Section II: Ethnicity as Concept and Process

The Nature of the Ethnic Group

E. K. Francis

In search of a common denominator for nation, race, nationality, people, the ethnic type of cumulative groups is construed as a device of further sociological research. The ethnic group appears as a subtype of the Gemeinschaft, which is formed by the transposition of characteristics from the primary face-to-face group to formation, as well as other conditions necessarily present in the early stages, may change without affecting its identity.

Friedrich Meinecke, in his book Weltburgertum und Nationalstaat,[1] has put his finger on a difference in concepts which distinguished Western and Central European thought on the phenomenon of the nation. Meinecke was mostly concerned with the political and historical implications of this difference when he set the idea of Staatsnation against that of Kulturnation. But his dichotomy indicates more than that; namely, two scientific approaches to a distinctive category of social facts; two sociologies, as it were; two philosophies of society. based on different sets of attitudes and scales of values.

This was almost forty years ago. But even today we find that the prevailing trend of thought differs among students of society who have grown up under German influence and those who are working in the Anglo-Saxon scientific climate. The latter put their main emphasis either on the political implications of nation or on the psychological and historical genesis of nationalism. Now, nationalism, taken either as a psychological or as a historical phenomenon, is not identical with the social fact called “a nation.” It is, however, significant that probably the most thoroughgoing essay on the nation which has been published in the English language not only bears the title Nationalism[2] but gives as one of the characteristics of nation the following: “The idea of a common government whether as a reality in the present or past, or as an aspiration of the future.”[3]

The other class of Continental sociologists have tended to separate the concept of nation from that of the state; they also have emphasized the ontological and phenomenological analysis of nation rather than a genetical interpretation. Thus we find among them a great number of book titles, such as Nation und Staat,[4] Nation und Nationalität,[5] Volk und Nation,[6] and Das eigenstandige Volk.[7] It is significant that the French Sociologist J.T. Delos of Lille divides his recent publication on La Nation[8] into two volumes: the first, Sociologie de la nation, and the second, Le Nationalisme et l’ordre de droit.

There is, however, general agreement that the modern nation signifies a definite stage of social organization which is limited not only in time but also in space. As E.H. Carr has pointed out, nation is not a definable and clearly recognizable entity but “is confined to certain periods of history and to certain parts of the world.”[9] “Today,” he continues, “–in the most nation-conscious of all epoches–it would still probably be fair to say that a large numerical majority of the population of the world feel no allegiance to any nation.”[10] It is of secondary importance whether we hold that nations sprang into existence with the waning of the Middle Ages, with the absolute monarchies of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, or with the French Revolution. As the Chatham House report suggests, “a good case can be made for each of these views, which are indeed only incompatible so long as the term ‘nation’ is assumed to be used in each case in an identical sense.”[11] For the present purpose we may adopt Carr’s procedure, which distinguishes three stages of nationalism, apart from a fourth–the present one.

In the first period the national unit was identified with the person of the sovereign, the absolute monarch. As Carr recalls: “Louis XIV thought that the French nation ‘resided wholly in the person of the King'”[12] The second period is characterized by the democratization of the nation, which eventually was considered as a corporate personality centered around the bourgeoisie. Eventually the nineteenth century brought the socialization of the nation by including the masses of the people. This resulted in the social service state, which claims the absolute loyalty of the whole people to a nation as the instrument of collective interests and ambitions. This description, however, seems to be correct only if we consider Western society in general. The fact is that in many countries, particularly in Germany and in the Slavic regions east of it, the first-named stage seems to be missing. Neither the German princes nor the emperor ever succeeded in creating nation-states in the same sense in which France or England became a nation-state. They did not appeal to national sentiments but to patriotic sentiments. The Vaterland, not the Nation, was here the central idea of absolutism. Thus, students of the history of nationalism in these parts of Europe have emphasized the transition, which started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, from dynastic and territorial patriotism to nationalism in the modern sense. The Bohemian revivalists of that time, who were backed by the Bohemian aristocracy, originally propagated Bohemian patriotism against Hapsburg patriotism. Only with the spread of the ideas of romanticism and the French Revolution was Bohemian patriotism transformed into a Czech (ethnic) nationalism.

