Ethnic group

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Culture and Diversity

An ethnic group or ethnicity is a population of human beings whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry. Recognition by others as a distinct ethnic group is often a contributing factor to developing this bond of identification. Ethnic groups are also often united by common cultural, behavioural, linguistic, ritualistic, or religious traits. Processes that result in the emergence of such identification are summarized as ethnogenesis.

The term is used in contrast to race, which refers to a classification of physical and genetic traits perceived as common to certain groups.

Ethnicity, nation, and race

An ethnic group may overlap or even coincide with a nation, especially when national identity is defined primarily in terms of common origin. Members of nations may also identify with each other, often presuming common ancestry, and are generally recognized by others as a distinct group with a specific name. Nations tend to have a common identity: mostly cultural, usually linguistic, and sometimes religious. An ethnic group that is also a nation may be the titular nation of a nation-state. Some ethnic groups have no sovereignty.

Members of an ethnic group, on the whole, claim cultural continuities over time, although historians and anthropologists have documented that many of the cultural practices on which various ethnic groups are based are of relatively recent invention. Walter Pohl notes that historians have projected the nineteenth-century conceptions of the nation-state backwards in time, employing biological metaphors of birth and growth: "that the peoples in the Migration Period had little to do with those heroic (or sometimes brutish) clichés is now generally accepted among historians," he remarked. Early medieval peoples were far less homogeneous than often thought, and Pohl follows Reinhard Wenskus whose researches into the "ethnogenesis" of the German peoples convinced him that the idea of common origin, as expressed by Isidore of Seville was a myth.

While ethnicity and race are related concepts, the concept of ethnicity is rooted more in the idea of social grouping, marked especially by shared nationality, tribal affiliation, shared genealogy/ kinship and descent, religious identification, language use, or specific cultural and traditional origins, whereas race is rooted in the idea of a biological classification. In 1950, the UNESCO statement The Race Question, signed by internationally renowned scholars (including Ashley Montagu, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gunnar Myrdal, Julian Huxley, etc.), suggested to "drop the term 'race' altogether and speak of 'ethnic groups'."

In the United States

Collectivities of related ethnic groups are typically denoted as "ethnic". Most prominently in the U.S., the various Latin American ethnic groups plus the Spanish are typically collectivized as, depending on the part of the country you are in, either as " Hispanics" or " Latinos". The term used is inversely related to the amount of Latinos (Hispanics) in a given population. Perhaps as a reflection of the slippery matter of racial labeling, Spanish-Americans can be mislabeled, or even self-identify, as "Latino", though technically they are European (White). The many previously designated ' Oriental' ethnic groups are designated as Asian ethnic groups and similarly lumped together as "Asians". So too with the many Native American groups. The terms " Black" and " African-American," while different, usually describe the descendants whose ancestors, usually in predominant part, were indigenous to Africa. Even the racial term " White Americans" are generally peoples from Europe, Central and South-Western Asia, Russia (including Northern Asia or Siberia), and parts of North America. "Middle Easterners" are peoples from the Middle-East. These countries include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, et cetera even though the majority of Egypt's surface lies in Africa.

Categories and data on "ancestry" in the U.S. are compiled on the following criteria from the U.S. Census Bureau: "Ancestry refers to a person’s ethnic origin or descent, 'roots', or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States." The ancestry questionnaire is only available on a random basis to one out of six households during the census.

In the United Kingdom

The classification of ethnic groups in the United Kingdom has attracted controversy in the past: particularly at the time of the 2001 Census where the existence and nature of such a classification, which appeared on the Census form, became more widely known than general.

Different classifications, both formal and informal, are used in the UK. Perhaps the most accepted is the National Statistics classification (identical to that used in the 2001 Census in England and Wales) which contains the following groups.

  • White: British
  • White: Irish
  • White: Other
  • Mixed: White and Black Caribbean
  • Mixed: White and Black African
  • Mixed: White and Asian
  • Mixed: Other
  • Asian: Indian
  • Asian: Sri Lankan
  • Asian: Pakistani
  • Asian: Bangladeshi
  • Asian: Other
  • Black or Black British: Black Caribbean
  • Black or Black British: Black African
  • Black or Black British: Other
  • Chinese or Other: Chinese
  • Chinese or Other: Other

In practice the 16 categories above are often supplemented with a 'Not stated' category, and this convention is known as the '16 + 1' classification. More detail on this classification is available on the National Statistics website.

Different classifications were used in the 1991 Census in England and Wales, and in the 2001 Census in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Other classifications also appear. For example UK police began to classify arrests in racial groups in 1975, but later replaced the race code with an Identity Code (IC) system.

  • IC1 White person
  • IC2 Mediterranean or Hispanic person
  • IC3 African/Caribbean person
  • IC4 Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or any other Asian person
  • IC5 Chinese, Japanese, or South-East Asian person
  • IC6 Arabic, Egyptian or Maghreb person
  • IC0 Origin unknown

This classification is still referred to on some police websites and police chase TV shows, e.g. "Driver is IC1 male, passenger is IC3 male".

However, from April 1, 2003, all police forces were required to use the new 16 + 1 system described above). The IC classification is still used in relation to descriptions whereas when suspects are asked to indicate their "ethnic background" for statistical purposes they are asked to pick from the 16+1 classification.

In terms of popular use as opposed to official policy there is one main difference, the use of the term Oriental is widespread and without negative connotation in the UK and Europe while in the UK Asian is generally reserved for people from the Indian subcontinent (see Oriental and British Asian for more details).

