Issues related to ethnicity, ethnic minorities, race and race
relations, nations and national minorities, cultural pluralism,
identity and difference are major sociological topic areas, at
least in North American sociology. Along with class and sex,
issues related to race and ethnicity often seem to be the dominant
topics of contemporary sociology. In contrast, these were not
major parts of classical sociological theory as it developed in
Europe, in the writings of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Ethnic
relations did play a greater role in some of the developments
in North American sociology, in particular in the approaches of
Robert Park and other Chicago school sociologists. Some of the
Canadian sociologists influenced by the Chicago school developed
theories of ethnic change and persistence. In the first half
of this century, within Canada there were several studies of immigrants,
immigrant life, ethnic settlements, and integration that were
forerunners of a Canadian sociological approach.
The fact that theories of ethnicity and integration were limited
in European sociology but more common in North America shows how
social science theory does emerge out of the society that social
scientists experience and observe. That is, theories of society
do not come just from abstract reason or from reasoning detached
from society. Such reasoning is important, but must be guided
by what does occur in society.
Europe had relatively limited immigration and much emigration
in the nineteenth century, and the political agenda was preoccupied
with building and strengthening the new nation states like France,
Germany, and Italy, making them into relatively uniform national
units. Much of the social science analysis that emerged in Europe
in the nineteenth century reflected this approach - assuming a
nation state with a uniform language and a relatively homogeneous
population in terms of ethnicity. In contrast, the North American
experience was one of immigration, displacement of aboriginal
people, and creation of a new society. While the social sciences
were not well developed in North America, one of the issues that
came to the fore here was ethnicity, ethnic settlement, conditions
of life of different ethnic groups, and urban ethnic life. Out
of this emerged various theoretical approaches that reflected
some of the experiences in different parts of North America.
Kymlicka examines some of these issues in section 1 of Chapter
4, pp. 50-57, although he focuses on the development of liberal
political thought, not sociological thought. Kymlicka notes that
nineteenth century liberals were concerned with national minority
rights (p. 51), perhaps since Europe had so many multination states
and many national minorities in these states. But much of nineteenth
century liberal political thought assumed a common national identity
(p. 53), with great nations viewed as carriers of civilization
and progress, and small national groups looked on as backward.
Writers such as Mill thought that "there should only be
one official culture." (p. 54). Other writers took
the opposite approach of defense of the multination state. In
general though, the dominant view was that the single culture
was advantageous and superior, and should be exported to the colonies.
The problem was that the liberal political institutions that
emerged in Britain often did work well in the colonies (p. 54).
This section of the notes examines the approach taken in the classical
European sociological approaches of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.
The analyses of the Chicago school and some early Canadian sociological
developments are then discussed. There are a number of other
approaches to these issues which are not examined here - for example,
African-American experiences and racism.
1. Marx and Engels were very aware of issues related to
nations and nationalism, but ethnic and national issues were not
integral parts of their theoretical model of capitalism and the
exploitation associated with it. Their model of capitalism and
class conflict was based on production and the exploitation of
labour within the productive process. Ethnic loyalties and divisions
were irrelevant to this model because the main division within
society for Marx was that of class - a propertyless proletariat
confronting a property owning bourgeoisie, with the latter exploiting
the former. The development of this new economic system in Britain
and then in the rest of Europe, the contradictions associated
with it, and the new forms of social organization that resulted,
dominated much of nineteenth century sociological analysis. The
new society resulting from capitalism was what Marx and Engels
In addition, the Marxian view of history tended to downgrade the
importance of such divisions. (i) Capitalism tended to erase
earlier ethnic divisions and created a relatively homogeneous
working class - the capitalist system of economic organization
operated much the same wherever it emerged. (ii) Further, in
the Marxian view, historical progress through industrialization
would lead to the end of small nationalities such as the Welsh
and the Slavs, as the greater nations would industrialize and
incorporate these minorities into industrial capitalism.
Kymlicka deals with minority rights in the socialist tradition
in section 5 of Chapter 4, pp. 69-74, noting that "socialists
have traditionally felt hostile toward minority rights" (p.
69). Note at the bottom of page 69, Kymlicka's description of
the large nations that Marx and Engels tended to support and the
small national groups that they did not consider viable as nations.
In the view of Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie of the larger
nations would unify a territory, incorporate smaller national
groups into the nation state, and build a national economy. They
seemed to have few regrets over this occurring. In some ways,
they may have viewed the development of the new nation states,
each under the direction of its new bourgeoisie as a progressive
part of history, leading to the quicker development of industrial
capitalism. This would heighten the contradictions within the
capitalist system and quicken the road to socialism. Marx and
Engels looked on the working class as the creator of socialism,
and viewed the contradiction between the working class and the
bourgeoisie as primary in the struggle for socialism, with national
conflicts not being as important in the struggle for socialism.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated that
"the working men have no country."
