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What exactly is ethnicity? And just what do we mean when we talk about ethnic groups? Basic questions? Obviously. But we find the answers are far from obvious when we give these questions the hard look they deserve. The most productive strategy is to begin with the notion of the ethnic group.
Before setting forth on our definitional expedition, it might be helpful to acknowledge the unspoken assumptions that operate when we think, write, or utter the word "ethnic." It is something that seldom comes to the lips of the modal American gazing into a mirror, even though, as I hope to demonstrate, the term does apply, whatever his/her ancestry might be. Taken for granted is the chasm between Us and Them when we scrutinize ethnic groups and their members, rather like zoological specimens on a laboratory table. Condescension and distancing are implicit in the discreetly pejorative term ethnic, and, depending upon the temper of the times, ethnics strike us as either quaint and amusing or vaguely threatening. Ethnic is a word to be handled with care.
DEFINING THE ETHNIC GROUP
An awkward problem in dealing with ethnic group is the term itself. Of relatively recent origin or usage, it is a cumbersome academic expression and certainly forms no part of the ordinary citizen's everyday vocabulary. "There is as yet no acceptable single word in English for the phrase 'ethnic group,' no word equivalent to 'class,' 'caste,' or 'family,' to describe a group self-consciously united around particular cultural traditions" (De Vos 1975:9). This gap in our vernacular lexicon leads one to suspect, correctly as it turns out, the modernity of the concept. For lack of a suitable alternative, we are stuck with the term. None of the possible synonyms in English or other languages-people, tribe, clan, Volk, society, minority, nation, nationality, brotherhood, community, cultural unit, or ethnie-comes close to conveying whatever meaning we apprehend, however fuzzily, upon encountering ethnic group.
A number of scholars have tried defining ethnic groups or have critically reviewed previous attempts (e.g., Isajiw 1974, 1975; Nash 1989:1-20; Petersen 1997:31- 49; Royce 1982:17-33), so that it is hardly necessary here to replicate the efforts of the cited authors. What might be more rewarding is a close examination of the central assumptions, spoken and unspoken, that seem to undergird all the definitions. Suffice it to say that the following three randomly selected quotations represent a safe consensus, the core attributes of the ethnic group as commonly accepted by the scholarly community.
An ethnic group is a self-perceived group of people who hold in common a set of traditions not shared by others with whom they are in contact. Such traditions typically include "folk" religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, and common ancestry or place of origin. (De Vos 1975:9)
In brief, the ethnic identity of a group of people consists of their subjective symbolic or emblematic use of any aspect of culture, in order to differentiate themselves from other groups. These emblems can be imposed from outside or embraced from within. (De Vos 1975:16)
An ethnic group has been operationally defined by Abner Cohen as a collectivity of people who share some patterns of normative behavior and form part of a larger population, interacting with people from other collectivities within the framework of a social system. (Saran 1985:5)
Reasonable though such statements may seem at first, we find, after careful reflection, that some of their assertions, along with some omissions or unspoken implications, are subject to debate. Left unstated, for example, is the issue of magnitude. Is there some numerical threshold to be crossed before a given social entity can qualify as an ethnic group? How many hundreds or thousands of persons? And, turning to the other extreme, how many millions of heads are to be counted before a social community ceases to be an ethnic group and turns into something else? Anticipating my later, more detailed discussion, I claim that size does matter.
The definitions given above and all other similar attempts of which I am aware are silent on the often salient, sometimes urgent topics of territory and location. A glance around the contemporary world reveals many instances in which duly recognized ethnic groups identify their existence or soul in terms of some actual or hoped-for attachment to a specific parcel of the earth's surface. At the same time, however, there are other equally valid claimants for status as ethnic groups who display little or no interest in inhabiting any sort of homeland. That is certainly the case in settler countries in general and the United States in particular, where surviving aboriginal societies agitate for confirmation or reclamation of title to an ancestral patch of ground. Then there is the related question of whether a putative ethnic group must reside in concentrated fashion within a specific area or whether it is feasible for the members thereof to be scattered among many localities and still keep intact their peculiar peoplehood. The foregoing observations oblige us to ask whether a single simple geographical formula can be found that will help in defining all ethnic groups in every corner of the world and in all historical periods. The answer must be that the conventional definitions are correct in omitting territorial consideration as essential to the characterization of ethnic groups.
