Sociology 211

September 20, 2004


Forms of ethnic groups / nation


Review remainder of these concepts and then spend the rest of the week with a first look at multiculturalism and multicultural policy – Chapter 1 of Fleras and Kunz.

·        Ethnic group

·        Race or racial group / racism

·        Minority group / visible minority

·        Folk / people

·        Nation and nationality / nation-state

·        National minority


Visible minority


This has been, and continues to be an important concept in Canada.  Isajiw rejects the concept, since it implies whiteness as the dominant norm.  That is, who are “visible minorities” visible to?  They are visible only in the sense that the majority or dominant group is white.  He argues that the term is thus “non-symmetrical, implying that the non-whites are somehow a problem for the whites.”  (p. 23). 


While the logic of Isajiw’s argument seems correct, there are some reasons why it is necessary to use the term in Canada – perhaps a better designation or term will be used in the future.  In Canada, visible minority has an official meaning, in terms of federal economic and social policy.  Regardless of its undesirability, information about the number of members of visible minority members is obtained in the Canadian Census and the visible minority designation is part of federal employment equity programs (see the Employment Equity Act of Canada).  We will discuss these in more detail later, but there are four designated groups in various federal programs – women, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities. 


The definition of visible minority in the Employment Equity Act is “persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.”  In terms of obtaining the number of members of visible minorities, the question from the Census of Canada (question 19 of the 2001 Census) asks “Is this person white, Chinese, South Asian, …., Korean, Other.”  A note by the question states “This information is collected to support programs that promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada.”  In the Census Handbook, Statistics Canada states this information is related to legislative and program requirements in the Employment Equity Act, Official Languages Act, and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.  However, I could find no reference to visible minorities in the latter, although there is a statement about eliminating barriers for those in ethnic minorities.


Regardless of whether the term “visible minority” is acceptable or not, it is widely used in Canada and the number of people within each of the ten categories used to classify those of visible minority origin would be available from other tabulations of ethnicity (see Isajiw, pp. 48-51).  The ten-fold visible minority categorization is an unusal one, using combinations of race (black), ethnicity (Arab), country of origin or nationality (Korean), and region (Southeast Asian).  The list was developed at least partly as a result of the Special Committee on Visible Minorities in Canadian Society, and the report Equality Now! 


In another book, Fleras notes “However unacceptable, the term represents an improvement over pejorative connotations; it also has the bonus of acknowledging the common problems encountered by members of this category because of their visibility.”  (Fleras and Elliott, 2002, p. 279).  For a critical viewpoint on “visible minority” see


Primary and secondary ethnic groups / folk and nation / national minority


Isajiw divides ethnic groups into various types – primary and secondary, folk and nation, old and young.  These notes review these distinctions and also discuss the more commonly used concepts of nation and national minority.


Primary and secondary ethnic groups.  Isajiw, pp. 23-25.  First is the distinction between primary and secondary ethnic groups. 


A primary ethnic group is an ethnic group existing in the place or location where it was originally formed.  Connected to this is likely a common language and culture practiced by members of the group.  Given that the group was formed by living together in a single place, there is an historical element to formation of a primary ethnic group.  That is, it may originally have been characterized by differences or migrations, in pre-historic times.  But by living together for long periods of time, the group developed a common culture and set of experiences which forms the ethnic group.  Examples?  In North America, various first nations such as the Cree, Sioux, Mohawk, Iroquois first nations are examples of this.  Examples include the French in France – originally composed of smaller groups in different regions of France (Bretons, Occitane, Provencal, etc.), these groups all became French as they were amalgamated into the French nation.  Those with Quebecois identity in Quebec could be regarded as a primary ethnic group, in that their identity as an group is tied to a specific place (New France or Quebec) and they developed a group culture as a distinct identity there.  These examples also illustrate the problems of referring to these as ethnic groups – First Nations, the French, and the Quebecois may consider themselves more as nations than ethnic groups.


A secondary ethnic group is a group with common ethnicity that has its origins in another place or society.  This is a group that has migrated from the society of origin to another society or country.  Isajiw notes how an ethnic group may originally be a secondary ethnic group but, over time, becomes a primary group.  The Quebecois could be an example – originally they were secondary in being transplanted from France, and were a minority among the First Nations peoples and later the English.  But they have become more like a primary ethnic group today.  Most of what we term ethnic groups in Canada today could be considered to be secondary ethnic groups, that is, immigrant groups such as Vietnamese-Canadian, Caribbean-Canadian, or Hungarian-Canadian are secondary ethnic groups in Canada, while the origins of these immigrant individuals and families are in a primary groups like Vietnamese, Caribbean, and Hungarian.  


