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Types of Ethnicity

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Definitions And Dimensions Of Ethnicity/Wsevolod W. Isajiw

Confusion as to the nature of ethnicity often results from the lack of an adequate typology of ethnic groups and identities. The significant criteria for classification are those that refer to the characteristics which have an influence on interethnic group relations and on interaction among individuals from different backgrounds. What follows is not a complete classification of types of ethnic groups, but one limited to the following criteria: locus of group organization, degree and nature of self-awareness, structural location in interethnic relations, and number of generations. According to these measures we can distinguish several types: primary and secondary groups; folk-community and nationality-community groups; dominant-majority and subordinate-minority groups; and immigrant, or “young,” and established, or “old,” groups.

The distinction between primary and secondary groups refers to the geographic area where the group’s culture emerged as a distinct entity. Primary ethnic groups are those that exist in the same place in which their culture and identity have historically been formed. They are referred to as indigenous or autochthonous communities. Examples include the French in France, the Basques in Spain, and the Inuit in North America. Secondary ethnic groups are those that have their origin in a society different from the one in which they currently live, such as the Italians or Germans in Canada and the United States. These groups have been transplanted through migration; they derive their cultural and historical background from the country of origin, but they do not depend any longer on the original society for their existence.

In many cases, primary ethnic groups have themselves been formed from secondary ones. For example, German ethnicity has its roots in the Goths, Visigoths, Varangians, and other groups, most of whom were originally migratory peoples. Historically, the shift from secondary to primary has required long periods of time. In the past, great movements of peoples occurred only in certain eras. The original migrations of peoples who provided the bases for the primary European ethnic groups took place in prehistoric times, and the formation of most European ethnicities – German, French, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and so on — was a long historical process.

In modern times, however, Canadian, American, and a number of other ethnicities can be said to be in the process of formation as primary ethnic groups out of secondary, or immigrant, ones. American ethnicity, as a primary identity, may be described as more developed than Canadian ethnicity in that peculiarly American cultural traits are easier to distinguish than Canadian ones. For example, a rather high value placed on individual achievement, a degree of anti-authoritarianism, and a pragmatic activism can be identified as distinctive American characteristics. Canadian cultural traits have been less obvious, but they appear to include a relatively high respect for public authority and for authority in general, a dislike of open conflict and violence, and an emphasis on compromise without abrupt change to the general status quo.

Both Canadian and American cultures have derived principally from British roots, but although, outside Quebec, these influences still predominate, North American cultures have been substantially modified by the impact of other ethnicities and by the historical experiences of the two societies. The fact that the United States cut itself off from Britain during the colonial period, while Canada’s dependence on the imperial power lingered well into the twentieth century, has been an important element in the different rate of development of primary ethnicities in the two countries. The evolution of secondary ethnic groups has been a much more common phenomenon in modern times, especially in the context of migration to the Americas and Australia, and it can be argued that the emergence of such groups will be even more prevalent in the future as international migration increases.

The distinction between folk community and nationality community as types of ethnic groups was originally drawn by Ihor Zielyk. It can be used here with some modifications. An ethnic group that is a folk community is one whose members are predominantly of peasant background and are little differentiated in social status. The character of social relationships among its members is determined by kinship and close family friendships. In such groups the centre of social organization is the church, which exerts a pervasive influence on the community and around which other institutions develop. Folk-community groups lack a developed concept of their history as legacy. The culture is what Robert Redfield has described as the “little tradition,” embodied in custom and song and transmitted through proverb. An example of a predominantly folk-community group in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s was the Portuguese, who originated mainly in the rural areas of the homeland. This characteristic was also true of the Italians, the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Mennonites, and many others who came to this country in earlier periods. By the late twentieth century the evolution of these groups away from folk communities is already well advanced.

