Baumann 2004 - Defining Ethnicity

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  • 12 The SAA Archaeological Record September 2004


    What is ethnicity? Ethnicity has been best defined with-in cultural anthropology, but it has been a debatedtopic and there is no single definition or theory ofhow ethnic groups are formed. According to John Hutchinsonand Anthony Smith (1996:45), the term ethnicity is relativelynew, first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1953, butits English origins are connected to the term ethnic, which hasbeen in use since the Middle Ages. The true origins of ethnichave been traced back to Greece and the term ethnos, which wasused in reference to band, tribe, race, a people, or a swarm.

    In more recent colonial and immigrant history, the term eth-nic falls under the dichotomy of Us and Them. The Us,the majority, are viewed as non-ethnics and the Them, newimmigrants or minorities, as ethnic. Variations of the termhave developed, including ethnic identity, ethnic origin, ethno-centrism, and ethnicism (Hutchinson and Smith 1996:45).Ethnic identity or origin refers to an individuals ancestral her-itage. Ethnocentrism is a belief that your cultural communityor ancestry is superior to all others, resulting in dislike orhatred of any material, behavioral, or physical characteristicsdifferent than your own. Ethnicism is defined as a movementof protest and resistance on behalf of [ethnics] against oppres-sive and exploitative outsiders (Hutchinson and Smith 1996:5).

    Overall, an ethnic group or ethnicity has been defined innumerous ways. Hutchinson and Smiths (1996:67) definitionof an ethnic group, or ethnie, consists of six main features thatinclude:

    1. a common proper name, to identify and express theessence of the community;

    2. a myth of common ancestry that includes the idea of com-mon origin in time and place and that gives an ethnie asense of fictive kinship;

    3. shared historical memories, or better, shared memories of acommon past or pasts, including heroes, events, and theircommemoration;

    4. one or more elements of common culture, which need not bespecified but normally include religion, customs, and lan-guage;

    5. a link with a homeland, not necessarily its physical occupa-tion by the ethnie, only its symbolic attachment to the

    ancestral land, as with diaspora peoples; and6. a sense of solidarity on the part of at least some sections of

    the ethnies population

    In a broader context, Gerald Berreman (1972, 1981) defines eth-nicity as one level of social stratification or social inequality thatalso includes race, class, kinship, age, estate, caste, and gender.Berreman provides clear distinctions between ethnicity andrace or class. Ethnicity is linked in a dichotic relationship withrace. It is differentiated from race in that racial stratification isassociated with birth-ascribed status based on physical and cul-tural characteristics defined by outside groups. Ethnicity is alsoascribed at birth, but the ethnic group normally defines its cul-tural characteristics itself. Thus, racial categorizations, whichare defined by the outsider, are normally laced with inaccura-cies and stereotypes, while ethnic classification is normallymore accurate of a cultural group because it is defined by thegroup itself. Yet, ethnic classifications can also be defined andused by outside groups to stereotype an ethnic community inways that are often oversimplified and that view ethnicity as astatic cultural process. Ethnicity is differentiated from class inthat social class membership and ranking . . . is based onattributes regarded as extrinsic to the people who comprise theclass. . . . such as amount of income, occupation, education,consumption patterns, and life-style (Berreman 1981:15).Thus, an individuals class is not predetermined at birth; anindividuals accomplishments during his or her life can help anindividual to rise or fall in social status within the community.

    Primordial and Instrumental Theories of Ethnicity

    The work of Sian Jones (1997) contains one of the better sum-maries of anthropological theories concerning ethnicity and itsapplication to archaeology. Overall, Jones (1997:xiii) outlinesthree major terms related to ethnic: ethnicity, ethnic identity,and ethnic group. Ethnicity is defined as all those social andpsychological phenomena associated with a culturally con-structed group identity. Ethnic identity is defined as thataspect of a persons self-conceptualization which results fromidentification with a broader group in opposition to others onthe basis of perceived cultural differentiation and/or commondescent. An ethnic group is classified as any group of peoplewho set themselves apart and/or are set apart by others with


    Timothy Baumann

    Timothy Baumann is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

  • 13September 2004 The SAA Archaeological Record

    whom they interact or co-exist on the basis of their perceptionsof cultural differentiation and/or common ancestry.

