Ethnicity as an object of study: elusive but distinct

30 December 2021

When I was only a recently hired junior lecturer, making my way through the halls of academia, I was teaching in a course on intercultural communication. As part of the tutorials, I had to guide my students through, among others, the concept of ethnicity. Once, during a group presentation, some of my students started talking about Islam as an ethnicity. As a young scholar I was shocked: did they not know how to tidily distinguish concepts from each other? As Wimmer (2013) in the tradition of Max Weber defines ethnicity, it is a ‘subjectively felt belonging to a group that is distinguished by a shared culture and by common ancestry’ (p. 7). That common ancestry part being key to everyone’s understanding of ethnicity was my thinking – surely my students must have known religion transcends ancestry?

Since this class presentation, I like to think that I have become a wiser academic and I eventually realized and now share the struggles of neatly defining ethnicity. Ultimately, ethnicity is not just about defining a descriptive phenomenon: ethnic boundary making is a major form of societal othering, which makes it important to attempt defining it, so to speak, tidily. But why is ethnicity such a muddled concept, and why should we as academics attempt more actively to clarify it?

First let’s take a look at what was happening in my students’ presentation. Within the definitions they were being taught the students were strictly speaking misunderstanding how ethnicity (and Islam) is defined. Wimmer’s (and Weber’s) defi­­nition of ethnicity is a popular, and historically appropriate definition, at least for a European context. Ethnicity reflects the boundedness of a group which shares one culture and a common ancestry. The unity of the culture depends on specific markers being used, which is how various groups within a European context define and identify themselves and others. People that subscribe to Islam are not bound together by a common ancestry but by other processes and they can belong to various ethnic groups. Nonetheless, my students were on to something, most likely based on their gut understanding of social processes, as we do observe an ethnicization of Islam in how it is approached in society (and sometimes by academics too). Islam is approached and seen as a bounded culture and Muslims are essentialized into one coherent group that share more than just a culture.

Another complication in studying ethnicity arises from differing definitions and approaches to ethnicity across academic and social contexts. In a North American context, ethnicity is understood in relation to race, and the two are treated as somewhat separate concepts which denote different forms of group belonging (and Otherness) (Wimmer, 2013). Race is seen and treated as a much more fundamental fault line – the difference between groups based on racialization is seen as much more fundamental than the difference between groups based on ethnicization. In a European context, race is rather seen a subtype of ethnicity (e.g. Wimmer, 2013). The markers used to define an ethnic group and distinguish between ethnic groups can be varied and denote a number of things, including race. Race and ethnicity do not therefore denote different forms of belonging or Otherness.

As North American definitions of ethnicity seep into European academia (and social conventions more largely), they further muddle the waters of defining and studying ethnicity in a European context. A European move toward adopting North American literature on race and racism is welcomed by many and for good reason, as the conversation on race in many European countries is slow and arduous. However, social processes of exclusion and marginalization take the shape of the context in which they happen. Applying a North American understanding of ethnicity to a context where boundary making is heavily ethnic could make understanding the exclusion and marginalization that emerges as a result of ethnic boundaries more difficult. In Europe, migrants and other minorities that are seen as white are routinely othered on the basis of their ethnicity. Furthermore, a discourse focused on racialization as the fundamental process of othering ignores social realities of exclusion based on other markers of otherness. A prime example of this is Islam being seen as a fundamental marker of otherness in European societies, and used as the basis for exclusion, rather than the race or ethnicity of Muslims in Europe.

Ethnicity is therefore an elusive concept: it is defined differently across contexts, and within one context interpretations may vary and be affected by other social processes of exclusion and marginalization. However, it remains a distinct social phenomenon, distinct from race, religion, and other forms of othering, regardless of possible overlaps. As such, we as academics have the duty to keep attempting to define ethnicity: perhaps not as tidily as junior-lecturer me would have wished, but enough to give us the right tools in addressing and analysing such a fundamental process of Othering in society.


Wimmer, A. (2013). Ethnic boundary making: Institutions, power, networks. Oxford University Press.


Marina Lazëri is an interdisciplinary social scientist and a PhD candidate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research interests concern national identity, societal positioning, and interethnic attitudes.

Ethnicity as an object of study: elusive but distinct

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