In contrast, members of a nationality community are differentiated in social status. Many of them have been socially mobile and moved into professional occupations, and some individuals form an intellectual elite. The community is also differentiated organizationally; community life tends to be secularized and may revolve around a variety of social institutions. The culture of the nationality community develops what Redfield calls a “great tradition,” including literary, artistic, and intellectual achievements. The community is one that has become self-aware and self-conscious. Its members share an image of themselves as a collectivity united by a distinct culture rather than by their kin, clan, or village. An essential part of this image is a conception of the group’s history as legacy, and the organizational life of the community articulates this image in its normative systems. As Max Weber has pointed out, the significance of nationality is anchored in the concept of uniqueness – the irreplaceability of cultural values that are seen as preservable only through the efforts of the group itself. Thus it has a sense of collective mission.

Modern history is characterized by many previously folk-community groups transforming themselves into nationality groups. In this process they focus their ideology around a territory that they claim to be legitimately theirs. In the nineteenth century, as a result, many western European peoples, such as the Germans and Italians, became unified. Contemporary examples would include the Québécois and the aboriginal peoples of Canada, Australia, and other parts of the world. The restoration of territory and the concept of sovereignty or self-determination are important features of the ideology of these groups.

When an ethnic group makes territorial claims based on what can be considered legitimate grounds, it becomes a nation, a term used by many groups at this stage of their development. The Dene, who have a long history of land claims in Canada, have described themselves as a nation for many years, and in the 1980s Canadian and American native peoples began to call themselves First Nations. The legitimacy of claims to a territory may be legal, historical, or cultural or a combination of all these. Nationhood can thus be seen as the outgrowth of a high degree of self-awareness among an occupationally differentiated ethnic group with a territorial claim.

When a nation gains territorial sovereignty, it becomes a nation-state. In essence, the idea of sovereignty implies legislative and policy-making powers within the territory claimed by a nation. It does not necessarily mean absolute self-sufficiency or freedom from dependence – economic, political, cultural, or otherwise – on people or countries outside the territory. An important aspect of nation-states throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century is that they are usually identified, by the people themselves and by outsiders, with a single ethnicity and culture, such as Spanish, Rwandan, Fijian, Malay, or American. Yet virtually all nation-states in the world are made up of many ethnic groups, a fact that highlights the historical process through which one ethnic group typically becomes the most active element in the development of nationality and the nation-state, and evolves as the dominant or “majority” group within a territory, to which other ethnic groups within the area come to be subordinated. Historically, there have been a number of ways in which one ethnic group might emerge as dominant; these include conquest, annexation, colonization, and immigration. Whatever the historical route, the result has always been a structure of ethnic stratification, with a dominant group on top and others in lower positions. Often this relationship becomes a source of interethnic conflict, latent or active.

In the process of a group’s transformation from folk community to nation-state, nationalism is a central force. Nationalism is an ideology propounded by a socio-political movement, and like all ideologies, it consists of a set of principles and a program of group action related to political and social change, with the aim of either accomplishing or forestalling such change. The basic principle is national self-determination or self-assertion. Also, like all ideologies, nationalism develops into different forms of expression. Depending on the nature of the group, it can take a liberal, radical, conservative, or reactionary orientation. The first two types are usually associated with minority ethnic groups that pursue self-determination. Liberal nationalism, also known as cultural or linguistic nationalism, argues for the recognition of the ethnic minority’s cultural or linguistic rights, acknowledgement of its identity, or self-determination through a legal-democratic process. It does not desire the full control of all social institutions and their subordination to the political centre. On the other hand, radical nationalism, sometimes called integral or extreme nationalism, contends for central control. It is a holistic ideology, frequently reflected in the totalitarian character of the movement’s organization. It envisages not only a politically independent state but also a society in which all aspects of life, activity, and thought are subordinated to one goal and one principle, that of the supremacy of the nation-state.

An example of liberal nationalism in Canada is the policy of the Liberal Party in Quebec, which emphasizes the maintenance of the French language and culture in public life, equality with the anglophones in Canada, and greater rights for the province, but within the Canadian system rather than outside it. The Front de libération du Québec, active in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remembered for its kidnapping of a Quebec politician and a British diplomat, could be said to exemplify the radical form of nationalism. The Parti québécois had its roots in radical nationalism, but although it has retained the ideas of separation and sovereignty, since coming to power, it has moved towards liberal nationalism in most respects.

