On Race Ethnicity and Nationalism

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In today’s world, nearly every state takes their share from the conflicts of races, ethnic problems or nationalism. Except the people who spend their time just to live, which means you should not have any connection between you and others, everybody hears these words in their routine. This bunch of terms effects whole the politics of the world and people’s everyday lives deeply. However, in general and simply, their meanings have mixed each other, and these words are used to represent one of others meaning’s. There is no doubt that the cause of this complex situation is their close meanings and relationships, especially between race and ethnicity. Eriksen sums up this problem briefly and very well with these words: “Words like ‘ethnic groups’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic conflict’ have become common terms in the English language… The same can be said for ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen, 1994:1). In this paper, the main problem to be dealt with is clarifying the meanings of these terms and creating connections between them.

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 To begin with today’s dictionary responses and their etymologic roots then comparing some definitions from several writers give us better perspective before analyzing and establishing their connections between each other.

 Firstly, to search deeper, focusing on word of ‘ethnic’ instead of ‘ethnicity’ will give more healthy results. The both oldest and the newest term is the ethnic. It is the oldest because its root goes to ancient Greek times with the combination of the words of ethnikos, which means ‘heathen’, and ethnos, which means ‘nation’. However, for the current sense usage has started from the 19th century. According to Oxford Dictionary ethnic means “Relating to a population subgroup (within a larger or dominant national or cultural group) with a common national or cultural tradition.”. (“Definition of Ethnic in English by Oxford Dictionaries”. Accessed January 01, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ethnic.)

 Second word we focus is nationalism. The same as the previous one, to be dealt with the word of the ‘nation’ gives us better results. Its etymologic history goes to the era called Middle English which represents between 1100s and 1500s. It was effected by old French from Latin nati(n-), from nat-‘born’, from the verb nasci and it means “A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.” (“Definition of Nation in English by Oxford Dictionaries”. Accessed January 01, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nation). However, when we focus nationalism, for the today’s sense, we should go back to the French revolution which occurred in 1789. The usage of the word nationalism massively increased after that year.

 Finally, and the newest word we deal with is race. The term race was used first in early 16th century and it means “Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.”. When we look its sub-meanings, one of the explanations takes attention that ‘ethnic group’ gives us a synonymous of the race so it can be said that the whole situation is a problematic for the dictionaries too. (“Definition of Race in English by Oxford Dictionaries”. Accessed January 01, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/race)

Before creating connections between terms, it is better to take opinions of the significant writers about meanings of the terms and understand their methods. For instance, Fredrik Barth takes help of anthropological literature, while describing the term ‘ethnic group’. From his article: “The term ethnic group is generally understood in anthropological literature (cf. e.g. Naroll 1964) to designate a population which: 1. is largely biologically self-perpetuating 2. shares fundamental cultural values, realized in overt unity in cultural forms 3. makes up a field of communication and interaction 4. has a membership which identifies itself, and is identified by others, as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories of the same order.” (Fredrik Barth, 1969: 10). Before to criticize the concept, starting with to know what you study is too important and doing it with the terminology is the one of the best methods. However, he continues with criticizing with these words: “This ideal type definition is not so far removed in content from the traditional proposition that a race = a culture = a language and that a society = a unit which rejects or discriminates against others.” (Fredrik Barth, 1969: 11). According to him, this type formulation generalizes too many things inside of it then this situation prevents understand the main concept of ethnic group, so this can be concluded as importance of the taking helps from other disciplinaries but presentation it with the combination of your discipline and your own style. To my way of thinking, there are two important parts for the definition of the ‘ethnic’. These are firstly a group of people and secondly common and shared custom. The group of people is the subject and the custom is an object of that group in the existing of the ethnic groups. The emergence of this common custom can be possible with living together and share same memories with so many years. This situation takes generations to be happened. This is different from kinship. However, after so many years and shared tons of things, in general there is kinship between these people. In my opinion, this is the main problem of the mixing terms. According to Max Weber, it is not so different, with his words: “Ethnic membership (Gemeinsamkeit) differs from the kinship group precisely by being a presumed identity not a group with concrete social action, like the latter. In our sense, ethnic membership does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group formation of any kind, particularly in the political sphere.” (Max Weber,1996: 19). He adds that the creation of the ethnic membership of some certain group makes same aims for the member of that ethnic group. This situation shapes their political activities both for the domestic and the global objectives.

