>> Back to Research Themes

Ethnic Identity

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.

            The construct, ethnic identity, can best be understood through an examination of its etymological origins. The term ethnic has Latin and Greek origins – ethnicus and ethnikas both meaning nation. It can and has been used historically to refer to people as heathens. Ethos, in Greek, means custom, disposition or trait. Ethnikas and ethos taken together therefore can mean a band of people (nation) living together who share and acknowledge common customs. The second part of the construct, identity, has Latin origins and is derived from the word identitas; the word is formed from idem meaning same.Thus, the term is used to express the notion of sameness, likeness, and oneness. More precisely, identity means “the sameness of a person or thing at all times in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else” (Simpson & Weiner, 1989, p. 620). Combining the definitions and interpretations of identity and ethnicity it can be concluded that they mean, or at minimum imply, the sameness of a band or nation of people who share common customs, traditions, historical experiences, and in some instances geographical residence. At one level of interpretation the combined definition is sufficient to capture the manner in which the identity is generally conceptualized and used to understand ethnocultural influences on its formation and development. At another level identity is almost synonymous with ethnicity prompting some sociologists like Herbert Gans (2003) to suggest that identity is no longer a useful term.  Additionally, because of it increasing popularity identity is rapidly becoming a cliché and therefore more and more difficult to understand (Gleason, 1996).

            Definitions of ethnic identity vary according to the underlying theory embraced by researchers’ and scholars’ intent on resolving its conceptual meanings. The fact that there is no widely agreed upon definition of ethnic identity is indicative of the confusion surrounding the topic. Typically, ethnic identity is an affiliative construct, where an individual is viewed by themselves and by others as belonging to a particular ethnic or cultural group. An individual can choose to associate with a group especially if other choices are available (i.e., the person is of mixed ethnic or racial heritage). Affiliation can be influenced by racial, natal, symbolic, and cultural factors (Cheung, 1993). Racial factors involve the use of physiognomic and physical characteristics, natal factors refer to "homeland" (ancestral home) or origins of individuals, their parents and kin, and symbolic factors include those factors that typify or exemplify an ethnic group (e.g., holidays, foods, clothing, artifacts, etc.). Symbolic ethnic identity usually implies that individuals choose their identity, however to some extent the cultural elements of the ethnic or racial group have a modest influence on their behavior (Kivisto & Nefzger, 1993).

            Yuet Cheung (1993) defines ethnic identification as "the psychological attachment to an ethnic group or heritage" (p. 1216) and thus centers the construct in the domain of self-perception. The Netherlands sociologist, Sawiti Saharso (1989), extends the definition to include social processes that involve one's choice of friends, selection of a future partner, perception of their life-chances, and the reactions of others in one's social environment. Both definitions involve boundaries where one makes a distinction between "self" and "other.” Saharso's definition extends the "others" boundary to include an attribution component. An individual may strongly identify psychologically with an ethnic group, however, the strength and authenticity of the identity is contingent on the acceptance and acknowledgment of "ingroup" and "outgroup" members. Saharso’s definition is consistent with the writings of the sociologist, Fredrik Barth (1969), who argued that ethnic identity was a means to create boundaries that enabled a group to distance themselves from one another. Barth was quite forceful about his position as he strongly maintained that ethnic boundaries define a group and not the “cultural stuff that encloses it” (Sollars, 1996, p. xxii).

            The psychologist, Jean Phinney (1990), notes that there are "widely discrepant definitions and measures of ethnic identity, which makes generalizations and comparisons across studies difficult and ambiguous" (p.500). Currently, the most widely used definition of the construct in psychology is the one developed by Phinney (1990, 2000, 2003). She maintains, that, “ethnic identity is a dynamic, multidimensional construct that refers to one’s identity, or sense of self as a member of an ethnic group” (2003, p. 63). From her perspective one claims an identity within the context of a subgroup that claims a common ancestry and shares at least a similar culture, race, religion, language, kinship, or place of origin. She goes on to add that, “Ethnic identity is not a fixed categorization, but rather is a fluid and dynamic understanding of self and ethnic background. Ethnic identity is constructed and modified as individuals become aware of their ethnicity, with in the large (sociocultural) setting” (2003, p. 63).

