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Ethnic Variation/Ethnicity

Origins And Importance Of Ethnicity

According to early research, there are three dominant theoretical positions related to the understanding of ethnicity and its implications for daily family life. Glazer and Moynihan (1975) stated that the two earliest perspectives associated with ethnicity are the primordialists and circumstantialists. The primordial approach emphasizes history and experiences and may even include genetic transmission, so ethnicity is viewed as a base identity that may be both overt and latent. It implies the existence of a distinct culture or subculture, so that members feel themselves bound together by a number of commonalities, including history, geographic location, language, values, traditions, norms, and behaviors. Most individuals belonging to an ethnic group have a strong sense of ethnic identity and peoplehood. Society also recognizes the distinctiveness of the group (Gil-White 1999). The identity is more likely to be ascribed, rather than voluntary. For the individuals who fit into this particular category, ethnicity is inescapable.

The circumstantialist (or instrumentalist) view is a functional one, with ethnicity serving the economic and political interests of individuals. Ethnicity for this group of persons is more of a convenience. An ethnic group uses traditional beliefs, symbols, and ceremonies in order to develop an informal political organization as it struggles for power (Cohen 1969). As such, it is less permanent and may vary in terms of time, place, and situation. This particular group has the luxury of claiming ethnic identity when needed or desired and are usually only self-identified.

A third perspective (Bernal and Knight 1993) emphasizes the role of marginality in the development and maintenance of ethnicity. Groups that are placed on the fringes and labeled as outsiders (either through their own volition or through barriers such as prejudice, discrimination, and segregation) with seemingly little chance of ever being accepted by the dominant society without total assimilation (the act of conforming to the dominant culture) are most likely to develop an ethnic perspective. The more marginal the group is the higher the possibility of developing and maintaining a strong ethnic identity. Conversely, the more accepted a group, the less likely it is to develop a strong ethnic identity.

Ethnic groups can last over an extended period of time or they can change, merge, or disappear. One way in which change may occur is for ethnic minority individuals to assimilate. According to Milton Myron (1964), groups who assimilate tend to have weak or under developed ethnic identities. Researchers have also suggested that those individuals who are removed from both familiar surroundings and support systems may also assimilate to the dominant culture (Shorti and Kohls 2001). This type of assimilation is often most associated with individuals who live in predominantly majority environments or ethnic minorities who attend majority educational institutions.

Ethnic self-identification and membership in an ascribed ethnic group are important because they control, limit, and/or enhance opportunities for well being in society. Ethnic identification and membership have been linked to most aspects of human existence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is often said to predict educational and professional outcomes, networking opportunities, economic status, living conditions, partner selection, and marital success.

The diversity between and within ethnic families defies simple generalizations. The historical background, the gender role affiliation, the religion or spirituality, the availability of resources, and the educational and employment opportunities, often offers clues for understanding the ethnic family.

It is impossible to present the full spectrum of international ethnic groups and their families, but the following divisions provide useful categories. The divisions are (1) African families, (2) Asian families, (3) Latino families, and (4) Middle Eastern families.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsEthnic Variation/Ethnicity - Origins And Importance Of Ethnicity, African Families, Asian Families, Latino Families, Middle Eastern Families