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The term ethnicity has been introduced in the context of post-war immigration in at least four different meanings

  • To replace the older and discredited term “race”,
  • As a synonym of “nationality”
  • As a synonym of “culture”
  • To denote a specific minority group within a larger national collective,

These distinctions may be found in all discourses: public, political, and in the social sciences as well as in the discourses of experts and practitioners in the field of immigration. The range in meaning of ethnicity is indicative of larger terminological problems pointing to the fact that at issue is not an objective reality but various sometimes contradicting perspectives and points or observation. A good illustration may be given by pointing to the volatility in designating the field as such: is it concerned with foreigners, migrants, immigrants, new citizens … ? Therefore, the issue with regards to “ethnicity” is to look closely at the way it is used in different countries and in different contexts.

Generally speaking, despite of very different historical contexts in European countries, the main line of distinction between “us” and “them” is nationality which may or may not coincide with citizenship. In Germany, ethnicity is frequently used to refer to national and cultural differences that are taken as ontological. When a constructivist perspective is taken, the terms are often put in quotation marks. Hence, the problem with “ethnicity” and with the related terms culture, nationality and, when used, with race, is that the term themselves do not distinguish between an essentialist and a constructivist sense. They are not denotative but highly connotative.

As a consequence, "ethnicity" should be considered also in terms of power relations, both in-group and inter-group. Power relations are mirrored in the labelling of "ethnicity". Based on the relational conception of ethnic identity (Barth 1969), Jenkins (1997) elaborate on the relationship between "group identification and social categorization. Despite the constant attention on the processes of co-construction of identities between in-group e out-group, the attention had been directed mainly to ethnicity as a group rather than as a category. The interplay of the two processes constitutes an important advancement in the interpretation of the concept.

For GOETE this means that we should pay close attention to when and how “ethnicity” is used and contextualized.


Barth, Fredrik (1969) Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Oslo: Bergen

Brubaker, Rogers (2004) Ethnicity without Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.

Glazer, Nathan (1976) Ethnicity: Theory and Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.

Jenkins, Richard (1997) Rethinking ethnicity: arguments and explorations. Sage: London.

Shapiro, Ian and Kimlicka, Will (eds.) (1997) Ethnicity and Groups Rights. New York, NY: New York UP.

(Karin Amos & Marcello Parreira)