Ethnicity, Sociology of

Ethnicity, Sociology of

Ethnicity, Sociology of Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Tel-Aviv University, Ramat Hasharon, Israel Yistzhak Sternberg, Beit Berl Academic College and Open Univer...

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Ethnicity, Sociology of Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Tel-Aviv University, Ramat Hasharon, Israel Yistzhak Sternberg, Beit Berl Academic College and Open University of Israel, Tel-Aviv, Israel Ó 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. This article is a revision of the previous edition article by E. Ben-Rafael, Volume 7, pp. 4838–4842, Ó 2001, Elsevier Ltd.

Abstract In contrast to the expectations of many researchers of modernity, ethnicity has become, today more than ever, a major aspect of the social reality. This article considers, defines, and distinguishes, in present-day terms, the notions of ethnic identity, identification, and identifying. It further delves into the sway of ethnicity in contemporary transformational processes as a factor in the multiculturalization of societies and diasporas.

Introduction Ethnicity has constituted, in various forms, a characteristic aspect of many historical societies. The word derives from ethnikos and means ‘heathen’ in Greek (Spencer, 2006: 45); it was a conspicuous phenomenon in Athens, Rome, and Alexandria and was also a factor in the formation of the Indian caste system and the millet in Muslim societies. Ethnicity, as a rule, contributed to the establishing of segregation among segments of the population. The rise of modernity, and with it the spread of new universalistic values and the construction of nation-states upholding concepts of nation and citizenship, led many scholars to believe that ethnicity was now doomed to lose its social significance. Social dynamics, however, would gainsay those expectations. Today, most observers cannot but acquiesce that ethnicity has in fact become a major driving force in contemporary social allegiances and transformations. This article defines ethnicity in present-day terms, and elicits, in a sociological vein, its principal aspects which are considered here under the notions of collective identity, ethnic identification, and identifying. This phenomenon is linked to major developments in contemporary reality, analyzed in the final section.

that the strength of such primordial bonds, and the types they illustrate

.differ from person to person, from society to society, and from time to time. But for virtually every person, in every society, at all times, some attachments seem to flow more from a sense of natural – some would say spiritual – affinity than from social interaction.

It is in this vein that Bayar (2009) acknowledges that primordialism offers a convincing hypothesis in light of the persistence of ethnicity-related phenomena over long periods of time, in some groups. Support for this thesis is also offered by Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1994), who found that ethnic groups may have statistically significant distinctive genetic features. The ‘circumstantialist’ or ‘constructivist’ perspective, in contrast, is a reminder that individuals have multiple identities. These allegiances are constructed and reconstructed over time in different contexts. Changing individual and social interests (Ratcliffe, 2010; Stone and Dennis, 2003) account satisfactorily for this dynamism. One of the first formulations of this approach by Fredrik Barth (1969: 6) stated that

Ethnicity is a matter of social organization above and beyond questions of empirical cultural differences.[it is a matter of] selfascription and ascription by others in interaction.

Defining Ethnicity Ethnicity is a notion that refers to social entities sharing real or putative ascriptive features like a common origin or cultural– linguistic legacy which assumedly command special collective commitment, as well as their retention and transmission (see Jenkins, 2007). While this definition is widely accepted – with diverse nuances – by researchers, divergences of views and understandings also divide them in certain respects, especially regarding the designation of factors accounting for the formation of ethnic bonds, or their dislocation. More particularly, an ongoing confrontation sets in conflict the primordialist and the circumstantialist. An early formulation of the ‘primordialist’ view was made by Shils (1957: 42) who argued that primordialism exists when “. a certain ineffable significance [is] attributed to the tie of blood.” Geertz (1973: 259–260) added

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 8

Andreas Wimmer (2008) elaborates a taxonomy of strategies for ethnic boundary construction and reconstruction. He points out the practice of redrawing collective boundaries by including new members, excluding marginal segments, or challenging the hierarchical ordering of social categories. Another debate relates to the identities that should be included in the general notion of ethnic identity. Jenkins (2007) distinguishes racial, national, regional, local, and communal identities but argues at the same time that all these identities are simply conceptual variations of the more general type of collective identity, consisting of ethnicity. Not everyone, however, endorses this kind of outlook. Van den Bergh (1967: 9) drew a distinction between ethnicity as ‘socially defined on the basis of cultural criteria’ and race, which is ‘socially defined on the basis of physical criteria.’



