalization of chauvinism and ethnic conflict.

2.4 A Basic Anthropological Model Of Ethnicity

Despite the criticisms and debates summarized here— and in unacknowledged harmony with post-1980s discourses about ‘difference,’ globalization, transnationality, and so on—the ‘basic anthropological model of ethnicity’ remains in place as disciplinary conventional wisdom. In its foundational emphasis upon social construction, its recognition of the fluidity as well as the solidity of identity, and its refusal to biologize or naturalize what are sociocultural phenomena, it remains the cornerstone of any anthropological approach to the topic. It can be summarised thus:

(a) ethnicity is about cultural differentiation (bearing in mind that similarity and difference are inextricably connected),

(b) although ethnicity is centrally concerned with culture—shared universes of meaning—it is also rooted in, and to a considerable extent the outcome of, social interaction,

(c) ethnicity is no more fixed or unchanging than the culture of which it is a component or the social situations in which it is produced and reproduced, and

(d) ethnicity as a social identity is collective and individual, externalized in social interaction and internalized in personal self-identification.

However, that there is a relatively consensual model, combined with the anthropological enthusiasm for detailed ethnography rather than systematic theory, may lead to some things being taken for granted. In particular, there is a perpetual need to struggle against the tendency to reify culture and ethnicity. Although we talk about them in these terms, neither culture nor ethnicity is ‘something’ that people ‘have’ or to which they ‘belong.’ They are, rather, complex repertoires which people experience, use, learn and ‘do’ in their daily lives, within which they construct an ongoing sense of themselves and an understanding of their fellows.

The reification of ethnicity may also lead to its being seen as typically—or even only—an attribute of the Other. We need to remind ourselves all the time that each of us participates in an ethnicity—perhaps more than one—just like them, just like the Other or ‘the ethnic minorities.’ National identity may, however, be easier to recognize in ourselves than ethnicity. Nationalism and the construction of national identity are explicit projects of the state (and, if nothing else, we have passports). In the ‘modern world,’ the contours and contents of national identity, and the contexts of its uses and justifications, may be more visible than ethnicity. It is, therefore, no surprise that the anthropology of nationalism is a recent growth area (Eriksen 1993).

Although anthropologists may not have to remind themselves that national identity—as a variation on the theme of ethnicity—is socially constructed, there is a need to keep this idea firmly in the public eye. The timeliness of Wolf’s warning (1994) that ‘race,’ ‘culture,’ and ‘people’ are ‘perilous ideas,’ makes the social constructionist, anthropological model of ethnicity as relevant at the turn of the twenty-first century as it was in the 1960s. Anthropology’s comparative global reach and local-level research focus, its emphasis upon culture and social construction, and its capacity to see individual trees as well as the collective wood, relativizes notions about ethnicity and undermines the naturalization of ethnic or national identity. That remains an important contribution to our understanding of the modern social world.


  1. Banks M 1996 Ethnicity: Anthropological Constructions. Routledge, London
  2. Barth F (ed.) 1969 Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Diff Universitetsforlaget, Bergen, Norway
  3. Cohen Y A 1969 Social boundary systems. Current Anthropology 10: 379–403
  4. Eriksen T H 1993 Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. Pluto, London
  5. Geertz C 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, New York
  6. Handelman D 1977 The organization of ethnicity. Ethnic Groups 1: 187–200
  7. Jenkins R 1997 Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations. Sage, London
  8. Leach E R 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. Athlone, London
  9. Moerman M 1965 Ethnic identification in a complex civilization: who are the Lue? American Anthropologist 67: 1215–30
  10. Smith A D 1994 The problem of national identity: ancient, medieval and modern? Ethnic and Racial Studies 17: 375–99
  11. Wolf E R 1994 Perilous ideas: race, culture, people. Current Anthropology 35: 1–12
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