Anthropological Insights on Ethnicity

Using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology we considered anthropological insights on ethnicity:

This material was for Cultural Anthropology 2020 after previous classes on Race and Racism. Then we did Nationalism. For updated and related material from Cultural Anthropology 2023, see Race and Ethnicity in the Census and the Anthropology of Nationalism.

Summary: Anthropological Insights on Ethnicity

Is Ethnicity Equivalent to Culture?

Anthropological insights on ethnicity reveal that the relationship between ethnicity and culture is complex and problematic. As culture has become less of a process and more of a reified thing, the distinction between culture and ethnicity becomes blurred. Ethnicity might imply self-identification with a cultural group, but this raises questions of who draws the boundaries and determines membership.

Is Ethnicity Equivalent to Race?

In popular discourse, ethnic terms are often used as euphemisms for racial categories. Some anthropologists have supported this, arguing that “race is not real, but ethnicity is.” However, simply substituting terms without changing underlying ideas does little to advance understanding. Anthropological insights on ethnicity emphasize that ethnicity is not biologically determined, but rather socially constructed.

Is Ethnicity Equivalent to Nation?

There is a widespread belief that each nation has, or should have, a single corresponding ethnicity. Anthropological insights on ethnicity generally reject this idea, instead emphasizing that nations contain multiple ethnic groups. However, the notion of “one nation, one ethnicity” still holds sway in popular thought.

Key Anthropological Insights on Ethnicity

  1. Ethnicity is not primordial or ancient; it is usually a relatively recent invention. For example, the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national American holiday only dates back to the Civil War era, despite popular beliefs about its origins with the Pilgrims (159-160).
  2. Ethnic identity is always situational and can shift depending on social context. As Guest explains, ethnicity is a “situational negotiation of identity,” meaning that it may be more or less salient in different times and places, and can be superseded by other identities such as religion or nationality (160).
  3. Ethnicity often becomes most salient when there is money to be made or political power to be gained. “Identity entrepreneurs” are leaders who benefit financially from selling ethnic products or mobilizing ethnic identities for political purposes. This can lead to the emergence or intensification of ethnic conflicts in places where people previously coexisted peacefully (163).
  4. States and governments often precede or co-produce ethnic identities, rather than the other way around. The example of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda shows how colonial powers like Belgium created and reinforced ethnic divisions through policies like identity cards, which later fueled genocidal violence (164-165).
  5. Ethnicity is almost always understood and articulated in relation to ideas of nationhood and nationalism. Ethnic groups may seek to control or define the nation, while national governments may try to suppress or assimilate ethnic minorities. The tensions between ethnic and national identities are a key feature of modern political struggles (170-171).
  6. Globalization, rather than erasing ethnic differences, can actually exacerbate and intensify ethnic identification. While some hoped that globalization would lead to a decline in ethnic tensions, in recent decades we have seen a resurgence of ethnic identity politics around the world, often in reaction to the forces of global integration (158).

Public Responses to Anthropological Insights on Ethnicity

Despite these anthropological insights on ethnicity, primordial views remain prevalent due to various factors:

  • Selling the idea of primordial ethnicity has become a big business. Companies like 23andMe offer genetic ancestry testing kits that claim to reveal a person’s ethnic background, encouraging people to identify with and consume products related to their supposed ancestral cultures. The popularity of these tests shows how profitable it can be to promote essentialist views of ethnicity, even in the face of anthropological evidence to the contrary (169-170).
  • Mobilizing ethnicity for political gain and warfare has been a disturbingly successful strategy in recent history. Ethnic leaders and nationalists have used the rhetoric of ethnic pride and solidarity to rally supporters, often with bloody consequences. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, for example, saw the breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines, with horrific violence and ethnic cleansing justified by appeals to ethnic identity and grievance (166-167).
  • Some countries and leaders have used the excuse of “ancient ethnic hatreds” to absolve themselves of responsibility for contemporary conflicts. By portraying ethnic tensions as primordial and inevitable, they can avoid addressing the political and economic factors that actually fuel these conflicts. This was evident in Western media coverage of the Rwandan genocide, which often portrayed it as the result of “tribal hatreds” rather than a complex political situation shaped by colonialism and post-colonial power struggles (163-165).
  • Ethno-nationalisms, which merge ethnic and national identities, are experiencing a resurgence in many parts of the world. Whereas in the past, white supremacy and other forms of ethnic nationalism were often unmarked and taken for granted, today they are increasingly explicit and openly embraced. The rise of far-right parties in Europe, Hindu nationalism in India, and white nationalism in the United States are all examples of this trend towards more overt and aggressive forms of ethno-nationalism.
  • Globalization, with its rapid pace of technological change and information flow, can create a sense of disconnection from history and a lack of understanding about the constructed nature of ethnicity. As people are bombarded with ahistorical images and ideas through global media, they may lose sight of the fact that ethnic identities are not fixed or natural, but rather the product of specific historical and political processes. This historical amnesia can make it easier for people to accept essentialist views of ethnicity and harder for them to critically examine the forces that shape these identities (158).

Some people misuse anthropological ideas to discredit ethnic identities and social movements, as seen in debates around the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock protests. No one may use the term “invented situational social construction,” but they may use recent social construction discourse to attempt to invalidate Native American or Indigenous identities.

Assimilation vs. Multicultralism

As Guest notes, “tensions over which model will be dominant . . . are constantly rising to the surface” (171). The assimilationist “melting pot” model has been oppressive for people of color, and even frustrating for some European ethnic groups, who may feel pressure to abandon their specific cultural identities and traditions. In contrast, multiculturalism envisions preserving distinct identities while “mixing together.” While multiculturalism also has issues, the fundamental tension between these models is a crucial factor in understanding contemporary society.


Anthropological insights on ethnicity provide a valuable framework for understanding the complexities and contradictions surrounding this concept. By recognizing the socially constructed, situational, and political nature of ethnicity, we can better navigate the challenges and debates that arise in a globalized, multicultural world. As tensions between assimilation and multiculturalism continue to surface, a deep understanding of anthropological perspectives on ethnicity will be essential for fostering informed, productive conversations about identity, belonging, and social justice.

Recap: Anthropological Insights on Ethnicity

Using the textbook Essentials of Cultural Anthropology we considered anthropological insights on ethnicity:

This material was for Cultural Anthropology 2020 after previous classes on Race and Racism. Then we did Nationalism. For updated and related material from Cultural Anthropology 2023, see Race and Ethnicity in the Census and the Anthropology of Nationalism.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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