Ethnicity, Sociology of

Eriksen (1993) adds that an ethnic group proper never completely overlaps the nation. For the purpose of conceptual clarity, one may propose here that ethnicity designates this general kind of collective identity of a group – which may itself be subdivided in different manners – whose members are aware that they share a real or putative common ancestry. As such, they are engaged, in Giddens’ (1991) words, in a reflexive project of identity building. Like any kind of collective-identity building, this project assumes that: (1) in one way or another, individuals feel committed to people whom they see as fellow-members of their group; (2) they perceive that group as conveying some cultural singularity; and (3) they tend, to some extent and in certain respects, to distance themselves from others whom they consider nonmembers (Ben-Rafael, 2001). This notion of ethnic identity which focuses on the awareness of individuals, describes an essentially subjective phenomenon and, as such, can never be seen as acquired permanently. It may involve dilemmas alongside unambiguous assertions; it may be phrased in different (possibly even contradictory) terms, diachronically or synchronically, among different circles pertaining to the same group. These definitions are not opposed to constructionist interpretations that explore contextual aspects to explain identity elaborations. On the other hand, neither do these definitions exclude the primordialist principle. They recognize primordialism, not as independent of human will, but as an attribute that individuals perceive as given, and as conveying essential significance for them. Because of its subjective nature, however, that self-perceived singularity may also be formulated in different terms, as constructivists maintain, according to personalities, milieus, or circumstances.

Identification Another dimension of ethnicity which is often confused with that notion of identity, but points in a different direction, consists of the issue of ethnic identification. Indeed, ethnic identification does not refer to the tenets of the collective identity but rather to the question of how much importance individuals ascribe to that identity. Like the formulations of identity itself, identification may vary greatly among fellowethnics and these variations are manifest in daily life, social norms, and involvement in collective goals. The highest degree of ethnic identification is illustrated by individuals who see their ethnic identity as their principal, if not only, collective identity; the lowest degree of identification is exemplified by individuals who completely disregard their ethnicity and view it just as an incidental ‘origin.’ Though distinct dimensions of the ethnic condition, identity, and identification are never completely independent from each other. The weakening of ethnic identification may lead individuals to reformulate their ethnic identity in less precise terms. On the other hand, where religion is a component of a group’s singularity, it often cements identification on the basis of transcendental convictions. In the words of Hervieu-Léger (2009: 447), faith presupposes submission to the religious authority which warrants the permanence of truth. Religions tend to explicitly convey a notion of exclusiveness

over veracity (Sternberg, 2010). As assessed by Huntington (1993: 27) religion ‘discriminates sharply’ between people: A person may be half-French and half-Arab but it is much more difficult to conceive of being half-Catholic and halfMuslim. Hence, the religious revival witnessed in parts of the world today (Martin, 2010), particularly especially in its fundamentalist variants (see Almond et al., 2003), strengthens ethnoreligious cohesion as well as the potential for conflict between ethnic groups and other groups or individuals (Schnapper, 2005). Other circumstances may also have an impact on identification. As Gold (2007) has shown, ethnic identification is strong in societies where populations are clearly differentiated by unequal participation in resources. This may lead to an ethnic division of labor in society, or even to split labor markets (Bonacich, 1972). In this respect, Light and Gold (2000) speak of an ethnic economy where a certain ethnic group takes control of given professional branches and staff most positions – from command echelons to rank-and-file. Such situations result in growing ethnic identification and retention of ethnic markers, motivated by economic objectives (Lichter, 2007). The political regime, the configuration of power in society, and opportunities for building a constituency are other factors likely to influence ethnic identification. Since democracy is grounded in competition for support between parties and leaders, groups of many kinds – like local communities, professional categories, and class-oriented lobbies – may be able to build up constituencies and caucuses. This includes ethnic groups articulating identity politics (Calhoun, 1994; Bernstein, 2005; Saha, 2007). Political entrepreneurs belonging to ethnic entities may exploit available opportunities, and the more successfully they gather public support, the greater their contribution to the recognition of their folk and the legitimization of their constituency as a political actor. This kind of legitimization is in fact the imposition, bottom–up, of multiculturalism as societal reality (Ben-Rafael, 2010). That legitimization is not, however, always unwelcomed by the dominant culture, which may even encourage it. By dominant culture, we refer to the beliefs, values, and symbols sustained by society’s leading political forces and which express how those forces interpret the historical legacy and long-range interests of the setting. Among other issues, this dominant culture involves basic attitudes toward social– cultural heterogeneity as features of the social order. It may encourage groups to abandon their particularism on behalf of prevailing norms and values, or to retain their particularism jointly with the endorsement of the dominant culture’s hardcore principles and symbols, at the least. In Germany, for instance, the dominant culture has long emphasized the notion of Volk (people) and its anchorage in history and language (Brubaker, 1992). Until recently, people of nonGerman origin, even those living in the country for decades, continued to be seen as outsiders. In the United States of today, contrastingly, the ‘salad-bowl’ metaphor (Hollinger, 1995) does not preclude groups from inserting themselves in society and becoming full members, while retaining some particularistic markers. In France, ‘republicanism’ defines the nation as a ‘community of citizens’ (Schnapper, 2005) and expects new groups to fully assimilate.

