Ethnicity theory

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The term ethnicity was first used in the mid-19th century to refer to pagan or non-Christian religions. Since then, the definition of the term has evolved and is now used to refer to a wide variety of scenarios, including people's cultural backgrounds and people with common rules and values. The issue associated with has always evoked some kind of negativity in the various contexts in which it is used.This post is not limited to the concept of cultural context. Dig into different theories to explore the different ethnic backgrounds looking into the various theories of ethnicity. In doing so, we shall be able to figure out whether the point of view of ethnicity is either ethnical backgrounds or the various cultural background. We shall support our evidence by use of various academic sources that will help provide us the necessary information.

Theory of Ethnicity


Ellis (2017) defines ethnicity as the state of belonging to a given ethnic group. An ethnic group is a group of individuals who share similar beliefs, culture, and language and have certain distinct characteristics. The people of the same ethnic background are usually associated to one another by trait, association or background. Usually, people of the same ethnic background claim to be the same ancestral route (Spencer, 2014). Ellis (2017) describes an ancestor as someone who is believed to have started a particular lineage. From this definition, people with a common ethnic background are said to be related, either closely or distant (Spencer, 2014). The ethnic background is not to be confused with the nationality of an individual. For example, a citizen may be of Yoruba Ethnicity or Igbo but still considered a Nigerian. The difference lies in the places of origin of their ancestors.

The concept of ethnicity can be dated back to the middle of the nineteenth century. During this time, the term was used to mean pagan nations. The name was assigned to the people who did not observe Christianity rather observed traditional religion. Later in the 19th century, the use of this term evolved to mean people with similar religious practices and cultural values (Spencer, 2014). With the rise of several ethnic backgrounds, the term ethnicity was slowly absorbed and the term race adopted instead.

There are two main theories which attempt to speculate the origin and evolution of ethnicity; these are conflict theory and functionalism theories (Salter, 2011). This paper will help us look into each of these theories and their sub-divisions. Also, we will identify the people who formulated these theories, and criticize each of their theories. We will critically analyze each subdivision and finally attempt to see which theory outweighs the rest. We will attempt to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of these theories. Thereafter, using each of these theories, we shall discuss on what encloses an ethnic group.

Conflict Theory

The conflict theory, formulated by Karl Max is the most prominent theory of ethnicity. In his theory, Karl Max put both race and ethnicity into perception (LaVeist and Isaac, 2013). Both factors were equally important to him as he formulated his theory. The theory primarily focused on ethnic inequality in the society and used this factor as a way of dominating and exploiting others. Karl Max suggested that ethnic stratification formed a distinct array which was used to as a weapon by the more elite of the society to manipulate or exploit the less dominant (LaVeist and Isaac, 2013). This manipulative behavior was the beginning of manipulation of various ethnic groups. The stronger and elite groups were able to use their power over the other minority groups thereby creating a distinct boundary between the powerful and wealthy ethnic groups and the less powerful ones. The less powerful were not able to speak for themselves as they had little wealth. This act leads to the development of several modes of discrimination, among them ethnocentrism. According to Karl max, the cultural backgrounds of various groups of people were not able to assist them to lead better lives (LaVeist and Isaac, 2013). For one to adopt a better and comfortable way of life, they had to be assimilated and adopt the other ethnic’s group way of life. The theory thus supports the fact that ethnic difference was due to various social factors rather than the cultural factors.

This conflict theory may be further explained by five other theories; caste theory, colonialism theory, split-labor market theory, split-class theory and middleman minority theory (Clammer, 2015). These theories elaborate the conflict theory better by giving precise examples and scenarios.

The caste theory involves the black and white relationship. This theory speculates that the whites were the superior ethnic group while the blacks were the inferior ethnic group (Polese, 2013). This theory is demonstrated during the slavery era. During this period, the whites were the masters while the blacks served as slaves and workers. There was a clear status boundary as the whites lived in luxurious and comfortable mansions while the blacks were given small and cold shelters in the farm. The rich cultural backgrounds of either group did not give them a comfortable life (Polese, 2013). The blacks suffered great torture and prejudices due to their ethnic backgrounds. The few blacks who managed to live good lives were taken into the houses of their masters and seized to serve as slaves.

The next theory is that of colonization, which was also formulated by Karl Max and supported by Robert Blauner (On, 2017). As the name suggests, the theory had more to do with the colonization era. Once a powerful people occupied a given piece of land, they would manipulate the original occupants of the land into adopting their way of life. They did not consider the culture and religion of the original inhabitants. The colonists wanted people to adopt their lifestyle, culture and even religion (On, 2017). Most of the indigenous ethnic groups were absorbed or assimilated into adopting the colonialist's way of life.

Just like the colonialism theory, the internal colonialism theory entailed one ethnic group manipulating the other group into adopting their ways. For this theory, however, colonialism happened within. Foreigners did not come to the land; rather one group exploited their neighbors into adopting their way of life (Nakamura, 2013). For example, the White Americans manipulated the African-Americans and Mexican into providing cheap labor for them. No matter how much the latter two groups tried to express their way of life, the White Americans always found a way to suppress them, The White Americans used the others for cheap labor and ended up taking their land.

Such type of colonialism was marred by great forms of racism and ethnic discrimination. The African-Americans were considered to bear the vices of the society (Nakamura, 2013). Whenever an individual of either background was accused of a crime, there was a high chance that they would be convicted. On the other hand, the White Americans were viewed to have a lot of virtues and could even be passed on for committing various crimes. Such actions depicted that the ethnic boundary arose due to the difference in power and wealth rather than real cultures.

