History Of Ethnicity Research Paper

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1. Is ‘Ethnicity’ Ancient Or Modern?

From one point of view, ethnic groups, and the conflicts between them, are as old as humankind. The ethnopsychiatrist Devereux (1975) therefore used examples from Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plutarch, and Xenophon to the Bible to develop his conceptual approach to Ethnic Identity: Its Logical Foundations and Its Dysfunctions. Among a total of 56 groups on whose basis Devereux develops his theories are ancient Hebrews, Spartans, Sedang, Arunta, Mohave, Hipa, Yuma, and numerous examples from modern Europe, especially from the time of fascism.

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From another vantage point, ethnic identity is a feature of modernization. The sociologist Glazer (1975), for example, noted in his essay on the Universalization of Ethnicity that while processes of modernization could be expected to weaken primordial ethnic identities, in fact, mass societies had created a new need for ‘some kind of identity—smaller than the State, larger than the family, something akin to a ‘familistic allegiance.’ Hence the production of ethnic difference could be expected to intensify and increase under modern conditions.

What speaks for the first assumption is the impressive array of social conflicts involving differences in the sense of belonging and of group membership. There is also the history of the word ‘ethnos’ which goes back to antiquity and contains an interesting doubleness of standing for people in general as well as for people who are different from the speaker (the Greek ethnikos was a translation of Hebrew goy), making ‘ethnos’ available as a term of in-group self-description and of out-group ascription.

What speaks for the second assumption is the fact that in the modern period, with its intensified migration and urbanization processes, ethnic identifications could free themselves from all other moorings in the modern period, that ethnic identification has proliferated steadily and that, at the end of the twentieth century, it seems to have engulfed the whole globe. While the ancient Greek word ‘ethnos’ has remained the root of many related words (including ‘ethnic’), the modern period has contributed a whole vocabulary for the perception and discussion of ethnic matters. The words include ‘race’ (which emerged in the context of the Spanish Inquisition) and the twentieth-century neologisms ‘racism,’ ‘genocide,’ ‘ethnicity,’ and ‘identity.’

2. Brief History Of The Vocabulary Of Ethnicity

The word race, derived from Italian razza, Spanish and Castilian raza, and Portuguese raca, became widespread in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. An English example from 1570, referring to the ‘race & stocke of Abraham,’ supports Leo Spitzer’s theory that the obscure ultimate roots of race may lie in the word ‘generation.’ Verena Stolcke has shown that the word ‘race’ could mean ‘the succession of generations (de raza en raza) as well as all the members of a given generation.’ In addition to the word’s relation of ‘generation,’ in fifteenth century Spain race connoted ‘quality’ and ‘nobility of blood’ (an aristocratic sense) as well as ‘taint’ and ‘contamination’ (a meaning opposite to that of ‘nobility’). Race in its negative sense appeared in the doctrine of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre), ‘understood as the quality of having no admixture of the races of Moors, Jews, heretics, or penitenciados (those condemned by the Inquisition).’ The more modern word race thus shared the ambiguity inherent in the ancient ethnos.

Twentieth-century fascists used the word racism (coined in analogy to other modern ‘-isms’ such as communism) as a positive term to describe the importance they assigned to race. The term racism came into general use only in the 1930s, and it acquired its pejorative sense when it became associated with intellectual critiques of fascism. Hirschfeld’s (1938) remarkable antifascist book Racism marked the turning point.

Another neologism to emerge in the period of the struggle against National Socialism was genocide, introduced by Lemkin (1944) in the book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin studied the new, eliminationist Nazi occupation policies (most especially toward Jews, but also toward other nationality groups in occupied countries) and found that these measures intended to destroy ‘the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.’ The attacks on political and social institutions, on ‘culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups’ were steps toward the ‘destruction of their personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.’ As examples of ‘genocide legislation,’ Lemkin reproduced the texts of numerous laws, including those that established German as the official language in Luxembourg, banned the Cyrillic alphabet in Croatia, and placed Kosovo under Albanian rule. Lemkin’s coinage ‘genocide’ was disseminated widely when the United Nations adopted it in 1945 in an indictment of Nazi leaders for having ‘conducted deliberate and systematic genocide—namely, the extermination of racial and national groups.’