The distinction between primary and secondary this relates primarily to location or place, whether migration occurs, and stage of formation.  For the most part, when we refer to immigrant groups, these are usually what Isajiw terms secondary ethnic groups.


Isajiw notes that secondary groups may become primary.  An example might be the Boers in South Africa.  Originally immigrant Dutch into South Africa, they formed their own culture and politically dominated South Africa for many years.  Whether Americans or Canadians will develop a primary ethnicity is less clear.


Old and young ethnic groups.  (Isajiw, pp. 27-28).  Given the connection between stage of development and being primary or secondary, the previous distinction is also connected to whether the ethnic group is old or young.  The age of the ethnic group refers to the length of time the group, as a group, has been in the society or country (p. 27).  Young groups may be young in age, but their main defining characteristic is how long they have been in the country.  Examples of old ethnic groups in Canada are German-Canadians and Scottish-Canadians, ethnic groups that emerge from migrations to Canada by Germans and Scots in the nineteenth century.  While more recent immigrants come from these areas, the great bulk of these ethnic groups in Canada are descendants of the original immigrants.  In North America, most of the members of these older ethnic groups are well integrated into society, so the main ethnic aspects are maintenance of some culture and recognition of the historical contribution of the group.


Younger ethnic groups are those with little or no previous presence.  Examples could be Vietnamese-Canadians, Chilean-Canadians, Salvadoran-Canadians, or Sudanian-Canadians, groups which immigrated to Canada only over the last thirty years.  Prior to that there may have been a few individuals or families from these areas, but there were not enough to form ethnic groups.  In each of the above cases, it has been war or political factors which led to groups of refugees arriving and remaining in Canada.  Isajiw notes that the primary problems faced by these younger ethnic groups are issues related to adjustment to the new society.  This is often especially difficult for the original immigrants, especially those from a group that has not entered the country before.  The language is likely unfamiliar, and there may be few people in the receiving country who are able to deal with the language and culture of the incoming group.  For those who came from Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam, or more recently from the Sudan, the problems faced were even greater because they have been regarded as very different by many Canadian-born.  That is, they are visible minorities and come from areas of the world that had not previously sent immigrants to Canada.


Some groups have a continuous stream of arrivals and other groups are rejuvenated by more recent immigrants, after a long period of little immigration.  European ethnic groups, especially from England, Scotland, and Ireland have had continued arrivals over  close to two hundred years.  In the case of Ukrainian or Polish immigrants, they have tended to come more in waves.  While there were many earlier in the twentieth century and some after world war two, there has been a rejuvenation with some more recent immigrants.  This has sometimes created difficulties within the institutions of the ethnic group – the problems faced by more recent immigrants are likely to be quite different from the ethnic concerns of children or grandchildren of earlier immigrants.


Folk and nationality.  (Isajiw, pp. 25-26).  Another distinction Isajiw develops is that of folk community and a nationality.  The folk community is the small-scale, usually localized, group of people who form a community, living together in villages, rural areas, or nomadic.  The different First Nations groups in North America, prior to and following European contact might be considered to be folk communities.  The members of each group or tribe lived together and there was likely little differentiation in status or economic and political position among members of the group.  They lived and worked together, often having to cooperate just in order to survive.  Isajiw notes that these folk communities had a culture transmitted orally, rather than in written form, and strongly connected to religious or spiritual traditions and beliefs. 


For Isajiw, a nationality emerges in a different set of circumstances – where there is more specialization of occupation and differentiation of status of individuals.  There is more likely to be written communication, some development of educational institutions, and a political structure that may be secular, less tied to religious and spiritual traditions.   While each nationality may have originally developed from a folk community, some of the nations and nationalities that developed became quite distant from the original folk community.   There were many historical developments that led from the relatively small, isolated, and localized folk communities to the nationalities that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Among these were the forces of capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization that first developed in western Europe, the colonialism, imperialism, and globalization that spread these developments across the world, and the nation-building that occurred over the last two hundred years.  Thus, economic and political forces transformed the meaning of ethnicity, folk, and nationality. 


Connected with the idea of nationality is that of a “people.”  Groups often refer to themselves as a people, an all-encompassing concept that is inclusive of all who are members, or imagined to be members, of the group.  Thus we might refer to Jews as a “people” or the “Jewish people.”  The Quebecois, First Nations groups, or Basques in Spain might refer to themselves as a people.  Some of the concepts can be approached by examining the meaning of nation, nation-state, and national minority.


