Sociology Of Ethnicity Research Paper

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Ethnicity was conspicuous in Athens, Rome, and Alexandria, and it was also a factor in the Indian caste system, the millet of Muslim societies, and in other instances of segregated groups. In these premodern cases, ethnic relations were taken for granted, and imposed, by superior authorities, traditions, abrupt power relations, or the individuals involved themselves. It is principally in modern settings that processes like the emergence of the nation-state—as the primary focus of identification—and the growth of a meritocratic–individualistic civilization have seemed to leave no room for continuous ethnic allegiances. It is also then that the persistence and increasing saliency of ethnicity have led scholars to delve into the phenomenon as a sociological issue. Max Weber (1978) spoke of ethnicity to designate collectives characterized by religious, historical, linguistic, or racial traits. Since the 1960s, following the political awakening of Blacks and other groups in the USA, ‘ethnic group’ became popular among sociologists while some of them proposed ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1983). Such groups respond to a variety of syndromes, and may also be factors of political change—especially in democratic settings—when they contribute to the assertion of multiculturalism and eventually evolve, in this era of globalization, into ‘transnational diasporas.’

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1. A Kind Of Collective Identity

Above all, ethnicity consists of a reference to a collective identity, i.e., how and how far individuals: (a) feel committed to people whom they see as fellow members of their group, (b) perceive that group as conveying singular, ‘original’ and ‘unique’ values, norms, or symbols, and (c) accordingly, distinguish themselves from nonmembers (see also Eriksen 1993). This notion describes an essentially subjective phenomenon and, beyond the structures and interests wherein it may concretize ‘objectively,’ it involves dilemmas more often than unambiguous assertions. Hence, the same identity may be phrased in different (possibly antagonistic) terms, over time (i.e., diachronically) or among different circles in the group (i.e., synchronically). A classic example is the Jewish identity. Traditional Jewishness has for long been the dominant trend among Jews, up to the advent of modernity, and it still defines Judaism by (a) its commitment to Jews’ welfare anywhere, (b) its insistence on the religious faith and its constraints, and (c) its messianic aspiration to a repositioning vis-a-vis the non-Jew through Redemption. Many non-Orthodox and free-thinkers are, in contrast, (a) committed to a community which they perceive as (b) carrying universalistic values under the cover of parochial customs, while at the same time, (c) also seeing themselves an integral, though distinct, segment of non-Jewish societies. The nationalists, as for them, speak of (a) patriotic commitment to (b) a notion of a Jewish nation that is, (c) ‘territorialized’ in the ‘ancestral land,’ as the basis of the ‘normalization’ of the Jewish condition among nations. These different versions pertain to a same identity only because they answer the same questions: the commitment to Jews, the perception of their singularity, and an understanding of the relation to non-Jews (Ben-Rafael 1998). Such different versions of the same identity articulate distinct symbols or attach contrasted meanings to the same symbols. In both cases, they broadly, though not exclusively, draw these symbols, which are theirs, from the same ‘store’- —myths of descendancy, time-honored customs, and sanctified objects or places. As a rule, these symbols also include language, even though its relation to ethnicity is unpredictable in modern settings where political and cultural imperatives impose the public use of official languages and downgrade ethnic codes to the role of secondary vernaculars. It remains that linguistic elements—a regular register, a restricted vocabulary, typical expressions or a characteristic accent—tend to signal social intercourse involving an ethnic dimension and mark, under its different versions, a group’s contrastive identity (Fishman 1989).

The different markers attached to the various versions of a same collective identity represent diverse manners of stating the group’s ‘uniqueness.’ The comparison of these versions should reveal a common denominator that could be viewed as their deep structures. This denominator should make explicit the nature of the collective claims of the members of the group from society—whether or not these claims are consensual among them. The pertinence of this methodology is less obvious, however, when it comes to the more arduous comparative discussion of different identities, that is, of independent formulations of ‘uniqueness.’ In this respect, the analysis is to widen its scope to the social and cultural context, and its search for a common criterion of evaluation is to switch its focus from ‘identity’ to ‘identification.’

2. The Parameters Of Identification

More than the markers themselves, it is indeed their saliency in the social practice that indicates how far individuals refer to ethnicity in their daily life. This aspect points to the vitality of ethnicity, that is, the degree that ethnics identify with their particular identity through their participation in a wider society. Ethnic identification stands thus at the opposite of assimilation which depicts the abandonment by individuals of their original features and their increasing likening to people who embody, in their behavior and attitudes, the culture prevailing in society. Unlike acculturation, assimilation also includes collective identities, and researchers who have studied these processes show the role played here by three factors, namely, inequality, the dominant culture, and ethnics’ own aspirations.

