View Poll Results: Ethnicity is...

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  • purely biological

    5 10.20%
  • purely social

    3 6.12%
  • both biological and social

    40 81.63%
  • neither

    0 0%
  • other

    1 2.04%
  • don't know

    0 0%
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Thread: Is Ethnicity a Social Construct? / Ethnicity: Biological, Social or Both?

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    Re: Sv: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    Quote Originally Posted by a.squiggles View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Hyperboreus
    Are 'social constructs' subjective or objective?
    subjective, since they are not true for an outside observer.
    Ethnicities are social facts for outside observers as well.

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    Ethnicity is in real life a frame of reference.

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bridie
    Essentially, ethnicity is a broader notion of kin. And "kin" goes far beyond mere social conditioning.
    This seems convincing, but when you look at actual ethnicities and their history (particularly the era of ethnogenesis), it breaks down. Do those who voted 'no' believe the e.g. Flemish or Swedish ethnogenesis was a biological event rather than a social development? What about the fact that northern Germans, who are racially in many ways more similar to Dutch and used to speak closely related Low German tongues, are now in the same ethnic group not so much with the Dutch but rather with Bavarians, who are racially more distinct and have a different linguistic background? What happened there if not social construction?

    To avoid accusations of Marxism or undermining ethnic consciousness, I should probably clarify my position in relation to the forum's orientation: My position is basically that the Germanic ethnicities are socially constructed repositories of valuable genetic and cultural traits worthy of preservation and further development.

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    I think the Marxist intellectuals generate confusion mainly because their positions are so ill-articulated. Sometimes they will assert that the physical aspect of ethnic groups is literally an "illusion", and other times they will instead assert that there is no way to actually draw lines of separation between ethnic groups from a biological perspective. Hence, in the latter case they are simply saying that the formation of cohesive "ethnic groups" is based on creative human intervention (i.e. "social contruction") rather than actual biology.

    Part of the problem is just thoroughly clarifying terms: Ethnic identity (i.e. a sense of psychological stability surrounding the fact of shared ancestry, with the degree of similarity involved varying in different circumstances) and ethnicity (i.e. the more obvious physical aspect of ancestry, which is based on the basic understanding of inheritance) are two different concepts. It's obvious that ethnicity in this sense is not a "social contruct" because it is determined by biological background. I think that ethnic identity, on the other hand, does require human creative intervention to a limited extent, even though it's clear that the persons united in this common identity must be similar on a fundamental level. Moreover, it's very possible that in certain cases persons who are less similar from a biological standpoint than other persons who might reside elsewhere could be united under a common "ethnic identity", especially if they have a shared history.

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    I think that discussions like this one are very interesting and very important in the hey-day of marxist social construct theories, discourse analysis and derridan deconstructionism.

    I have noted, here on Skadi as elsewhere, that usage of the terms "ethnicity", "nation" and "tribe" varies a lot.

    On the Edit Profile page there is an ambiguity about what tribe means:

    Please specify the meta-ethnic, meta-tribal, cultural, and linguistic group which describes your roots and heritage best.
    Not ancestry alone but also language and culture are mentioned.

    The concept of ethnicity is not specified at all, allowing for the user to determine what ethnicity really is. It is sometimes understood as something that you can choose to belong to. Sometimes it is understood in terms of the cultural environment that you are surrounded by and a part of. And sometimes it is understood as a fact of physical anthropology and/or ancestry.

    The term "nation" is also higly ambiguous although ethymology gives a very good hint at its proper usage. In a famous essay, Vom Begriff der Nation (originally published in Kantstudien in 1916) (my translation: The Concept Of Nation), the german philosopher Bruno Bauch explains that "nation" is derived from the latin word nasci, meaning "to be born". Nationality is something I am born into and something I belong to by blood.

