September 14, 2022



Primordialist definition

  • What is primordialism vs. essentialism?
  • Is there evidence for primordialism?


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 (“ethno-biological Ethnic Transmission and Acquisition Model”).

  • Gil-White proposes several hypotheses that derive from this.


  • Most people are “essentialists”

  • Belief in essentialism

\(\to\) acting as-if groups are essential

\(\to\) even behavior of those w/out essentialist beliefs is essentialist


  • Ethno-biological/essentialist way of thinking is innate in human psychology \(\to\) will repeatedly emerge, not a function of historical context


  • Changes in ethnicity can only occur slowly over time; not a result of individual choice

Evidence for Primordialism?

Gil-White surveys people’s “essentialist beliefs” in Mongolia

Evidence for Primordialism?

Is this sufficient to support primordialism?


  • Is this “innate”?: limited sample,in one context, at one time
  • Is essentialist view dominant?: nearly half of people open to ‘switching’ ethnicity of adopted child
  • What do survey responses mean: answering survey questions \(\neq\) behavior in real-world settings
  • Why these essential descent based rules?: why isn’t ethnicity inherited from mother? or why isn’t there a special mixed-group category (e.g. “mulatto”)?

Another context: Waters (1994)

Interviews with teens and young adults who are second generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants

  • How do they experience and identify with ethnic and racial categories?

  • Most choose between “African American” and a Afro-Caribbean (e.g. Jamaican, Haitian) identity

Waters (1994)

First-generation (Parents)

  • distinguish themselves as different ethnic group than African Americans (black Americans)
  • invoke cultural/value distinctions (often negative racial stereotypes)
  • perceive themselves as having “higher” ethnic/racial status

Waters (1994)

Second-generation: ‘Ethnic’ Response

People who embraced ethnic status as “Afro-Caribbean”: Jamaican, Haitian, etc.

  • in 2nd generation, loss of visible/audible cues lead them to be categorized as “black”
  • work to get others to recognize them in chosen identity, not as “black”
  • compare themselves to Black Americans; explain success because whites view them as different group

Distinguish themselves from Black Americans

  • continue to espouse negative views of Black Americans
  • do not view racism as a problem, does not affect them

Waters (1994)

Second-generation: ‘Ethnic’ Response

Face pressure to conform in all black settings, so engage in code-switching: able to belong as “black” in some contexts, not “black” in others.

Waters (1994)

Second-generation: ‘American’ Response

People who reject ethnic status as “Afro-Caribbean”, embrace “Black” identity

  • adoption of Black identity and culture
  • understand that they are seen as “black” by others
  • reject parents’ negative views of Black Americans
  • acknowledge Afro Caribbean heritage, but do not emphasize it

Waters (1994)

First-generation: ‘Immigrant’ Response

For people who recently arrive as immigrants and who maintain connections in home country:

  • Don’t view “black American” or “Afro-Caribbean” identities as relevant
  • Invoke identities that are relevant to their country of origin

Disrupting Primordialism

  1. Change in ethnicity takes place rapidly, often a result of individual choice

  2. Individuals can shape how others perceive/label them: not constrained by ‘essentialist’ mindset

  3. Same individuals may be categorized differently by different people, in different contexts

  4. Immigrants are explicitly aware of these issues: essentialist mindset is not “innate” psychologically

Disrupting Primordialism

One key reason that primordialism fails:

  • there are many possible identities that people could claim:

    • e.g.: black, African, American, Haitian/Jamaican, Afro-Caribbean, Catholic?, and possibly even White, Afro-Caribbean Immigrant (e.g. Muhajir)
  • if primordialism is correct, which one will innately be seen as “Essential”?


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

To understand ethnicity, need to focus on how people identify themselves, how they are identified by others

Limits of identification:

Can anybody identify as any ethnic/racial category?

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