A more perplexing question arises when we regard the ethnic group "as a collectivity of people who ... form part of a larger population." Such a perception is certainly widespread in the United States. We have become accustomed to equating ethnic groups (formerly designated, inter alia, as "nationalities" or "races") as "minorities." But this practice leads to some anomalies. If, as is commonly done, we classify the millions of Mexicans or Mexican Americans residing in the United States as an ethnic group, what label do we apply to those people of Mexico who periodically commute between the two countries? The same query could be posed for Cubans in Florida, Israelis in New York City, Iranians in Los Angeles, or any number of other ethnic groups. Is the ethnic label contingent upon what might be temporary location?
We confront the same sort of riddle even when the population in question remains in situ. When the Bengali, or Bengladeshis, formed part of British India or the initial Pakistan, few would have hesitated to categorize them as an ethnic group. But what is the proper term now that the community has attained sovereign statehood? Similarly, we have the Slovaks, recently one of several distinct ethnic groups housed within the former Czechoslovakia but now citizens of a newborn nation-state, transformed overnight from "ethnics" to what? Comparable quandaries may occur if and when such entities as the Chechens, Kurds, Sikhs, and other aspirants to fuller autonomy or outright independence were to realize their political dreams-or if the Confederacy had managed to win the American Civil War.
The preceding examples drive us toward the realization of how hard it is to draw a meaningful distinction between ethnic group (or ethnie) and nation except on the dubious basis of political status. The relationships between the two concepts have been close and complex as they have developed historically (Calhoun 1993). Incidentally, the terms ethnie and nation are etymologically parallel, however much they may have diverged in ordinary usage, the one derived from the Greek, the other from Latin. We can slice this definitional Gordian knot by simply confessing to the absence of any genuine inherent difference between the more or less perfected nation-state and the ethnic group. Indeed several of the more advanced and successful modern states have deliberately set about fabricating a synthetic national identity, a set of cultural norms coincident with their territory, and submerging any antecedent local particularities into a standardized ethnic unity where none had previously existed.
Thus, although none of these projects has ever been totally consummated, we can speak seriously today of virtually the entire native-born population of France as comprising a French ethnic group and advance similar claims for Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Israel, and, perhaps less confidently, for Mexico, Brazil, or Iran. But the most spectacular example, despite its improbable genesis, has been the United States, a country that has invented itself out of a medley of old and new ingredients (Zelinsky 1988a). The American national, that is ethnic, character is unique, internally pervasive, and instantly recognizable by all outsiders. People, ethos, and territory are one. But, of course, we must also acknowledge the fact that ethnic entities can inhabit a multilayered conceptual space. Below the transcendent all-American ethnic essence, within a hierarchy of identities, there dwell lower levels of "hyphenated" groups. Indeed, were this not so, there could be no excuse for this study.
The same program, namely, the knitting together of a sovereign state with some distinctive ethnic group, has also operated in reverse. In the immediate aftermath of both world wars, the Wilsonian doctrine of reshaping international boundaries so as to conform with presumed ethnic realities dominated the minds and actions of decision makers. That, at least, was the practice followed in Europe and in certain Asian examples. The severing of Pakistan and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia are in accord with this doctrine, while the recent disintegration of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia also echoes the Wilsonian ideal, though with less bloodshed. But, whichever the direction of policy, all too frequently the results of trying to effect a partnering of political state with ethnic group have been disappointing. Thus, for example, we have witnessed the flawed efforts of Canada, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Guyana, and China.
In summary, then, the generalized claim that an ethnic group must necessarily form part, presumably a minority, of a grander population is unacceptable. Although it may apply in a majority of situations, in others the ethnic group is itself the larger population, or even virtually the totality of all inhabitants, however that outcome may have come to pass. But however interesting such observations may be, we still find ourselves far from a definitive definition of the ethnic group.
Left unstated in the standard definitions is the intersection, in a number of instances, of social caste with ethnic group (Glazer 1983: 239-240). Although India far outdistances all other countries in the complexity of its caste system, few of the vast array of its caste communities clearly qualify as ethnic groups. But a quite different situation has prevailed in South Africa with its Cape Coloured and Black populations, in the African American community of the United States, or the dual, caste-ridden societies and ethnic cultures of New Zealand, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Ecuador, or the triune societies of Trinidad, Guyana, and Malaysia (and perhaps the emergent German-Turkish or French-North African situations in Europe). The barriers between groups and the subsequent intensification of ethnic peculiarities are based primarily on perceived racial identities. However, perceived racial heterogeneity does not inevitably result in well-defined castes or ethnic groups. Brazil is the most outstanding of exceptions. In any case, the conclusion must be that, again, as with political status, the existence of caste or racial categories is neither a necessary nor a sufficient element in working up a robust definition of ethnic groupdom.