The next theory is the split-labor market theory which was suggested by Edna Bpnacich (Bauer, 2014). This theory used both class and race to explain on the ethnic boundaries. Edna claimed that the different ethnic groups competed against each other for power and resources. It divided the ethnic groups into two-three distinct classes, in relation to the rate of production, higher and lower paid workers. This resulted in the dividing the market for the various ethnic groups; higher paid and lower paid. This division resulted in pressure build up, forcing the higher paid to higher some of the lower paid workers to work for them. Such a division spearheaded the racial and ethnic discrimination that was already there as the higher paid stated to look down on the lower paid workers. The next theory, the split-class theory was suggested by Marxist (Bauer, 2014). This theory borrowed a leaf from the split-labor theory. The two classes, in this case, were those who worked for wages and those who worked in order to have a means of production.

The last theory, middleman minority theory primarily concentrated on the middle class and sub-theory of split class theory. It focused on the entrepreneurial skills possessed by the middle-class individuals. Bauer (2014), suggests that the middle class were extremely gifted with entrepreneurial skills that posed a great threat to the high class. The members of the high class felt threatened in that they felt that dominance will be grabbed from them. The members of the middle class were able to provide for themselves and as such relied less on the high-class people. To avoid such an action, the high class hired the members of the middle class to work for them so that they would develop the higher class, forgetting about their backgrounds. In today life, countries such as Korea and African countries are considered the middle class, while America, the higher class.

Functionalism Theory

This theory is mainly concerned with the issue of minority and majority in the society. The main reason for this particular theme is the potential for disruption in the society. The theory states that it is not functional for any society to be divided based on ethical, religious or racial discrimination (Feyissa, 2011). The theory is built on the fact that division in a society may be primarily caused y two factors, normal inequality or social factors of some sort. From this theory, it is almost impossible for all members of the society to be equal and treated equally given the different racial and social factors. For example, if jobs were created for a given society, most likely there will be distributed on some form of favoritism. The society is accustomed to handling and treating people with some sort of favoritism. Feyissa (2011) claims that most people in society have the feeling of “we.” “We” refers to people who may have common values that bring them together.

In many societies, it is impossible for people to practice fairness and justice to all people as they primarily focus on “themselves.” in order to reduce this notion, people need to be encouraged to set aside their racial and ethnical differences and realize the importance of working in harmony with one another (Walker, Spohn, and DeLone, 2016). It is very crucial for people to interact across the racial and ethnical backgrounds as they are able to share and adopt each other’s values. Also, people will be able to share their skills and knowledge with each other resulting in diversity. If these methods do not work, the society will result to assimilation. This is not a good option for one, or a few ethnic groups may feel inferior.

The functionalism theory is however not a strong point of argument as it claims that the burden mostly lies with the minority ethnic groups which are not true (Guibernau, 2011). Both majority and minority feel the pressure of working together to build and make the society a better place. Also, this theory suggests that most of the favoritism is inherited through generations and thus the younger generations may show no efforts of hard work. Four different theories may further explain the functionalism theory; assimilation, pluralism, biological and human ecology theories.

The assimilation theory, formulated by Robert Park suggests that ethnical difference can be categorized into four distinct phases; these are initial contact, competitive phase, accommodation phase and assimilation (Guibernau, 2011). Assimilation refers to the process of making another group of people adjusts and adapt your way of life to become their new culture (Guibernau, 2011). According to this theory, there are various types of assimilation. The first and most common one is cultural assimilation. This is where one group dominates over another making them adopt their beliefs, language, ideas and any another element that makes them unique as a culture. The next type is structural assimilation; this type of assimilation is commonly seen is families and organizations. It is where other members are manipulated into taking some certain tasks or responsibilities no matter their stand. The other type of assimilation is marital assimilation.when two people get married; their children usually adopt the culture of the parent whose ethnic tribe is more dominant. Other types of assimilation are behavioral, identification and civic assimilation. The assimilation theory does not specify the forces behind the assimilation processes.

The pluralism theory, suggested by Nathan Glazer, Daniel Moynihan suggests that the maintenance of culture and various values always faces some sort of opposition (Masters, Link, and Phelan, 2015). When ethnic uniqueness is fostered, a pluralistic and stable mosaic of ethnic sub-populations becomes vivid. Also, according to this theory, assimilation may not fully occur due to various repulsive forces. Nonetheless, this theory is not solid enough as it does not explain the greater aspect of discrimination.

The next theory is the biological theory, which was suggested by Pierre van den Berghe (Murji and Solomos, 2015). This theory is the basis of evolution and modification of various species. The theory suggests that family members assist each other to thrive and ensure the continuation of lineage by helping and advising them on kin selection. The different methods allow for the genetic material to be passed on and ensure even finer genes that will thrive in the given environment.

The last theory is that of human ecology, which was suggested by Susan Olzak. This theory is also known as the social Darwinian theory (Schaeffer, 2014). The theory suggests that various stress factors such as specialization, competition, and selection are key elements in ethnic groupings. The different social gaps give room for factors such as violence and discrimination to erupt. This is the main theory that is used to analyze the level of urbanization and development in various cities and towns. The theory supports the fact that all regions do not have equal resources. The difference in the use and allocation of resources gives rise to social classes.

From these two theories, it is clear that the cultural values affect discrimination and ethnical differences to a minimal extent. Discrimination is mainly brought by the ethnical and social differences. As such, the cultrual boundaries play a great role in defining boundaries more than the cultrua values. Theoretically, the ethnicity is defeined by values and beliefs, but this notion has been slowly diluted and ethnical boundaries has taken over.


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April 19, 2023




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