            Phinney (1990, 2000) views subjective identity as a starting point that eventually leads to the development of a social identity based on ethnic group membership. The cross-cultural psychologist Peter Weinreich (1986) not only views self-identity as a starting point, he believes that identity formation and development refers to different identity states where different social contexts will influence the identity state and one’s actions. He asserts that "one's identity as situated in a specific social context is defined as that part of the totality of one's self-construal in which how one construes oneself in the situated present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future." Moreover, Weinreich maintains that ethnic self-identity is not a static process but one that changes and varies according to particular social contexts. Individuals, for example, may avoid situations where their identity is challenged, threatened, humiliated, and castigated; and seek out and sustain whenever possible settings that favor the identity state. Self-expression, maintenance of ethnic identity, and situated identities offer promise for understanding the complexities and dynamics of ethnic orientations through Weinreich's theory of Identity Structure Analysis (Weinreich & Saunderson, 2003).

            Several conceptual approaches to ethnic identity emphasize an individual level of analysis where notions of identity formation and development are linked to one's self-concept. Much of the work in this area relies on the social psychologist Henri Tajfel's (1982) theory of social identity. Tajfel basically maintains that one's social identity strongly influences self-perception and consequently should be the central locus of evaluation. The strength and weakness of the self is largely determined from our status with our reference groups and how we assess outgroup members. When ethnicity and race form the nexus of an ingroup, then self-identity will be correspondingly influenced. One's distinctive ethnic characteristics, however, can be restrictive as one may reject external judgments and opinions of their own ethnic group and in turn establish their own criterion to challenge and refute those of the dominant outgroup. Other responses are possible: individuals might withdraw or choose to dissociate with the referent thereby creating added psychological complications for themselves. Tajfel's social identity theory has generated considerable influence on ethnic identity research; some prefer to carry out the work under the ethnic self-identification rubric.

            Ethnic identity is usually contextual and situational because it derives from social negotiations where one declares an ethnic identity and then demonstrates acceptable and acknowledged ethnic group markers to others. One’s ethnic declaration often is open to the scrutiny of others who may validate or invalidate the declaration. Ethnic declarations embody an ethnic consciousness that is closely aligned with the cultural elements of the ethnic group with which they affiliate. The ultimate form of one’s ethnic consciousness is the genuine association of one’s personal identification with a communal one. Thus it is logical to assume that a concordance would exist between personal identity and an outsider's sense of identity where the importance is placed on one's own categories and intention of self-identification. To promote the union between self and other, individuals often will use ethnological speech patterns and gestures to promote the authenticity of their claim. If outward physical appearances do not mesh with the standard physical criteria or there is the sense that others doubt the identity claim ethnic actors will tend to exaggerate and give emphasis to mannerisms and speech idiosyncrasies known to be particular and specific to the reference group. This ritual or stylistic emphasis frequently occurs, too, when ethnic group members meet or gather in geographic areas that differ from their homelands or communities of common origin. The distinctive ritual is a prime example of situational ethnicity and situated ethnic identity.

            At an individual or societal level one may rely on labels to describe their ethnic affiliation and subsequently their identity. Labels assist in classifying and naming people. Thus, ethnic labeling has a sociopolitical value and function, especially for census and demographic studies. At a superficial level, where generalizations about distinct cultural orientations are not used, ethnic labels serve a useful function. However, use of a label is a small part of the identity process, as one is likely to expand the labeling to include other identifiers such as natal background, acculturation status, ego-involvement, and attitudes toward own and other groups; behavioral preferences such as language usage, friendship affiliations, music and food preferences, and participation in cultural and religious activities may be included (Trimble, 2000).

People with mixed ethnic backgrounds present interesting ethnic identity cases as they have at least two ethnic groups from which to claim and negotiate an ethnic declaration. Based on extensive interviews with people of mixed-ethnic background the clinical psychologist Maria P. P. Root (1994) identified four basic reasons why a multi-ethnic person would choose to identify with a particular group regardless of how others may view them. Root maintains that: 1.) One enhances their sense of security by understanding a distinct part of their ethnic heritage; 2.) Parental influences stimulated by the encouragement of grandparents promote identity, thereby granting permission to the offspring to make a choice; 3.) Racism and prejudice associated with certain groups lead to sharing experiences with family, thereby assisting the individual to develop psychological skills and defenses to protect oneself (the shared experiences helps to build self-confidence and creates the sense that one can cope with the negative elements often associated with the group); and 4.) "Gender alignment between parents and children may exert influence on ethnic and racial socialization particularly when they have good relationships and are mutually held in esteem" (p. 15).