The English word ethnicity was once recorded in 1772, in an obsolete instance where it denotes ‘heathenish superstition.’ In the sense in which we now use it, the word was revived only during World War II, at a time that race had become compromised by racism. Warner reintroduced ‘ethnicity’ as social category, parallel to sex, age, and religion, by which human beings can be differentiated from each other. In The Social Life of a Modern Community, co-authors Warner and Lunt (1941) argued that an ‘individual was classified as belonging to a specific ethnic group if (a) he considered himself or was considered by the…community as a member of the group, and (b) if he participated in the activities of the group.’ Warner and Lunt introduced the noun when they stressed that ‘the concept of ethnicity is not based simply on place of birth.’ Just like ‘ethnos’ and ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity’ was an ambiguous term. On the one hand, Warner’s ‘ethnicity’ was an inclusive category, by which every inhabitant of a community could be classified. On the other hand, it could be a term that excluded dominant groups and refer to all inhabitants of the New England community he studied except ‘the natives, or Yankees.’ Warner used the word ‘ethnicity’ again in later publications; and Riesman (1953) employed it in an essay. However, the term became more popular only in the 1970s, especially when it was used in the titles of Glazer and Moynihan’s (1975) collection Ethnicity: Theory and Experience and of Greeley’s (1974) study Ethnicity in the United States.

The word ‘ethnic’ has been in circulation for a somewhat longer time. Going back to the noun ethnos, the word was used to refer not just to people in general, but to ‘others.’ In English usage, the meaning shifted from ‘non-Israelite, Gentile’ to ‘non-Christian.’ Thus, the word retained a quality of defining another people, and often negatively, as ‘heathens.’ Only in the mid-nineteenth century did the more familiar meaning of ‘ethnic’ as referring to a secular group of people emerge. However, the English language has retained the pagan memory of ‘ethnic’ in the sense of ethnic as ‘other,’ as ‘nonstandard.’ The Oxford English Dictionary, thus, traces three strands of meaning that coalesced in the modern sense of ‘ethnic’ (as in ‘ethnic group’): (a) ‘pertaining to nations not Christian or Jewish; Gentile, heathen, pagan’ (the oldest sense of the word, documented since the fifteenth century); (b) ‘peculiar to a race or nation’ (going back to midnineteenth-century uses in the sense of ‘racial’); and (c) ‘ethnic minority (group), a group of people differentiated from the rest of the community by racial origins or cultural background’ (popular since World War II).

3. Approaches To Ethnic Groups, Ethnic Identity, And Ethnicity: A Sampling

The ethnic group became the subject of scholarly discussion with Weber’s (1978) foundational definition in Economy and Society written before World War I and first published posthumously in 1922. Weber saw ethnic groups as ‘those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists.’ He emphasized the sense of commonality (Gemeinsamkeit, ‘ethnic membership’ in English translation) that does not in itself constitute a group but that ‘facilitates group formation.’ Weber offered a broad international perspective and discussed such ethnic groups as American Negroes, Serbs and Croats, German-speaking Alsatians, Poles in Prussian Upper Silesia, Baltic Germans, and French Canadians. Weber used ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ interchangeably and wrote that the ‘question of whether conspicuous ‘racial’ differences are based on biological heredity or on tradition is usually of no importance as far as their effect on mutual attraction or repulsion is concerned. Weber also discussed ethnic groups under the term ‘nationalities,’ the word dominant in the period of World War I and the Versailles treaty.