Finally, with respect to colonies, Marx and Engels tended
to look on capitalism (i) as destroying the earlier mode of production
in the colonies (although noting the negative effects on the people
in these colonies), (ii) as having an impulse to expand to obtain
raw materials and markets, and (iii) as progressive in the sense
of incorporating more regions into the capitalist system and thereby
furthering the conditions that would lead to the development of
While Marx and Engels sometimes considered struggles for independence
and national liberation to be important, and deserving of the
support of socialists, these struggles were not the main political
or social feature that interested them. They were more concerned
with how conditions could be created whereby socialism could emerge.
Later Marxists and socialists spent more time developing
theories of nationalism, although most of these theories have
not found their way into sociology. Socialists in the late nineteenth
and earlier twentieth centuries were involved in political movements
in Europe and had to face the issue of nationalism, national oppression,
and self-determination. These socialists were involved in actual
political movements and had to concern themselves with practical
politics. These socialists were aware of the dual nature of nationalism
- progressive or reactionary - and this was part of their analysis.
Socialists attempted to analyze and work with nationalist political
movements and to emphasize the connections between national and
class oppression, supporting national political movements to the
extent that they supported the working class and helped to create
greater equality. At least until World War I, most of these socialists
attempted to argue against patriotism, national chauvinism, and
During much of this century, socialists and communists around
the world have played a major role in supporting national independence
movements. In China, throughout Africa, and in many other countries
such as Cuba, political activists in the Marxian tradition played
a key role in attacking colonialism and imperialism, and in organizing
and fighting for national independence. In doing so, independence
and socialism were often linked. While this was achieved in only
some countries - China, Vietnam, Cuba - Marxian ideas and communist
activists were often crucial to these movements in both ideological
and organizational terms.
Much of this support is understandable given the concern that
the Marxian tradition has with exploitation and oppression. Often
ethnic and national oppression is associated with class oppression,
in that an oppressed ethnic minority is not just the subject of
discrimination or unequal treatment, but this same minority is
often exploited economically by the more powerful and dominant
group. Socialists and communists have usually attempted to show
how ethnic oppression is rooted in economic exploitation. This
means that class struggle may be necessary to overcome ethnic
inequality. While the situation and arguments may not always
be so straightforward, there has been a tendency on the part of
the Marxian approach to treat ethnic inequality as rooted in class
exploitation. From a sociological viewpoint, this approach has
both its advantages and disadvantages. Theories of ethnicity,
ethnic identity, and ethnic inequality that ignore class may miss
some of their essential features. At the same time, Marxian and
socialist approaches to these issues have sometimes ignored important
aspects of ethnic identity. Quoting Garth Stevenson, Kymlicka
notes "The left has always been suspicious that cultural
criteria-whether they be religious, linguistic, ethnic or simply
geographic-are devices exploited by the economically powerful
to divide people" (p. 71).
Notes on Marx and Engels based on Tom Bottomore et. al., editors, A Dictionary
of Marxist Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University
Press, 1983). See nation and colonialism entries.
Also see Horace B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism: Marxist
and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917 (New York, Monthly
Review Press, 1967).
2. Durkheim also paid little explicit attention to these
issues, perhaps because he was writing in France, a country with
a single nationality, although also having different regional
"peoples." Writing about many of the same issues that
concerned Marx and other nineteenth century analysts - changes
in society resulting from industrial capitalism - Durkheim was
concerned that there could be social disorder and loss of community
values. In contrast to Marx's focus on the factors that cause
conflict and change (exploitation and class), Durkheim instead
looked for the conditions that would help create social order,
social cohesion, and social solidarity in an industrial society.
Durkheim was concerned about the decline of tradition and religion,
and the loss of moral values that resulted from the growth
of individualism and the "disintegration of the roots of
stability and authority" as individuals were dislocated from
traditional associations and communities (Driedger, p. 18).
He argued that in traditional societies, social solidarity was
achieved through similarity of condition, creating similar
values and holding society together through what he termed mechanical
As societies developed, Durkheim noted that people become different,
but it is dependence on each other, requiring the labour and products
created by others, and recognition of difference as a normal
feature of society that creates a new set of common values. Durkheim
was generally optimistic that these would hold the new industrial
society together through what he termed organic solidarity.
