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Ethnic Gloss

Joseph E. Trimble and Ryan Dickson
Western Washington University

in C. B. Fisher & Lerner, R. M. (Eds.; in press), Applied developmental science: 
An encyclopedia of research, policies, and programs. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

            An ethnic gloss is an overgeneralization or simplistic categorical label used to refer to ethnocultural groups such as American Indians, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans and nationalistic or indigenous groups where unique cultural and ethnic differences found among group members are ignored. An ethnic gloss presents the illusion of homogeneity where none exists, and therefore may be considered a superficial, almost vacuous, categorization, which serves only to separate one group from another (Trimble, 1991).

Use of an ethnic glosses provides little or no information on the richness and cultural variation within ethnocultural groups, much less the existence of numerous subgroups characterized by distinct lifeways and thoughtways. At best, it is an invented and often a contrived symbolic label for referring to a distinct ethnocultural population. It is a sorting device that has little to do with the deep cultural influences that guide a group member’s thought, feelings, and behavior. Furthermore, use of a broad ethnic gloss to describe an ethnocultural group can generate biased and flawed scientific research outcomes as well as serve to promote stereotypes. In addition, from the fact that such sweeping references to ethnocultural groups are gross misrepresentations, use of an ethnic gloss can violate certain scientific tenets concerning external validity, the ability to generalize findings across subgroups within an ethnic category, and erode any likelihood of an accurate and efficient replication of research results.

For example, the category of American Indian (often Native American), a widely used and abused ethnic gloss, actually represents an extremely diverse and complicated ethnic group consisting of well over 500 identifiable tribal units where individual members represent varying degrees of mixtures resulting from intermarriages and reflect varying acculturative orientations that effect ethnic identity. Using the label, American Indian, ignores the specific and unique lifeways and thoughtways of each of these different groups or tribes. This brand of gross oversimplification is also found in the label Asian American. There are at least 32 distinct Asian American ethnic and cultural groups that are typically listed under this designation, however the differences among and between these groups are extraordinarily complex. Given the diversity of languages, norms, mores and immigrant status, it is evident that to label these peoples as Asian American implies a level of homogeneity that is almost certainly lacking. The Hispanic ethnic gloss is a term used to designate those individuals who reside in the United States and whose cultural origins are from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and various other Latin American countries.  The American essayist, Richard Rodriguez (2003), for example, asserts that, “there is no such thing as a Hispanic race. In Latin America, one sees every race of the world. One sees white Hispanics, one sees brown Hispanics, one sees black Hispanics, one sees brown Hispanics who are Indians, many of whom do not speak Spanish because they resist Spain. One sees Asian Hispanics” (p. B11). African Americans or Blacks in America are considered to be those individuals who can trace the origins of their ancestors to Africa. African American, as a race, is an illusion if one means by it a homogeneous group with common anatomical and psychological characteristics. Moreover, African Americans in America are as culturally heterogeneous as the other three groups as reflected in social class characteristics, progeny from mixed ethnic marriages, and American Blacks who are descendants of, or originally from, the Caribbean Basin (e.g., Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica) and Central and South America.

In selecting ethnic samples for social and behavioral science studies, researchers often assume that their respondents share a common understanding of their own ethnicity and nationalistic identification. It is as though the researcher believes that American Indians, African Americans, and others share some modal characteristic that at one level sets them apart from another comparative sample such as "whites" (Trimble, 1988). This assumption is invalid. The anthropologist, Dwight Heath (1978) argues that, "categories of people such as those compared under the rubric of ‘ethnic groups’ are often not really meaningful units in any sociocultural sense" and "that the ways in which people define and maintain the social boundaries' between or among self-identified categories are often far more important and revealing of sociocultural dynamics" (p. 60).

            At an individual level, the researcher can use labels to describe one's ethnic affiliation and thus one's identity, but this nominal approach is incomplete and insufficient to adequately capture the full range and depth of one's ethnic identity. The labeling of an individual, often achieved by having the respondent check off the most applicable ethnic category available on a questionnaire, can at best be construed as the representation of only a small part of one's ethnic identification. One must consider gathering information on natal background, acculturation status, attitudes toward their own and other groups, preferences such as language use, friendship affiliations, music, foods, and participation in cultural and religious events. The variables are closely aligned to the four-part ethnic identification measurement model advocated by Trimble (2000) and related ethnic and racial identification scales (see Trimble, Helms, & Root, 2003).