The different ways in which national ideology has become foremost in the minds of Europeans east and west of the Rhine has apparently determined their sociological theories. Since there were no clearly defined nations in the Western sense, German and Slavic authors were moved to seek symbols for the entity of nation in a common language or in the biological concept of the race. Although in the nineteenth century nationalism in central Europe traversed approximately the same stages which Carr describes as the second and third periods, the idea remained alive that Kultur and Rasse indicate some more basic social fact than Staat and Staatsnation or, in other words, that Staat and Staatsnation are nothing but the ephemeral manifestations of human groups which are always present in society; the Volk, these scholars maintain, is a basic form of social organization, even the basic form, while nation and nation-states are the result of a historical process and may disappear without affecting the existence of Völker.

This concept of Volk or narod cannot be symbolized adequately by any commonly used English word, such as “race,” “people,” or “nation.” Now, in the field of the social sciences it is often a helpful methodological device to adopt the most colorless term to indicate an elusive or difficult social fact. Pareto aptly used algebraic symbols. In order to find out whether the Continental concept of Volk is a legitimate one, we propose to use the term “ethnic group” to describe it. This phrase coincides philologically with the French groupe ethnique and with the German Volksgruppe. Moreover, the Greek describe with ethnos about the same social unit, which is called in other languages people, popolo, peuple, Volk, narod. Finally, the term “group” is being used by many sociologists as the genus proximum in defining the various types of plurality patterns.[13]

In trying to clarify our hypothetical category, “ethnic group,” we find it easier to say what it is not than what it is. An ethnic group is not a race, if we take race in the anthropological sense as a group of people with common physical characteristics. Moreover, an ethnic group is not a nation, if we understand nation to mean a society united under a common government or an aggregation of individuals united by political ties as well as by common language or common territory or common race or common tradition or any combination thereof. Our problem becomes more difficult if we wish to distinguish ethnic group from such phenomena as a definite local or regional community, a patriarchical family, a clan, and similar face-to-face groups. However, this is a problem that occurs with every attempt at a classification, be it of social or of physical facts.

If we adopt for the moment Ferdinand Tonnies’ typological dichotomy, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft,[14] we would have to classify an ethnic group as a rather pure type of Gemeinschaft. We will recall that, according to Tonnies, a group of the association type is based on a definite purpose, although not necessarily on ad hoc contractual agreements. It is a means by which the individual attains his own ends. In a community the parties are treated and act as a unit of solidarity. Institutional sanctions, if present, are concerned rather with attitudes than with specific acts. While groups of the community type always live in relatively local as well as social and mental segregation from other groups, such local, social, and mental barriers to social contact, exchange, and circulation are absent in associations. Based on emotional bonds and endowed with a homogeneous cultural heritage, the community aims at the preservation of the group. Based on rational, contractual bonds and endowed with a heterogeneous social heritage, the association aims at the preservation of the individual. In the language of Freud, a community can be said to be derived mainly from subconscious experiences, while an association is derived from direct knowledge.

Culture is usually regarded as a fundamental factor of an ethnic group. However, the concept of culture is as elusive and contradictory as that of the ethnic group itself. The words Kultur, culture, appear to mean almost the opposite of what English speakers understand by “culture.” While to them civilization usually refers to the late phases or to a superior stage of cultural development, to Continental students Kultur is essentially different from civilization. According to them, civilization is a means to an end. Culture is an end in itself; it includes folkways and mores and their manifestations in art and artifact which, persisting through tradition, characterize a human group.[15] While civilization spreads and accumulates through cross-fertilization and diffusion, culture tends to produce itself indefinitely.[16] We may say that every ethnic group has a distinctive culture, but a common culture pattern does not necessarily constitute an ethnic group. The peasants of all times and regions, for instance, show more or less identical culture traits. Yet they do not form a social group at all, still less an ethnic group. They belong to the same culture type, not to the same culture group.[17] An ethnic group may also modify and change its culture without losing its identity.

