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Ethnicity (from ancient Greek ἔθνος ethnos , German '[foreign] people, people-' ) is a technical term from ethnology used to classify cultural identities . According to Max Weber , ethnicity is a concept of a group of people that is constituted by believing in common ancestry and culture and thus forms a homogeneous group identity. Certain cultural elements such as language, clothing, customs and religion as well as demarcation signs that are visible to the outside are used.

Compared to earlier primordial , essentialist explanations, which saw ethnicity in endogamous groups of homogeneous cultures as fixed and unchangeable as dictated by biology and the respective geographical conditions, the constructivist approach, which assigns a central role to the subjective perception of the actors, has now become more established. It describes the more or less purposeful actions of individuals and collectives and is often viewed in social science theories as a “social construction” ( social constructivism ) or as a “choice” ( theory of rational decision ).

To categorize the ethnicity of social structures, the term demos is also used as a political and legal concept of people , in contrast to the ethnic term ethnos . In many cases, ethnicity is incorrectly equated with nationality . An attitude that primarily relates to ethnicity from the standpoint of one's own culture and the values ​​associated with it is called ethnocentrism .

Ethnicity theories

Reinhart Kößler and Tilman Schiel differentiate ethnicity according to its dimension, its appearance and its function .

Dimension: horizontal ethnicity

In the horizontal ethnicity it appears:

  • as a strategy for ideological justification of resources , claims and rights,
  • as a social closure to justify exclusion and compulsory restrictions . This includes citizenship , access to a job and other regulatory dispositive ,
  • as “cultural creativity” with references to old traditions and in the form of demarcation from a “modernization shock”.

Dimension: vertical ethnicization

In vertical ethnicization it appears:

  • as "great" versus "little traditions" to positively emphasize the "manageable" (local, regional) versus the "national and large",
  • as nationalism versus tribalism . Here regional "ethnic force fields" ( tribes ) question a national order,
  • as centralism versus regionalism . Here, for example, a central state acts against the autonomy aspirations of a region.

Dimension in depth and intensity

They appear in depth and intensity:

  • as ethnic separation in the form of ethnonationalism . The argument with ethnicity serves as a strategy for legitimizing political independence and secession.
  • as “cultural wealth” to preserve regional characteristics within a “national culture”.


In science, reference is made to the increasing decontextualization, hybridization and popularization of technical terms such as “ethnicity” in public usage. In the true sense of the word, “ethnicity” does not describe certain properties, but a relationship - it is a relational and not a substance-related term.

In this context, Andre Gingrich puts forward seven theses in his article Ethnicity for Practice :

  • Ethnicity describes the respective relationship between two or more groups, among which the prevailing view is that they differ from one another culturally on important issues.
  • Just as every person is sometimes more and sometimes less selfish, showing different levels of credibility, ethnic groups also tend to be ethnocentric under certain circumstances. Ethnocentrism is sometimes inevitable, but it is seldom right.
  • “Ethnic” is not a cosmetic linguistic disguise for “racial” or “ethnic”. Absolutizing ethnic differences can easily lead to racism, but ignoring ethnic differences can also.
  • Ethnicity and nation are not identical. Nations are political communities that live or want to live permanently in the same state association. Ethnicity, on the other hand, often crosses national and state borders.
  • Ethnicity is not the same as culture. Ethnicity as a network of relationships merely updates certain aspects of the cultures involved in this mutual relationship and combines this with external influences.
  • Ethnicity changes over and over again. It will not stay as it is now.
  • Ethnicity varies depending on the circumstances. As it is here, it is not everywhere else.


  • Andre Gingrich : Ethnicity for Practice. In: Karl R. Wernhart / Werner Zips (ed.): Ethnohistory - Reconstruction and cultural criticism. An introduction. Vienna: Promedia, 2001.
  • Detlev Claussen , Oskar Negt , Michael Werz (eds.): Critique of Ethnonationalism. Hannoversche Schriften 2 . Frankfurt a. M .: New Critique Verlag, 2000.
  • Reinhard Kößler, Tilman Schiel: Nation state and ethnicity. Frankfurt a. M .: IKO-Verlag for Intercultural Communication, 1995.
  • Emerich K. Francis : Ethnos and Demos. Berlin 1965.
  • Wolfram Stender : Ethnic revivals. On the functional change of ethnicity in modern societies - a literature report. In: Mittelweg 36 , June 24, 2000. PDF ( Memento from June 30, 2004 in the Internet Archive ).
  • Friedrich Heckmann (1991): Ethnos, Demos and Nation, or: Where does the nation-state's intolerance towards ethnic minorities come from? In: Uli Bielefeld (ed.): The own and the foreign. New Racism in the Old World? , Hamburg.
  • Friedrich Heckmann: Nation- state, multicultural society and ethnic minority politics.
  • M. Rainer Lepsius : "Ethnos" and "Demos". On the application of two categories by Emerich Francis to the national self-image of the Federal Republic and to European unification. in: Cologne Journal for Sociology and Social Psychology 1986.
  • Max Weber : Economy and Society. Outline of understanding sociology. Tuebingen 1976.

Web links

Commons : Ethnicity  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Immanuel Wallerstein , Imanuel Geiss, Gero Fischer, Maria Wölflingseder (eds.): Biologism - Rassismus - Nationalismus. Right-wing ideologies on the rise in 1995.
  2. "The ethnic group is a group of people that is linked by cultural homogeneity" . B. Berry: Race Relations. The Interaction of Racial and Ethnic Groups. Boston, 1951, p. 75.
  3. Bernhard Streck: Dictionary of Ethnology. Peter Hammer Verlag, Wuppertal 2000, ISBN 3-87294-857-1 , p. 53.
  4. ^ Fredrik Barth: Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference. Allen & Unwin, London, 1969, p. 12 ff.
  5. ^ Emerich K. Francis: Ethnos and Demos. Berlin 1965. Cf. also Friedrich Heckmann, Ethnos, Demos and Nation , 1991 or the same, National State, Multicultural Society and Ethnic Minority Politics , 2001 and Wolfram Stender , Ethnic Revivals. On the functional change of ethnicity in modern societies - a literature report , in: Mittelweg 36, June 24, 2000. PDF ( Memento of September 27, 2007 in the Internet Archive ).
  6. See Detlev Claussen / Oskar Negt / Michael Werz (eds.): Critique of Ethnonationalism (Hannoversche Schriften 2), Frankfurt am Main 2000.
  7. Andre Gingrich: Ethnicity for Practice. In: Karl R. Wernhart / Werner Zips (ed.): Ethnohistorie - Reconstruction and cultural criticism. An introduction. Promedia, Vienna 2001, pp. 99–111.