Nation.  The concept and idea of nation has been key in ethnic and national struggles, conflicts, and recognition.  This was especially the case in the period after world war two, when the colonial powers either left, or were forced to leave, their colonies.  The people of each of the colonies said they were peoples or nations and should be able to govern their own country.  For example, the Algerians fought the French colonial powers beginning in 1954 and forced the French to leave Algeria, thus creating Algeria as a separate and independent country in 1962.  Similar situations occurred in many countries in Africa and Asia over the last fifty years, so that many of these nations have formed themselves as nation-states.  There had been earlier formation of nations as nation-states in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the concept of nation has often become tied to that of nation-state – that each nation should be able to form its own state or country, and be self-governing.  Some Quebecois make this argument with respect to Quebec and some of these ideas undoubtedly stand behind some First Nations’ arguments that they should be more self-governing.


Also connected to this is the Charter of the United Nations (Article 1 and Article 55), which states that people have rights of self-determination, presumably meaning that peoples that consider themselves to be nations should have rights to governance of their own affairs by forming nation-states.  But this has been applied quite differently in different areas – for colonies it has meant independence; for national minorities, it has generally not led to independent nations but to greater self-governance within a state that is either multicultural or dominated by people who are not part of the national minority.  One problem with the statement about peoples having the right to self-determination is what “people” means and what “self-determination” means.  Each of these is subject to great debate and disagreement, and there have been conflicts and war about these.


Self-determination has sometimes been interpreted to mean a separate state or national independence – for example, in the case of colonial struggles against the colonial government (Algeria, Kenya, a Kurdish state, a Kashmiri state).  In other cases it might imply no more than some means to increase self-government over a fairly narrow range of issues, if that is what the group wants.  Or it could imply special representation rights for a national minority in a national assembly – for example, 10 per cent of the seats reserved for members of the national minority (see Kymlicka, 1995, pp. 147-149 on the separate electoral list for Maori voters in New Zealand).  What self-determination implies is that a group or people will have greater ability to determine how they are governed.  As Kymlicka notes (pp. 116-118), the group may want to federate with other groups (Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, Czechoslovakia until recently) or even assimilate or integrate into the majority culture (new immigrants), or have some combination of assimilation and separateness within a society (the Hutterites, Mennonites, Doukhobours, and Amish in North America).  With respect to both Quebec and aboriginal people in Canada the issue of the meaning of self-determination is an important one, and one whose outcome cannot be assumed.  That is, self-determination may imply national independence, but there are many other possible outcomes.


The following notes come from Sociology 304, January 26, 1999.  They are modified slightly, but are generally copies of what is posted on URL


Nation, People, and State 


Nation has sometimes been considered to be identical with state and these two concepts have become merged in nation-state.  Hobsbawm notes that the development of nations was a relatively recent historical development.  In the American and French revolutions, the meaning of nation was more or less the same, and  during this period in the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century, “nation = state = people” was the common implication (Hobsbawm, p. 19).  He notes that “early political discourse in the United States referred to “‘the people’, ‘the union’, ‘the confederation’, ‘our common land’, ‘the public’, ‘public welfare’, or ‘the community’ in order to avoid the centralizing and unitary implications of the term ‘nation’ against the rights of the federated states” (Hobsbawm, p. 18).  Note that many of the national struggles during this period were against kings, lords, the aristocracy, or the church.   Hobsbawm draws the conclusion that the nation was “the body of citizens whose collective sovereignty constituted them a state which was their political expression.  For, whatever else a nation was, the element of citizenship and mass participation or choice was never absent from it” (Hobsbawm, pp. 18-19).  


A state, or what we might more loosely call a country, tends to be defined on a territorial or geographic basis, as occupying a specific geographic territory with definite boundaries.  The concept of the state also has a political meaning in terms of there being a government that governs this territory and the citizens in it.  At the level of the state, there is government, political authority, a judicial system, a clearly defined geographic territory, and sovereignty of the state.  In the Marxist tradition, the concept of state is often used to refer primarily to this political authority.


