Helen Galkina

The subject matter of this paper is the different approaches to the study of ethnic identity. It remains one of the most popular themes in the social sciences; the problem of identity being one of the most difficult challenges to which they have to respond. The term `identity', which was introduced by Freud to explain personal psychological mechanisms is a fundamental concept in the explanation of many social phenomena. The concept of ethnic identity is an attempt to deal with the concept of ethnicity which has proved so elusive for social scientists to track down.

The comparative approach to the problem of ethnic identity formulated here follows a trend within the social sciences originating from a Wenner-Gren conference in 1970 and the series of publications which followed (Weinreich 1983; Liebkind 1989). My aim is to outline an analytical approach that will reflect the eclecticism and contrasts that characterise the phenomenon of ethnic identity itself, in order to bring together different perspectives and models from sociology and psychology. It is rooted in the conviction that a combination of sociological and psychological concepts and methods of studying ethnic identity can strengthen each other, and advance our understanding of the problem. We can carry out this task by considering the following questions: What is the role of ethnic identity in social life? What approaches exist in different disciplines and what are their advantages and drawbacks? It is not, however, my intention to present an exhaustive critical review of the literature, but rather simply to set out the basic premises uniting the different perspectives.

One of the trends developing in the social sciences recently is a weakening of their boundaries: the influences of achievements in one discipline on the development of others, the penetration of categories and terms created in one discipline into others, and the adoption of some shared conceptual frameworks. In other words, it is difficult to talk about pure approaches, especially on the theoretical level. The boundaries between disciplines dealing with ethnic identity are quite arbitrary, and in many investigations the problems are treated from an interdisciplinary point of view. However, an abstraction of the main differences between different disciplinary approaches is needed in order to illuminate the central question of this paper, the main dimensions in the study of ethnic identity.

Although the main debates on the subject of ethnic identity have arisen within sociology and social psychology, it is impossible to ignore the considerable impact (especially on the empirical level) of social anthropology. Despite the wide use of the term `ethnic identity' in anthropological literature it is very difficult to distinguish it in this context from other related concepts, and often it is simply used as a synonym for `ethnicity'. Indeed, identity is often taken for granted as a term which does not need to be defined, and is itself used to define ethnicity, as in Schildkrout's definition: "Ethnicity is a set of conscious or unconscious beliefs or assumption about one's own or another's identity, as derived from membership in a particular type of group or category" (Schildkrout 1978). Ethnic identity is treated as a conceptualisation of one's membership of an ethnic group.

One of the evident advantages of the social anthropological approach, which needs to be emphasised, is its cultural, regional and historical focus. The function and expression of ethnicity is scrutinised in a definite cultural context. However by focusing on a particular group they have often ignored another important question: is there any way in which results from dfferent ethnic groups in different cultural contexts could be compared?

Thus, though we can find some parallels between the two disciplin ary approaches, generally while anthropologists describe precisely the mosaic of different ethnic identities, sociologists try to locate them within a broader social structure. So in sociological analyses ethnic identity is often used synonymously with ethnicity. Discussing the role of ethnicty in the contemporary world, based on great changes in the ethnic mix (connected with differential rates of natural increase in a societies and incoming streams of migrants and refugees), sociologists are agreed on the importance of ethnic divisions in most societies. The fact that, since the second World War, 20 million have died in ethnic conflicts, strengthens this conviction (McKay 1982). Many sociologists, however, confuse ethnicity with cultural behaviour or cultural awareness, and this reduces the understanding of ethnicity to the general study of culture (Patterson 1983).

Explanations of ethnic phenomena within sociology can be divided into two categories, which we might call primordalism and structuralism (Liebkind 1989). The former views ethnicty as irrational, deep-seated allegiances and attachments to kin, territory or religion (McKay 1982). Ethnicity is seen as a primordial tie which connotes unity and solidarity above and beyond internal division. The latter, on the other hand, considers ethnicty more or less as `false consciousness', or `ideology', which is rationally manipulated or consciously adopted as a strategy for pursuing the political and economic goals of ethnic groups (Okamura 1981). The instrumental, pragmatic and changeable aspects of ethnicty are emphasised, and ethnic identity is viewed as a rational reaction to social pressure (Lange 1981).

