September 12, 2022

An Introduction

What is race/ethnicity?

What is race/ethnicity: Goals


  • What do ordinary people think they are?
  • What social scientific definition can we use?
  • Can race/ethnicity be changed?

In Practice

  • How does ethnicity/race work in reality?
  • Prone to conflict? Why?
  • Where do these groups come from?



What is common sense notion of race/ethnicity?

Essentialist definition

Primordialist definition

  • film heads up


Think and Write

2-3 minutes:

According to “common sense”:

What defines/ what are key attributes of “race” or “ethnicity”

To the Board

Essentialist definition

essentialist definition of race/ethnicity:

an identity where membership…

  • is based on descent
  • is inherited at birth
  • is an immutable/unchangeable part of who a person is
  • is to a group who share some essential similarity
  • is to a group that has persisted through time


  • natural (“blood”, “genes”)
  • shared culture (language, religion), tradition, history

Essentialist definition

“based on descent” and “inherited at birth”

essential similarity

persistent in time

“immutable/unchangable” … Dominguez (1986)

Does this definition
match reality?

Key questions:

How does Ava Duvernay’s family history complicate the essentialist definition?

Why does it matter to her that her ancestry is >50% African?

Rejecting Essentialism

Checkered history

  • White supremacy, slavery, eugenics, genocide

  • anti-colonial struggles for self determination

Empirically and Theoretically flawed

  • ethnicity can be changeable (rules for membership/individual membership)
  • absence of “essential similarities”: ethnic group members often diverse, share traits with non-members
  • common origin/common history requires circular reasoning

Rejecting Essentialism:

Brubaker and Cooper (2000):

categories of practice: categories/concepts of everyday life, used by social and political actors

categories of analysis: categories/concepts employed by social scientists attempting to describe and explain phenomena in society

Rejecting Essentialism:

Essentialist definition of ethnicity/race is a category of practice (e.g. used by nationalist activists like Sarvarkar)

but it fails as a category of analysis.

  • today no serious academic research employs essentialist understanding of ethnicity
  • but, these categories were reified in the past

Rejecting Essentialism

Thus, social scientific approaches to ethnicity treat it as “constructed”. Constructivism comes in many flavors.


“The attachment to another member of one’s kinship group is not just a function of interaction… It is because a certain ineffable signicance is attributed to the tie of blood”

the psychological attachment to descent-based membership is innate in humans (Gil-White 1999)

primordialist definition of race/ethnicity:

an identity where membership is based on perceived descent such that it is

  • inherited at birth
  • even if not in fact, people believe that it:
    • is an immutable/unchangeable part of who a person is
    • a group in which all share some essential similarity
    • a group which shares a history and interests

Thus, ethnicity/race:

  • durable/hard to change once created; changes are slow
  • shared (or imagination of shared) culture (language, religion), tradition, history
  • even if not natural, people treat them “as if” they are natural

Primordialism vs Essentialism:

Primordialist definition of ethnicity differs from essentialism:

  • It does not accept essentialist definition of ethnicity, but states that most people in practice adopt an essentialist view of ethnicity.