Every group is defined by social interrelationship. All social relations presuppose contacts and communication. Language is one of the most important means of communication between human persons. Thus, we may say that face-to-face relationship is essential in preliterate societies only, but in literate societies the language spoken by the members of an ethnic group must at least be intelligible without much difficulty to all of them. Nevertheless, there seems to be a limit in size beyond which intimate relationship cannot be maintained when ties become too spurious and weak to uphold the existence of the group.

Racial affinity, too, has been associated with the ethnic group. Now, ethnic groups usually are endogamous; marriages with members of the outgroup are frequently tabooed. However, the laws of genetics do not suggest that inbreeding alone, without selection, results in homogeneous racial strains. How far selection operates in ethnic groups remains largely a controversial matter. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the composition of hereditary traits varies from one ethnic group to another. More significant than the real racial composition is an assumed common descent. Awareness of blood relationship and kinship seems to strengthen the ties between the members of a group. And yet the actual genetic composition is apparently irrelevant; for instance, family names follow either the patrilineal or, more rarely, the matrilineal sequence, and only occasionally both. The device of myths to establish a common ancestry for an ethnic group is a very ancient one. At all times man seems to have tampered with the mystery of biological heredity.

Physical and mental traits, which are really or only supposedly based on heredity and common descent, influence social behavior in yet another sense. Community or difference of objective characteristics affects human behavior in various ways. Physical traits, being obvious and usually indelible, lend themselves–even if they have gone unnoticed for a long time–readily to rationalizations of attitudes of sympathy and antipathy. Conflict situations, whether between ethnic groups or individuals, often–and not only since Hitler–hinge, as it were, on racial characteristics. The same is probably true of sympathetic sentiments and we-feeling.

Since humans are spatial entities, the attribution of a territory to ethnic groups is actually only a corollary to local affinity and size which we have discussed before. The only distinction of an ethnic group seems to lie in the exclusiveness with which it usually occupies a definite space. Finally, there is the time factor. Since an ethnic group is based on an elementary feeling of solidarity, we must suppose that mutual adjustment has been achieved over a considerable length of time and that the memory of having possibly belonged to another system of social relationships must have been obliterated.

The we-feeling present in the members of any group of the community type is, of course, also a characteristic of the ethnic group. We would not have introduced it expressedly if it did not offer a key to the distinction which we proposed to make between ethnic group and nation. Delos suggests that the transition from ethnic group to nation is characterized by la passage de la communauté de conscience à la conscience de former une communauté.[18] The phrase cannot be translated literally without conjuring up great confusion. Since Delos himself uses conscience de “nous” to describe the same phenomenon, we may translate communauté de conscience with “we-feeling.” The ethnic group, he continues, is une reálite objective, although there is no conscience réflexe. Two elements transform the ethnic group into a nation: (1) the knowledge of forming an original entity and (2), the value attached to this fact, Elle se manifeste par la volonté de perpétuer la vie commune.[19] Consequently, une nation est un peuple /sic!/ qui prend conscience de lui-même selon ce que l’historie l’a fait; il se replie donc sur soi et sur son passé; ce qu’il aime, c’est lui-même tel qu’il se connaît ou se figure être.[20] We thus seem to have arrived at a certain solution. Nationalism, the sentiment of forming a community and the will to perpetuate it by–as we would add–political devices, is indeed the prerequisite. But it apparently presupposes another social fact. To describe it Delos uses the term groupe ethnique, although, in one place at least, he inadvertently substitutes the word peuple.

If sentiment and will are the factors which transform the ethnic group into a nation, the question arises: Which are the constitutional factors of the ethnic group itself?

There are a number of characteristics widely ascribed to the ethnic group: common language, folkways and mores, attitudes and standards, territory, descent, history, and, we may now add, common government. In fact, we know that the subjection of a group of people to a common political organization may directly, or, more often, indirectly by imposition of common laws, religion, language, feeling of loyalty, etc., not only forge together different ethnic elements into a new ethnic group but also divide an ethnic group or deliberately alter its structure, culture, and character. This, however, does not answer our question, for upon closer inspection it appears that two or more distinct ethnic groups may share in common certain characteristics, such as language, descent, religion. On the other hand, many ethnic groups are obviously not at all homogeneous as to their descent or religion, for instance.[21] Still worse, the differences in the general culture pattern of different social strata within all the more developed and complex ethnic groups are very marked. It may even be doubtful whether the peasant culture in one ethnic group is not more closely related to the peasant culture in another than to urban culture in the same ethnic group. Thus, we cannot define the ethnic group as a plurality pattern which is characterized by a distinct language, culture, territory, religion, and so on.

It was exactly the attempt to reach a conclusion as to the nature of the ethnic group , inductively, by analyzing objective characteristics of concrete social facts of this kind, which so far has defied the ingenuity of a long series of writers of treatises dealing with our problem. The main reason for this failure must be sought in the fact that the essentially dynamic character of ethnic groups has been largely neglected, for these may represent different stages of development. It may well be the case that factors which have contributed to the formation of an ethnic group will lose their significance–once a certain degree of group coherence has been reached–or will be, later on, replaced by other factors not present in the beginning but contributing to the preservation of the group. In order to decide the issue it would be necessary to analyze the genesis of a great number of existing ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the origins of most ethnic groups lie in the distant and uncertain past. Dubious guesswork alone is our guide in their analysis. The emergence of new ethnic groups in the New world, however, offers more reliable material for the study of our problem. It should be possible from available historical sources to reconstruct their genesis in such a way as to reach definite conclusions. What seems clear even on the basis of our limited knowledge is that it is too early yet to reach any definite conclusions.

Here we find, for example, sectarian groups which show all the traits and typical behavior of ethnic groups,[22] although, originally, they were joined together from various ethnic elements under the impact of a distinct religious persuasion and church organization and not on the basis of a distinct language, territory, and so on. Moreover, some of them have in the meantime undergone numerous schisms and religious splits which nevertheless have left untouched their identity and coherence. On the other hand, the major ethnic groups which have sprung up in the Americas seem to have been formed not so much by religion as by politics and geography. It should be possible to reconstruct from the available historical sources their genesis in such a way that definite generalizations could be reached. Yet even on the ground of our limited knowledge it becomes clear that, generally speaking, the stages of development traversed by ethnic groups are: expansion–fission–new combination. The factors which condition fission and new combination, however, appear to vary from case to case.

The thought suggests itself to us that allegiance to some external object is the most essential single factor in the formation or revival of ethnic groups. But the object of allegiance shifts from period to period, from country to country. It may be a monarch, a religion, language and literature, other forms of a higher culture, a political ideology centered around some type of government, a class, a “race.” The type of catalyst apparently changes, as culture and the interests and ideas of man change–but, it seems, there always is a catalyst necessary to join the elements together into an ethnic group.

Delos suggests that a social fact is a relationship that unites a person to other persons not directly but by the mediation of another term, which he calls l’objet, because it is exterior to the sujets individuels, the persons whom it puts into a relationship.[23] According to him, all institutions and all groups present this triad: person–object–person. If Delos’ position is correct, the element which we have called figuratively a catalyst seems to coincide with his objet extraindividuel et extérieur. Yet this object, he maintains, is an element common to all social facts. Should we, therefore, rather choose the type of objects as a principle of classification? Religious groups would be those which have religion as an “object”; culture groups, those which have culture as their “object”–and so on. Which specific object, however, shall we attribute to an ethnic group? And why does a religious group, under certain conditions, behave exactly as any ethnic group? We even may ask ourselves whether the ideologies and we-feelings which constitute the formative forces in a nation are typologically different from those which constitute the formative forces in a religious group. Hans Kohn said that “today…nationalism is the most universal religion of all times.”[24] This statement, though exaggerated in a measure, tends to defy any attempt to classify the phenomena under discussion according to “objects.” An ethnic group, if we understand Delos rightly, would almost be identical with a nation which has not yet become fully conscious of itself. Would this not be, so to say, a definition ex post facto? Or is ethnic group a more universal, perhaps the most universal; fact of human society, while all other social facts are arrived at by way of elimination?

We hesitate to draw any definite conclusions from the few reflections presented in this paper. But we may state tentatively the following propositions as a working hypothesis for further investigation:

1. In their usual connotation the words “nation,” “race,” “nationality,” “people,” “religious group,” etc., do not indicate any valid and definite categories of sociological classification. Neither do they describe entia realia in the philosophical sense, if such exist at all, or even definite types of social facts which would be useful for sociological generalizations.

2. The term “ethnic group,” however, seems to be valuable to describe a variation of the community type. This subtype deserves a special name and formulation because it includes a considerable number of phenomena which are of practical interest to various social sciences. The basic type of the community includes many other phenomena such as the family, caste, or residential community. Nevertheless, we believe it is possible to distinguish them from the ethnic group. While the family or residential community is unable to satisfy all the basic societal needs of human nature, the ethnic group not only permits a high degree of self-sufficiency and segregation but tends to enforce and preserve it.

On the other hand, the ethnic group is not so much dependent on face-to-face relationship as other types of communities. We find that the pattern of social interaction which is characteristic of the primary group permits its extension under certain conditions to a larger, locally less well-defined, and culturally less homogeneous group. We may, for instance, think of a peasant village as an ideal primary group. Now, under certain conditions, the we-feeling of this community can be made to include the natives of a valley or of a wider region, even a whole country. Thus, a larger, but secondary, group is being formed which presents most of the characteristics originally attached to the primary group. In this way, we may say, the ethnic group is the most inclusive, cumulative, and realistic type of secondary community.

3. The catalyst, or principal factor, which brings about such an extension of we-feeling is a mental process based on abstraction and hypostatical transposition of characteristics from the primary to the secondary group.[25] We may say that every ethnic group presupposes an ideology, however vague and unreflective it may be. The followers of a new religion, for instance, are moved by the overriding value they attach to their faith to withdraw their we-feeling from the nonbelieving members of their original community and to extend it to all fellow-believers. Since human nature seems to crave a pattern of social interaction which is of the community type, the wish and will become effective to substitute a community of all fellow-believers for the original community. In the same way, a national ideology tends to substitute or to widen a pre-existing community.[26]

4. All ethnic groups behave in the same typical manner, regardless of whether the underlying ideologies hinge on religious, political, cultural, racial, or other characteristics and regardless of whether these characteristics are real or fictitious. Once an ethnic group is well integrated it makes little difference whether these characteristics are real or fictitious. Once an ethnic group is well integrated it makes little difference whether the underlying ideology is rationally disproved; for, by then, the community has become real, that is, a social fact, and it will find new rationalizations for its coherence, if ever its ideological basis should be challenged.

5. It is quite likely that the quest for “objective” characteristics by which one concrete ethnic group could be distinguished from any other is futile. But there are certain elements that must be present or which must be deliberately created in the early stages of its genesis, such as a distinctive territory, some sort of distinctive political organization, a common language, a common scale of values. Yet, once the ethnic group has reached a certain maturity, the elements which have conditioned it in the beginning may disappear, change, or be supplanted by others, without affecting its coherence and the communauté de conscience among its members. The dissolution of a community is brought about not so much by the loss of external characteristics as by the collision of conflicting values, solidarities, and loyalties.

6. Finally, no individual group, which is always a singular and unrepeatable phenomenon, will ever coincide with that type of plurality pattern which we have described as an ethnic group. As is the case with every other type, it will be quite legitimate to state that some concrete social group is an ethnic group to a lesser or greater degree. It appears that the modern nation belongs in the category of ethnic groups just as much as the religious communities of other stages of history. It is the result of deliberate political action by which all the ethnic groups that pre-exist within the actual or visualized territory of a state are molded into a new unit of we-feeling, into a new more or less homogeneous ethnic group.

