While the idea of race implies something fixed and biological, ethnicity is a source of identity which lies in society and culture. Ethnicity refers to a type of social identity related to ancestry (perceived or real) and cultural differences which become active in particular social contexts.
For comparative purposes you might like to read this post: an introduction to the concept of race for sociology students.
The concept of ethnicity has a longer history than ‘race’ and is closely related to the concepts of ‘race’ and nation. Like nations, 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.
Several characteristics may serve to distinguish ethnic groups, but most usual are language, a sense of shared history or ancestry, religion and styles of dress.
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.
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