Ethnicity, Sociology of All in all, the group’s socioeconomic condition – whether underprivileged or better-off, the nature of the dominant culture’s approach to the group – whether segregative or assimilationist, and the group’s own aspirations regarding insertion in society – whether moved by the drive to fully assimilate into the mainstream or to retain markers of distinctiveness, contribute in various ways to the emergence or retention of ethnicity. Hence, socioeconomically underprivileged ethnics, an exclusionist attitude of the dominant culture vis-à-vis the group, and a strong dedication of ethnics to their singular markers should, together, contribute to the group’s confinement to the social margins, and its forming a kind of enclave. On the other hand, socioeconomic mobility of the group’s members, an inclusionist dominant culture, and a flexible and open form of collective self-perception among the people concerned, in fact advance acculturation, and beyond it, tendencies to assimilation. Midway, one finds intermediary cases illustrating various possibilities. A socially mobile group would therefore be likely to acculturate eagerly to the mainstream culture, though the extent to which it tends to assimilate is still influenced by the openness of the dominant culture. Where a discrepancy exists between the group’s general deprivation and the dominant culture’s openness, one might expect mobile elements within the group to leave it and try to assimilate on their own. This, however, is contingent on the group itself generally aspiring to fusion with the mainstream. If it does not, one would rather expect that some of the mobile elements remain faithful to their group and resist the temptation of assimilation (see Ben-Rafael, 2001 for detailed hypotheses). In all these, we should recall that the background of many contemporary cases of ethnicity consists of the experience of migration (Banton, 2008). Most of the time, immigrants who reach a target society demonstrate an irresistible tendency to grow more and more similar to mainstream society (Brubaker, 2001). However, the ethnic boundaries do not necessarily become totally blurred, even when former migrants acquire the dominant language and norms (Alba and Nee, 2003, 2007). On this point, researchers have suggested the concept of ‘segmented’ assimilation to indicate that upward mobility, farreaching acculturation, and partial assimilation of a large part of a given ethnic group may occur through persistent combined biculturalism (Vermeulen, 2010). It should also be noted that cultural convergence does not necessarily entail the disappearance or weakening of ethnic identification – especially when insertion does not take place in a highly favorable context. Different groups of immigrants coexisting in the same environment easily become hostile to each other in the context of difficulties in obtaining access to social resources. On the other hand, immigrants may also arouse among long-established citizens anti-immigrant feelings and nativism among people who consider themselves ‘true’ nationals and feel socially, economically, or culturally threatened by the newcomers. Sometimes, these ‘nativists’ turn to violent actions as a means of intimidation, or to direct national politics in order to impose restrictive measures against immigration (see Sternberg, 2009; Schrag, 2010; Lucassen, 2005). One thinks here of Le Penism in France and similar phenomena in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. However, such exclusionist and hostile


manifestations tend rather to strengthen immigrants’ ethnic identification.

Indentifying and Being Identified This latter aspect brings out the additional issue of how others see ethnics and identify them. This identifying may be appreciative or neutral, but it is quite often rather negative and loaded with prejudice and stereotypes. These others are ethnics’ fellowcountrymen in general, who may themselves respond to a wide diversity of labeling. Hence, at the societal level, this identifying repeats itself with each particular group and demarcates the multiple lines of the multicultural segmentation of society. Identifying is thus a distinct aspect of the discourse about ethnicity which, however, is often confused with the notions of identity and identification. Identity, we saw, refers to the tenets of a group’s collective identity, while identification investigates the importance that individuals grant that identity. Identifying, for its part, designates how people or institutions refer to individuals as members of a given group: It may be based on errors of discernment and eventually influence the individuals concerned in one way or another (ultimately by effectively identifying themselves as ethnics). However, identifying per se does assess the identity, let alone the identification of people in ethnic terms: when someone perceives a person as a ‘Turk’ or a ‘Jew’ this does not in itself make that person a Turk or a Jew. This does not belie the fact that being identified by a given ethnic label always has consequences for the individual concerned – especially when the identifier possesses power and has hostile intentions. In actual fact, identifying actors in precise ethnic terms is by no means an easy task in present-day reality. Ethnic groups, indeed, are by no means impermeable to the influence of their environment and over time, volens nolens, attenuate their cultural particularism by converging toward the mainstream culture. In this, they come to exemplify what scholars designate as cultural hybridization, a notion that describes a given culture’s acquisition of behavior patterns and values that a different one adheres to. The result, according to Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2000), consists of cultural alterations and changes that lead in turn to greater fluidity of collectives’ social boundaries. Hence, collective boundaries have nowadays come to resemble dotted lines rather than clearly traced traits. In such circumstances, people quite easily find opportunities for slipping away from their group. Once outside the group, they may join other groups – which often happens through marriage – or locate themselves in the nonethnic category where the only feeling of attachment and commitment is toward the dominant culture and the national society as a whole. Multiculturalism, indeed, consists of a condition where sociocultural groups coexist and pressurize society in various directions but where more than a few people – possibly even a majority – do not perceive themselves as ethnics, and see in the nation or the national society their only meaningful attachment. This does not signify, however, that individuals who see themselves as nonethnics may still be wrongly identified as ethnics by those around them (Kukutai and Didham, 2012), and here lies a major loophole for ethnicity statistics (Simon and Piché, 2012). As a rule, some studies use