So much has been written on the relevance of language to ethnic identity that citations would be superfluous. Little can be added here except to note that linguistic affiliation, like the preceding items, fails to serve as the universal criterion for defining ethnic groups. However, it does perform admirably in too many instances to enumerate fully. Thus, in such examples as Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Iceland, Armenia, Korea, Japan, Greece, Finland, and the Malagasy Republic, for all practical purposes state, ethnic group, and language are coextensive and interchangeable (despite whatever emigration may occur). Similarly, in such cases as those of the stateless Basques, Kurds, Catalans, and Boers, language and ethnic affiliation are synonymous. Something of the same situation also prevails within India, where a number of linguistic communities, some of which control the republic's constituent states, are fiercely aware of their ethnic distinctiveness.
Also to be noted are instances where dialects of multinational languages are markers of group identity. Thus the local spoken versions of English enable one to recognize readily enough members of the Australian community (speakers of "strine"), or the Irish, Scottish, Jamaican, and, sometimes, African American. In like fashion, the two distinctly different French patois prevalent in Quebec and Haiti are emphatic indicators of the ethnic individuality of the two communities. National variants of Castilian Spanish permit the canny listener to decide who is native to Mexico as opposed to Argentina or to Puerto Rico rather than Chile. But all the same, it is obvious that, critical though it may be in many cases, language cannot function as a universal criterion for specifying ethnic groups. The Barbadian in London with complete command of the queen's English cannot automatically shed her ethnic label, nor can the college-educated Cherokee who happens to be monolingual in American English.
Religion is another attribute that operates powerfully to set apart an interesting minority of ethnic groups. Coming readily to mind are such examples as the Druze and Maronites of Lebanon, the Tibetans with their special brand of Buddhism, Armenians, Georgians, Sikhs, the Moros of Mindanao, and, if we admit their ethnic status, the Mormons of Utah. Note also how a particular form of Roman Catholicism helps make the Irish Irish. The most widely cited case, of course, is that of the Jews, past or present, in eastern Europe, Russia, North Africa, and elsewhere. But, again, we must conclude that, just as with language, religion is not always available as a marker of ethnic identity.
Language and religion are not the only cultural attributes conducive to ethnic cohesion, though they certainly rank high in occurrence. It is also possible to exploit dress, music, foodways, literature, and real or imagined history as the adhesive that binds together candidates for ethnic fraternity. But there is another, more problematic though scarcely ubiquitous, criterion that has been invoked all too often: race. All the cultural elements noted above are patently aspects of learned behavior, ways of doing and thinking that we acquire individually or collectively within a social setting. In contrast, in the case of race, we have suffered from two common misperceptions that, taken together, effectively eliminate the elements of choice and nurture: first, that there exist a certain number of biologically distinct, separate races within the human species, groups defined by descent, that can be identified and characterized with scientific exactitude; and, second, that there is a meaningful correlation between racial identity and mental-and thus ultimately cultural-attributes.
The first of these notions was widely accepted by scholars and laypersons alike until rather recently, indeed ever since the idea of the racial division of humankind "was fully conceptualized and became deeply imbedded in our understandings and explanations of the world" roughly three hundred years ago (Hannaford 1996:6). Built into most of these formulations, explicitly or otherwise, is a hierarchical arrangement of racial types, a rank ordering in terms of mental, moral, and other qualities presumed to originate from the vagaries of biological evolution, environmental conditioning, or divine will.
After decades of effort during which many classificatory schemes were proposed, then rejected, physical anthropologists have finally admitted defeat. It has proved impossible to arrive at a set of quantifiable morphological and physiological features whereby we can unequivocally compartmentalize all human beings into a small array of discrete races or subspecies (Shipman 1994). The truth is that Homo sapiens is a thoroughly intermixed species, and becoming more so with each passing day. The only possible exceptions-and they are literally marginal and probably facing extinction-are communities that have been physically and socially isolated for many generations, groups such as the Ainu, Inuit, Lapps (Sami), or the San of southwest Africa. If some may argue for at least a superficial appearance of physical distinctiveness in the case of the relatively isolated Japanese, Koreans, or Polynesians, all the evidence suggests that they too, like nearly all of us, are products of hybridization.
Excerpted from The enigma of ethnicity by WILBUR ZELINSKY Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Coming to Terms||1|
|4||Thinking about Identity||155|
|5||Explicating the Age of Ethnicity||185|