The opinions about the concept of race is slightly different from the former one. People’s physical appearance, in which people take this heritage from his parents in other words pass with kinship, is much more important for this one. Ernst Renan says about this subject: “The fact of race, which was originally crucial, thus becomes increasingly less important. Human history is essentially different from zoology, and race is not everything, as it is among the rodents or the felines, and one does not have the right to go through the world fingering people’s skulls and taking them by the throat saying: ‘You are of our blood; you belong to us!’”(Ernst Renan, 1882:4). When we consider the first people in the history and realize how communities small before the some breaking points, such as industrial revolution or events even on earlier centuries, for the boom of population and how communities integrated to each other today much more than yesterday and less than tomorrow, how can we divide people as you are belonged to ‘x race’ or ‘y race’. Is this way healthy or scientific? According to Max Weber: “A [particularly] problematic source of social action […] is ‘race identity’: common inherited and inheritable traits that actually derive from common descent” (Max Weber, 1996: 15). It can be seen very easily that he also sees this situation as a problematic. Eriksen also called as “The term ‘race’ has deliberately been placed within inverted commas in order to stress that it is not a scientific term. Whereas it was for some time fashionable to divide humanity…” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen, 1994:5).

What is the main reason for this problem? Like I said, there is uncertainty in this subject. In today’s world thanks to the both technology and mass population. There are hundreds of marriages between different ‘races’. There are no certain common decisions about the race of babies from these marriages. For instance, this can be possible that there is a family with Turkish father and German mother and they have a child who born in USA. According to meaning of the term race, which says race becomes from blood or kinship, Is that child Turk or German? If it is about physical appearance, and let’s assume that the child looks like her mother with its yellow hair and blue eyes with the opposite of its father who has black hair and eyes, should we say that the child is German? or if it is about blood/kinship, should we say that the child is Turk or something combination of Turk and German? Another perspective is about the occurrence of races. There are lots of similar groups in the world. These groups have been neighbor to each other for several years and with marriages they assimilated their customs too. At some point, they divided as a ‘x race’ and ‘y race’ whereas they have still kinship. Why there is a division or exactly when these groups were divided and questions about situation’s uncertainty make race problematic and nonscientific. There is a good analyze from Eriksen, he says: “Concepts of race can nevertheless be relevant to the extent that they inform people’s actions; at this level, race exists as a cultural construct, whether it has a biological reality or not.” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen, 1994:6).

The last concept we focus is nationalism. People are using the term nationalism relatively much more, thanks to structure of the states. Nationalism is based on nation so understand the term of nation is important at that point. According to Ernst Renan: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form” (Ernst Renan, 1882:6). People who live together is a subject and their memories which ensure desire to live together is an object for the term nation. Nation is very different than the first two concepts because for its necessities. For the ethnicity custom and for the race kinship are musts.

On the other hand, for the nation, desire to live together and shared memories, in general sense, are musts. Nation has some characteristics from both of ethnicity and race, but it still different. For instance, shared memories, which represent past, and wishes to live together, which represent today and tomorrow, need living together which makes highly possible occurrence of common custom and kinship. These characteristics are not necessity but highly possible to occur. Max Weber says about this situation that “The concept of ‘nationality’ shares with that of the ‘people’ (Volk) -in the ‘ethnic’ sense- the vague connotation that whatever is felt to be distinctively common must derive from common descent.”. (Max Weber, 1996: 24). He highlights the ethnic sense which represents shared memory and its relationship between nation. Another important point is seen by Ernst Renan that he says “Nowadays, a far graver mistake is made: race is confused with nation and a sovereignty analogous to that of really existing peoples is attributed to ethnographic or, rather linguistic groups” (Ernst Renan, 1882:1). Like I said, he mentions about relationship between the terms of race, nation and other elements. To continue with mentioning about nationalism, after focus on nation, goes well. There are different kinds of nationalism such as ethnosymbolist approach or modernist approach. There are also lots of thinkers who draw their nation and nationalism understandings. Before to focus on what I understand and use in this paper, it is better to look definition of dictionary.

Nationalism is, according to Oxford Dictionary, Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations (“Definition of Nationalism in English by Oxford Dictionaries”. Accessed January 01, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nationalism). From my perspective, nationalism is a people’s, who are a member of a nation in which they belonged and this belongness is determined same as Max Weber’s, world view that put their nation’s interest in front of their self-interests. This situation can be dangerous somehow with racial and ethnic discrimination when they see them as a threat(!) to their nation. The most important part of this assumption is a threat side because who determines that some ethnic or racial groups threatened the nation, is there any certain rules to determine it or what actions make that groups threatened to your nation? The answers of these questions are subjective, and their results can be seen in the example of Yugoslavia or Nazi Germany. These are extremist versions of the nationalism. However, in my way of thinking, the feelings and essence of the extremist version and moderate version of nationalisms are same. I will mention about the future of this approach at the following paragraphs.

