Primordialism Ethnicity Is One of the More Essay

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Ethnicity is one of the more fluid concepts in sociology because one's ethnicity is largely defined by membership in a social group. The social group shares a common background, whether through experience or ancestry and they share characteristics that set them apart from other groups. Many times these characteristics are stereotyped, but the stereotypes are derived from a reality where the majority of members of the group do, indeed, share those characteristics. Moreover, one's ethnicity is not limited to a single background. A person can have multiple ethnicities by having a family that derives from multiple different ethnic traditions. However, a person can also have multiple ethnicities because larger ethnic groups can be further subdivided into smaller ethnic groups, sometimes referred to as tribes.

Ethnicity is also intertwined with race, which is an interesting concept. Genetic analysis has revealed that there is greater similarity than difference among humans from different races. In fact, there is a significant level of disagreement over the presence of races, so much so that some people dismiss the notion of race from a scientific basis. However, there is no doubt that race plays a critical role from a socio-cultural perspective. "Irrespective of the fact that race is not a biologically valid construct, however few would reject the notion that race is very real in terms of individuals' lived experiences. This is especially so given the fact that, since its inception, biological notions of race have largely functioned as an accepted truth about the nature of human difference" (Caliendo & Mcilwain 2011, p.xxii). Race may not be a real biological classification, but it is a social construct. Furthermore, the line between race and ethnicity is blurred. Therefore, when examining theories of ethnicity, theories of race will necessarily become relevant.

It is well-recognized that both race and ethnicity have been used, not only to separate people, but also to assign status and priority to different groups of people. There are issues of power and control connected with ideas of race and ethnicity. Why does the motivation behind ethnic identification matter? In other words, does it matter why people subdivide into ethnic and racial groups? Many would suggest that, yes, it does matter because the reasons that people believe in racial and ethnic divisions can help explain ethnic conflicts. More importantly, understanding why people are motivated to divide themselves into smaller subgroups composed of race and ethnicity, may be one of the ways to helping prevent or resolve ethnic conflicts.

While there is general consensus about what constitutes an ethnic group, there is disagreement about how ethnic groups operate within the broader context of human society. The two most significant theories about ethnicity include primordialism and instrumentalism, though essentialism, perrenialism, constructivism, and modernism. Primordialism looks at ethnicity as a construct that is part of the human condition. The perspective suggests that ethnic groups have always been a part of human society, and, furthermore, that modern ethnic groups can trace their roots to the past. Some primordialists even suggest that ethnic divisions are natural, not simply historical, though they have a difficult time accounting for the appearance and disappearance of ethnic groups. Others suggest that ethnicity is linked to kinship, so that ethnicity can be traced either to families or clans. Some primordialists suggest that ethnicity is not actually primordial, but that it is perceived by humans to be primordial. Other views may be more likely to link ethnicity with nations and tied to political power, or to view ethnicity as primarily a social construct. The different emphasis has different consequences; for primordialists, ethnicity is not fluid, while other views of ethnicity may treat it as a more fluid concept.

Comparing the primordial view to the circumstantial view of ethnicity, some significant differences become immediately apparent. From the primordial perspective, the rationale for ethnic group formation is based on blood, kinship, family, cultural connections, and is rooted in circumstances of birth. The orientation of ethnic and racial identities is toward local community interests. Group ties are considered a given because they are linked to blood ties. They are rooted in history, and, therefore, largely unaffected by circumstance. From this perspective, ethnic interests are of greater interest than class interests (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p.71). Under a circumstantial perspective, the rationale for group formation is based on either utility or organizational experience. The ethnic group is oriented towards political, economic, and status interests. Group ties are considered instrumental and a matter of both convenience and choice. These groups are considered a product of history and circumstance, so that they are changeable. Furthermore, the circumstantial perspective suggests that class interests can be more important than ethnic interests (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p.71).

At its heart, primordialism is an evolutionary theory of ethnicity. The blood ties that are a significant part of ethnic identity are clearly genetically evolutionary. However, there is also an element of social Darwinism in primordialist theories. By establishing these strong ties around groups that are generally linked by blood ties, people were more likely to ensure the survival of people who shared some, though not all, of their genetic material. Therefore, it is an evolutionary perspective. However, while evolutionary perspectives can provide useful frameworks for the studying of sociocultural phenomena, such as ethnicity, and help explain the causation of how ethnic beliefs can lead to conflict between ethnic groups, they do not necessarily explain how those feelings lead to some of the problems associated with the concepts of race and ethnicity (Harvey 2000, p.38). One might wonder why ethnic ties are better suited at meeting evolutionary needs such as security and survival. Harvey asks, "Why are 'ethnic' ties any more important than others for satisfying these needs? Could we not accommodate our desire for affiliation, communal anchorage or security in several other ways that have little to do with cultural or ethnic traits- for example, through political, class, occupational, or functional identities? The answer from an 'evolutionary' perspective is that ethnic ties are inherently more potent (and fit) as an organizing force than, say, ties based on class or occupation" (Harvey 2000, p. 41). In other words, kinship bonds are more permanent, and far less voluntary, than the other opt-in categories that could be used to align people to ensure that the needs for security and survival could be met by a group.

Primordialism was developed in the 1950s by Harold Isaacs. Isaacs equated ethnic identity with basic group identity (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p.51). In turn, these primordial attachments became the foundation for the theory of primordialism, which built upon the eight characteristics that Isaacs identified as being part of one's basic group identity: the physical body, name, history and origins of one's birth group, nationality or other group affiliation, one's first language, religion of origin, culture of origin, and the geography and topography of one's place of birth (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p.51). What is important about these characteristics is that they are not within the individual's control; they happen to a person and they happen before a person has an opportunity to engage in any choices (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p. 51). "The identity created by these elements is therefore incomparably resilient and enduring" (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p.51).

The primordialist view of ethnicity also suggests that ethnic conflict is largely unavoidable. This is because those identifying factors are ingrained in individuals at a very young age, which makes them resistant to assimilation with other ethnic groups. When one thinks about the resistance that European-Americans have had to treating non-European-Americans, including Native Americans and African-Americans as equal human beings, it seems to support the notion that there is a primordial urge to prevent assimilation. Furthermore, those examples help highlight some of the dangers in primordialism; the idea of fixed ethnic or racial identity making groups separate and distinct from other humans can be an extremely dangerous one. "Westerners have invented ethnic and racial identities not only for others but also for themselves, often with tragic and devastating consequences. Hitler's concoction of the Aryan master race is the most infamous and horrifying example" (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p.54).

However, the primordialist view does not suggest that ethnic identities are imposed from the outside by others, but also examines how self-imposed ethnic identities can help exacerbate between-group tensions. "Much of the blame for the conflicts among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims was laid at the feet of centuries-old ethnic identities, rooted in primordial attachments of long duration, that were submerged under the weight of imperial and then communist domination, only to reemerge explosively when the control of these authoritarian regimes was removed" (Cornell & Harmann 2007, p. 54). The fact, though, that these conflicts could be suppressed seems to argue against the elemental nature of primordialism; if an authoritarian regime is capable of suppressing conflicts between groups, then how can those conflicts be considered a basic element of an ethnic group?

The reality is that many people are willing to fight and die to retain their own…

Sources Used in Document:


Bayer, M. 2009. "Reconsidering primordialism: An alternative approach to the study of ethnicity." Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 32, no. 9, pp. 1639-1657.

Caliendo, S. & Mcilwain, C. 2011. The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity, London:


Cornell, S. & Hartmann, D. 2007. Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World,

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