In his focus on the ‘subjective belief,’ Weber’s concept of the ethnic group implies a psychological component. When Sigmund Freud reflected on the subjective sense of belonging, he arrived at a formulation that was to lead to the coinage of another key term. In a 1926 B’nai Brith address, Freud wondered about his subjective sense of Jewishness— which was independent of religious faith or ethnic pride—and saw it as the result of what he called ‘the secret familiarity of identical psychological construction’ (Heimlichkeit der gleichen inneren Konstruktion). When Erikson (1950) attempted to translate Freud’s phrase in Childhood and Society, he offered the term identity as an English equivalent for Freud’s notion. As Gleason has shown, it was a word that took: for instance, Seligman and Johnson’s (1930–1935) Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences still had no entry for identity and discussed fingerprinting techniques under ‘identification,’ whereas Sills’s (1968) International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences carried a substantial essay.

Simmel (1908) described an individual as defined by an always varying web of only partly overlapping, multiple group affiliations. He also focused on the figure of the ‘stranger’ who is ‘near and far at the same time.’ Simmel’s stranger is ‘the person who comes today and stays tomorrow’ without ever becoming completely part of the group within which he lives. Simmel viewed the European Jew as the exemplary ‘stranger.’ Simmel’s attention to multiple group memberships and to the special role of an outsider who is also an insider gave rise to a focus on marginality in the study of social structures and to the question how ‘ethnicity’ relates to other, simultaneously existing group affiliations?

In his essay ‘Human Migration and the Marginal Man,’ Park (1928) applied Simmel to issues of migration. Park viewed marginality and the race-mixing as the rule and not the exception in human history, and saw the ‘marginal man’ as the ideal figure for the study of ‘the processes of civilization and of progress.’ The marginal man thus became a key figure for an understanding of modernity, urbanism, and cosmopolitanism; and marginality and assimilation became central terms for the study of ethnicity.

In his often-cited book Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origin, Gordon (1964) outlined such pluralist and assimilationist concepts of ethnic integration as ‘melting pot’ (the term derived from Israel Zangwill’s play of 1908), ‘Anglo-conformity,’ and ‘pluralism’ (the term the philosopher Horace M. Kallen adopted from William James and ethnicized). Others have added such terms as ‘ethnogenesis’ or ‘ethnic differentiation’ to Gordon’s helpful array of terms.

Devereux (1975) took as his point of departure the question how ethnic identity can be related to other forms of identity. He emphasized what he called the ‘dissociative’ nature of ethnic behavior that was not actually prompted by past tradition but was informed by a contrastive and presentist strategy of opposition of one ethnic group against another. Ethnicity, seen this way, ‘is logically and historically the product of the assertion that ‘A is an X because he is not a Y’—a proposition which made it remarkably easy to identify and homogenize Xness, exaggerating the differences between the Xs and Ys. ‘X does not equal Y’ was thus the fundamental ethnic formula.

Writing after World War II, Devereux located the fascist potential of ethnic movements in this reduction of complex authentic identity to contrastive one dimensionality in the name of ethnicity. ‘Ethnicity’ could demand that it overrule all other group affiliations with which it might be in conflict. Devereux saw the danger of ethnicity as an ‘all-or-nothing proposition,’ for in the complex ensemble that constituted individual identity, ethnicity could turn out to be one feature that is superimposed—Devereux calls it ‘hypercathected’—over all other features of a personality, including the important characteristic of shared membership in the human race. This was a strange logical operation that could produce catastrophic and disastrous actions—including ethnic cleansing and genocide.

In his important essay on Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America, Gans (1979) called attention to the ways in which modern ethnic identification may work by external symbols rather than by continuous activities that make demands upon people who define themselves as ‘ethnic’ so that a gentle ethnic diversification could take place in an assimilative framework.

These observations were important for approaches that looked at ethnic processes and conflicts not only as residues of primordial differences, but as new constructions and inventions. Three widely received books supported this direction of inquiry, Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) general The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (1983) In ention of Tradition, focusing especially on Europe and Africa, and South Asia specialist Anderson’s (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. The constructivist turn opened up the whole interrelationship of ethnicity and culture to new inquiries, as the focus shifted from the issue of how ethnic culture was preserved or succumbed to assimilation to the question of how ethnic groups emerged and how ethnicity was constantly reimagined and reinvented.

