Have you ever asked yourself what are the defining characteristics of being “white” or “black” in America today? Is it solely a matter of skin color? Are other factors as important or even more important? What makes someone “Hispanic ” or “Latino”. Is it language? Country of origin? Cultural traditions? The answers to these questions probably are not entirely clear to you nor are they to most of the people. It addition, the answers very likely will differ depending on the region the person is asked.
The question of ethnicity and ethnic group is a complex one. Similary to the topics such as nationality versus race, culture versus society, nowadays, gender, ethnicity, and race questions often overlap so it is very hard to distinct between those terms. Moreover, such misinterpretation and misleading understanding have the most far ranging impacts on us as individuals.
All in all, the way we assign group identity to others is not always straight forward.
That is why we decided to provide as much information on this matter in this article as we can.
To start from the beginning, let’s make it clear and answer on the question of what the ethnicity is.
What is ethnicity?
The fourth edition of the American Heritage College Dictionary defines “ethnicity” as one’s “ethnic character, background or affiliation.” Given that brief definition, it’s important to examine how the dictionary defines the root word of ethnicity—“ethnic.” American Heritage provides a much more detailed definition of “ethnic,” allowing readers to better understand the concept of ethnicity.
The word “ethnic” characterizes a “sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic or cultural heritage.”
The question of ethnic identity (to be more precise the way to distinct ethnic and cultural groups) was recorded by Herodotus 2500 years ago.
Ethnic identification describes the relationship that exists between an individual and a group with whom the individual believes he or she has common ancestry based on shared individual characteristics, shared sociocultural experiences, or both. Thus, there are individual, family or group levels of ethnic identity classification.
Characteristics of Ethnic Groups
An ethnic group is often a distinct category of the population in a larger society with a (generally) different culture. Many factors characterize ethnic groups.
First, they usually control a territory, tightly knit community or network, within which their offspring may perpetuate their heritage.
Thus, the ethnicity examples could be here as following:
- The French in Québec retain control of the provincial territory;
- The Hutterites are a rural segregated ethnic community;
- Indian reserve are communities segregated by the state within which various ethnic groups may exist.
Second, ethnic institutions often generate forces of attraction. A minority can develop its own social system with control over its own institutions.
As for an ethnicity examples we can refer to that fact that French and Jews frequently maintain a comprehensive set of religious, educational and welfare institutions.
Third, individuals need to identify clearly with the heritage and culture of the group, perhaps through language, endogamy, choice of friends, religion, parochial schools, voluntary organizations, etc. For example, people of the Jewish faith have ritualized their history and their youth are exposed to its symbols, eg, special days, fasting, food habits, etc.
Fourth, a political or religious ideology that promotes values considered more important than cultural and institutional ones may give ethnic youth purpose and impetus.
Fifth, individuals with a sense of mission often use sociopsychological means to adapt an ideology to a current situation, linking it symbolically with the past.
However, the question of ethnic group is misinterpreted in some cases and this term is often understood as a synonym to race and nationality. To make it clear, here is the explanation of how those three terms can be distinguished.
According to sociologist Robert Wonser, “Sociologists see race and ethnicity as social constructions because they are not rooted in biological differences, they change over time, and they never have firm boundaries.” And it is very true. We have enough of examples where social construction of race is also reflected in the way that names for racial categories change with changing times.
What is race and how to define it?
Historically, the concept of race has changed across cultures and eras, eventually becoming less connected with ancestral and familial ties, and more concerned with superficial physical characteristics. In the past, theorists have posited categories of race based on various geographic regions, ethnicities, skin colours, and more. Their labels for racial groups have connoted regions (Mongolia and the Caucus Mountains, for instance) or denoted skin tones (black, white, yellow, and red, for example).
Within time, this typology of race developed during early racial science has fallen into disuse, and the social construction of race or racialization is a far more common way of understanding racial categories.
Nationality versus Ethnicity
Another sophisticated topic is connected with ethnicity and nationality concepts. These two terms, are quite commonly misconstrued by people and so, are used interchangeably. But there is a thin line of difference between nationality and ethnicity.
In 90% of the cases nationality refers to the place where the person was born and/or holds citizenship. For example: Indian, American, British, Canadian, South African, Mexican, etc.
In other words, nationality connotes membership of a person, in the country, describing his/her connection with the political state and it also means that a person has the protection of the state where he or she was born.
However, quite often nationality can be determined by place of residence, ethnicity, or national identity.
For example, if a person was born in Country A but immigrated to Country B while still a toddler (yes, with their family), he or she might identify more with the Country B nationality, having been raised there.
Another point regarding nationality is that there are some nations that don’t have a state, or international recognition as such, yet people may still point at it as the source of their nationality, such as the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the Tamils.
To sum up, you might have gained ample knowledge about ethnicity, race and nationality from the points mentioned above. These three terms have a great role to play in identity formation and development. Don’t fall into the concept of culture of prejudice where people are subject to stereotypes. Read more on the topic and know the difference.