Citizenship is the means by which people are part of the state or are attached to the state.   That is, in contemporary states such as the United States of Canada, it is citizenship, rather than tradition or ancestry, that makes the individual a part of the state, and is the means by which the individual belongs to the state.  Laws or rules that define who is and who is not a citizen are established.  For example, in Canada a Citizenship Act was first passed by Parliament in 1947, and revised in the 1970s and 1980s.  See and


Modern uses of the state, or nation-state, generally take this approach and for individuals, the meaning of state implies citizenship, along with citizenship rights, responsibilities, and obligations.  This also means that within the rules established by the state concerning immigration, everyone in the state who meets the rules governing citizenship is a citizen, not just those having the proper ancestry.  Some countries, such as Germany and Israel, are partial exceptions to this, in that they accord citizenship rights preferentially to ethnic Germans or those of Jewish ancestry, respectively.  In any state, one of the problems is that many of the citizens may consider themselves to be part of the state more through tradition and ancestry than through citizenship, thus confusing nation and state.


One problem with using nation as identical to state, as in the nineteenth century nation-state, is that this ignores many of the cultural aspects that exist within the nation-state – the language, traditions, customs, history of a people.  In fact, state as defined in the above paragraphs ignores the meaning of people, because there is no reason why people and state need have any connection with each other.  Multination states can exist, for example Canada, Belgium, China, and the Soviet Union are or have been examples of states with several nations or peoples within them.  Similarly, a people can cut across several nation-states.  The Kurds are an example of the latter, with many members in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, and some in Syria and Armenia.  Kurdistan may exist as a nation, but it is not a state.  Hobsbawm notes that in the nineteenth century identity nation=state=people, “there was no logical connection between the body of citizens of a territorial state on one hand, and the identification of a ‘nation’ on ethnic, linguistic or other grounds or of other characteristics which allowed collective recognition of group membership” (Hobsbawm, p. 19).  


Making the concept of nation identical with state may have made practical sense in the period of the building of the great nations such as Italy, France, Germany, Britain, and the United States, at least for the dominant national group that spearheaded the building of these new nation-states.  But this approach ignored smaller groups which could rightly be considered peoples, but which did not have political strength or the means of forming their own nation-state.  This may have been because of the small size of the group, because of oppression of the group, or because of the assimilation of the group. 


In response to this problem, nationalism and national movements in the period 1880-1914 developed three characteristics, according to Hobsbawm.  The changes were: (i) abandonment of the threshold principle of size – any body of people could be considered a nation, (ii) ethnicity and language became the central, decisive, and perhaps the only definition of nationhood, and (iii) nationalism sometimes was reactionary and became identified with patriotism and national symbols such as the flag.  (See Hobsbawm, p. 102).  While nationalism may have been somewhat in decline as a political force between the two world wars, there was a resurgence of nationalism as a political force after the second world war.  Independence movements in Africa and Asia created many new independent states in the 1950s through the 1970s.  The successful struggle waged by the Vietnamese against the United States and the civil rights movement in the United States were factors that gave new impetus to national minority groups around the world.  In the 1970s, there were separatist movements among the Basques, Bretons, Québecois, Puerto Ricans, and many other national minorities in rich, industrial countries as well as in poorer countries.  Some of these movements were successful in creating new nation-states, some were able to create greater regional autonomy for the national minority, some movements disintegrated, and others are still in existence. 




Stalin’s definition of nation is as follows. 


Stalin.   A nation is an historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.  (Quote from J. V. Stalin, 1913, from Davis, p. 163).

Nationality ... is not a racial or tribal phenomenon.  It has five essential features:  there must be a stable, continuing community, a common language, a distinct territory, economic cohesion, and a collective character.  It assumes positive political form as a nation under definite historical conditions, belonging to a specific epoch, that of the rise of capitalism and the struggles of the rising bourgeosie under feudalism.  (Based on J. V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, 1913 from Bottomore, p. 344).


Stalin was concerned with incorporating some of the national groups into what would be the Soviet Union.  In general, he was opposed to national-cultural autonomy, looking on it as a route to secession.  This may explain why he adds territory to the list of characteristics.  While he favoured national self-determination, he generally looked on nationalism as bourgeois. 


For Stalin, the idea of psychological makeup are problematic.  Because of his stature within the Soviet Union and the world communist movement, Stalin’s definition has often been repeated and used in other parts of the world.  National liberation movements in Africa and Asia, influenced by socialism and communism, have often tried to bend their characteristics to match the definition of Stalin.


Current definitions of nation usually come quite close to the definition of Stalin.  Note that even Kymlicka’s definition of nation is fairly similar to that of Stalin.


Kymlicka.  ... ‘nation’ means a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture (p. 11).


The approaches of Bauer, Stalin, and Kymlicka tend to be approaches based on an a relatively objective set of characteristics, although each has a subjective component (national character, psychological makeup, or culture).  While some aspects of these definitions are not so clear, many contemporary definitions of nation have a checklist of characteristics that must be met to establish the definition of a people or nation.  The approach of Kymlicka goes beyond this, in identifying culture as a primary aspect of nation.