Conservative or reactionary nationalisms are identified with the majority ethnic groups, that is, groups that usually have their own nation-state but that must relate to neighbouring nation-states as well as to minority ethnic groups within their own borders. Conservative nationalism is analogous to cultural nationalism. It usually emphasizes the importance of cultural and social identity as distinct from those of other, often neighbouring, states. It also contends that its social and cultural institutions are of the greatest benefit to all people in the country, including members of minority ethnic groups. Conservative nationalism tends to emphasize the social, economic, educational, and occupational benefits of assimilation into the culture of the dominant group.

Reactionary nationalism is analogous to the radical form in that it asserts a nation’s distinctness from neighbouring nation-states and their societies and cultures, and it often develops the idea of its superiority to other states and nations. Although logically it is distinct from racism, some form of racist ideology is often present, by which an inherent cultural or genetic superiority is claimed over other people. This form of nationalism also tends to develop a holistic or totalitarian view of society and of socio-economic organization. The Nazi regime in Germany exemplifies an extreme form of reactionary nationalism. The communist era in the Soviet Union, during which all institutions of the constituent republics were centralized under the rule of Moscow and subject to a policy of Russification, provides another example.

Canadian nationalism has usually taken a conservative, non-reactionary form. It has often manifested itself as a mild anti-Americanism that emphasizes the worth of Canadian institutions and draws attention to the differences between Canadian and American values and the potential threat posed by the latter. In its internal aspects, conservative nationalism in this country can be exemplified by an emphasis on a distinct culture, as represented by, for instance, an English-Canadian literature that is different from other literatures in English. It is also typified by an ideology that emphasizes the assimilation of immigrants into anglophone culture for reasons of its supposed “greater value” or “more civilized” behaviour patterns, or simply in order to guarantee newcomers a “better opportunity” for socio-economic advancement. The latter argument appears to be a “liberal” one, analogous to the liberal nationalism of minority ethnic groups, but in the context of the institutions of the majority group it represents a conservative position.

Self-awareness also develops among ethnic minority groups of immigrant origin. This process occurs because of change or breakdown in folk-type communities during the first, or immigrant, generation as a result of increased education and the diversification of social status. It is also a consequence of the fact that immigrants today are already better educated and more highly skilled and may be more conscious of themselves as a group. But heightened self-awareness also occurs among members of the second and subsequent generations who have largely become acculturated into the broader society but have also retained or rediscovered some form of their ancestral ethnic identity. Since, as a rule, immigrant groups make no claims to territory in their host societies, they do not raise issues of sovereignty. But they too develop a political aspect to their self-awareness, which may take at least two forms. Some groups become interested in the statehood of their ancestral homelands; they may even actively support causes in the country of origin. Among the examples of such activity are the Catholic Irish in North America, who early in this century supported the independence of the homeland or, more recently, the activities of the Irish Republican Army. Similarly, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Armenians, and others have supported the independence of their countries of origin after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Jews have provided assistance to the state of Israel.

The other political expression of group self-awareness is illustrated in the claims made on the host society for equal rights and recognition. These may include demands for equity in employment or affirmative action, for redress for injustices done to the minority group in the past by the dominant group, or for greater public recognition of its presence in society. In Canada, Asian and black Canadian groups have demanded the elimination of discrimination in employment, housing, and other services, and the Japanese and Ukrainians have sought redress for the internment of their families in “enemy alien” and labour camps. In the early 1970s Ukrainians and other groups of eastern and southern European origins led a movement for multiculturalism as a public policy and in the early 1980s demanded the recognition in the Canadian constitution of the concept of a multicultural society.

In sociological terms, the concept of majority and minority ethnic groups refers not to numbers but to power. Simply stated, the distinction is between those that have or do not have dominance in a society. Often the concept of ethnicity is confused with that of a minority, and all ethnic groups are seen as minorities. This notion assumes that the majority groups are not ethnicities. Such an interpretation, however, makes it impossible to understand the culture of the general society: the so-called mainstream society would then appear to have no culture or any community supporting it. Not only is such a view contradicted by readily observable facts, but if consistently accepted, it would make the process of interethnic relations unintelligible.