            The first oblique reference to ethnic identity can be found in the anthropological and sociological literature of the early 20th century, in reference to the field study of non-western cultures. The terms, ethnic groups and ethnicity, were first used in anthropology to refer to a people presumed to affiliate with the same cultural group and who shared the same custom, language and traditions. Over the years the construct seems to have emerged through the combination of ethnic and identity and their meanings, as a reasonably thorough literature search was unable to uncover a coining author or an often-cited definition.

Reference to the notion of ethnic identity can be trace back to the early 19th century. In 1808, Hugh Murray (1808), in referring to the influence of mental images on self-recognition, asserted a notably modern view on the construct when he stated, “But I think it evident that the characteristic qualities…are wholly unconnected with those external by races which are distinguished. Mind is more flexible substance and yields more readily to the influence of altered circumstances” (pp. 33-34). Writing about individual and national differences between 1830 and 1835 the naturalist, Alexander Von Humboldt, maintained that, “Language is the outer appearance of the mentalities of peoples; their language is their mentality and their mentality their language. One can hardly overemphasize their identity. People who share a common language develop a similar subjectivity, a weltanschauung (world view)” (Von Humboldt, 1830-1835/1985), p. 12). In both citations, language and one’s mental images formed the basis of the scholars’ observations about the importance of identity from a nationalistic perspective.

When first used, ethnic identity was synonymous with race or racial identity and ethnicity in general. It is likely that ethnicity was first used by the French nationalist and scientist, Georges Vacher de la Pouge, in 1896 to describe the “natural and counterfeit” cultural, psychological and social characteristics of a population, and in order to distinguish the latter from the concept of race which he defined as a series of physical characteristics (Vacher de la Pouge, 1896). Herbert J. Gans (1996) suggests that the sociologist David Riesman gave ethnicity a new and salient meaning in the 20th century. Werner Sollars (1996), on the other hand, attributes the earliest use of the term to Einar Haugen and Joshua Fishman who were likely influenced by the sociologist W. Lloyd Warner (see p. xxxvii) all of whom were writing about the concept in the 1940’s and 1950s. Race and ethnicity were often used interchangeably in reference to both the physical and cultural characteristics of an individual as a member of his or her ethnic or racial group and the circumstances that influenced its importance. On this point in 1916, the philosopher Horace Kallen wrote that, “When the quarrel (whether they identified with the English or Britons in America) came they remembered how they had left the mother country in search of religious liberty for themselves; how they left Holland, where they had found this liberty, for fear of losing their ethnic and cultural identity and what hardships they had borne for the sake of conserving both the liberty and the identity” (Kallen, 1996, p. 69). In 1922, the sociologist, Max Weber, wrote about ethnic groups in a novel way, including within the definition a subjective element that previously had been absent. Weber also differentiated between racial and ethnic identity by proposing that a blood relationship was necessary for racial identification but not for ethnic identification. He defined ethnic groups as, “…those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for group formation; furthermore it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists.” Although he wrote about the significance of ethnicity in general, Weber never acknowledged the need for an individual’s active participation in their ethnic identity formation, nor did he explore the construct much beyond a definitional conceptualization.

The concept of ethnic identity began to reemerge in the social and behavioral sciences literature of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Ethnicity, for example, is more salient today than in prior decades.  "Ethnicity," maintains Daniel Bell, "is a means (now) for disadvantaged groups to claim a set of rights and privileges which the existing power structures have denied them" (1975, p. 174). And for the past few decades America's ethnic minority groups have been actively asserting their civil rights and demanding privileges heretofore denied them.