In the design of a cultural or ethnic intended research, attention must be given to the manner in which one specifies and describes ethnocultural and nationalistic populations. In the cross-cultural and ethnic psychological literature, studies abound where researchers purport to be studying such groups labeled as the Japanese, Israeli Jews, Hong Kong Chinese, Canadians, Australian aborigines, Greek Australians, Nigerians, American Indians (or Native Americans), Asian and Pacific Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, and other ethnic specific groups. Occasionally, researchers provide greater specificity concerning their respondents in their titles and abstracts by giving reference to a geographic region or city where the respondents and participants reside. Others will distinguish their respondents along urban and rural lines while others, when referring to an American Indian group, for example, will specify the tribe and the location on a reservation where the study occurred. However, for a vast majority of the studies in the ethnic minority and cross-cultural literature, descriptions of ethnocultural groups tend to rely on the use of broad ethnic glosses. For example, in a study conducted by the psychologist, Patrick H. Munley and his collaborators  (2002), 402 empirical research studies selected from American Psychological Association sponsored journals were reviewed and analyzed for their participant description content using the Personal Dimensions of Identity (PDI) model in order to determine whether researchers were gathering appropriate participant characteristic information. The authors found that of the studies reviewed only 60.7% included information related to a person’s race or ethnicity, only 16.2% reported the language of their participants, and even fewer reported their participant’s income or social class (14.5% and 14.9% respectively).

Researchers can avoid or minimize the use of ethnic gloss by elaborating on the population descriptions or sample through administering detailed demographic or ethnic identification measures. The publication manual of the American Psychological Association (2001) states that, “When describing racial and ethnic groups, be appropriately specific and sensitive to issues of labeling” and that “it may be helpful to describe them by their nation or region of origin” (p. 62). To avoid the bias inherent in the ethnic gloss phenomena it is prudent for the investigator to define the ethnocultural group in more precise terms. An ethnocultural minority group may be defined as: "(1) subordinate segments of complex state societies; (2) (having) special physical or cultural traits which are held in low esteem by the dominant segments of the society; (3) self-conscious units bound together by the special traits which their members have and by the special disabilities which these brings; (4) (one where) membership is transmitted by a rule of descent which is capable of affiliating succeeding generations even in the absence of readily apparent special cultural or physical traits; and (5) (people who) by choice or necessity tend to marry within the group" (Wayley & Harris, 1958, p. 10). Or one may prefer to use the definition offered by the anthropologist, Raoll Narroll (1964), who maintains that it is a population “largely biologically self-perpetuating; shares fundamental cultural values, realized in over unity in cultural forms; makes up a field of communication and interaction;  (and) has a membership which identifies itself, and is identified by others, as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories of the same order” (p. 296).


American Psychological Association (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, 5th edition. Washington, DC: Author.

Heath, D. B. (1978). The sociocultural model of alcohol use: Problems and prospects. Journal of Operational Psychiatry, 9, 55-66.

Munley, P. Anderse, M., Baines, T., Borgman, A., Briggs, D. Dolan, J., & Koyama, M. (2002). Personal dimensions of identity and empirical research in APA journals. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 8(4), 357-365.

Narroll, R. (1964). Ethnic unit classification. Current Anthropology, 5, 4.

Rodriquez, R. (2003, September 12). “Blaxicans” and other reinvented Americans. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B11

Trimble, J. E. (1988). Multilinearity of acculturation: Person-situation interactions. In D. Keats, D. Munro, & L. Mann (Eds.), Heterogeneity in cross-cultural psychology (pp. 173-186). Berwyn, PA: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Trimble, J. E. (1991). Ethnic specification, validation prospects, and the future of drug use research. International Journal of the Addictions, 25(2A), 149-170.

Trimble, J. E. (2000). Social psychological perspectives on changing self-identification among American Indians and Alaska Natives. In R. H. Dana (Ed.), Handbook of cross-cultural/multicultural personality assessment (pp. 197-222). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Trimble, J., Helms, J. & Root, M. (2002). Social and psychological perspectives on ethnic and racial identity. In G. Bernal, J. Trimble, K. Burlew, & F. Leong (Eds.), Handbook of racial and ethnic minority psychology (pp. 239-275). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wayley, C., & Harris, M. (1958). Minorities in the new world: Six case studies. New York: Columbia University Press.