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

  • Introduction
  • Handbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Journals

Sociology Ethnicity
Paul Spickard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0125


Ethnicity, and its sibling concept race, lies close to the center of sociological concern. Together these intertwining ideas constitute one of the driving forces in human affairs. Alongside class and gender, ethnicity and race amount to one of the primary axes of sociological analysis. Ethnicity and race have been especially prominent in sociological, political, anthropological, and historical analyses of the United States, but they also exist in every part of the world in local forms. Ethnicity and race are not quite the same thing, but they are intimately related, so their relationship, and the history of ideas about them, bears contemplating. The common view of both scientists and the general public for most of the last two centuries was that humankind is naturally divided up into four or five big races: white, black, yellow, red (and sometimes brown). Each was identified with origins in a different part of the globe: Europe, Africa, East Asia, the Americas (and sometimes the Malay Peninsula and island Southeast Asia). It was posited that each of these races constituted a separate type of people that could easily be distinguished from the others both by physical features and at the genetic level. Until the last few generations, scholars and the public presumed that each race also had a particular personality type, intelligence level, potential for achievement, and natural place in the social order. In the view common at that time, ethnic groups were seen as subgroups of races, marked off more by culture than by genetics. The European or white race included Swedes, Italians, Poles, Scots, and so on. The Asian or yellow race comprised Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Pakistanis, and so on. The black or African race was made up of Ibo, Yoruba, San, Fulani, Bambara, Mandinka, and a host of other ethnic peoples. The common view was that race was about biology, but ethnicity was about culture and consent. One could not change one’s race, but one’s ethnicity was partly subject to choice. Certainly, in that view, ethnicity was a matter more of behavior than of biology. To be sure, mostly Muslim Pakistanis had different religious ways, foodways, languages, and child-rearing practices than did mostly Buddhist Koreans. Yet it was hard to deny that people from Korea also didn’t look very much like people from Pakistan. And it could not be denied that one could talk meaningfully about black culture in the United States or Britain. So as more and more people came into contact with people from different parts of the world, it became harder and harder to sustain the notion that races were big, permanent, and easily definable, and that racial boundaries were decided on a physical or biological basis, while ethnic groups were smaller subsidiary groups whose differences were cultural and mutable. Over the course of the 20th century, the notion of biologically separated races and culturally separated ethnic groups gradually gave way to a view of humankind as a single field of infinite variety, with one population shading, physically and culturally, into the next almost imperceptibly as one moved across the globe. Scholars and some of the public became aware that, whether one considered genotype or phenotype, the differences between the so-called races were really very small—much smaller than the biological similarities between them. And the physical differences between ethnic groups could be quite large—the average Pakistani does not look much like the average Korean; the average Norwegian does not look much like the average Italian. In the past few decades scholars have almost entirely eschewed the notion of races as longstanding, biologically discrete categories. Instead, they have emphasized that racial ideas were constructed by historical actors, in particular times and places we can identify, for reasons at which we can make at least educated guesses. Constructedness and contingency are at the core of our understanding of ethnicity and race in the 21st century. We have come to see race and ethnicity as processes more than categories. Many sociologists speak of racialization: a process by which one set of people writes a story of essential, indelible difference (and frequently inferiority) onto another set of people. Some people think of the differences between groups as ethnic—that is, as primarily cultural—until the racial moment, when someone imputes to those differences a primordial, indelible quality, and racialization occurs. Yet the residue of the earlier, biologistic view of race as something physical and indelible, but ethnicity as something cultural and malleable, still lurks beneath the surface, shaping the perceptions and actions of the general public and of more than a few social scientists. Though race is now seen as a socially constructed category, not a biological essence, race and ethnicity nonetheless operate powerfully to shape the life chances of individuals. Some people’s life chances are significantly greater than other people’s on account of the races, religions, or ethnic groups to which they are assigned. People kill people because of their race or their ethnicity—whether in Nazi Germany or the American South or the Balkans of the 1990s. The fact that race and ethnicity are social constructions rather than biologically based facts does not mean that they do not have powerful real-life consequences. This bibliography does not include studies of specific ethnic and racial groups, except in a few cases where particular group studies were classic markers in the development of the field of ethnic and racial studies. Researchers should look to other, group-specific Oxford Bibliographies Online for such studies of individual groups.

General Overviews

Of the writing of textbooks there is no end. Here is a sampling of some of the better textbooks and anthologies on ethnicity and race. Typically, such textbooks begin with a couple of chapters on theoretical issues, then have a chapter each on several racial or ethnic groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Jews, and so on. Increasingly in recent years, they are likely to contain comparative chapters on ethnic and racial systems in other complex societies. Most try to untangle the relationship between ethnicity and race; few succeed. Two analytical monographs that succeed fairly well while covering a lot of territory are Takaki 1993 and Spickard 2007. Students should be careful about textbooks. There is a tendency to imagine that textbooks are the places that a neophyte should start when trying to understand a topic such as ethnicity. That is almost never a good idea. Textbooks are useful reference tools, but they do not lead the student into the stuff of ethnicity. At best they can provide a kind of organized backdrop to the subject. Better avenues into ethnicity are the books and articles in the sections that follow General Overviews and Handbooks and Encyclopedias.

  • Spickard, Paul. 2007. Almost all aliens: Immigration, race, and colonialism in American history and identity. New York: Routledge.

    A similarly broad-ranging interpretation of race, ethnicity, migration, and colonialism across all the major groups in American history.

  • Takaki, Ronald T. 1993. A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.

    The best, most artful and comprehensive overview of the history and meaning of ethnicity, race, immigration, and membership in American society.

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