Race, ethnicity and cultural identity are complex concepts that are historically, socially and contextually based. These social relations, according to James, are dynamic; their meaning changes overtime. Apple refers to them as “place markers “operating in a complex political and social arena.
Historically, the term “ethnic “derives from the Greek ethnos (ethnics) which refers to Heathen nations or peoples not converted to Christianity. It was also used to refer to races or large groups of people having common traits and customs or to exotic primitive groups. In anthropological literature the term” ethnic group “is generally used todesignatea population which (I) is largely biologically self perpetuating (2) shares fundamental cultural values, realized in overt unity in; cultural forms; (3) made up a field of communication and interaction;(4) has a membership which identifies itself, and is identified vie others as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories of the same order.
By ethnic group sociologists generally mean a relatively stable sociocultural unit performing an unspecified number of functions, bound together by a language, often linked to a territory, and derived actually or allegedly from a system of kinship. In this sense the ethnic community is an extremely old collective reality. International Encyclopedia of social sciences defines and ethnic group as ‘a distinct category of the population in a larger society whose culture is usually different from its own. The members of such a group are, or feel themselves, or are thought to be, bound together by common ties of race or nationality or culture’.
In modern political usage the term ‘ethnic’ is generally used as a designation of social unity based upon common and separate language or dialect, historical living in a defined area, occupation and mode of life, cultural and social traditional, customs and folklore. It is also used for social class, racial or national minority groups and also for distinguishing cultural and social groups in society. There are however differences with regard to emphasis. Some would include a religious denomination under the rubric; some would identify a race as an ethnic group, whereas for others the latter is a smaller subdivision of race, and so on.
There are some for whom an ethnic group is composed of what have been called ‘primordial affinities and attachments’. For them it is the identity made up of what person is born with or acquires at birth. But for some, ethnic groups, though centrally concerned with cultural matters, symbols and values and with issues of self-definition are not given entities but are social and political constructional. Paul brass, for instance says:
Any group of people dissimilar from other peoples in terms of objectives cultural criteria and containing within its membership, either in principle or in a practice, the elements for a complete division of labor and for reproduction forms an ethnic category. The objective cultural markers may be a language or dialect, distinctive dress or diet or customs, religion or race.
Some scholars view characteristics of ethnic groups primarily in an alienation or migration etc. T.K. omen opines that the ethnic is a group if people who share a common history, tradition, language and life-style, but are uprooted from and/for unattached to a homeland. Some writers in the U.S. have applied the term ethnic groups to immigrant groups who are distinguished by cultural differences in language and national origin and who have no distinguishing physical characteristics. Still for others, relationship is important. Smith, for instance, describes ethnic as a named human population with shared ancestry, myths, history and culture having association with a specific territory and a sense of solidarity.
With regard to basic features of ethnic communities there are differences among Marxist writers also. Y.V. Bromley points out some of these differences among the soviet scholars. Some regard language and culture as fundamental features, others add to these territory and ethnic self-consciousness, still others include in additional the peculiarities of psychological make up ; a fourth group adds common origin and state affiliation and a fifth group sees the essence of the ethnic communities only in specific psychological stereotypes. Bromley defines ethnic group as a stable inter-generation totality of people historically formed in a certain territory, who posses not only common traits, but also relatively stable peculiarities of mentality, as well as awareness of their unity and difference from all formulations of similar kind (self-consciousness) registered in the self-name (ethnoim).
Some of the known definitions of ethnic groups, as mentioned above, make it clear that there is no agreed meaning of the term ‘ethnic’. However each of them does refer to some characteristics.