Researchers are now moving beyond both of these positions, which stress the importance of ethnic groups in a social structure but explaining it in different ways, towards the discovery of general features and specific functional characteristics of ethnicity. In confronting ethnic phenomena from a social-psychological perspective they treat ethnic identity as a specific conceptual model through which a group and its members understand the role of ethnicity, whereas ethnicity relates to the structural relationships between ethnic groups. The advantage of a psychological approach to identity is that it opens up the intimate ties and relationships between the individual and society to investigation. However, a study of the different elements and aspects of identity should be supplemented by the consideration of a wider spectrum of social phenomena and factors which sociology provides. Although there are a number of a different approaches, which consider ethnic identity from the psychological point of view (psychoanalytical, interactionist, cognitive and so on) it is possible to distinguish some general features. The main feature that we can also find in the anthropological and sociological approaches discussed above is the dualistic character of ethnic identity: identity can be seen as a complex balance between components of generality and components of individuality (Liebkind 1989). That means there are two levels of consideration: from the point of view of the ethnic group as a whole (group ethnic identity) and from the point of view of individual actors (individual ethnic identity).

These levels do not exist in isolation one from another but they influence each other and overlap. The formation of individual and collective consciousness is always interwoven and provides another dynamic underlying the process of ethnic consciousness (Saifullah-Kahn 1983). Individuals differ in the extent to which they behave in terms of group memberships. In reality, however, it is impossible to act in terms of group membership only, just as social identities always play a role even in the most personal relationships (Tajfel 1978; Lange 1981).

The social psychological interpretation of ethnic identity more often than not distinguishes it from other approaches to social identity especially on the group level. This approach is very close to the sociological interactionist tradition, one of whose variants - `processual interactionism' (the Chicago school) - put at the centre the social situation in which identities are established and maintained, while another variant, - `structural interactionistm' - emphasises the concept of role and identities and views identity mainly as internalised roles (Gecas 1982).

One of the most popular and sophisticated psychological theories of social identity developed by Tajfel (1978) holds that the purpose of ingroup identification is the achievement of a positive social identity (i.e. of a group-based positive distinctiveness in a relation to an out group). So in this theory it is stated that one of the most important dimensions of social identity, the coexistance of `we' and `they' components (or in another words `sameness' and `distinctiveness') is a parameter varying in regard to membership of individual groups (Zavalloni 1983).

Since at the centre of psychological analyses is the individual, the conceptualisation of ethnic identity here includes the motivation side both cognitive and evaluative, which means considering in a study such terms as `value system', and `self esteem'. Following traditions which claime a positive self-concept as one of the basic human needs, many contemporary theories maintain that a positive self-concept functions as the motivating force behind the development of social identity (Tajfel 1978; Pettigrew 1986). This position does work as an explanatory model in some instances, but tends to ignore facts which contradicting its propositions. It ignores cases where subordinate minorities may develop a negative self-concept together with positive attitudes towards the dominant group. These images are considered to be based on the definitions and values of the majority group and can thus be compared to `false consciousness' (Billig 1976). Generally speaking, we can say about the motivationally oriented tradition, that it resulted in a number of highly important and valuable studies based on the evaluative connotations of social identities: the reasons for, and conditions in which, negative minority self-esteem develops; (Lange 1981; Seeman 1981), the distinction between self-defined (subjective) and other-defined (objective) aspects of identity (Lange 1981); and cultural variations in the system of evaluation (Weinreich 1989). But their transformation into ethnic self-esteem reveals a syndrome of theoretical and methodological problems that signalised the need for a deeper treatment of the identity concept. It closely corresponds with the tradition started by Erikson (1968), where the socio-psychological process of reflexity called the `I' was placed at the centre of enquiry and where there were attempts to find some correlation between the partly subconsciousness aspects of selfhood, namely ego-identity and individual actions. The main problem here was that on the one hand they worked efficiently on the theoretical level, but that, on the other hand, they encountered some difficulties at the concrete empirical level of analysis (Lange 1981).

The mosaic description of the different approaches shows us that there is no general theory of ethnic identity in the social sciences and each theorising scheme emphasises and takes into consideration only some aspects of the problem. They need not be evaluated as `right' or `wrong' because of the variable nature and variety of forms of ethnic identity, which differ not only from group to group, but also from one historical and social context to another. How can we compare the ethnic identity of Chinese born and living in the USA with those born and brought up in China? Are there any differences between Jewish identity in the Soviet Union, in Central Europe and among Jews born in Israel after 1948? Can we talk compare the ethnic identities of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians before and after their assertions of independence?