In the preceding discussion we have been experimenting with a hypothetical sociological category which we thought could cover a number of phenomena popularly classed together. We have ventured to construe the ethnic type of cumulative groups as a device of sociological research, and we have proposed to term it “ethnic group.” Whether this is a useful device can be ascertained only by operating with it for some time and by applying it experimentally to a considerable number of concrete cases.

University of Manitoba

Taken from American Journal of Sociology, 52 (1947), 393-400, with permission of the university of Chicago Press. © 1946 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. Published 1946. Composed and printed by The University of Chicago Press.

  1. Munchen and Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1919.
  2. Nationalism: A Report by a Study Group of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (London, 1939); similarly: Carlton J. H. Hayes, Essays on Nationalism (New York, 1926). John Oakesmith, on the other hand, gave his book the title, Race and Nationality (New York, 1919).
  3. Nationalism, p. xx.
  4. Ignaz Seipel (Vienna, 1916).
  5. Friedrich Hertz (Karlsruhe, 1927).
  6. F. J. Neumann (Leipzig, 1888).
  7. M. H. Boehm (Gottingen, 1932).
  8. Le Probleme de la civilisation: la nation (2 vols. Montreal, 1944) .
  9. Nationalism and After (London, 1945).
  10. Ibid., p. 39.
  11. Nationalism, p. 5.
  12. Op. cit., p. 2.
  13. The term "ethnic" has been adopted by some American authors in a much narrower sense. L. Warner and L. Srole have proposed the following definition: "The term ethnic refers to any individual who considers himself, or is considered, to be a member of a group with a foreign culture and who participates in the activities of the group. Ethnics may be either of foreign or native birth" (The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups 1945, p. 28). Here the main emphasis is given to the individual, while the sociological aspect is almost lost. Moreover, undue distinction is made between minority and majority groups, although both seem to belong basically to the same type of plurality patterns. Cf. also the article "Ethnic Community" in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. We need not emphasize that in this context "ethnic group" is not limited to ethnic fragments and minorities within a larger culture. In our terminology not only the French-Canadians or the Pennsylvania Dutch would be ethnic groups but also the French of France or the Irish in Ireland.
  14. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887). For a discussion of this concept see Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (1937).
  15. Cf. Robert Redfield, The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1941), p. 132.
  16. Cf. E. Faris, The Nature of Human Nature.... (New York, 1937), p. 3.
  17. Cf. E.K. Francis, "The Personality Type of the Peasant according to Hesiod's Works and Days," Rural Sociology, X, No. 3 (1945) 275-94.
  18. Op. cit., I, 93.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., p. 94.
  21. Cf. Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism (New York, 1944), chap. i.
  22. In his study on Group Settlement in western Canada, C.A. Dawson subsumed--and to our opinion correctly--under the heading "Ethnic Communities" not only the French Canadians but also the Doukhobors, Mormons, or Mennonites (cf. Canadian Frontiers of Settlement, ed. W.A. Mackintosh and W.L.G. Joerg, Vol. VII 1936).
  23. Op. cit., p. 164.
  24. Introduction to National Consciousness, by (Walter Sulzbach, Washington, D.C., n.d.), p. iv.
  25. It is significant that in L. von Wiese (ed. Howard Becker), Systematic Sociology (1932), the following classification of plurality patterns is suggested: crowds, groups abstract collectivities.
  26. "The German ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft... apparently is an attempt to reduce the complex social unit of a modern nation to the status of a primary group. The unreflective and instinctive participation of every individual of the 'group mind,' the intimacy of social interaction among all its members, the self-understood cooperation and complete community of purpose that is characteristic of a primary group, is being claimed for the totality of the Volk. However the same concept underlies other collectivistic ideologies." In the Marxian ideal of the classless society "we find the traits immanent in a primary group extended to a larger unit, in fact to the largest social unit which is conceivable" (E.K. Francis, "Progress and Golden Age," Dalhousie Review, XXV, No. 4 1946, 460-61).


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