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observable ‘objective’ criteria like names, skin color, or place of residence in order to identify ethnic categories which in fact do not necessarily overlap the ‘subjective’ criteria referring to identity and identification. This conceptual clarification is especially important at a time when ethnicity is exercising an enormous impact on social reality, as it does nowadays.

Present-Day Impacts: Diaspora and Transnationality Many cases of present-day ethnicity display another major characteristic that adds to the phenomenon’s importance as a factor driving society toward new horizons. We refer, in the context of present-day globalization, to advances in communication and transportation technology and the new configurations of international relations, enabling ethnic groups dispersed worldwide to stay interconnected enduringly and on a daily basis with fellow-ethnics settled elsewhere as well as – where relevant – with their original homeland. Diaspora has always designated a commitment that goes beyond its literally significance in Greek, i.e., dispersion (diasporá) (Dufoix, 2008). This commitment means that dispersed people stemming from the same cultural or territorial origin constitute a transnational entity (see Glick Schiller et al., 1995; Cohen, 1997). This entity, whose boundaries cut across state borders, is in many cases structured by institutions of its own which contribute to diasporans’ retention of their collective identity and identification. As shown by Robin Cohen (2009), in some cases, the diasporans’ identity is cemented by powerful myths and forms a solid-diaspora model, while in others it exemplifies a more liquid model influenced by the local culture and marked by less sacred icons (Waldinger, 2011). The formation of transnational entities is most of the time the outcome of intercountry and intercontinent migration. Other possibilities or particular forms of migration are also illustrated by recent history. Hence, Rogers Brubaker (2009) speaks of the ‘accidental diaspora’ that develops as a result of the demise of political entities and border changes – illustrated by the Russian population living in the Baltics who became ethnic minorities in newly independent states. Another manifestation of transnationality consists of migrants from different groups who find themselves close – socially, culturally, or linguistically – to each other, and relatively remote from the mainstream in the host society. Such groups may tend to amalgamate into a kind of pan-diaspora. Latin-Americans of different origins who become Hispanics in the United States are an example, as are Arab Muslims of diverse origins in Europe. This does not rule out situations in which Mexicans or Cubans, on the one hand, and Moroccans or Algerians on the other, may concomitantly continue displaying their specific identities. Still another pattern is the returning diaspora consisting of people of a given origin who, for whatever reasons, decide to come home and resettle in their or their ancestors’ original homeland. In the meantime, they have absorbed another culture, have experienced the transformation of their legacy, and adopted new visions of the world. Good examples are Brazilian Japanese (Tsuda, 2003) resettling in Japan, or Ethnic Germans from Ukraine and Russia who resettle in Germany (Münz, 2002). Such groups may become an ethnic group in their new/old country by inversion of their collective

identities: What was their ethnic identity now becomes their national identity, and what was their national identity, their ethnic identity. One of the factors that may still encourage diasporans to consider going back home consists of the special relations their original homeland’s government and other various organizations often retain with their nationals abroad. The first motive of these institutions, as well as of the basic positive response by diasporans to these efforts, is probably a general feeling of national solidarity. A second and more concrete motive appears to be the fact that governments of original homelands may find it beneficial to nurture strong relations with communities abroad when these have become significant political actors and could support their interests (Laguerre, 2006). On the other hand, diasporans who wish to achieve public power in their society of residence may also find the backing of homelanders to be beneficial. These games belong to identity politics which strengthens groups’ ethnic identification but which, by the same token, fosters society’s fragmentation as well (Ben-Rafael, 2010). Moreover, groups of diasporans do not only contribute to the multiculturalization and fragmentation of their societies but also to the multiculturalization of their own diasporas. While diasporans’ retention of ethnicity – even in the form of biculturalism – erodes the cohesion of their societies of residence, the prints left by the latter on the diverse communities attached to the same diaspora tend to transform the latter into a disparate entity. All in all, ethnicity is a major factor in the transformation of contemporary societies at the local level and a lever for multicultural transnationalism globally. It contributes to the advent of a new societal and global (dis)order (Ben-Rafael, 2010; Ben-Rafael and Sternberg, 2009). Contrary to past predictions, contemporary ethnicity has by no means disappeared. On the contrary, in a diversity of forms and interpretations, it plays a role of its own in transforming the social world.

See also: Acculturation; Collective Identity; Diaspora; Multiculturalism.

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