The majority, or dominant, ethnic groups are those that determine the character of the society’s principal institutions, especially its political, economic, and cultural ones. They set the norms of society as a whole, including its legal system, and their culture becomes that of the “total” society, into which the minority ethnic groups assimilate. The minorities themselves introduce cultural distinctions into this society. They may preserve their own institutions and culture to a greater or lesser degree, and they may influence the character of the dominant institutions to some extent. But as a rule, the framework for interethnic and all intergroup processes is provided by the institutions that have their origin in the culture of the majority groups. In Canada, outside Quebec, the character of the main political institutions derives from British parliamentary practice, English common law, and an emphasis on individual human rights originally deriving from the English experience. Likewise, the values underlying the Canadian economy originate in the British concept of individual ownership of property and the rights that such ownership bestows. The principles underlying interethnic relations themselves are rooted in the old British colonial policy of pluralism and “tolerance.”

Historically, ethnic groups have acquired minority positions by being pushed aside by stronger or more active neighbouring groups, by being conquered militarily, or by emigration to a country with a different ethnicity. The initial contact usually structures the relationship between majority and minority groups for years to come. Because of their position of power, the majority groups form the top strata of a society, and the status of other ethnic groups is determined in relation to them. Majorities are the main definers of external ethnic boundaries, and hence they are in a position to decide on public policies and legislation regarding minorities and immigration.

Much of the dynamics of interethnic relations derives from the structure of dominance and subordination involved in majority-minority group relations. Majority groups often retain their superior position by the negative stereotyping of minorities and by restricting the opportunities available to them through legislation or discriminatory practices. In turn, minority groups often come into conflict with the majority groups through attempts to change their own subordinate position, through economic competition with the majority groups, or because their different culture presents a symbolic threat to the majority.

A common confusion in the discourse on ethnicity is the relation between it and immigration. Ethnicity often is erroneously identified with immigrants, yet they make up only one type of ethnic group. Among secondary groups we can distinguish young ones, that is, those consisting predominantly of the first generation and whose second generation is either small in size or young in age, and old groups – those already established in the larger society, with a higher proportion of adult second and subsequent generations. According to this distinction, it is incorrect and misleading to speak of all ethnic groups as if they were immigrants. Members of the older, established communities usually do not like to be confused with newcomers.

As well, the issues that concern the two types of groups are different. Those facing the young groups can be characterized as immigrants’ problems of adjustment to society at large, including finding employment, housing, and schooling for the children, learning the language, translating the skills acquired elsewhere into those accepted in the host society, and psychological adjustment to a new environment. The concerns of older groups have to do with their continuance: maintaining the cultural, religious, and educational institutions of the community, teaching the children the ethnic language and culture, and insuring some degree of equality or gaining recognition and influence in the general society.

Among old ethnic groups in Canada, in addition to the native peoples, are the French, British, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Doukhobors, Mennonites, Chinese, Japanese, and African Canadians, except for those from the Caribbean and Africa. Relatively young groups include the Greeks, Portuguese, various Latin American communities, and South Asians, except for the Sikhs. In classifying ethnic groups as young or old, one should take regions into account. Groups that are old may be so in one area of the country but not in another. The Chinese, for example, are an old group in western Canada, but relatively young in Toronto.

The old ethnic groups can be further subdivided into those that add significantly to their population through continuing immigration and those that have few newcomers and hence can increase only by natural growth. The French and the Doukhobors are examples of the latter type. Groups with a continuous stream of immigrants face special problems of interrelationship between the old and new sectors of the community. Among the issues are the extent to which the ethnic institutions and organizations of the old community are able to serve the needs of new arrivals, the degree to which status or class differences between established members and new immigrants create tensions and conflict, and how the demands exerted on society by the newcomers differ from those placed on it by the old community. In the same way, we can distinguish between old and young primary ethnic groups; thus we can speak of old nations or nation-states and young nations or nation states. The difference between the two also signals different concerns and issues.