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Do Ethnic Groups Exist?

While considering the argument of whether ethnic groups exist or not

it is important to try to define what ethnicity is. However, ethnicity is
difficult to define and it has been subject to much anthropological
debate over the years. Most of this controversy over the definition is
due to the implicit or explicit use of the concept, the “how” and “why”
people use an ethnic identity. Therefore a more useful question might
be “how can we most fruitfully conceptualise ethnicity?” Erikson
1993:10. Ethnicity has been viewed as a label purely for analytical
purposes, based on people’s origin and culture. This makes the
assumption that ethnicity is a natural category which includes biology
and culture, and that ethnicity is real and objective. Nevertheless,
anthropologists have moved away from this primordialist concept of
ethnicity and have begun to consider a concept which is socially and
contextually constructed in order to explain cultural differences and
which is influenced by the process of history (Stephen 1996). Ethnicity
is now considered a form of identity that different people will use in
different situations, probably to further their political aims or social
advantage. This essay will discuss the above salient points surrounding
ethnicity, in order to determine the existence of ethnic groups. It will
consider the influential work of Barth, Cohen and Levine, and also the
studies by Froerer and Hutchinson, and seeks to show that while
ethnic groups are a social construct they have very real implications.

The work of Frederik Barth Ethnic Groups and Boundaries 1969

highlighted an interesting way of studying ethnic groups and that was
to study the boundaries. He advocated a shift away from studying the
contents of the group i.e. what the members had in common, such as

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dress code, food, language, etc., to examining the boundaries of these
contents and therefore the distinguishing traits between groups. He
made two major points; firstly that the boundaries of groups remain
intact regardless of the flow of people and information across them,
and secondly that “the boundary does not bound ‘something’ off from
nothingness, but rather it distinguishes between two (or more)
‘somethings’” (Barth 1969a: 14-15, cited by Banks 1996:13). Thereby,
implying that a group exists in contrast to another and therefore
defines itself by comparing and contrasting with another.
An example of Barth’s influential work considers the ethnicity of the
Pathan population who are spread out over an extremely large area in
Pakistan and Afghanistan. While there are many Pathan groups who all
know some other local Pathans it is not feasible that they know every
group, and therefore they have developed their ethnic identity on the
basis of shared cultural traits. These traits are patrilineal descent from
a common ancestor; shared religion (Islam); and shared customs,
including language and oral literature (Banks 1996). Along the
southern border of ‘Pathan country’ where the Baluchi tribes confront
the Pathans “the border is marked by knowledge and the custom, not
topology or ecology – it is an ethnic boundary, not a physical one”
(Barth 1969c: 123 cited in Banks 1996:14). It is possible to become
Baluchi by forming a contract with the chief and many Pathans choose
to do this in the face of conflict at the boundaries as the Baluchi tribes
encroach on Pathan territory. However, while it is very easy to change
from Pathan to Baluchi it is not possible the other way round as
obviously patrilineal descent cannot be changed. The point Barth
concludes from this study is that as a Pathan can change their identity
to Baluchi there can be nothing inherent in ethnic identity. Barth
advocates that the Pathans appear to choose Baluchi identity when it

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becomes advantageous to do so, however Banks 1996 suggests an
alternative view might be that the Pathan is relabelled Baluchi by the
Baluchi when they are a majority within the territory, thus changing
the assumption from freewill to domination. Stephen 1996 also asserts
that ethnic identity often takes place in situations of conflict and
competition, and that it is a continual process of negotiation with those
who hold political and economic power. While Barth’s work has been
influential by identifying that it is through investigating the boundaries
of groups that the situational context of groups are revealed, he is
criticised for remaining primordialist and assuming that people are
purely rational actors.

Another influential anthropologist Abner Cohen takes an

instrumentalist view of ethnicity; that is ethnicity is driven by purpose,
it is created for a reason and its existence is bound to that reason. He
uses the study of Hausa and their kola nut and cattle trade to explain
this view. As trading is a risky business which requires personal trust
of money and stock (kola nuts and cattle) to a middleman, the Hausa
use manipulation of ethnic identity to exert control over this
relationship for economic and political reasons. The kola nuts are
grown in the south but are in demand in the north, and the cattle are
farmed in the north and consumed in the south. The Hausa therefore
need to have strong cultural traditions that form a cohesive, moral
community to keep the relationship for trade and reassert their ‘tribal’
traditions in order to maintain control. Cohen proposes that ethnicity is
“not so much as a form of identity as a strategy for corporate action”
(Banks 1996:35). Hal Levine (1999) argues that this approach may
have an impact upon the way ethnicity develops, but it should be
noted that this builds on existing ethnic categories rather than

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establishing any new identity. Both Barth and Cohen were writing in
the 1960’s and describe ethnicity as situational by focussing on the
boundaries, but they do not really address how people feel about their
ethnic identity.

More recently Hal Lavine (1999) proposed a simple definition of

ethnicity, and that is “ethnicity is that method of classifying people
(both self and other) that uses origin (socially constructed) as its
primary reference.” He suggests that it is something inherently
human, to impose a pattern, to make sense out of chaos. This
classification magnifies the differences between groups and
emphasises the homogeneity within a group (Levine 1999). He argues
that ethnicity is influenced by consciousness and interaction, and
describes it as a cognitive practice of classification that serves as the
connection between the mind, society and culture. He says that
ethnicity is a ‘hollow’ category, it is the shared activities that create an
impression of a group and these can quickly turn to conflict where
resources are limited or access is restricted. Ethnicity then has become
a label for any cause.