    Within her work, Jones (1997) summarizes and critiques thetwo major theoretical paradigms of ethnicityprimordialistsand instrumentalsand suggests an alternative approach thatcombines portions of both in practice theory. Primordialistsbelieve that ethnicity is a natural phenomenon with its founda-tions in family and kinship ties (Geertz 1963; Shils 1957); eth-nicity emerges out of nepotism and reproductive fitness, nar-rowing down the social concept into biological terms. A modelby Isaacs (1974), for example, developed a concept of primor-dial ties as a means of explaining the power and persistence ofethnic identity which he called basic group identity (Jones1997:6566). Isaacss basic group identity was linked to ethnicidentity, which was argued to be assigned at birth and more fun-damental and natural than other social links. An added compo-nent of Isaacss model is a psychological theory that addressesconflict between intertribal or ethnic groups. This latter conceptis often tied to nationalist movements in modern societies.

    A major critique of the primordialists origins of ethnicity hasbeen that it represents a very static and naturalistic viewpoint.It does not take into account culture process and other socialfactors that manipulate or formulate ethnic communities.Jones (1998:6872) summarizes four major critiques of pri-mordialist theory:

    1. Primordial approaches are either too general or too obscureto possess a great deal of explanatory power; the intangibleaspects of the primordial approach constitute at best ex postfacto argument. In searching for the givens of social exis-tence, the primordial approach explains everything andnothing.

    2. Primordial approaches suggest that ethnic identity is adetermining and immutable dimension of an individualsself-identity because the primordial attachments that under-lie ethnicity are involuntary and coercive. However, such anapproach cannot explain the fluid nature of ethnic bound-aries, the situational quality of ethnic identity at the level ofindividual, nor the fact that the importance of ethnicityitself varies significantly in different social contexts andbetween different individuals.

    3. Primordial explanations suggest that ethnic groups are for-mulated in a social and political vacuum.

    4. Primordialist approaches also fail to consider the historical-ly situated and culturally constructed nature of the veryconcepts that are central to their argument, most notablyethnic group and nation.

    In contrast, instrumentalists believe that ethnicity is sociallyconstructed and people have the ability to cut and mix from a

    variety of ethnic heritages and cultures to form their own indi-vidual or group identities (Hutchinson and Smith 1996:9).Instrumentalist theory has been characterized as concernedwith the role of ethnicity in the mediation of social relationsand the negotiation of access to resources, primarily economicand political resources (Jones 1997:72). Jones (1974:75) arguesthat instrumentalists fall into two categories: those who focuson the socio-structural and cultural dimensions of ethnicityand adopt a more objectivist approach; and those who focus onthe interpersonal and behavioral aspects of ethnicity and take amore subjectivist stance.

    The origins of the instrumentalist movement has been tied tothe work of Fredrik Barth (1969) and Abner Cohen (1974).Barth viewed ethnic identity as an individualistic strategy inwhich individuals move from one identity to another toadvance their personal economic and political interests, or tominimize their losses (Jones 1997:74). Following Barth, eth-nic identity forms through boundary maintenance and interac-tion between individuals. Depending on each social interac-tion, a persons ethnic identity can be perceived or presented invarious ways. Overall, interaction between individuals does notlead to an assimilation or homogenization of culture. Instead,cultural diversity and ethnic identity are still maintained, butin a nonstatic form. Cultural traits and even individuals cancross over ethnic boundaries, which in turn can transform anethnic group over time.

    In contrast to Barth, Cohen (1974) placed [a] greater emphasison the ethnic group as a collectively organized strategy for theprotection of economic and political interests (Jones 1997:74).Ethnic groups share common interests, and in pursuit of theseinterests they develop basic organizational functions: distinc-tiveness or boundaries; communication; authority structure;decision making procedure; ideology; and socialization(Cohen 1974:xvixvii). Overall, Jones (1997:74) suggests thatboth Barth and Cohen focus on the organizational features ofethnicity, and ethnicity is regarded as constituting the sharedbeliefs and practices that provide a group with the boundarymaintenance and organizational dimensions necessary tomaintain,