In China

The People's Republic of China has officially split the population into 56 ethnic groups of which the most numerous are the Han Chinese. Many of the ethnic minorities maintain their own individual culture and language, although many are also becoming more like the Han. The Han Chinese are the only ethnic group bound by the One-child policy and many villages faked a change in their ethnic group (e.g. from Han to Manchu) to avoid the policy.

Some of the minorities suffered the Cultural Revolution. Many minority cultures remain under threat. Han Chinese dominate the whole of China with the exception of Tibet and Xinjiang where the Han are still in the minority.

There is a degree of autonomy granted to areas with a high minority population. Inner Mongolia is an example of such. Sometimes ethnic minorities are allowed to use their own language in official documents, but not always. For example, a Tibetan can request an official document to be in either the Chinese or Tibetan language. But a Han Chinese can only request Chinese. Some ethnic groups do not have this option, like the Hui, who can only request Chinese.

There is no equal opportunity law in China, and although the ethnic groups are stressed to be equal, it is commonplace to specify which ethnic group is preferred, or even required, when (for example) advertising employment.

Most official government bodies are required to employ at least one member of an ethnic minority.

Sometimes people are given the choice of which ethnic group they wish to belong to, but 'mixed-race' is not an option.

All ID cards in China state which ethnic group the holder belongs to.

The 56 ethnic groups are:

  • Han Chinese
  • Zhuang
  • Manchu
  • Hui (Chinese Muslims)
  • Miao
  • Uyghur
  • Yi
  • Tujia
  • Mongolian
  • Tibetan
  • Buyei
  • Dong
  • Yao
  • Korean
  • Bai
  • Akha
  • Li
  • Kazak
  • Dai
  • She
  • Lisu
  • Gelao
  • Lahu
  • Dongxiang
  • Va
  • Shui
  • Nakhi
  • Qiang
  • Tu
  • Xibe
  • Mulao
  • Kyrgyz
  • Daur
  • Jingpo
  • Salar
  • Blang
  • Maonan
  • Tajik
  • Pumi
  • Achang
  • Nu
  • Ewenki
  • Vietnamese
  • Jino
  • De'ang
  • Uzbeks
  • Russian
  • Yugur
  • Bonan
  • Monba
  • Oroqen
  • Derung
  • Tatars
  • Hezhen
  • Lhoba
  • Taiwanese Aboriginal People

Ethnic ideology

In the West, the notion of ethnicity, like race and nation, developed in the context of European colonial expansion, when mercantilism and capitalism were promoting global movements of populations at the same time that state boundaries were being more clearly and rigidly defined. In the nineteenth century, modern states generally sought legitimacy through their claim to represent "nations." Nation-states, however, invariably include populations that have been excluded from national life for one reason or another. Members of excluded groups, consequently, will either demand inclusion on the basis of equality, or seek autonomy, sometimes even to the extent of complete political separation in their own nation-state.

Sometimes ethnic groups are subject to prejudicial attitudes and actions by the state or its constituents. In the twentieth century, people began to argue that conflicts among ethnic groups or between members of an ethnic group and the state can and should be resolved in one of two ways. Some, like Jürgen Habermas and Bruce Barry, have argued that the legitimacy of modern states must be based on a notion of political rights of autonomous individual subjects. According to this view the state ought not to acknowledge ethnic, national or racial identity and should instead enforce political and legal equality of all individuals. Others, like Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka argue that the notion of the autonomous individual is itself a cultural construct, and that it is neither possible nor right to treat people as autonomous individuals. According to this view, states must recognize ethnic identity and develop processes through which the particular needs of ethnic groups can be accommodated within the boundaries of the nation-state. This is the nationalist viewpoint.

In English, Ethnicity goes far beyond the modern ties of a person to a particular nation (e.g., citizenship), and focuses more upon the connection to a perceived shared past and culture. See also Kinship and descent, Romanticism, folklore. In some other languages, the corresponding terms for ethnicity and nationhood may be closer to each other.

The nineteenth century saw the development of the political ideology of ethnic nationalism, when the concept of race was tied to nationalism, first by German theorists including Johann Gottfried von Herder. Instances of societies focusing on ethnic ties arguably to the exclusion of history or historical context have resulted in the justification of nationalist goals. Two periods frequently cited as examples of this are the nineteenth century consolidation and expansion of the German Empire and the Third (Greater German) Reich, each promoted on the pan-ethnic idea that these governments were only acquiring lands that had always been ethnically German. The history of late-comers to the nation-state model, such as those arising in the Near East and southeastern Europe out of the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, as well as those arising out of the former USSR, is marked by inter-ethnic conflicts that usually occurs within multi-ethnic states, as opposed to between them, in other regions of the world; thus, those other conflicts are often misleadingly labled and characterized as "civil war."

In last decades of the twentieth century, mass migrations have occurred in most countries of the Northern hemisphere. The legal system as well as the official ideology emphasized race equality, and prohibited ethnic-based discrimination. It has been suggested by The Social Capital Foundation that this new ideology could be regarded as the reversal of the previous racialized ethnocentrism in the form of an ideology of systematic ethnic mixing and cross-breeding.


The Human Genome Diversity Project ( HGDP) has attempted to map the DNA that varies between humans, which is a less than 1 % difference. This data may shed light on the origin of some ethnic groups.

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