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How We Determine “Ethnicity”

People Groups:  An Ethno-linguistic Definition



There are many factors involved in the concept of “ethnicity.”  Each social group of humans weighs various aspects of interpersonal relationships and social order.


Each entry in an ethnolinguistic listing of peoples contains a name as an ethnic identifier.  Ideally this name is based on the self-name of the group.  Because of phonetic similarity of names or differences in language name forms of different languages, a representative construct name may be used for an ethnic entity.


That name would represent the largest cohesive group of individuals considering themselves related through biological kinship, shared history, customs and self-identity and speaking one or more languages. 


Language and Location

All persons and every ethnic group speak a language and live in identifiable locations.  Thus a people group description includes at least one language and at least one location.


The Registry of Peoples (ROP) of Harvest Information System, for instance, provides tables linking each ethnic entity to the main languages spoken by that group in all countries where they are known to exist.  The ROP code for each ethnic entity provides a common identification across languages and locations.



One or more religions are also associated with any ethnic identifier.  Religion is one primary ethnic characteristic that may be so strong as to determine a definitive boundary within a group of otherwise identical persons, thus constituting a sufficient reason for a separate ethnic entry in a listing.  Some databases include the name or other descriptive information on the religion of entities listed.


National Boundaries

Sometimes political, social or economic factors associated with nation-state borders introduce sufficient differences to distinguish two otherwise related groups, leading to a listing as two separate ethnic entities.  (Some listings are totally by country, so even the same ethnic group across a border is listed as a separate entity.)


Segments and Strata

Smaller sub-groupings (segments) may be identified in any of the ethnic entities defined in any listing of peoples, or ethnic groups.   Additionally, social strata or categories (sometimes called social segments) may include segments of various people groups and be useful for communication and cultural access strategies. 


Complex Considerations

In the Registry of Peoples, a distinction between two ethnic groups, given a separate entry and assigned a separate code, derives from a long list of cultural characteristics that vary in importance among human cultures and societies.  Further detail on these characteristics may be found in wide circulation in various academic disciplines. 


Specific determinations result from extensive research at various levels, and are intended to represent the self-identity of each listed ethnic entity.  In addition, naming conventions and grouping are considered to take into account common terminology and conventions for descriptions of human culture from relevant disciplines. 


Determining the ethnic entities of the world is a continual process of discovery, clarification and refinement.


For more on discovering and determining ethnicity, check these resources:


Discovering and Describing a People Group

Segmentation and Stratification

Assimilation: How People Groups Separate and Merge

Resources for Determining Ethnicity

Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written 18 February 2004
Posted on SLRK 23 March 2004

Last edited 31 May 2004

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2004
Permission given for free download and use for personal and educational purposes. All other rights reserved.
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