Since we need the products of each other's labour, and are tolerant
of differences resulting from the different occupations and ways
of life of others, the social recognition and acceptance of these
differences help to create this new organic form of social solidarity.
While strong tendencies toward organic solidarity existed in industrial
society, Durkheim recognized that the loss of norms and values
resulting from a decline in religion might disconnect the individual
from society. He termed this condition anomie, a condition
of normlessness or rootlessness. Durkheim does not consider ethnicity
or ethnic identity as one of the factors that might help to connect
the individual to society. Like Marx, he grounded his analysis
in the labour force, arguing that professional and occupational
associations would emerge. These associations would help provide
the necessary buffer or link between individuals and the larger
society, "reinforcing sense of membership in society"
(Driedger, p. 19).
Durkheim cannot be considered to be a theorist of ethnicity, but
his emphasis on difference, recognition of difference, and organic
solidarity might be used to argue for cultural pluralism or multiculturalism.
In the latter, the connection between the individual and society
is cultural, rather than based on occupation. Leo Driedger notes
that in Canada, ethnicity might be "one focal point of values,
norms, authority, and solidarity" (p. 19) that connect the
individual and society. When discussing rights and culture, Kymlicka
makes a similar point, noting how important culture is for individuals,
providing a sense of belonging, dignity, and self-respect, and
providing options - the boundaries of the imaginable (Kymlicka,
p. 89). It can be argued that ethnocultural institutions and
practices promote "a sense of belonging and relationships
of mutual recognition and mutual responsibility" (Kymlicka,
p. 90, quoting Tamir). Also note that religion and family are
often strongly connected with ethnicity and ethnic identity, and
to the extent that these are integrating forms of solidarity (in
Durkheim's sense), then ethnic identity may be more integrative
Note: References and notes on Durkheim partly based on L. Driedger,
The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity (Toronto, McGraw-Hill
Ryerson, 1989), pp. 17-22 and Multi-Ethnic Canada: Identities
and Inequalities (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1996),
pp. 14-17. Note that many chapters in these two books by Driedger
are practically identical, although they have different titles,
publication dates, and publishers.
3. Weber did pay more attention to ethnicity and culture,
and in one essay in Economy and Society examines race,
tribe, volk, biological heredity, tradition, and cultural
traits, and introduces the notion of "ethnic group"
(p. 18). One of Weber's aims was to identify characteristics
that might lead to the establishment of a group, that is
a set of people who exhibit some common form of social action.
For Weber, it was social action that was sociologically important.
The mere identification and classification of a set of individuals
as having a certain ethnic or racial background might not mean
much in terms of social action and interaction. It was when the
individuals (i) developed a belief in a common ethnicity or (ii)
formed social circles on the basis of this common background that
ethnicity could became sociologically meaningful. Then a sense
of common action, ethnic honour, and ethnic identity could develop,
and this can lead the group to distinguish themselves from others
and form ties with each other. If this develops, then Weber might
term this an ethnic group, more than just a set of people
with a supposedly common ethnic background.
For Weber, almost any characteristic might form the basis for
such ethnic identity and ethnic group - the characteristic might
be superficial characteristics such as race or "common descent"
(Driedger, p. 14) or "any cultural trait, no matter how superficial,
can serve as a starting point for the familiar tendency to monopolistic
closure" (Driedger, p. 17). He notes that "race creates
a 'group' only when it is subjectively perceived as a common trait"
(Driedger, p. 14) and that this is when joint action, probably
political, occurs or where there is antagonism toward another
group. Often this action is associated with antipathy towards
those who are not considered members of such a group, and "persons
who are externally different are simply despised irrespective
of what they accomplish or what they are" (Driedger, p. 14).
Today we call this stereotyping and this can be associated with
discrimination and unequal treatment of those who are considered
of ethnic group is an important one
for contemporary sociology:
The belief in group affinity, regardless of whether it has any objective foundation, can have important consequences especially for the formation of a political community. We shall call "ethnic groups" those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of custom or both, or because of the memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists. ... Ethnic membership does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group formation of any kind, particularly in the political sphere. On the other hand, it is primarily the political community, no matter how artificially organized, that inspires the belief in common ethnicity (Driedger, p. 18).
While there are quite different approaches to defining ethnicity
and ethnic group in contemporary sociology, one of the approaches
derives from Weber. This can be seen in the definitions of Gordon
Weber makes further comments about tribe, nation, volk,
and nationality, and also notes that if exact sociological terms
were defined, the notion of "ethnic group" would dissolve.
