October 1, 2021

Ethnicity and Structure


  • Ethnic boundaries as structures
  • Changing Ethnic Boundaries

Ethnic Boundaries

Structure vs Individuals

Ethnic Boundaries

  • multitude of ways of ethnicity to be used in practice
  • boundaries may or may not reflect intentional/conscious discrimination
  • boundaries may or may not be detrimental to people on either side
  • consequences of increasing/decreasing one boundary practice likely to be different from another.
    • some more relevant to strategic choice vs psychological response

Ethnic Boundaries

useful to think of ethnic boundaries as structures

  • durable and reproduced over time
  • order and constrain individual choices/actions
  • but not essential‚Ķ boundary practices vary across context and change over time

They are often durable because:

  • categories/ways of thinking about ethnicity shape material world
  • material reality can reinforce categories/ways of thinking

Ethnic Boundaries

Example: Race and Criminality

  • Portrayals of African Americans as criminal informs police behavior/crime policy (ideas \(\to\) material behavior)
    • media portrayals
  • Police behavior shapes what we “know” about crime (behavior \(\to\) ideas)
    • informs crime statistics; media portrayals

Ethnic Boundaries

But: there is a tension between ethnic boundaries and ethnic identification (Wimmer)

we can resolve the paradox: social boundaries are intersubjective

  • \(S_2O\): two subjects (people), one object (material world)
  • mutual intelligibility and shared understanding of material world
  • people understand the categories, rules for membership, and how they are used, even if they DO NOT CONSENT/AGREE WITH these practices.

  • boundaries made up of and reproduced by individual interactions

Ethnic Boundaries

Because boundaries are made of individual actions, they are changeable

But because they involve understanding and coordination between many people, hard to change (not the same as slow to change)

Changing Boundaries

Causes of Boundary Change

  1. Encounter: new contact can generate new line (e.g. immigrants)
  2. Imposition: state/powerful actor uses categories in new way
  3. Borrowing: transposing boundary practices into a new domain
  4. Conversation: ordinary interactions
  5. Incentive shift: strategic behavior


  • OJ?
  • George Floyd and Police Brutality?