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Sociology Assignment: Problems In Defining Ethnicity


Task: Prepare asociology assignmentdiscussing about the problems in defining Ethnicity using the readings related to the subject, i.e.,Political science Approaches of Calhoun/ Brubaker and the Anthropological approach of JackEller.


As per the readings ofGold et al., considered within this sociology assignment, race refers to the category of mankind which has common, shared distinctive appearance or physical traits. However, ethnicity is a broader term which requires deeper understanding. For the diverse humankind, the ethnicity refers to the large group of individuals who have been classed as per certain common national, racial, religious, tribal, cultural or linguistic background or origin.

It is difficult to define ethnicity. There are various governments of different nations, who are facing such challenges. The governments of the multi-cultural democratic nations are finding it difficult in justifying the basis or process of collecting racial and ethnic data. This is making them plan their targeted policies. However, to resolve the problem, the first task is to define the criteria based on which the ethnicity is determined and people are categorised under it. This will help in making the access to support policies fair (Sze et al). The second aspect to be taken care of is which ethnic groups will be benefited from the policies. In this paper, the problems of defining ethnicity with reference to three readings will be discussed.

Problems in Defining Ethnicity
In the book ‘Anthropology, Ethnicity and the Representation of Culture’ by Jack David Eller, it has been stated that there could be non-groups and groups in same circumstances where no ethnic organisation exists. There may or may not be any social organization as well. Culture represents the historical and cultural traits of a specific group. The cultural differences lead to the building of ethnic groups. As per Eller, ethnicity is like a construction. Ethnicity develops within the range provided by tradition and history. Within ethnicity there is enough scope for human inventiveness. There is a significant role played by desires and passion in defining ethnicity.

However, defining or determining the criteria for ethnicity is not simple. By tallying the differences in culture between the groups or by recounting faithfully their histories will not hele one define ethnicity correctly or reach any closer to it. Ethnicity can be either based on self-identification or descent. To define ethnicity, one needs to know how the groups interpret, marshal and use their histories or cultures. In defining ethnicity, the people use their perceptions and memories. The ethnic groups until well defined raise their claims, cause violence based on differences. The defining of ethnicity is significant as it might otherwise lead to ethnic conflicts. The ethnic conflicts are not about culture, it is with culture. The ethnic groups claim that culture is at stake. However, it is not the culture which is at stake. In fact, culture is a code or justification for the alternative and authentic groupness. Based on such groupness, the people can claim certain rights or other stakes (Eller). According to the book Ethnicity, Culture and “the Past” by Eller, it is quite difficult to generally determine what impacts the ethnic factors that lead to the formation of an ethnic group. Even from individualistic perspective, defining the factors which influence ethnicity of a group is difficult. For monopolistic closure, any cultural trait, deep-rooted or superficial, could act as the starting point for familiarizing. The problem with defining ethnicity is that it is a very vague concept. The concept of ethnicity keeps expanding and is indefinite. This leads to many problems which are perplexing. The history of ethnicity, the markers of ethnicity and its aims are diverse and differ across groups. In some cases, language acts as the factor determining the ethnicity of a group. In other situations, the religion could be the deciding factor. In certain cases, the race or geographical origin might serve as the determining factor qualifying for an ethnic group. The people who belong to the same ethnic group, affiliate with the group and agree to the cultural dimensions of the group(Eller). Ethnicity refers to the consciousness of a person of the cultural differences. It also includes the salience which is subjective, to the differences. The ethnic groups mobilise around the differences. The ethnic group members have a sense of preference or familiarise with the other individuals with similar culture background. As highlighted in this book, the major problem in defining ethnicity is that there is no specific thumb rule or deciding factor for it. This leads to constant expansion of the term and concept of ethnicity.

The problem of defining ethnicity has also been clearly discussed in the book, Nationalism and Ethnicity by Craig Calhoun. Nationalism and ethnicity might be two different concepts. But they strongly impact the life of humans. The traditions might grow obsolete; however, the concept of ethnicity or nationalism is not likely to vanish. These concepts are invoked by people who are involved in social and political struggle as well as the elites. The nationalism and ethnicity are certain aspects of the society which shape the everyday life of the people. On one hand, ethnicity or formation of ethnic group revolves around grasping the commonalities or priory homogeneity. On the other hand, the ethnic struggles are based on the differences which construct the identities of the people. Dissociating nationalism completely from ethnicity is not possible(Calhoun). It seems impossible to say that nationalism is nothing but a continuation of the concept of ethnicity. On the other side, ethnicity also cannot be narrowly defined as the reflection of common language or history. The relationship between nationalism and ethnicity or the two concepts separately cannot be defined easily. It is a challenging task to decide upon a uniform definition of ethnicity which is widely accepted. Ethnicity cannot be generalised in any case. The various dimensions of the cultural and social change, colonialism, war, individualism, state building, etc. shape up the ethnicity. These factors when integrated to form a large web comprising indirect relationships give rise to the concept of nationalism and ethnicity. The nationalism is the rhetoric which is pre-existing and pre-eminent. This aims at demarcating the political communities, establishing legitimate rule by referring to the people of the nation and claiming rights based on self-determination. The ethnic identities and solidarities are claimed quite often in situations where the ethnic groups re not found seeking national autonomy. In such cases, the recognition is internal or ones which cross-cut the state and national boundaries. These ethnic claims arise due to difference in definition of ethnicity. These claims however are no close to nationalism. However, nationalism and ethnicity are social concepts which are invoked together (Calhoun).

