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Ethnic Identity

An individual's feeling of belonging to a particular ethnic group.

The adjective ethnic is derived from the Greek noun ethnos, which means race, people, nation, and tribe. Although the modern term has a narrower connotation, denoting primarily people, vestiges of the older, more inclusive meaning still remain, particularly in types of discourse where the concepts of race and nationality are used interchangeably. Matters get even more complicated when the concept of identity is introduced, because, strictly speaking, a person's identity is a sum of essential attributes, and ethnicity, as researchers have asserted, is not necessarily an essential attribute of personal identity.

As a person matures, his or her perception of ethnicity undergoes a profound transformation. This transformation is concomitant with cognitive development. For example, as Frances Aboud and Anna-Beth Doyle explain (Aboud and Doyle, 1983), in the stage of cognitive development which Jean Piaget named pre-operational (between the ages of 2 and 7), children show a strong tendency to identify with a group perceived as their own,

Participating in traditional activities helps this little girl develop a sense of ethnic identity. (Corbis/Nik Wheeler. Reproduced with permission.)

while rejecting those seen as different. With the onset of the operation phase, children, who are now capable of rational thought, generally grow more tolerant toward "others," also showing empathy and understanding toward children who are viewed as different. This finding shows that the development of ethnic consciousness, although related to cognitive development, does not mirror the child's intellectual growth. However, with cognitive maturation, ethnicity, which is initially experienced as an image, or a set of physical attributes, becomes a mental construct which includes language, customs, cultural facts, and general knowledge about one's own ethnic group. Thus, to a four-year-old Mexican American child, ethnic identity is formed on the basis of his or her recognition of certain physical traits (Bernal, Knight, Ocampo, Garza, Cota, 1993). Later, as the person becomes aware of ethnicity as an idea, ethnic identity is experienced as an inner quality, or, as Aboud and Skerry note in a study that compared ethnic self-perception in kindergarten, second grade, and university students (Aboud and Skerry, 1983), internal attributes replace external attributes as the determinants of ethnic identity.

A strong sense of ethnic identity can influence a person's self-esteem, and it can also lead to dangerous, potentially violent, delusions, such as the idea of the "superiority" of a particular race (e.g., the Nazi myth of an "Aryan" race) or an ethnic group justifying genocide. For some people ethnic identity is a barely acknowledged fact of their life, while for some, it influences how they dress, speak, where they attend school, what they eat, and who they marry.

Zoran Minderovic

Further Reading

Aboud, Frances E., and Anna-Beth Doyle. "The Early Development of Ethnic Identity and Attitudes." In Ethnic Identity: Formation and Transmission among Hispanics and Other Minorities, edited by Martha Bernal and George P. Knight. Albany: State University of New York Press,(1993): 47-59.

Aboud, Frances E., and Shelagh A. Skerry. "Self and Ethnic Concepts in Relation to Ethnic Constancy." Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 15, no. 1, (1983): 14-26.

Alba, Richard D. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Bernal, Martha E., George P. Knight, Katheryn A. Ocampo, Camille A. Garza, and Marya K. Cota. Ethnic Identity: Formation and Transmission among Hispanics and Other Minorities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Erikson, Erik. Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.

——. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: W.W. Norton, 1980.

Hall, Thomas D., Christopher Bartalos, Elizabeth Mannebach, and Thomas Perkowitz. "Varieties of Ethnic Conflict in Global Perspective: A Review Essay." Social Science Quarterly 77, no. 2, (June 1966): 445-52.

Ocampo, Katheryn A., Martha E. Bernal, and George P. Knight. "Gender, Race, and Ethnicity: The Sequencing of Social Constancies." In Ethnic Identity: Formation and Transmission among Hispanics and Other Minorities, edited by Martha Bernal and George P. Knight. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 11-30.

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