Last Updated on January 20, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Ethnicity refers to a type of social identity based on cultural background, shared lifestyles and shared experiences. Several characteristics may serve as sources of a collective identity such as: language, a sense of shared history or ancestry, religion, shared beliefs and values.
Ethnic groups are ‘imagined communities’ whose existence depends on the self-identification of their members. Members of ethnic groups may see themselves as culturally distinct from other groups, and are seen, in turn, as different. In this sense, ethnic groups always co-exist with other ethnic groups.
When sociologists use the term ethnicity they usually contrast it to the historically discredited concept of race. Ethnicity refers to an active source of identity rooted in culture and society which means it is different to the concept of race which has historically been defined as something fixed and biological.
Ethnicity is learned, there is nothing innate about it, it has to be actively passed down through the generations by the process of socialisation. It follows that for some people, ethnicity is a very important source of identity, for others it means nothing at all, and for some it only becomes important at certain points in their lives – maybe when they get married or during religious festivals, or maybe during a period of conflict in a country.
Because it is rooted in culture, people’s sense of their ethnic identities can change over time and become more or less active in particular social contexts.
However some members of some ethnic groups may perceive the idea of race as important to their sense of shared identity. Some people may believe that they are of one particular race based on their particular biological characteristics or their shared ancestry and believe that only people with whom they perceive as having the same ‘racial’ characteristics belong to their in-group.
For comparative purposes you might like to read this post: an introduction to the concept of race for sociology students.
Problems with the concept of ethnicity
Majority ethnic groups are still ‘ethnic groups’. However, there is often a tendency to label the majority ethnic group, e.g. the ‘white-British’ group as non-ethnic, and all other minority ethnic groups as ‘ethnic minorities’. This results in the majority group regarding themselves as ‘the norm’ from which all other minority ethnic groups diverge.
There is also a tendency to oversimplify the concept of ethnicity – a good example of this is when job application forms ask for your ethnic identity (ironically to track equality of opportunity) and offer a limited range of categories such as Asian, African, Caribbean, White and so on, which fails to recognize that there are a number of different ethnic identities within each of these broader (misleading?) categories.
Sources use to write this post
Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology