September 13, 2021

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”

Gil-White (1999) interviewed Mongolians, majority of whom claimed that people born to mixed Mongolian/Kazakh parents were Kazakh, regardless of their cultural upbringing.

“immutable/unchangable” … Dominguez (1986)

Essentialist definition

essential similarity and persistent

Each nation harbors the dream that its borders will revert to those it boasted when the ancient empire it once possessed was at the zenith of expansion. Because Philip II of Macedon, a monarch with strong Greek ties, established de facto rule over much of present-day Greece in the fourth century B.C., the Greeks believe Macedonia to be theirs. Because the Bulgarians in the tenth century, under King Simeon and later King Samuel, and again in the thirteenth century, under King Ivan Assen II, extended the frontiers of Bulgaria all the way west to the Adriatic Sea, the Bulgarians believe Macedonia to be theirs. Because the Serbian King Stefan Dušan overran Macedonia in the fourteenth century, and was crowned Emperor and Autocrat of the Serbs and the Byzantines, the Bulgars and the Albanians, in the Macedonian city of Skopje, the Serbs believe Macedonia to be theirs. - Robert Kaplan

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

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;

but it fails as a category of analysis.

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

Rejecting Essentialism

Moving toward “primordialism”

“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.