Sociology 211

September 10, 2004

Project handout media report or book review.

Reminder of one paragraph assignment on multiculturalism


A. Ethnicity an overview

This course primarily concerns ethnicity and ethnic relations, although other types of classification of individuals and groups, such as age, sex, region, and class are also important in ethnic relations. These other characteristics interact with ethnicity in producing different societal situations for different ethnic groups and within any ethnic group. Since ethnicity is the focus, it is important to carefully consider what ethnicity means. We will discuss this in detail next week (Chapter 1 of Isajiw), with a preliminary consideration here.

Ancestry is key to defining ethnicity for the most part we would not consider a group of people to be an ethnic group if the members merely join the group as adults or are unaware of or cannot trace their ancestry. It is unlikely that all members of an ethnic group have a common ancestry, that is, it is unlikely that they can all be traced back to a single family of origin. But (apart from marrying into the group) all those who are Greek-Canadians can likely trace their ancestry back to one or more immigrants from Greece. For some groups, such as those of Jewish ancestry, lineage is passed on through the mother (in this case though, since Judaism is a religion in addition to an ethnicity, it is possible to convert to Judaism).

In addition to ancestry, one approach to studying ethnicity is to have a checklist of characteristics of an ethnic group. An example of a checklist of characteristics of ethnicity is that provided by Leo Driedger (1989, p. 143), of the University of Manitoba. He lists six items that he uses to define or analyze an ethnic group:

While not all of these might be present in each specific group, this provides one way of deciding whether a set of people might be considered an ethnic group.

Examples of ethnic groups might be small scale or local groups such as the Greek community in Regina, the Hutterites; larger groups spread across a greater geographic range such as the Metis in Saskatchewan or the Inuit in the Canadian north; groups across Canada as a whole, such as English-Canadians, French-Canadians, Finnish Canadians, Caribbean-Canadians, or Chilean-Canadians. At the international level, groups such as the Kurds (across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria), the Basques of Spain, or those of Jewish ancestry around the world, all are examples of ethnic groups. Members of each of these groups may be fairly similar to each other, or quite diverse among themselves, but could meet most of the items in the checklist. These different ethnic groups are also very different from each other some are small, local groups, others are spread across the globe. Some have a strong religious base for their culture, others may be more defined by ancestry and territory. An important part of each though is culture, ancestry, and institutions.

Using such a checklist, some groupings of people are not usually considered as ethnic groups. Sex or gender, age cohorts, sexuality, region, and social class are not usually considered to be a basis for ethnicity, although some of these might be included within the idea of multiculturalism. Similarly, members of different organizations such as members of a political party or members of a religious denomination (Baptists, Catholics)

are not usually considered to form ethnic groups. In all of these cases though, these other characteristics may be a key aspect of ethnicity. For example, individuals from India were often termed Hindus in the early twentieth century the identification between the religion and ethnicity was fairly complete. But there are many different ethnicities and religions in India.

The problem with such a definition is that it leaves out the members of the group, how the members think about themselves, and the manner in which others (not members of the group) think of and relate to the members of the group. Current sociological approaches to ethnicity continue to use the above list, but consider ethnicity to be more of a social relationship, involving self-identification by members of the group and, perhaps just as important, identification of the group by others.

Isajiw (p. 19) defines an ethnic group as

an involuntary, community-type group of persons who share the same distinct culture or who are descendants of those who have shared a distinct culture and who identify with their ancestors, or their culture or group.

He states that this as a general definition, and that the boundaries, both inside and outside, must also be considered. That is, feelings of self-inclusion or exclusion are important aspects of defining an ethnic group. Since there is generally more than one ethnic group (if not, the issue of ethnicity might not emerge), interaction, competition, conflict, and other relationships among the groups is also important. Thus perceptions of outsiders about the group and relationships of outsiders with the group are key to identifying the group. The perceptions and relationships might be negative, with discrimination, racism, and conflict. Or the perceptions might be cooperative and positive, as is supposed to be the case in a multicultural framework. In either case though, it is often the outsiders who define the group, as much as the insiders. Isajiw (p. 20) notes how this creates a double boundary

a boundary from within, established by the socialization process and maintained by ethnic institutions, and a boundary from without, established by the process of intergroup relations.

In any case, relations among ethnic groups are key to defining the group and to the structure and dynamics of contact and interaction among these different groups.

Certainly more is involved than classifying and organizing people into different categories. While the Census does this, and this is an essential aspect of understanding ethnicity, more important is self-identification, recognition by members and others, perceptions of others, and relationships among groups. These form the topic of ethnic relations and multiculturalism.


Driedger, Leo. 1989. The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Next week read Isajiw, pp. 17-47. Why ethnicity has become a topic of major concern in contemporary society; introduction to ethnicity and ethnic relations.

Last edited September 12, 2004