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Ethnic groups are fundamental units of social organization which consist of members who define themselves by a sense of common historical origins that may also include religious beliefs, a distinct language or a shared culture. Max Weber provided one of the most important modern definitions of ethnic groups as ”human groups (other than kinship groups) which cherish a belief in their common origins of such a kind that it provides the basis for the creation of a community” (Weber 1922; cited in Runciman 1978: 364). The boundaries of ethnic groups often overlap with similar categories such as ”races” or nations.
In those societies that have been influenced by large scale immigration, like the USA, Argentina, Australia, and Canada, ethnic groups form a central theme of their social, economic and political life. Systematic research on American ethnic groups can be traced to the sociologists of the Chicago School (1920s to 1940s) led by W. I. Thomas and Robert Park, who were concerned with the processes of ethnic group assimilation into the dominant white mainstream. Park’s (inaccurately named) race relations cycle outlined a sequence of stages consisting of ”contact, competition, accommodation and assimilation,” and implied that successive immigrant groups would be gradually absorbed into a relatively homogeneous core society. The underlying assumption of ethnic group theory was that these long-term trends would result in the disappearance of separate ethnic communities.
This uni-linear model gave way to more pluralistic conceptions of ethnicity in the USA in which various dimensions of assimilation were identified by sociologists like Milton Gordon (1964). Gordon distinguished between cultural assimilation (acculturation) and structural assimilation, the former signifying the adoption of the language, values and ideals of the dominant society, while the latter reflected the incorporation of ethnic groups into the institutions of mainstream society. While cultural assimilation did not necessarily result in an ethnic group’s inclusion within the principal institutions of society, structural assimilation invariably meant that assimilation on all other dimensions – from personal identification to intermarriage – had already taken place.
Scholarly concern with ethnicity and ethnic conflict became increasingly salient in the second half of the twentieth century. Inadequate assumptions about the nature of modernization and modernity have been demonstrated by the pattern of social change under capitalism, socialism and in the developing world. The expectation that modernity would result in a smooth transition from gemeinschaft (community) to gesellschaft (association), accompanied by the gradual dissolution of ethnic affiliations, simply did not fit the facts. Some social scientists argued that there was a primordial basis to ethnic attachments, while others explained the apparent persistence of ethnicity in more instrumental terms, as a political resource to be mobilized in appropriate situations which may be activated by power and guided by cultural factors. Not only has ethnicity failed to recede in industrial and post-industrial societies, but ethnic divisions have continued to frustrate the efforts at democratization and economic growth in large sectors of the developing world. The collapse of the political regimes of the Communist bloc unleashed an upsurge in ethnic and national identity, some of which filled the void created by the demise of Marxism, while other elements of the same development, notably in the former Yugoslavia, generated bloody ethnonational conflicts and ethnic cleansing.
The focus of research on ethnic groups has shifted away from studies of specific groups to the broad processes of the creation of ethnicity (ethnogenesis), the construction and perpetuation of ethnic boundaries, the meaning of ethnic identity, and the impact of globalization and transnationalism. A wide variety of theoretical perspectives can be found supporting contemporary studies of ethnicity and ethnic groups. These include social psychological discussions of prejudice and discrimination; rational choice models based on individual costs and benefits; socio biological perspectives involving ”selfish genes” and kin selection; and, most commonly, differential power analyses creating types of ethnic stratification, whether in the neo-Marxist form or in the more pluralistic tradition of the followers of Weber.
- Gordon, M. (1964) Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion and National Origins. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Runciman, W. (ed.) (1978) Max Weber: Selections in Translation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Stone, J. & R. Dennis (eds.) (2003) Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and Theoretical Approaches. Blackwell, Malden, MA and Oxford.