2.1 Social Inequality

The Chicago school has initiated a tradition in ethnic research which focuses on inequality in metropolitan areas; Robert Park, William Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, or Louis Wirth, for instance, emphasized race relations and immigrant groups. Later on, Leo Kuper explained ethnicity on the basis of domination relations, while Edna Bonacich investigated labor market participation. They and others also focused on ethnics’ unequal access to social and educational opportunities, self-actualization, and empowerment (Giddens 1991). All in all, they show that ethnic groups tend to concentrate, and remain, in inferior strata as the outcome of two categories of factors: discrimination and weak human capital. By discrimination one means normally-‘irrelevant’ pressures of exclusion exerted against a group from outside. It is rationalized, especially where ethnicity is associated with race (Banton 1988), by ethnocentric and racist perceptions among the stronger group. While these attitudes may be diffused by people who feel threatened themselves, they sustain practices of inferiorization and instill deprivation that is found in ethnic identification, a manner for retaining self-dignity. On the other hand, human capital refers to formal education, cultural predisposition, or models of behavior that account for individuals’ capability to seize social opportunities. It is when members of a group exhibit weak human-capital assets that they are particularly vulnerable to discrimination. The confinement to lower status signifies that the group is of little attractiveness to other people, and this relative isolation accounts for restricted exposure to the prevailing culture. Hence, the group may be left to its parochial symbols and styles in the margins of society. By the same token, the contrary is true of mobility. Whether it concerns a small or large cohort of the group, mobility implies acculturation and lower saliency of ethnicity as a result of education, personal relations with ‘others,’ and participation in middleclass frameworks. The extent, however, that acculturation leads to assimilation still depends on other factors.

2.2 The Dominant Culture

The culture which is predominant in society is another pertinent factor. The ‘void of community,’ it is often contended, created by modernity induces individuals—mobile and nonmobile alike—to value the retention of community. Instrumental thinking which pervades all areas of life brings ethnics to aspire to self-expression and to assert their particular identities (Taylor 1994). More specifically, it is also contended that the ‘dominant culture’ is a contingency that may display diverse perspectives toward ethnicity and influence it in different manners. By this notion, one means the beliefs, values, and symbols that identify the society, according to those—the elite or larger social segments—which constitute its leading political forces. These forces give expression to the dominant culture by defining the legal frame of the social insertion of ethnics and weighing on the public opinion through media and policies. Hence, in Germany, the notion of Volk has for a long time stated the supremacy of the nation over the individual, and its anchorage in a given history and culture (Brubacker 1992). As a consequence, naturalization laws obstructed the acquisition of German nationality for non-Germans who reside in the country, even for decades. In the USA where an assimilationist notion of ‘melting-pot’ has been gradually substituted by a pluralistic concept of ‘salad-bowl,’ groups are entitled to retain their particularism while becoming Americans and adjusting to its culture. In France, the ‘republican nation’ is understood as a homogeneous whole—a ‘community of citizens’—which expects new groups to integrate society on these terms. Hence, these dominant cultures display distinct perspectives vis-a-vis ethnics’ social evolution, i.e., assimilation, pluralism, or segregation.

2.3 The Group’s Aspirations

The ethnics also play a part here, and it is at this point that identity is introduced as a factor of identification. In the same material and cultural circumstances, indeed, it is according to the contents of their identity that members of some groups may tend to be ‘assimilationist’ where others are ‘retentionist’ (Glazer and Moynihan 1963). Kinship ties, a common country of origin, or a collective religion are often depicted as ‘primordial’ bonds carrying special strength (Geertz 1963). More specifically, religion has often shown its power to retain the dedication of believers, and sustain the cohesion of communities, in front of assimilatory forces (Smith 1992). Even when challenged by modernity and secularism, it might be rephrased so as to retain relevance. At the limit, fundamentalism, which is one such rephrasing, acknowledges the predominant role of politics in modern societies to formulate the essentials of the faith in terms of a ‘total’ political project. Acting then as a quasi-Jacobinian force, fundamentalism, which itself stands out on behalf of a religious-ethnic collective, leaves little room in its utopia for any form of particularism (Eisenstadt 1997). It remains that as a case of ethnic community, and all other factors being equal, a religious group generally exemplifies the extreme end of ‘retentionism,’ the opposite of those who view assimilation as the realization of their aspiration.

