What is an Ethnic Group?

Lately, I have encountered a number of interesting discussions and comments regarding ethnicity.  People want to approach it from the aspect of Y-DNA testing; term meaning & definition; and more.  I thought that perhaps a brief discussion/ analysis of the subject might be helpful- for me if for no one else.

Note: Actually this document is largely extracted and built from many other sources (because I am no authority on this topic).

Hopefully my analysis and discussion will provide some useful food for thought and give some comfort in the imprecision associated with the use and application of Ethnicity as a concept, genealogically speaking.

First let’s review a typical dictionary definition for the term “Ethnic Group”.

From Merriam-Webster:

  • of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc.
  • associated with or belonging to a particular race or group of people who have a culture that is different from the main culture of a country

Based on the above definition, we could argue that the following image depicts multiple ethnic groups, maybe even as many as 4 of them.

ethnic groups

Having looked though I think you will agree that at least the bikers and cowboys are very unlikely ethnic groups.

So when we think about ethnicity, it seems to me that the above definition is a bit scant.  I think most people tend to bundle more emotion into their ‘personal’ meaning of Ethnic Group. As a minimum, people seem to add ‘community’, linguistics and appearance to the mix. To get a little insight into that notion, I found a brief online discussion that was helpful to me.  Quoting from Diffen.com:

Ethnicity versus Race:

The traditional definition of race and ethnicity is related to biological and sociological factors respectively. Race refers to a person’s physical appearance, such as skin color, eye color, hair color, bone/jaw structure etc. Ethnicity, on the other hand, relates to cultural factors such as nationality, culture, ancestry, language and beliefs.

So now let’s go back to our original term “ethnic group” and take a somewhat more ‘scientific’ look at the phrase.  Excerpting from Science Daily:

An ethnic group is a human population whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or ancestry.

Ethnic groups are also usually united by common cultural, behavioural, linguistic, or religious practices.

Members of an ethnic group generally claim a strong cultural continuity over time, although some historians and anthropologists have documented that many of the cultural practices on which various ethnic groups are based are of recent invention.

If you want to read yet another detailed, helpful, and lengthy discussion see Wikipedia.

As with most social/ societal conventions the concept/ idea of ethnicity continues to evolve and change.  An interesting example of this evolution or transformation involves the relatively recent concept of “Jewish Peoplehood” (much more detail may be found on wikpedia). To briefly summarize this development, the “Peoplehood” concept/ notion moves ethnicity (ethnic group) into a both more diffuse and yet useful place, because it recognizes the role and importance of self-selection or self-identification in group belonging/ association.

To quote from Wikipedia:

Jewish peoplehood (Hebrew: עמיות יהודית, Amiut Yehudit) is the awareness of the underlying unity that makes an individual Jew a part of the Jewish people.

The concept of peoplehood has a double meaning. The first is descriptive, as a concept factually describing the existence of the Jews as a people. The second is normative, as a value that describes the feeling of belonging and commitment to the Jewish people.


I believe it is most helpful when employing a concept like Ethnicity to employ a qualifying adjective or set of adjectives.  Thus when I say that someone believes or thinks they might be Prussian, I describe a dominant or secondary association or group membership assumed by that indivdual to a particular place, group, and time.

As an example, in my mother’s case she is a German Prussian. When I say that, what I really mean is:

  • from when she was born in 1923 until the day her family was expelled from her original home in 1947, she was Prussian (and her heart and soul remain linked to Prussia; her Heimatland.)
  • to this day, she remains German; German is her native tongue and has always provided a strong psychological bond
  • since her US naturalization, she is also a German American
  • throughout her entire life she was Evangelisch (Lutheran)
  • until 1939 she was a citizen born in Freie Staat Danzig (because in 1923 there was no Prussian or German government in that very same region)

So as you can see, for my mom depending on the timeframe, if you asked who she was, you could/would get a different and accurate response. The response would reflect who she felt she was and where she came from (or belonged). But in the end, her primary, life long, ethnic association is first and foremost Prussian; second in her mind has always been her German Association.  Therefore when anyone asks me, I say my mother is a German Prussian.


In conclusion, what this really means to me, and perhaps many others, is that ethnic groups are variable but are most ‘meaningful’ or ‘relevant’ when they exhibit many of the following traits:

  • common genealogy or ancestry
  • similar religion or values
  • are associated within a specific geopolitical or political area(s), either as a majority or recognized minority population
  • are broadly recognized by other ethnic ‘groups’ or political structures
  • there is voluntary association, membership, or alignment by diverse peoples and other groups such as sub-ordinated or diaspora groups
  • a strong cultural continuity to a localized geopolitical region exists (existed) over time (such as Jews to Israel, aboriginals to Australia, etc.)
  • members voluntarily assume, espouse, and value association with a given ethnic group, or groups

Thus it is possible that I can ‘legitimately’ claim to be a Prussian; just as people living in today’s, Munich, London, Elblag, Kaliningrad, and Sowjetsk can.

Obviously my analysis is imprecise, anecdotal, and ‘even’ personal.  But for me, these factors represent what it means to be or belong to an ethnic group.  And I should say sarcastically conclude, “I should know for I belong to many!”  (Oh and so should you.)