The term “ethnicity” was originally used to denote a group of people with some similar biological characteristic features, but later the usage of this term substantially increased and now it is employed to denote any group of people with common cultural traditions sharing certain common identity. Thus, ethnicity can relate to people with common history (e.g. the Jews), common language (the Dakota Indians), geography (Scandinavians), social definition of race (African Americans), religion (Muslims), etc. It must be mentioned that boundaries of these ethnic groups are not stable. There is no consensus about them among both the people who do not belong to the group and inside the group as well. It makes the process of defining ethnicity very difficult requiring a large variety of different considerations. Generally, ethnicity describes the smaller groups that exist within large groups, but there are some exceptions. Nagel stresses “the fluid, situational, volitional and dynamic character of ethnic identification, organization and character”. It has become conventional to describe ethnicity using several different methods simultaneously as this term is obviously one of the most multi-faceted notions in the modern humanities. To give the maximum precise definition of this concept, scholars also single out “three perspectives on ethnicity”. For some "it has a primordial quality." For others it "is situational," and for still others, it is "a type of cultural collectivity".
Ethnicity is flexible in time and space and related to the perspective from which it is contemplated. Ethnic groups are characterized by common cultural rites, norms, beliefs and traditions. In most cases they have common or similar language and draw a dividing line between the members of their groups and non-members. Sometimes the characteristic features of the ethnic group may be created to make the differences between communities even more visible. At a certain level it may even lead to genocides.
The term itself is derived from the Greek language and at that period it was used to denote any group of people or even animals. Then this word began denoting people that did not belong to the Christian European community and such situation lasted till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Later this term became synonymous to “race” in many aspects and only in 1972 it was fixed in Oxford Dictionary with a meaning that is quite close to its modern usage. Though in some cases ethnic groups are racial groups, the modern science maintains that these terms are not the same.
The belongingness to certain ethnicity may be defined by the birth, marriage or any other socially sanctioned event. The process of the transition between different ethnic groups is sometimes very painful because this notion has a very significant impact on the psychological behavior of the person. It is worth highlighting that the borders of the ethnic group are created not with the help of isolation, but using the methods of exclusion and incorporation. It means that the crucial part of creating borders between ethnicities is the identifying similar members and only then employing these findings to mark outsiders as “non-members”.
There are different approaches to the process of constructing ethnicity. The debates about the way ethnicity is usually formed still play a very important role in the modern sociology, anthropology and other related disciplines. The scholars single out two main methods of constructing ethnicity – social and historical. Ethnicities emerge as a result of collective understanding of the common history. The social approach reflects the unifying and dividing ethnicity principles in the best possible way.
Assuming that the major factors influencing the formation of ethnicity are social, it is easy to explain many significant social processes taking place in any human community. It must be mentioned that this approach, despite its great popularity, is being heavily criticized as unable to generate new and fruitful insights valuable for the development of relative scientific spheres. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the “socially contingent nature of ethnicity”. Ethnicity, its main characteristic features and its functions are strongly connected with social circumstances and the prevailing tendencies in the economic sphere. It has nothing to do with the economic power of the country or region, so these concepts are almost the same in the developing and developed countries.
It is obvious that history also plays a great role, but biology and culture add very significant characteristic features. Mamdani writes, “Said to spring from biology and culture, the differences between races and ethnicities involve two kinds of claims: one about hierarchy, the other concerning diversity”. Here the issues of ethnicity usually become interrelated with the notions of ethnic minority and ethnic majority, the latter having much higher position in the social hierarchy. It results in the situation when the social and economic inequalities of different people are justified by the belongingness or non-belongingness to a certain “high” ethnicity. It cannot be fully identified and registered by traditional scientific methods and measurements, but the public opinion is a good and reliable indicator in this case. Some empirical researches can be also of significant help.
It is very important to understand the differences between ethnicity and race and the consequences that the definition of a social group as ethnicity or race has. Mamdani gives examples of African countries highlighting that only native inhabitants and tribes are referred to as ethnic groups, whereas non-natives are rather identified as races. It means that the differences between various ethnicities are more likely to be internal and the differences between races are in most cases external. In the countries that once were colonized and now struggle to eliminate any negative impact that was imposed on them by the colonists, such division between the indigenous and other people are rooted in the legal systems. It makes the political and social situation in these countries be prone to cruel military uprisings and genocides, like it was in the former republics of Yugoslavia or in Rwanda. Wamwere adds that initially ethnicity means “ethnic pride” to most people including Africans, but later it may transform into the notion of “negative ethnicity”. It can be explained by the fact that earlier when it was necessary to define some ethnic hatred between people in Africa, the term “tribalism” was often used, but in due course of time this term began to highlight the differences between the colonists and the colonized, putting the natives at the lower levels of such primitive communities as tribes. Therefore, the term “ethnicity” became widely-used to characterize racial hatred and other similar notions, but in most cases the scholars try to make it more precise and speak of “negative ethnicity”.
The conflict in former Yugoslavia also gave life to another term related to ethnicity. It is “ethnic cleansing”. This notion is impossible to imagine without marking distinct borders between conflicting ethnic groups and putting one above the other in terms of social value, credibility and “necessity to the society”. Ethnic cleansing occurs when the ruling elite systematically tries to eliminate all the members of some particular ethnic group. It can be done by forcing them to leave the territory or by murdering them. In most cases these two methods are used simultaneously. Although this term originated during the Yugoslavian Wars, the examples of ethnic cleansing are still easy to find in times of any military conflict. For example, during the Second Congo Civil War that officially ended in 2003, a small ethnicity of Pygmies were massacred and hunted like animals. Since 2003 in Sudan there have been many reports about systematic killings of several black ethnicities’ members.
Ethnic cleansing can sometimes be regarded as a part of ethnic violence that is characteristic of almost all ethnic conflicts. However, the notion of ethnicity becomes crucial not only while analyzing the above-mentioned concepts. Eriksen points out that the attention to the problems of ethnicity has also become closer after great numbers of immigrants seeking better job opportunities and higher living standards started to arrive in Europe and North America since the second half of the twentieth century. It resulted in the creation of small ethnic groups or communities of these new-comers within the frames of accepting ethnicities. Later these small ethnic groups that were quite closed at the beginning started to gain more impact. They also “organize themselves politically” and demand more rights from the governments.
The concept of ethnicity is extremely important for the modern world. “Ethnicity “matters” – for violence, for democratic stability, for institutional design, for economic growth, for individual well-being and so on”. The present day society aiming at granting equal rights to all people regardless of their gender, religion, race or ethnicity pays growing attention to the ethnicity studies; however, it is highly likely that this notion will acquire new definitions and obtain new function with the development of the humankind.