3. The Diversity Of Profiles

All three factors thus say ‘something’ of their own about ethnic identification assimilation: (a) the concentration of a group in a lower class distances members from the surrounding culture, at the benefit of retentionism, while, in contrast, social mobility sustains acculturation; (b) a dominant culture encourages retentionism when it is segregative or pluralistic, and assimilationism when it requests cultural uniformization; (c) according to their own original perspectives, the orientations prevailing in the group influence its members whether to evince or to underrate their collective identity. Viewed together, these independent expectations widely account for the various profiles and extents that groups constitute ‘contrastive entities’ in society. This question puts in perspective material conditions and interests, cultural contexts and identity, and thus accounts for the maintenance, erasing, or reshaping of ethnic boundaries, e.g., what Stuart Hall calls ethnic ‘cut-andmix.’ Empirical cases illustrate the syndromes yielded by this comparative methodology. American-Indian communities are an example of (a) an underprivileged category that suffered from discrimination and carried little human capital; (b) a case where the dominant culture was segregationist; and (c) a group whose basic orientations sustained the retention of its legacy and identity. The small number of acculturated but rarely assimilating mobile elements remains a part of their community best depicted as enclave. A low-class group such as Afro-Americans (until the mid-twentieth century) may, however, aspire to assimilation. Its weak collective identification leaves its few mobile elements free to aspire to assimilation. This, however, is usurpation for a segregationist dominant culture, which pushes them to form a ‘black bourgeoisie’ midway their original community and the dominant group. The Quebecois, a widely low-class population for decades, most often aspired to remain distinct from the assimilationist English-Canadian culture. Many stood for autonomy, even independence, while mobile elements split into supporters of assimilation, offered by the dominant culture and the retentionism of identity favored by the group’s basic aspirations. Regarding Brazil’s Blacks, again a disadvantaged group, no taboo, either from the dominant culture or the group, prevents assimilation. This is of little significance for the majority as only a few mobile individuals may contemplate integrating the predominantly white middle-class, leaving thereby their fellow-ethnics in crypto-segregation. In a context where mobility is more general in the group, South African Indians experienced middle-class closure under Apartheid, as a result of both the dominant culture’s segregationism and their own reluctance to give up their particularism altogether. Ethnic markers and the concomitant adoption of traits indicating acculturation thus circumscribed the boundaries of quite a cohesive group. A model that may be labeled margins to the center concerns the mobile assimilationist Australian-Asian groups who are maintained at a distance by a pluralistic dominant culture. They are similar to the former case but emphasize less their own legacy, and more the markers of acculturation. Still different, the mobile French Jews confront a determinedly assmilationist dominant culture. Many effectively assimilate but others still share the group’s original retentionism by maintaining homogeneous networks. The voluntary character of their allegiance accounts for the variety of their versions of collective identity. Where mobility has erased inequality and deepened acculturation, and the dominant culture and the ethnic group are both open to each other, one may finally speak of genuine assimilation, as illustrated by numberless groups ranging from Italians in France to Norwegians in the US.

4. Multiculturalism, Globalization, And Transnational Diasporas

In summary, the phrasing of their collective identity defines ethnics’ self-perceived ‘uniqueness’ as a group; their identification assimilation draws out their social boundaries. The identity explains the nature and consequent rationality of ethnics’ claims and interests in terms of public goods, illustrating what Boudon (1993) calls ‘normative rationality.’ Identification accounts for the ethnics’ determination to pursue these goods, as it fluctuates in the context of material and cultural conditions as well as according to the contents of their collective identity, which is a reminder of what Boudon calls ‘subjective rationality.’ It is in this latter dynamic respect that beyond ‘how society influences ethnic groups?’ arises ‘how ethnicity influences society?’ This issue is mainly pertinent in a modern democracy, where nearly any group able to ‘mobilize’ its members has access to political opportunities, even when disapproved by the elite or public opinion. Parties or pressure groups presenting themselves on behalf of ethnics may gain influence, even recognition, if powerful enough to impose their participation and shrewd enough to exploit the rivalries characteristic of the political scene. Moreover, a successful group brings to ethnic politics other dormant allegiances. The risks implied by ethnic politics for the groups involved are indeed limited by the unconditional welfare rights that are anyone’s in democracy, and which warrant ethnics a ‘costless’ liberty of political action. In turn, legitimate ethnic politics increases the systemic incoherence and fragmentation of the setting, substantiating the notion of multiculturalism (Rex 1996) by challenging the dominant culture, where it is assimilationist in its very ideological premises. Such developments are still amplified by ‘globalization’ processes which include new means of communication, an expansion of worldwide mass media, and improved air transport. By drastically reducing the significance of geographic distances, these circumstances stimulate new flows of emigration from all parts of the world toward wealthy countries. They also signify that integrating a new society does not necessarily imply for immigrants, emotional, cultural, and even social detachment from their countries of origin. From the onset, immigrants may institute direct contact with their families in the homeland as well as with friends and relatives living in other places. They are able to create a space of communication, including regular visits to and from the homeland and elsewhere, where the retention of languages and symbols of origin remain pertinent. On the other hand, in the context of rising multiculturalism in many of these societies which also often happens to be welfare states, such new groups also rapidly acquire the skills necessary for participation in open ethnic politics. Hence, while this global era is marked by a cultural uniformization forwarded by the influence of the West (Bauman 1998), one of the distinctive features that Western societies now share in common is their internal diversity. All these, however, do not exclude that these immigrants are not moved, as well, by the aspiration to integrate their ‘choice society’ by acquiring its legitimate language and culture. What these conditions indicate is the emergence of ‘transnational groups’ (Soysal 1994) attempting to illustrate additive bilingualism, dual culture, and at the limit, ‘dual home.’ While by the sequels of their original culture, they add to the diversity of their actual society, by the imprints of their experience in new cultural and social landscapes they produce the heterogeneity of their Diasporas. It is this duality that makes transnational diasporas a kind of bridge between choice societies and homelands that not only connect states but also populations.


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