One such example of ethnic labelling is demonstrated by Peggy Froerer

who writes about the development of Hindu nationalism in a marginal
Hindu tribal community. The Adivasi tribe were mixed Christian and
Hindu organised in castes; the Christians were the lowest caste ‘Oraon
adivasis’ and prior to the spread of Hindutva (“one nation, one people,
one culture” Khilnani 1997 cited by Froerer 2006: 40), there were no
problems in the village attributed to differences in religion. The local
tensions were brought about by the manufacture and sale of alcohol
(arkhi), and the money lending by the Oraon to the Hindus. Arkhi is

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used in rituals and as a medicine by the local adivasis, when the
government liquor stores closed down in the 1980’s the Oraon women
took on the responsibility of making and supplying arkhi. However, the
Hindu adivasis are their biggest customer and the fact of a lower order
caste Oraon being responsible for supplying the higher caste Hindu
brings a threat to the power relationship between castes. The
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) through their promotion of
Hindutva used this tension to emphasise Christians (Oraon adivasis) as
‘threatening others’. The national agenda to spread Hindutva invoked
religious boundaries within the same village by emphasising the
control the lower caste were gaining by making and selling alcohol to
the higher caste. Although there was a difference in labour between
the castes, the Oraon being waged workers and the Hindus owning
and farming the land in a self sufficient way, the perception promoted
by RSS was that the Oraon were profiteering from the sale of alcohol
rather than from their waged employment. This study highlights how
by promoting a ‘threatening other’ and attaching ethnic group loyalties
to national agenda boundaries were drawn within an existing ethnic
group. That is that the once Adivasi community which tolerated
difference in religion, now due to wider political agenda, has been
divided into two distinct ethnic groups based upon religious beliefs.
The boundaries then have been reconstructed to suit a national
agenda within a small rural community.

The fact that ethnic boundaries can be manipulated and accentuated,

promoting strong feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’, is used by leaders to gain
solidarity in a group and further political or military aims. Hutchinson
(2000) writes about the conflict between the Nuer and Dinka, which is
an example of militarised ethnic identity. Historically Nuer and Dinka

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were not well defined groups, the Nuer expanded by assimilating
Dinka into their tribes. The Nuer therefore have flexible boundaries
and they have often made outsiders feel like insiders, for instance by
providing Dinka with cattle and wives. To be a Nuer is to share
behaviour, language and the love of cattle. However, this is not so for
the Dinka, they are primordialist their group membership is through
blood lines, direct descent so Dinka are born not made. Both tribes
took the view that a woman would take on the ethnic identity of their
husband and any children would take on the ethnic identity of their
Father. In this way then a woman or girl could grant any ethnic
identity on their children depending on who they married. This made
the women and children relatively safe in times of conflict and infact
they were used to protect their wounded of fleeing men during
warfare. However, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army encouraged
women and children to become legitimate targets and due to this the
Nuers’ own concept of ethnicity has been changed. Whereas in the
past a Nuer would not kill a Dinka woman or child, their beliefs have
changed and now they would kill a Dinka child because they would
grow up to be a Dinka. This shows their concept of ethnic identity has
changed to believing a Dinka identity is fixed at birth, in order to
justify the military action required of them.

Through the work of Barth, Cohen and Levine variations in concepts

have been discussed, and the idea of ethnicity as an empty vessel is
rejected as people feel alienation when they move from one culture to
another thus showing ethnicity as an internal experience. Clearly then
ethnicity is based on situational experience and as Levine asserts is
socially constructed. The ability to move between ethnic groups shows
that ethnic identity is highly negotiable and, therefore, while “ethnicity

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can be seen as a universal social phenomenon it can also be seen as a
cultural construct” (Erikson 1996). The idea of forming ethnic loyalties
for a purpose has been evidenced by Froerer and Hutchinson who
provide accounts of identity for political purpose. It must also be born
in mind that as Erikson 1996 states ethnicity is a concept working on
two levels that of the analyst and the native.

In conclusion this essay has demonstrated that while ethnic groups are

socially constructed within a historical process, they are dynamic and

are often created to enhance or maintain economic or political

advantage rather than being a natural phenomenon. This essay argues

in favour of Levine’s stance that people have a natural tendency to

classify things, including themselves, and desire to have a sense of

belonging thus making it appear that the category is objective rather

than subjective. It is important to realise, that while acknowledging

ethnic groups are a social construct, the forming of and attachment to

an ethnic identity has very real implications and consequences, within

economic and political power relationships.

Word count: 1999

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Banks, M. 1996. ‘Ethnicity Unearthed’, 11-48, Ethnicity:

Anthropological Constructions. London: Routledge.

Erikson, T.H. 1996. ‘The Anthropology of Ethnicity’, Conference paper:


Levine, H.B. 1999. ‘Reconstructing Ethnicity’, Journal of the Royal

Anthropological Institute 5 (2): 165-180.

Froerer, P. 2006. ‘Emphazing ‘Others’: The Emergence of Hindu

Nationalism in a Central Indian Tribal Community’, Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12 (1): 39-59.

Hutchinson, S. 2000. ‘Nuer Ethnicity Militarized’, Anthropology Today

16 (3): 6-13.

Stephen, L. 1996. ‘The Creation and Re-Creation of Ethnicity: Lessons

from the Zapotec and Mixtec of Oaxaca’, Latin American Perspectives
23 (2):17-37.

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