In his landmark introduction to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, Barth (1969) drew comparatively on wideranging field work on such groups as the Pathans in Swat, the Yao in China, or the Lapps in Norway in order to develop an influential approach to ethnicity. He suggested that we ‘ask ourselves what is needed to make ethnic distinctions emerge in an area.’ Barth argued:

When one traces the history of an ethnic group through time, one is not simultaneously, in the same sense, tracing the history of ‘‘a culture’’: the elements of the present culture of that ethnic group have not sprung from the particular set that constituted the group’s culture at a previous time, whereas the group has a continual organizational existence with boundaries (criteria of membership) that despite modifications have marked off a continuing unit.

Barth saw the essence of ethnicity in mental, cultural social and not necessarily territorial boundary-constructing processes which functioned as cultural markers between groups. For Barth it was ‘the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses.’ Barth directed attention to processes of boundary maintenance and argued that ‘members of all ethnic groups in a poly-ethnic society’ could ‘act to maintain dichotomies and differences.’

In Urban Ethnicity, Cohen (1974) investigated the emergence of ethnic distinctions against the background of power relations and insisted on ethnicity as a category that may apply to dominant elites as well as marginal groups, with examples ranging from Sierra Leone to the city men of London.

The conceptual richness of the pioneering scholarship and of provocative work from the 1960s to the early 1980s supported a growing body of empirical work on ethnic groups around the globe. Questions of ethnic persistence and emergence, of power relations and agency, of assimilation and pluralism, of marginality, ethnic invention, symbolic ethnicity, and boundary construction, permeated scholarship in many disciplines at a time in which intellectual attention as riveted by issues of ethnicity, class, and gender. The proliferation of scholarly work reached such proportions that by 2000, there were hundreds of books whose titles contained the relatively new word ‘ethnicity.’

4. Exemplary Scholarly Engagements With Ethnicity

Starting in the 1970s, studies in many disciplines placed a new emphasis on ethnicity. Emigration and immigration, slavery and freedom, and ethnic mergers and conflicts had been the subjects of many earlier historical and sociological works. But such topics now assumed a new position of centrality in the various disciplines. In the US, for example, the pioneering work by Marcus Lee Hansen, Oscar Handlin, or John Higham inspired many historians—among them Rudolph Vecoli, John E. Bodnar, Kathleen Conzen, and Matthew Jacobson, to turn to topics of immigration or related to the ethnic heterogeneity of the US. Of all American ethnic groups, African Americans have particularly been the subject of historical research, ranging from the early work by Carter G. Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and John Hope Franklin to scholarship by Nathan I. Huggins, Leon Litwack, or David Levering Lewis.

The Journal of American Ethnic History is one of many specialized journals that have accompanied the establishment of black and ethnic studies departments in the US. Thernstrom and/or lov’s (1980) The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups gives a sense of the whole field, both in its thematic entries and in its accounts of 107 American ethnic groups. In Germany, a handbook such as Ethnische Minderheiten in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Ein Lexikon, (SchmalzJacobsen and Hansen 1995) offered an overview of German ethnic groups and issues, with a certain focus on such linguistic minorities as Danes and Sorbs. Noiriel, Le creuset francais: Histoire de l’immigration, XIXe–XXe siecles (1988) offered an account of emigration and immigration in France. In Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Horowitz (1985) analyzed explosive ethnic fault lines around the globe.

5. Conclusion

While ethnic identification seems fluid and ready to emerge unpredictably in new circumstances, it is also remarkable how many areas of the world have been enmeshed in intermittent ethnic conflicts for a very long time. As long as the sense of belonging—be it ancient or modern in origin—persists among members of groups and as long as conflicts arise between different groups, there will be ample material for ethnic scholarship.


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