D.  Imagined Communities or Groups 


Benedict Anderson provides a different type of definition.  His approach is similar in some ways to Weber’s definition of an ethnic group.  Weber noted that practically any characteristic (skin colour, belief in a common descent, adherence to teachings of a charismatic leader) could serve as a basis for defining the ethnic group.  That is, the belief in one of these characteristics, and the common political and social action connected with this belief, could result in the formation of an ethnic group.  Weber’s definition applies more to ethnic groups within a nation-state than to the whole nation, and he was more concerned with social action of a specific form than is Anderson.  But the implication of both is that any characteristic could become the basis for formation of a group or people. 


Anderson.  ... it is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.  ... all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined.  Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.  (Anderson, p. 6).


For Anderson, the notion of imagined is important.  National identity is not something that is inherent in the individual, but is “formed and transformed within and in relation to representation.  We only know what it is to be ‘English’ because of the way ‘Englishness’ has come to be represented, as a set of meanings, by English national culture.  ... a nation is not only a political entity but something which produces meanings - a system of cultural representation. ...  People ... participate in the idea of the nation as represented by its national culture”  (Hall, p. 612).


Anderson notes that the nation is imagined because  “the members of even the smallest nation will never know each of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, p. 6).  It is limited because it is smaller than the whole of humanity, and it is sovereign in the sense of having sovereignty rather than being under the control of a king or external power.  It may also be sovereign in the sense that the members of the nation imagine themselves to be able to exercise some control or direction over it, that is, the individuals are free, have rights, and are capable of exercising decision-making power within the nation.  Finally, it is a community in that “the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” even though there may be much inequality within it (Anderson, p. 7). 


National Minority


These different approaches may help us determine what a national minority is.  Kymlicka notes how many countries wish to deny that they have national minorities and may try to claim that the national minority is just another ethnic group (p. 22).  In Canada it is not really possible to make this claim and by any of these definitions, aboriginal people in Canada and Québecois would seem to be nations, although Quebec itself may not be.  This, of course, still leaves out the issue of exactly which characteristics do constitute those that are decisive, and it also does not answer the question of what types of rights these nations should have.  Kymlicka notes that the group may define itself on the basis of race or descent, but such claims are difficult to establish, and with considerable intermarriage, do not seem correct.  What he means when talking about national minorities is “cultural groups” (p. 23).  He further notes that “descent-based approaches to national membership have obvious racist overtone, and are manifestly unjust”  (p. 23).   That is, membership would be denied to those without the proper genetic or ancestral credentials, and this is exclusionary.   If the definition of nation is cultural, then membership in the nation should be open to “anyone, regardless of race of colour, who is willing to learn the language and history of the society and participate in its social and political institutions”  (p. 23).  Early aboriginal society seemed to be like this, although descent now seems to be the favoured definition of many aboriginal groups. 


For Kymlicka, national minorities can emerge on the basis of voluntarism or force.  A voluntary federation of different national groups can create a multination state, and the different nations need not be minorities, but could be joined on the basis of equality.  Switzerland and Belgium are cited as the two main examples of this (p. 13), where the various groups have primarily allegiance to the nation-state, not the national group. 


More likely there was some element of coercion or force, so that the national minority has been included in the nation-state in some involuntary manner.  Aboriginal people in Canada, Hispanics in the southwest of the United States, and Basques in Spain are examples of this.  Over time, the minority group may assimilate, and in Europe this has often happened (e.g. France).  Kymlicka notes that forced assimilation has often not worked well, and many of these national minorities have not given up their culture.  On p. 79, Kymlicka points out how some Indian groups in the United States have persisted in the face of limits on the use of their language and customs, and “their status as self-governing ‘domestic dependent nations’ is now more firmly recognized.  The determination they have shown in maintaining their existence as distinct cultures, despite these enormous economic and political pressures, shows the value they attach to retaining their cultural membership.” 





Anderson, Benedict.  1991.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition, London, Verso.

Bottomore, Tom, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1983.

Davis, Horace B., Nationalism and Socialism: Marxist and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1967.

Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliott.  2002. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada, Toronto, Nelson Thomson Learning.

Hall, Stuart “The Question of Cultural Identity,” in Stuart Hall et. al., Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Blackwell, 1996.

Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism Since 1780:  Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Kymlicka, Will. 1995.  Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford, Clarendon Press.


Last edited September 23, 2004