That is, it is not the common descent, language, or physical
type that is the real basis for the "group" but the
social action that emerges from common perceptions of this.
What is important about Weber's approach is that he shows (i)
how important social action is in defining what an ethnic group
is, and (ii) how any factor related to race, tradition, or cultural
practice may become identified by the group as an essential aspect
of their heritage. Weber does not minimize the importance of
these in the eyes of the group members, but he does note that
sociologists must submit each cultural or ethnic claim to careful
As an aside, Weber notes a set of views among French Canadians
that appear to have changed considerably since Weber's time:
The loyalty of the French Canadians toward the English polity is today determined above all by the deep antipathy against the economic and social structure, and the way of life, of the neighbouring United States; hence membership in the Dominion of Canada appears as a guarantee of their own traditions (p. 26).
References to Weber are from Leo Driedger, Ethnic Canada: Identities
and Inequalities (Toronto, Copp Clark Pitman, 1987), pp. 14-27.
4. Chicago School. The assimilation model, whereby
immigrants lose their ethnic culture and merge into the dominant
culture, is what is usually associated with the Department of
Sociology at the University of Chicago, established in 1892 as
the first sociology department in North America. The Chicago
school studied urban sociology and community, and given the large
numbers of immigrants to the United States, it is no surprise
that this included the study of race and ethnic relations. In
The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, assimilation is described
a unidimensional, one-way process, by which outsiders relinquished their own culture in favor of that of the dominant society. From Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill and Bryan S. Turner, The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984), p. 22.
During the latter of the nineteenth and early part of this century,
Chicago was a rapidly expanding industrial city with immigrants
from many parts of Europe, some from western Europe (Ireland,
Scandinavia), but even more from the newer source countries in
Central and Eastern Europe - Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Greece,
etc. The immigrants arrived poor and became labourers in meat-packing,
steel, machine tools, railroads, construction, and other industries
that expanded rapidly in Chicago. Chicago sociologists in the
1920s and 1930s were concerned with social reform and the poverty,
crime, and housing problems of Chicago of this period certainly
gave them an ample laboratory. At the same time, the positive
effects of industrial expansion were apparent, creating the possibility
for large numbers of the immigrants to improve their lives and
neighbourhoods. One way in which immigrants and their children
integrated into life in the United States was to participate whole
heartedly in the new culture, laying aside their earlier culture
and practices, and becoming assimilated into the dominant United
States culture. While not all immigrants took this route, and
while assimilation had many aspects to it, the idea of assimilation
and the melting pot were characterized by a loss of all aspects
of ethnic identity and the adoption of the language, practices,
and forms of behaviour of the dominant United States culture.
The Chicago sociologists were not just social observers and reformers,
they were also theorists and considered themselves to be scientific.
They developed theoretical approaches that have been dominant
in much of the study of ethnic and minority relations in the United
States. Their approach was also influential in the development
of Canadian sociology (see next section).
Robert Park (1864-1944) is the best known Chicago school
sociologist. Park looked on society and urban processes as dynamic,
whereby ethnic and racial groups would assimilate into the mainstream
American culture and society. Park's assimilation cycle had two
routes: (i) least resistance - contact, accommodation, fusion;
or (ii) resistance - conflict, competition, accommodation, fusion.
"Whereas the latter route could take longer and could entail
considerable resistance on the part of the immigrant, the end
result would be the same - loss of a distinctive ethnic identity.
The new culture and values would emerge" (p. 38). Park's
idea was that regardless of origin, immigrants to America wished
to participate in the new society, enjoying its freedoms and benefits,
and abandon their old cultural practices and ideas. The assimilation
approach is dynamic, explains what happened to considerable numbers
of immigrants, and is often connected to the melting-pot
theory. While not all immigrants to the United States took this
route, enough did that there could be a certain credibility to
this theoretical approach. In Canada, we often consider assimilation
and the melting-pot to characterize United States immigrant experiences
and pluralism and multiculturalism to characterize Canadian immigrant
An alternative approach that was developed by other Chicago school
theorists could be called immigrant reorganization. This
was developed by W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), co-author with
Florian Znaniecki of the five volume study The Polish Peasant
in Europe and America. This work showed the types of issues
and problems faced by Polish families who came to America. Thomas
and Znaniecki emphasized the importance of language and religion
for these immigrants, the economic struggles they faced, and the
networks of solidarity that they established in America. At the
same time, change did have to occur in the lives of these immigrants
and the research documented the adjustments and changes that these
Polish immigrants went through.