    In contrast with this, "nationality" is often falsely used about adherence by citizenship to a state, as if a formal agreement alone could be the basis of nationality. In a similar interpretation you often hear, at least in marxist dominated Sweden, that anyone who lives and works in Sweden is swedish

    What it means to be swedish is complicated indeed since several different types have a very long history here, but that's a whole other topic of discussion.

    I have to say that I am slightly surprised but actually glad to find that the wikipedia agrees that nation is a logically stricter concept than ethnicity:

    An ethnic group or ethnicity is a population of human beings whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry (Smith 1987). Recognition by others as a distinct ethnic group is often a contributing factor to developing this bond of identification. [1] Ethnic groups are also often united by common cultural, behavioural, linguistic, ritualistic, or religious traits. [2]
    An ethnic group may overlap or even coincide with a nation, especially when national identity is defined primarily in terms of common origin.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_group

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    Quote Originally Posted by Siegfried View Post
    Is ethnicity a social construct?
    Yes and no (I voted other).

    I think the concept of ethnicity itself emerges directly from nature without human involvement (but with some qualifications). I think it is, as Bridie says, an extension of the concept of kin. Certain kin groups living close to one another have an awareness of a more distant shared kinship relationship among them. That's the basis of ethnicity, I think, and it's prototypical form.

    Of course, that needs to be qualified. Kinship is impossible without some form of human interaction — I won't go into the details outside of the Realm of the Senses, but you get my point. I think that when we discuss "social constructs," though, it's worthwhile to distinguish between human interaction that is specifically human (like talking or writing) and human interaction that is common to all higher-order animals (like, well, the source of kinship).

    I think ethnicity, then, in the generic sense, derives directly from the more animalistic interactions of human beings and is therefore not a social construct.

    Now before going on, just to make what I've said clear, I think of a kin group as a group that is united through kinship where the members (or some of them) are consciously aware of the exact kinship links that unite everyone in the group. An ethnicity (in the prototypical sense) is a group united through kinship where no one is entirely certain of the exact kinship links that unite everyone in the group — though no one doubts there existence, either.

    Also, when I use the term prototypical, I'm using it in the semantic sense. A certain model of semantics sees words as having meaning on a prototype model. A boot is a boot inasmuch as it approximates the prototypical boot (which can be seen as something like the Platonic Form for boot) more than any other lexical prototype; a piece of footwear that is pretty equidistant from both the boot prototype and the shoe prototype could be either a boot or a shoe. The prototype model of semantics seems to represent how people really view language with very many words — though admittedly, some sets of words seem to coincide better with other models that have been proposed. So, when I speak of the prototypical ethnicity, that's how I'm using the term prototypical.

    All right — all that being said, I can move on.

    I think some ethnicities are very close to the prototype and are therefore not social constructs. Certain Amazonian or Papuan tribes would make good examples. Similarly, ethnicities on small islands or island groups in the Pacific are good examples. But even in the real world (), there are ethnicities that are close to the prototype. The Basques, for example. They're clearly all like one another and they're not like anyone else around them. Of course, the fringes of the Basque ethnicity are fading, but at the core of the ethnicity, Basques are very much an extension of kin groups that are quite distinct from their neighbors. The Basque ethnicity is by no means a social construct.

    Other ethnicities are very far from the prototype — far enough that people begin to question whether it's even worthwhile to consider them different ethnicities. I think the Flemish ethnicity or the Austrian ethnicity are good examples. These ethnicities tend to base their definitions on states — Belgium and Austria. The Flemish ethnicity is basically Dutch folks from Belgium and the Austrian ethnicity is basically German folks from Austria. That the Dutch folks living beyond Belgium are usually considered Dutch rather than Flemish (at least here in the US) and that the German folks living beyond Austria are considered German rather than Austrian only highlights the artificial nature of the Flemish and Austrian ethnicities. Those ethnicities are clearly social constructs, and many people even question whether it's worth thinking of them as separate ethnicities.

