Fwd: What is an Ethnic Group ?

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Dr. Samuel Olamijulo

Oct 10, 2009, 10:25:16 AM10/10/09
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Our thanks to Professor Mobolaji Aluko
What is an Ethnic Group?




An ethnic group is a group of human individuals who share a common, unique self-identity. An ethnic group is also called a "people" or a "people group." Some words used to refer to a group as a separate ethnic group are: tribe, clan, nation, lineage, family, society, community and heritage.

Language and Culture

A common technical term for an ethnic group is "ethno-linguistic." There are two parts to that word: "ethno" and "linguistic."

The "linguistic" part indicates that language is always a part of ethnic identity. Language is a primary characteristic that separates groups of humans who speak different languages and identifies speakers of the same language as related in some way. The language we speak is always an important part of our cultural identity.

But language is not always the determining factor between two different groups of people. There are many other factors that determine ethnicity or that are associated with ethnicity.


The "ethno" in "ethno-linguistic" refers to other aspects of culture that make up "ethnicity." Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group.

Some other common ethnic factors that define or distinguish a people are:

  1. a common history,
  2. customs,
  3. family and clan identities, as well as
  4. marriage rules and practices,
  5. age-grades and other obligation covenants, and
  6. inheritance patterns and rules.

What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.

How We Determine Ethnicity

Determining ethnicity is a process of discovery. There are many factors involved in the concept of "ethnicity." Each society or tribe of humans gives different value to the various aspects of relationships and social order.

Each entry in a list of ethnic groups (or "peoples") has a name. In our people list we prefer to use the name the people themselves call themselves. But a name by itself does not tell you anything, because many peoples use the same name for themselves.

Words in different languages may sound the same even though they are not related. So we find that some peoples in China have a name in their language that sounds the same as peoples in Africa. Some tribes in West Africa have the a name that just happens to sound like the name of other peoples in Zambia, but they are unrelated. So we need more than just a name in a list to know who we are talking about.

Because unrelated names can sound the same, we also look at the name of that group in different languages. In West Africa, for instance, it might be the French form of the name. In East Africa we might use the Swahili name. We also look at the common name by which that people may already be known in English (or other research language).

Sometimes we need one group name for several related peoples or their dialects. That name would refer to the largest grouping of individuals that still consider themselves related through actual kinship, a shared history, or similar customs and self-identity. They might speak one or more languages.

Here are some of the main factors that make up Ethnicity.

Language and Location

We’ve already talked about languages as a basic part of ethnicity. A people group description includes at least one language and at least one location, such as a country, a district, or a town where they live.

The Registry of Peoples (ROP) of Harvest Information System is a major list that provides a separate code for every ethnic group in the world. The ROP connects each ethnic group to the main languages spoken by that group in all countries where they are known to exist.

The ROP code for each ethnic group provides a common identification across languages and locations. Many agencies use the ROP codes to identify their peoples.


Religion is one primary ethnic characteristic that may be so strong that it causes a definite boundary within a group of persons that are otherwise identical. In this case, religion is a sufficient reason to list a group as a separate ethnic group. Some lists include the name or other information about the religion of ethnic groups they list.

Some lists organize ethnic groups by their religions. This provides another way of looking at the peoples of the world and how they relate to each other.

National Borders

Sometimes state borders (frontiers) cause political, social, or economic differences that make two related groups gradually more and more different. When the differences grow great enough, the people may not relate to each other across the country frontier anymore.

The segment on each side of the border may become more like their neighbours on that side of the border. Their way of speaking the same language may also change, so they think of them as two separate languages.

This would lead us to change our list so that they are now shown as two separate ethnic groups. (Some listings are totally by country, so even the same ethnic group across a border is listed as a separate group.)

How Ethnic Lists are Made

It is not always easy to tell whether a group of related families in a location should be considered as one ethnic group or two (or even more). Where are the dividing lines? Different researchers and lists make different decisions about how to make their formal lists. But they all try to account for all the information they have found.

They try to count each individual only once. So different lists may group different tribes, clans, or dialects in different ways that are still okay.

The Registry of Peoples distinguishes between two ethnic groups based on a long list of cultural characteristics. Specific decisions are based on complex, extensive research at various levels. The goal is to represent the self-identity of each listed ethnic group. We want to represent the peoples of the world as they see themselves.

To decide what name to use for a particular ethnic group, we also look at names already well known and used in other ethnic information. For instance, instead of Imazigen, we might use the name Berber. We also try to use established names used in anthropology or linguistics. This is why we also include Alternate Names, so you can tell how other lists may report the same people.

When the Editor decides how each of these should be divided and what name they will be listed under, each ethnic group is given a separate entry and assigned a separate code. Further detail on these characteristics may be found in public information on various academic disciplines.

A listing of ethnic groups is never final. Determining the ethnic groups of the world is a continual process of discovery, clarification, and refinement.

Ethnic Segments and Social Strata

Sometimes you will find that one people list has several separate entries where another list has only one entry that includes all those smaller groups. This shows that there are different ways of accounting for the same information about all the peoples referred to.

You can always find smaller groups within any ethnic grouping, all the way down to a single family. It depends on how specific your view is or your purpose for classifying.

An ethnic group can be divided into smaller groups. These are usually called sub-groups or segments. The term "clan" is used this way in English.

Any society within a city or a country will usually have several ethnic groups. In a society like that, you can also see different groupings related to education, occupation, social status, income, and such. These groupings are called social strata or sometimes "social segments."

These social strata may include segments of various people groups. Such social groupings may be useful for communication and cultural access, by focusing on their special interests.

Language and Ethnicity

The relationship between language and ethnic self-identity is sometimes hard to discover. Let’s look at some examples of the relationship between language and other cultural characteristics.

