In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • History and “Ethnicity”

Atlantic History Ethnicity
Susanne Lachenicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0022


“Ethnicity” is a term that we owe to the 20th century. It first appeared in W. Lloyd Warner and Paul S. Lunt’s The Social Life of a Modern Community (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1941). In 1972, it found its way into the Supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Ethnicity” is a sociological concept. It is meant to replace older, tainted terms such as “race,” “nation,” or “minority.” In North America, terms such as “nation” or “national origin” did not include African Americans and American-born descendants of first-generation immigrants. A new term had to be found: “ethnicity.” However, “race” cannot be replaced by “ethnicity.” Most researchers agree today that the distinction between “race” and “ethnicity” is not the distinction between the “cultural” and the “natural/physical,” because “racial” distinctions are culturally made. “Race” and “ethnicity” cannot substitute for each other. They play, as Stuart Hall put it in his W. E. B. Dubois lecture in 1994, “hide-and-seek” with each other. It has become clear that “race” remains an important category, especially for all historical analysis. In the 1960s, “ethnicity” was often used to describe minority groups, groups of distinct cultural tradition and origin that coexisted with a larger majority group. Today, “ethnicity” tends to describe any group that is characterized by a distinct sense of difference owing to culture and descent. Especially in North America, less in Europe, “ethnicity” means general peoplehood (shared by all Americans) and otherness, deviation and norm. In the Atlantic world, new ethnicities started forming, at the very latest, from the age of the discoveries onward. To talk about “ethnicity” from a historical Atlantic perspective means to apply a modern, 20th-century term to encounters—the (often violent) merging of different cultures, nations, and religions; and the appearance of new “races,” “nations,” “religions,” and/or “ethnicities.” It is important to know how ethnic groups surrounding the Atlantic basin and historians of Atlantic ethnicities apply the terms “ethnicity,” “nation,” and “race.” Atlantic ethnicities as they started forming from the late 15th century still have an impact on modern nation-states as evidenced by the question of the “Métis” and their land claims in present-day Canada, the civil rights movement of African Americans in the United States of the 1960s, or the 2007 UN declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (including the Métis). The following sections provide, in addition to general overviews, bibliographies, reference works, primary sources and journal titles, an overview of the sociological and anthropological concepts of “ethnicity,” “race,” and “nation”; and sections on historians’ work on Atlantic ethnicities. The former invite young and established scholars to think about the terminologies (and how they are used) in descriptions of Atlantic ethnicities from a historical perspective.

General Overviews

The following citations provide overviews of when and how the concept of ethnicity evolved and how it intertwines with neighboring concepts such as “race.” While Dorman 1980 is a short summary of theories of “ethnicity” since the 1970s, Banks 1995 presents “ethnicity” through the lenses of anthropologists and sociologists. Guiberneau i Berdún and Rex 1997 is an edition of essays that deal with (proto-) concepts of ethnicity and nationalism since the early 20th century. Spencer 2006 contrasts the genesis of the concepts of “race” and “ethnicity” and discusses how they shape group identities.

  • Banks, Marcus. Ethnicity: Anthropological Constructions. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

    Reconstructs the intellectual history of the term “ethnicity”—how it has been fashioned by sociologists and anthropologists and how it applies in British and American societies today.

  • Dorman, James H. “Ethnic Groups and ‘Ethnicity’: Some Theoretical Reflections.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 7.4 (1980): 23–36.

    Analysis of emergence and popularity of the concept of “ethnicity” in 1970s. Summarizes most important scholarly discussions of that time (Barth, Orlando Patterson, Charles F. Keyes, Pierre van den Berghe).

  • Guiberneau i Berdún, Montserrat, and John Rex, eds. The Ethnicity Reader: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Migration. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1997.

    Authors Max Weber, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, and others explore the concept of ethnicity—the interrelatedness of “ethnicity and nationalism,” “ethnicity and violence,” “ethnicity and self-determinations,” and “multiculturalism and racism.”

  • Spencer, Stephen. Race and Ethnicity: Culture, Identity and Representation. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Provides an excellent overview of the genesis of the concepts of “race” and “ethnicity”—of theories of “race” and “ethnicity”; their role in the forming of group identities, diasporas, and hybridity; and conflicts arising from “racialism” and “ethnicity.” Useful first approach for sociologists and historians interested in “ethnicity” and “ethnic” group identities from a synchronic and diachronic perspective.

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