September 15, 2021



Primordialist definition

  • Is there evidence for primordialism?

Identification vs Identity

Beyond Essentialism

Rejecting Essentialism

A Checkered history (morally fraught)

Category of practice not of analysis

  • Does not fit social reality

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)

People use the essentialist definition.

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.




Evidence for Primordialism?

Evidence for Primordialism?

Is this sufficient to support primordialism?

Does ethnicity change rapidly?

Let’s consider Waters (1994)

  • African Americans
  • Afro-Caribbean immigrants

How do ethnic identifications among second generation change?


identification: the active process of categorizing a person as a member of a group or category

  • may be done as self-identification
  • may identify others

Limits of identification:

Can anybody identify as any ethnic/racial category?

What limits are there to identifying as a member of a group?