Multi-Lingual Ethnic Groups

There are many groups of people who speak multiple languages but still consider themselves one ethnic group. There are several in China, Nepal and India.

The Dinka of Sudan speak a range of dialects in five separate languages, but they consider themselves to be one people.

The Beja in Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt all consider themselves to be Beja. Different groups of them speak three languages: Tigre, To Bedawie (Beja), and Sudanese Arabic. Some speak two or three of these languages, while others speak only one of the three.

Multi-Ethnic Language Groups

We also find that there are different peoples who speak the same language but think of themselves as separate peoples. This may be because they don’t share the same history; or one or both groups may allow marriage only within their own group. They may be allied with different other groups for political or military purposes.

We sometimes find that as their parent group grew larger, each of the smaller family groups took a different name as they moved to new land. Maybe each group maintains some sense of loyalty or heritage from different common ancestors.

We see examples of this in East Africa where many peoples who speak mutually intelligible varieties of the Swahili language, but they consider themselves separate ethnic groups. Tribes in Zaire whose mother tongue is Swahili have no connection with Swahili-speaking tribes along the Tanzania coast and feel no sense of kinship with them.

Arabs—Related Peoples with Different Languages

For over a century the Arabs in East Africa have spoken Swahili as their sole mother tongue, as have the Shirazi in Mombasa for centuries. But the Arabs have maintained their self-identity as Arabs, both by name and culture, and maintained contacts with Arabs from Oman, Yemen, and other Arab countries, some even learning Arabic as a second language.

Thus the Shirazi Swahili and the East African Arabs speak the same language and they are quite close in culture and religion. But they definitely don’t consider themselves related.

Enemies who Speak the Same Language

Some people groups find their worst enemies in other ethnic groups speaking the same mother tongue. Sometimes they are actual cousin peoples. One example is found in Bosnia. Three traditional enemies there, the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims, all speak Serbo-Croatian. Yet they are separated by clear boundaries of culture, history, religion, and self-identity.

The whole world knows about the Tutsi and Hutu in Burundi and Rwanda. These two groups from different historical origins have shared the same language and culture for centuries. Yet they have maintained distinct social and ethnic identities for almost 2000 years.

Thus various ethnic factors must be considered in addition to language for a full ethno-linguistic profile.

Gospel Strategy

For gospel strategy purposes, a key principle is to define a strategy for the largest ethno-linguistic segment or affinity group within which the gospel can spread through "natural" social networks. Where barriers are identified which would hinder or prevent the further spread of the gospel, we have identified the effective boundary of the ethno-linguistic segment, or people group.

Thus, a group of separate peoples who speak the same language might need to be identified separately for strategy purposes, because the other factors of self-identification and social organization for internal communication would keep the gospel from naturally being spread from one group to the other even though they speak the same language.

In other cases, the self-identification of the specific people group might be flexible enough that they would freely exchange cultural knowledge across their other ethnic factors so that the gospel could spread from one group to the other. To some extent that is the case with Swahili in the coastal regions of East Africa, because of the strong positive association of the language across otherwise separate peoples.

Nevertheless it is usually more effective to conduct gospel access in their own tribal language. It is in that deep mother-tongue level where personal identity is developed and life decisions are made. But again, leadership training of believers can be effective in a shared language, because you are dealing with expansion of the accepted Christian worldview that they are already committed to sharing.

Multi-lingual ethnic groups already have, or will develop, mechanisms or strategies for the transfer of information or cultural change across the language boundaries within their own ethnic groups, and perhaps for closely-related groups in the broader affinity groupings.

Ethnic Identity

In summary, ethnic identity largely depends on a people’s self-identity. Our list must represent relational and social groupings, not just names. Further, language is a key factor in this group self-identity.

Western teachers or learners, as well as researchers, like to put things into clear categories. Ethnic boundaries are not always that clear-cut. Because of the western cultural worldview and thought, Westerners like to organize things. This causes an abstract approach.

This means they usually start with a system or organization, then they try to put whatever they find into one of their categories. This procedure starts with a name for a people and proceeds to define who can be called by that name.

This assumes already that they are a people by a certain name, so that we think we can refer to members of the predefined group. What if the name you started with, maybe from an old list, was a mistake? How will you find out what the name originally meant in the original list?

Inductive Investigation

It is more productive to start with a group of people and learn how they identify themselves. Ask who these individuals feel they are related to. This approach begins with the concrete relationships and natural social groupings of individuals, families, and the larger society.

Ask these kinds of questions about broader relationships:

What other families, villages, or tribes does the family relate to?
What other groups can they talk to (understand their language)?
What other families, villages, or tribes are they allowed to intermarry with?

Then organize your findings to see what groupings you get.

So the type of question is "Who does this individual, family, or social group feel related to?" What other families or groups do they consider themselves related to and in what ways?

We have to find out how individuals or smaller communities commonly identify themselves. The major ways we can do this are:

  1. By observation,
  2. By reading other research, and
  3. By asking our own questions where possible. (Societies vary as to what outsiders can ask and learn.)

Then following these relationships, look for the largest relational grouping of families, villages, or languages who share the same beliefs and social obligations.

Find out what name the group calls themselves at each relational level. Most of us use various names for our different levels of identity: African, Kenyan, Bantu, Mijikenda, Giriama, Jibana, etc., down to the family.

This investigation of relational groupings will be the starting point for the strategic listings of an ethnic group list.

Don’t forget to find out how individuals who speak a certain language are related to the larger group of people who speak that language. Also, be sure to find out whether smaller groups speaking the same language think of themselves as part of the same larger group or as a separate ethnic group.

E-mail: Orville Boyd Jenkins


  Warm Regards and Best Wishes,

  From Dr. Samuel  Kayode  Olamijulo

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