    Most ethnicities fall somewhere between these two types. Most are not as clearly natural as, say, Yanomamo or Basque; but most are more clearly natural than Flemish or Austrian.

    I think that often for European-type folks like us, there are a few rather large ethnicities that we really sense that are very close to the prototype. Here on Skadi, we call these meta-ethnicities. I think the Germanic ethnicity is just such an ethnicity. The Latin is another. The Slavic is another. People within these ethnicities sense a real kinship among themselves and think of one another sort of naturally as "us" and of everyone else as "not us." Society plays a big role, of course, but if you can learn to peel away all the social conventions that tell us to think of Germans as rule-crazy and Swedes as sex-mad and Englishmen as arrogant and so forth, if you can learn to peel away all the social conventions that divide us and try to find where the natural divisions are, you tend to come up with a single Germanic ethnicity that contrast with a Latin ethnicity and a Slavic ethnicity and a Celtic ethnicity and so on.

    Of course, within these natural ethnicities (that are now quite large), there are a number of smaller ethnicites that really are more like social constructs than these larger ethnicities are. Some are more clearly social constructs than others, but they all pretty much grow out of some kind of specifically human interaction rather than the more animalistic human interaction that unites all Germanics as a group.

    I think there's a strong human tendency to want to make the ethnicity and the governmental jurisdiction coextensive. That innate desire tends to create a good many social-construct ethnicities. A governmental jurisdiction that covered the entire territory claimed by Germanic people would be a bit unwieldy. Creating a government that could control such an area in a satisfactory manner would be quite difficult — keeping it satisfactory would be even more difficult. Consequently, the Germanic ethnicity covers a great number of small states. Though these states have been consolidating through the centuries, they are still many and will likely remain many forever. Because the governmental jurisdiction cannot very well grow to become coextensive with the natural ethnicity in such a case, it is more common to redefine the ethnic boundaries along social construct lines that will allow ethnicities and jurisdicitions to become coextensive.

    I don't mean to say that it's not worthwhile to consider these social-construct style ethnicities as ethnicities. There may be good value in thinking of Germans as one ethnicity and Englishmen as another. But I do think such divisions are definitely social constructs. At the same time, however, other divisions, like the Germanic–Latin division, are divisions that develop without the aid of specifically human interaction and are therefore not social constructs.

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    Like Leofric; I say yes and no. Ethnicities have arisen out of various historical/social circumstances and arrange themselves in various ways as well. Certainly all ethnicities share the same basic characteristics, but it's no where near so in a cookie-cutter like manner.

    I also like to bring in the observations of Jacques Maritain over the difference between an ethnicity/nation and a race. The former is an ethico-social entity while the latter is biological. Although they may at times be closesly related, they're not exactly the same.

    They're both are based upon common descent, but common descent in the ethico-social sense implies more than it does within the biological sense. As he explained, ethico-social descent implies things such as "birth to the life of reason and civilized activity, lineage in family tradition, social and judicial formation, cultural heritage, common conceptions and customs, historical memories, sufferings, claims, hopes, prejudices and resentments."(Man and the State pg. 4) None of which has any real basis in biology.

    It should be mentioned that by admitting that ethnicities are at least partially social constructs does not significantly reduce their legitimate value. This is actually the whole premise of the Ethno-symbolist school of Ethnic studies.

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    Re: Is ethnicity a social construct?

    Some very interesting input so far. I would definitely agree that if ethnic identity involves some amount of human intervention (on any level), this doesn't downplay its overall importance in the slightest. It might be useful to bring in the research behind GST (Genetic Similarity Theory) when discussing this matter, as it would be highly relevant to the question of "human involvement" in the establishment of stable ethnic identities (and therefore relevant to the creation of cohesiveness within ethnic groups themselves). MacDonald dealt with this issue in his 2001 paper that was published in Politics and the Life Sciences journal:

    From "An Integrative Evolutionary Perspective on Ethnicity," by Kevin MacDonald (Vol. 20, page 68):