Broadly speaking the world is full of a variety of images of ethnic identity which differ with social context and historical circumstances, and even a sophisticated theory will be only an abstraction which will not be able to take into consideration all of the variety. One of the ways of solving this problem, namely its operationalisation for practical investigation, always exists in parallel with attempts to define ethnic identity. The method of analysis, the useage of terms, the logic of enquiry are always consciously or unconsciously under both practical and theoretical constraints. So it is the task of investigators to find and define their position within the different approaches available.

The other way to minimise the lag between theory and empirical research into ethnic identity is to consider its main elements and key characteristics. The second question that I would like to discuss is to divide and distinguish its basic components, viewed from sociological and psychological perspectives, and propose also some fundamental links between it and other factors of social and personal life. Moreover it becomes evident that only a thorough study taking into account these different levels will achieve progress.

This gives us a broader picture of identity than that proposed by Berger and Luckmann (1971) who saw is as a phenomenon that emerges from the dialectic between individual and society. Theories about identity are always embedded in a more general interpretation of reality: they are `built into' the symbolic universe and its theoretical legitimations, and vary within the character of the latter. Any theorising about identity - and about specific identity types - must therefore occur within the framework of the theoretical interpretation within which it and they are located. The model presented in Figure 1 takes into consideration each level of the analysis of ethnic identity defined earlier. Each of these components can be viewed as a potential problem for an investigation. I offer this diagram in order to illustrate the complicated nature and structure of ethnic identity. In the light of the preceding discussion it seems clear that there is a wide and complex set of phenomena subsumed under the terms of ethnic identity which have led to the conclusion by many writers (Liebkind 1989; Weinreich 1989) that the notion of the creation of a universal grand theory of ethnic identity should be abandoned. A more appropriate approach to theorising about ethnic identity may be developed from generating theoretical propositions tied into specific socio-historical contexts.

The socio-historical context becomes the major component of the ethnic identity of a particular ethnic group or subgroup. It is important to be aware that ethnic identity is not an entity, but a series of complex processes in time in which people construct from `historical' facts biographical continuities between ancestors and their descendants as a group, generally in a wider social context of other ethnic groups and other social phenomena (Weinreich 1989). The final conclusion is that in spite of difficulties with universal theories of ethnic identity, caused not by the weaknesses of contemporary approaches in social sciences but by the complex and multi-dimensional nature of ethnic identity itself, the empirically grounded theoretical proposition that ethnic identity exists is not questioned. But I am convinced that studies have to operate not only within general social and psychological parameters but in terms of a particular historical and social context. Without this dimension the study of ethnic identity does not make sense.


Berger, P.L. & Luckmann, T. (1971) The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Billig, M. (1976) Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations. New York: Academic Press.

Erikson, E. (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Gecas, G. (1982) The Self Concept. Annual Review of Sociology. 8: 1-33.

Lange, A. (1981) Etnisk Deskriminering och Social Identitet: Forskninngsoversikt och Teoretsk Analys. Liber Forlag.

Liebkind, K. (ed.) (1989) New Identities in Europe: Immigrant Ancestry and the Ethnic Identity of Youth. Aldershot: Gower.

McKay, J. (1982) An Exploratory Synthesis of Primordial & Mobilizationist Approaches to Ethnic Phenomena. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 5: 392-420.

Okamura, J.Y. (1981) Situational Ethnicity. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 4: 452-65.

Patterson, O. (1977) Ethnic Chauvinism, the Reactionary Impulse. Stein & Day.

Pettigrew, T.F. (1971) Racially Separate or Together? New York: McGraw-Hill.

Saifullah-Kahn, V. (1977) Bilingualism and Linguistic Minorities in Britain: Developments, Perspectives. Runnymede Trust.

Seeman, M. (1981) School De-Segregation Research: New Directions in Situational Analysis. New York & London: Plenum Press.

Shildkroud, E. (1978) People of the Zongo. Cambridge: C.U.P.

Tajfel, H. (1978) The Social Psychology of Minorities. Minority Rights Group.

Tajfel, H. & Fraser, C. (eds.) (1978) Introducing Social Psychology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Weinreich, P. (1973) A Case Study Approach to the Analysis of Identity Structure. University of Bristol. SSRC. Research Unit on Ethnic Relations.

Zavalloni, M. (1983) Ego-ecology: the Intersection between Personal and Social Identity. In H. Jacobson-Widding (ed.) Identity: Personal and Social. (1976) Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Return to Contents page