In the book, Ethnicity, Race, and Nationalism, by Rogers Brubaker, the concepts of ethnicity, race and nationalism have been clearly and distinctly discussed. The race and ethnicity of a person or group is not the same. The race is an involuntary concept while ethnicity is voluntary. The race can be categorised externally. However, ethnicity requires self-identification. The differences in race is due to the differences in nature or phenotype, while the ethnic differences are based on differences in culture. The race as a concept or idea seems to be very rigid. On the contrary, ethnicity allows flexibility(Brubaker). The race allows the idea of super and subordinate to prevail. Ethnicity on the other hand allows only group coordination. Thus, race and ethnicity are quite different. The former arises from the exclusion process while the latter arises out of inclusion. The birth of race or racism goes back to the colonial encounter of Europeans with the non-Europeans. Ethnicity on the other hand, is born out of history of the state-nation building. Nationalism is a wide concept, and the feeling of nationalism is determined through the integration of political-institutional, cultural and economic perspectives. These factors led to the origin and subsequently the spread of nationalism. The concept of race, ethnicity or nationalism might seem to be categories which are easy to think of. However, this does not imply that these are universally salient or active. It is suggested by the cognitive perspectives that the best way to study about the different salient features of ethnicity is to study not only the ethnic schemas’ content and its representations but also studying the way in which these representations are distributed among the population. The accessibility to such representations, the activation ease, etc. must be studied. The activation of their relative salience, the ease with which these groups interlock or slot into with the other cultural representations must be considered while defining ethnicity. It is important to include resonance within the social movements and while defining the social concepts of race, ethnicity or nationalism (Brubaker).

As per Espinosa et al, the term ethnicity is defined as the cultural or social group to which a person belongs. The ethnicity is something others identify an individual with or an individual identifies with. The ethnicity or ethnic groups are formed as an integration or mix of factors like diet, region, language, ancestry, religion and race or physical features along with culture. The problem is ethnicity cannot be defined by a third person, an agency or government policy makers. Ethnicity is a self-defined concept. Each one or each group identifies it differently. The idea of ethnicity also changes with time. It is crucial and pragmatic to classify ethnicity based on its categories which include the usual self-descriptions. The descriptions of ethnicity and its definition must be acceptable to the respondents. The variations across ethnic groups must be acknowledged. The policy makers need to realise that there is no common ground for generalisation of ethnicity. Ethnicity cannot be seen through the same lenses and so there is no proper definition of ethnicity. While in certain cases ethnicity might be language oriented while in the others cases it could be religion based. The people belonging to various ethnic groups might want to identify themselves with one or more ethnic groups depending on their criteria for grouping. Thus, mixed ethnicity is also prevailing and has been introduced since 2001 in the UK Census. The ethnicity is very different from race. Ethnicity is also very different from nationalism. One nation might have more than one ethnic group. Ethnicity is distinct and different from the country of origin (Bhala et al).

Ethnicity as a concept is very important for the people and the society. The racial as well as ethnic identities are of great significance to many young individuals. The people who are a part of the minority groups, to them ethnicity is important. Ethnicity arouses the feeling of self-identification and association with a specific group, having familiar characteristics. The existence and well-outlined concepts of ethnicity facilitate instilling the feeling of belongingness to a specific group. The members of that ethnic group identify with the characteristics of that group. The ethnic groups share certain common features which could include language, culture, history, etc. Defining the ethnicity is very important as it fosters better imbibing of values and commitment.

Bhala, N., Curry, G., Martineau, A. R., Agyemang, C., & Bhopal, R. (2020). Sharpening the global focus on ethnicity and race in the time of COVID-19. The Lancet, 395(10238), 1673-1676.
Brubaker, Rogers. "Populism and nationalism." Nations and nationalism 26.1 (2020): 44-66.
Calhoun, Craig. "The rhetoric of nationalism." Everyday Nationhood. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017. 17-30.
Eller, Jack David. "Anthropology, Ethnicity, and the Representation of Culture." J. D. Eller, From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict (1999): 8-49.

Espinosa, L. L., Turk, J. M., Taylor, M., & Chessman, H. M. (2019). Race and ethnicity in higher education: A status report.
Gold, J. A., Rossen, L. M., Ahmad, F. B., Sutton, P., Li, Z., Salvatore, P. P., ... & Jackson, B. R. (2020). Race, ethnicity, and age trends in persons who died from COVID-19—United States, May–August 2020. Sociology assignmentMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(42), 1517.
Sze, S., Pan, D., Nevill, C. R., Gray, L. J., Martin, C. A., Nazareth, J., ... & Pareek, M. (2020). Ethnicity and clinical outcomes in COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine, 100630.


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