To continue relationship between these terms helps us to understand their differences and characteristics more clearly. Firstly, we have a chance to see Michael Banton’s, who is a social scientist and well known with his ethnic and race relations, opinions in Eriksen’s article. Banton tells differences between the terms ethnic and race with these words: “race refers to the (negative) categorization of people, while ethnicity has to do with (positive) group identification. He argues that ethnicity is generally more concerned with the identification of ‘us’, while racism is more oriented to the categorization of ‘them’.” (Banton, 1983:106; cf. Jenkins, 1986:177). Eriksen interprets this comment with these words: “This would imply that race is a negative term of exclusion, while ethnic identity is a term of positive inclusion.” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen, 1994:7). I love these comments because I believe that these interpretations summarize whole things between terms race and ethnic in today’s conditions. I want to give an example about my argument which is about ‘racism’. Racism has been problem for decades. We can see all its destructions and evil sides with black-white situation in America, extremist side with Nazism in Nazi Germany and more simply football stadiums in today. In general, these events called as a racism because of its ‘negative’ and ‘exclusionary’ power within the word itself. However, all of these are not just ‘racial’ problem but also ‘ethnic’ problem too. Eriksen also declared same opinion with me. He says “However, nobody would suggest that the horrors of Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s were racial, but they were certainly ethnic.” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen, 1994:7). The example for the power of the word ‘ethnic’ can be about minorities. For the most of times the term ‘ethnic minorities’ is used to define group of people even when they have common ‘physical appearance’ too, in other words have kinship which represents ‘racial’ characteristic. The reason behind it combining these people together and taking advantage power of the word which is inside in itself.

The other comparisons can be between terms ethnic-nation and race-nation. Moreover, these comparisons show us competition between concepts such as globalization and technology and nationalism. With the globalization, people have chance to meet foreign people and cultures, to travel and see much more than ever. Parallel to this changing, interactions between ‘nations’ are also at the peak. This causes getting rid of prejudices of people about different customs. These situations will create as least number of nations as possible in the future. The notions of terms American or European can be given as examples. To wait for demolishing nationalism is impossible in near future especially while right wing parties are in trend. However, thanks to technology, my assumption is coming day by day. The example of interaction between ethnic and nation is very different by Ernst Renan. He highlights where today nations are established was a fatherland of different ethnic groups. He says: “Ethnographic considerations have therefore played no part in the constitution of modern nations. France is [at once] Celtic, Iberic, and Germanic. Germany is Germanic, Celtic and Slav. Italy is the country where the ethnographic argument is most confounded. Gauls, Etruscans, Pelasgians, and Greeks, not to mention many other elements, intersect in an indecipherable mixture. The British Isles, considered as a whole, present a mixture of Celtic and Germanic blood, the proportions of which are singularly difficult to define.” (Ernst Renan, 1882:4).

This is a very good example for the continent Europe about that there is no necessity such as your nation state should contain just one ethnic group and you must establish your state on the fatherland of your dominant ethnic group. It is very good example for ‘continent Europe’ because there is also a big anti-thesis for my fictional assumption: USA. There is also one more example from Renan about both race and ethnic relation with nation: “The Turkish policy of separating nationalities according to their religion has had much graver consequences, for it brought about the downfall of the east. If you take a city such as Salonika or Smyrna, you will find there five or six communities each of which has its own memories, and which have almost nothing in common.” (Ernst Renan, 1882:2). He claims that for being nation it is important to have shared memories, not common custom. This also means that to create nation, the number of different ethnic groups or different kinds of racial groups do not important. These just help to create what you need on essence, shared memory. For the example of the race-nation relation, Nazi Germany policies can be given. Adolf Hitler wanted to put pure Aryan race as a nation of his ideal Germany. He believed that Aryan race is noble and superior. All the other races come after that first-class race. In order to create his ideal world, which means provide and maintain purity of the blood, he passed the laws about other racial groups and opened the road of their purge. As we can see, nation’s relation with other terms little bit problematic because of the purpose of the nations which is establishing a state.

To sum up, the main purpose of the paper, which is the describing differences of terms ‘nation(alism)’, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, achieves its aim with the today’s usage dictionary meanings, their etymologic roots, their meanings on significant thinkers and some of their compares with examples. These terms are being used several times in people’s everyday lives.

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On Race Ethnicity And Nationalism. (2020, Jun 26). Retrieved February 7, 2023 , from

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