    "Genetic Similarity Theory extends beyond the mechanisms of kin-based inclusive fitness by proposing mechanisms that assess phenotypic similarity as a marker for genetic similarity (Rushton, 1989). These proposed mechanisms promote positive attitudes, greater cooperation, and a lower threshold for altruism for similar others. The data compiled by Rushton (1989, 1999) demonstrate that people not only assort positively for a wide variety of traits, but they are more likely to do so on traits that are relatively highly heritable. GST is also highly compatible with substantial evidence for direct kin recognition mechanisms in a variety of animals and plants (pfennig and Sherman, 1995; Rushton, 1989). GST is the most plausible explanation for three critical empirical findings: assortative mating, the very powerful effect of similarity in psychological research, and the fact that people tend to assort with others on more heritable traits."
    Not exactly mainstream as a theory at the moment (unsurprisingly), but I'm a premature "believer" nonetheless. Of course, the supporting data can be reviewed by anyone, but it will still take awhile to gain headway. Anyhow, wouldn't this be clear evidence for the "naturalness" of creating stable ethnic identities themselves, seeing as how there is a dominant assortative tendency in human affiliations? Now, this doesn't speak anything about state power, and the fact that certain populations can definitely be "united" merely by brute force or economic exchange. However, I wouldn't classify these as ethnic groups, but just "loose populations" alone. Under these conditions, the disparate peoples are basically forced to interact, and in practically every case the issue of "identity" is non-existent.

    Overall, I would say that ethnicity is a matter of degree, it shouldn't be perceived in absolutist terms. The biological basis to the issue as a whole is unmistakeable, but not every case is the same. If, for example, there is an ethnic group that is composed of individuals who are similar on a fundamental level, but who are perhaps are not as closely related as others elsewhere, we could say that this group affiliation is legitimate, but also that the ultimate potential for cohesiveness is less than if these individuals shared the maximum level of similarity between them. MacDonald also mentions something along these lines:

    Same paper (page 78):

    "One can imagine a thought experiment in which people are stripped entirely of their consciously held group identities, followed by assessment of the extent to which they assort on the basis of genetic distance. The results of GST research indicate that genetically similar others would be preferred as spouses, friends, and as partners in alliances. Such a world is an atomistic world, however; it is insufficient by itself to create ethnic groups. To accomplish that, mechanisms of social identity, including establishing and maintaining group boundaries, are required. The results of social identity research indicate that the boundaries may be drawn in an arbitrary manner and still result in ingroup favoritism an discrimination against outgroups. Nevertheless, the results of GST predict that such groups would lack the rapport an cohesion of ingroups that are more genetically similar compared to the outgroups they are living among. Genetically similar groups composed of similar appearing people would also trigger the putative racial/ethnic human kinds module, thereby leading to a natural sense of "we-ness."

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    Ethnicity: Biological, Social or Both?

    We've been discussing this in the Ethnic Mixing thread. I gave an example of why I think ethnicity ain't just biological, Northern Germans and Danes have more in common biologically than Northern Germans and Southern Germans, yet Northern Germans are German cause they are part of German society. I'm sure there are other examples from other countries. Based on this, I think it's right to call American, Canadian et. al ethnicities.

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    I think ethnicity has multiple sides, among which a biological side and a social/cultural side. If we think in purely biological terms, many of us are somewhat "ethnically mixed" to a certain degree, we might have a different ethnicity or two down the line if we look far enough. However, I think there is more to it than that and ethnicity has a social/cultural side as well. This is why someone who is, say, 7/8 German and 1/8 English could be regarded as nothing but German if his culture were German and he identified as such.

    What ethnicities basically are, IMO, is nations in their true sense. Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people that share common origins, customs, frequently language and last but not least, historical experience. So I think that besides the biological and social/cultural side, there is also a historical side. The common struggles of the nation bind the people together. There is a history of the German nation, of the English nation, and so on.

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