Several factors have been cited as leading to this renewed interest in ethnicity, arguably the most significant being the civil rights struggle of African Americans in the United States. The beginning of this movement can be characterized as an attempt on the part of African Americans leaders and the African Americans culture in general, to take charge of their ethnic and racial identity and to subsequently redefine their ethnicity at both a societal and cultural level. Consequently, the social movement led to increased discourse on the topics of race and ethnicity in addition to an upsurge in societal awareness regarding these topics (Bourguignon, 1979; Phinney, 1990).

More and more it appears that North Americans are realizing that their biological ancestors wittingly and unwittingly influence their lives. To gain some understanding and perhaps to add structure and meaning, many are searching their attics for long lost records describing their social histories. And from the discoveries one constructs a "symbolic identity." "If you wish to understand persons - their development and their relations with significant others," maintains Anselm Strauss (1959), "you must be prepared to view them as embedded in historical context" (p. 164). In the course of constructing and maintaining the identity, common historical symbols are identified, shared, and passed along to future generations.  The symbols also can serve as a public affirmation of one's ethnic claim - clothing, decals, adornments, flags, food, language, and celebrations.


Barth, F. (1969). Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.

Bell, D.  (1975). Ethnicity and social change. In N. Glazer & D. P. Moynihan, (Eds.),

            Ethnicity: Theory and practice (pp. 174n), Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bourguignon , E. (1979). Psychological anthropology: An introduction to human nature and cultural differences. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston: New York.

Cheung, Y. W. (1993). Approaches to ethnicity: Clearing roadblocks in the study of ethnicity and substance abuse. International Journal of Addictions, 28(12), 1209-1226.

Gans, H. J. (1996). Symbolic ethnicity: The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America. In W. Sollars (1996), Theories of ethnicity: A classical reader (pp. 425-459). New York: New York University Press.

Gans, H. (2003, March 7). Identity. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B4.

Gleason, P. (1996).Identifying identity: A semantic history. In W. Sollars (1996), Theories of ethnicity: A classical reader (pp. 460-487). New York: New York University Press.

Kallen, H. M. (1996). Democracy versus the melting-pot: A study of American nationality. In W. Sollars (1996), Theories of ethnicity: A classical reader (pp. 67-92). New York: New York University Press.

Kivisto, P., & Nefzger, B. (1993). Symbolic ethnicity and American Jews: The relationship of ethnic identity to behavior and group affiliation. Social Science Journal, 30, 1-12.

Phinney, J. S. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: Review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 499-514.

Phinney, J. (2000). Ethnic identity. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology, volume 3. (pp. 254-259). New York: Oxford University Press.

Phinney, J. (2003). Ethnic identity and acculturation. In K. Chun, P. B. Organista, & G. Marin (Eds.), Acculturation: Advances in theory, measurement, and applied research (pp.63- 81). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Root, M. P. (1992). Back to the drawing board: Methodological issues in research on multiracial people. In M. P. Root (Ed.), Racially mixed people in America (pp. 181-189). London: Sage Publications.

Saharso, S. (1989). Ethnic identity and the paradox of equality. In J. P. Van Oudenhoven & T. M. Willemsen (Eds.), Ethnic minorities: Social psychological perspectives (pp. 97-114). Berwyn, PA: Swets North America.

Simpson, J. A., & Weiner, E. S. (1989). The Oxford English dictionary (2nd ed., Vol. VII). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sollars, W. (1996), Theories of ethnicity: A classical reader. New York: New York University Press.

Strauss, A. L.  (1959). Mirrors and masks:  The search for identity.  Glencoe, IL:  Free Press.

Tajfel, H. (1982). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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 and Multicultural Personality Assessment, (pp. 197-222). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vacher de la Pouge, G. (1896). Les selections sociales. Thorin: Paris.

Von Humboldt, A. (1830-1835/1985). Uber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einflub auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts. In M. Riedel (Ed.), Geschichte der Philosophie in Text und Darstellung (Vol. 7, pp. 66-100). Stuttgart: Reclan.

Weinreich, P., & Saunderson, W. (Eds.). (2003). Analyzing identity: Cross-cultural, societal and clinical contexts. New York: Routledge. :

Weinreich, P. (1986). The operationalisation of identity theory in racial and ethnic relations. In J. Rex and D. Mason (Eds.), Theories of race and ethnic relations (pp. 299-320). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.