Urban change eventually forced the Polish immigrants to reorganize their attitudes, values, and ethnic organization to be more in tune with the new urban environment. Those immigrants who refused to change often lost contact with their children; those who adapted and reorganized retained some of their past tradition and adopted new elements selectively (p. 24).
Driedger describes Thomas's views as being similar to a modified
pluralist approach, arguing that cultural differences should not
be ignored or suppressed, and noting how some aspects of culture
are important for ethnic solidarity and identity (p. 26).
While other approaches emerged in the United States, theories
from the Chicago school dominated the studies of ethnicity and
race relations for many years. More recently, studies of racism,
ethnic inequality, and various pluralist or multicultural approaches
have become more common in the United States, and there has been
a recognition that the assimilation model has not characterized
the situation of many individuals and groups.
Notes for this section on the Chicago school come from L. Driedger,
The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity, pp. 22-44.
5. Canadian sociology was relatively undeveloped until
the 1960s, with few departments of sociology and only 32 sociologists
in Canadian universities in 1956. The field expanded rapidly,
so there were 917 sociologists twenty years later, with sociology
departments in most Canadian universities. Given this relatively
late development, it is no surprise that there was not a well
developed set of sociological approaches to the study of ethnicity
and ethnic relations in Canada.
At the same time, there were a number of studies of ethnicity
in Canada in the first half of the century that can be considered
sociological in nature. The Canadian studies emerge out of the
experiences of Canadians and the history of Canada - (i) no single
dominant group but recognition of the French and English as the
two founding groups, (ii) First Nations peoples as the original
society and population of Canada, and (iii) the immigration and
settlement patterns of immigrants to Canada. In addition, the
influence of the Chicago school approaches were felt in some of
these early studies.
Some of the studies in the early part of the century were very
negative toward immigrants, with Oriental and Italian immigrants
being considered as deviant. J. S. Woodsworth's Stranger
Within Our Gates (1909) was a pioneering sociological study
of poor, mostly Eastern European immigrants in Prairie cities.
While it had many stereotypes, Woodsworth's study was a study
of the poor working and living conditions of ordinary immigrants
and argued that they should be treated better. There were also
scattered other studies of immigrant life, often concerned with
social reform or with education policy (what language should schooling
be in). These early studies were not theoretical, but were oriented
toward dealing with practical issues related to immigration and
In the 1930s and 1940s, several Canadians who studied in Chicago
returned to Canada to practice sociology. Chicago school students
such as Charles Dawson, Everett Hughes and Horace Miner came to
the McGill sociology department in the 1930s and investigated
French-English relationships in Quebec, using a fieldwork approach.
Hughes and Miner had to reject the Park assimilation model,
and found that industrial capitalism did not create a single culture,
but that the two cultures co-existed side by side, sometimes
in conflict. Other studies from McGill examined the situation
of urban immigrants in Montreal.
In the Canadian Frontiers of Settlement series, in Group
Settlement: Ethnic Communities in Western Canada, Charles
Dawson studied five groups in Western Canada - Doukhobours,
Mennonites, Mormons, German Catholics, and French Canadians.
These were mostly rural groups, often settled in blocks, and less
resistant to change than the Park assimilation model predicted.
Their group settlement and separation from other ethnic settlements
allowed some of these immigrants to continue speaking their own
language and continue many of their traditional practices. In
some cases, such as the Mennonites in Manitoba, they were even
allowed to have schooling in their own language, at least for
a number of years. Dawson found many elements of ethnic persistence
at the same time as outside forces pressured these groups to "adjust
and readjust their economic, community, and educational life considerably"
(Driedger, pp. 236-7). Again, Driedger considers this to be
a modified pluralism approach, or a predecessor of such a model.
Notes on this section from L. Driedger, The Ethnic Factor:
Identity in Diversity and Dirk Hoerder, "Ethnic Studies
in Canada from the 1880s to 1962: A Historiographical Perspective
and Critique, Canadian Ethnic Studies, XXVI, No. 1, 1994).
These limited references show that Canadian sociology did not emphasize the study of ethnicity, but that there were several important studies of ethnic groups in Canada between 1900 and 1960. The situation changed in the 1960s, when there were considerably more studies of ethnicity, and the study of ethnic relations became a major part of Canadian sociology. Since the 1960s, Canadian sociologists have been in forefront of studies related to ethnicity, assisting in designing public policy, and being involved with immigrant and ethnic groups. In the section on multiculturalism some of these ideas will be examined. "Multicultural" and "multiculturalism" appear to be Canadian terms originally, although they are now widely adopted within sociology around the world.
Notes from January 15 and 20, 1998 classes. Last edited on January 15, 1998.
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