What is a People Group?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A "people group," also called an ethnic group or a people, is a group of human individuals distinguished by their ethnolinguistic uniqueness, sharing a common self-identity. The two parts of that word each indicate something of what we intend to indicate: ethno and linguistic.
Linguistic, of course, refers to the facility of language, which is one prominent aspect of culture and ethnic identity. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group.
But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity. The first term, ethno-, refers to a complex of additional cultural factors that make up ethnicity.
Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.
How We Determine Ethnicity
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.
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.
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.
Thus various ethnic factors must be considered in addition to language for a full ethnolinguistic profile.
Multi-Lingual Ethnic Groups
There are numerous examples of people who speak multiple languages but still consider themselves one ethnic group. There are several in the China-Nepal-India area.
The Dinka of Sudan speak a range of dialects comprising five separate languages, yet clearly consider themselves to be one people.
The Beja in Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt are another example. Among the various groups that all consider themselves to be Beja, different groups of them speak three languages: Tigre, To Bedawie (Beja) and Sudanese Arabic. Some are bilingual or trilingual, while some are monolingual in one of the three.
Multi-Ethnic Language Groups
At the same time there may be different peoples who speak the same language but distinguish themselves because of different histories, an endogamous marriage pattern, differing political alliances, various factors causing enmity, a separate self-name, loyalty to different common ancestors or different leaders of a common parent group in history.
An example of this in the East African area are the many peoples who speak mutually intelligible varieties of the Swahili language, like the Arabs and the Shirazi (Afro-Asians).
In East Africa the Arabs have for over a century spoken Swahili as their sole mother tongue, as have the Shirazi in Mombasa for centuries. But the Arabs have maintained their self-identity as Arabs, both by name and culture, and maintained contacts with Arabs from Oman, Yemen and other Arab countries, some even learning Arabic as a second language.
Thus the Shirazi Swahili and the Arabs speak the same language, and compared to the traditional Bantu cultures of Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia, they are quite close in culture and religion. But they definitely distinguish themselves from each other. Part of the distinction is political, due to the discriminatory history of British colonialism, which tried to distinguish various groups of people as "native" or "non-native," placing the Arabs in the latter and the Shirazi in the former.
Some people groups find their worst enemies in other ethnic groups speaking the same mother tongue. Sometimes they are actual cousin peoples. One example demonstrating radical, inimical differences within one language group may be found in Bosnia. Three traditional enemies there, the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims, all speak Serbo-Croatian. Yet clear boundaries of culture, history, religion and self-identity separate them.
Likewise the Tutsi and Hutu inhabitants of East Central Africa for centuries have had a common language and culture and yet have maintained distinct social identities for almost 2000 years.
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 groupings 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
What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
For gospel strategy purposes, a key principle is to define a strategy for the largest ethno-linguistic segment or affinity group within which the gospel can spread through "natural" social networks. Where barriers are identified which would hinder or prevent the further spread of the gospel, we have identified the effective boundary of the ethno-linguistic segment, or people group.
Thus, a group of separate peoples who speak the same language might need to be identified separately for strategy purposes, because the other factors of self-identification and social organization for internal communication would keep the gospel from naturally being spread from one group to the other even though they speak the same language.
In other cases, the self-identification of the specific people group might be flexible enough that they would freely exchange cultural knowledge across their other ethnic factors so that the gospel could spread from one group to the other. To some extent that is the case with Swahili in the coastal regions of East Africa, because of the strong positive association of the language across otherwise separate peoples.
Nevertheless it is usually more effective to conduct gospel access in their own tribal language. It is in that mother-tongue deep level where personal identity is developed and life decisions are made. But again, leadership training of believers can be effective in a shared language, because you are dealing with expansion of the accepted Christian worldview that they are already committed to sharing.
Multi-lingual ethnic groups maintain, or will develop, mechanisms or strategies for the transfer of information or cultural change across the language boundaries within their own ethnic groups, and perhaps for closely-related groups in the broader affinity groupings.
In summary, ethnic identity does largely depend on a people's self-identity. This centers in relational and social groupings, not just naming systems. Further, language is a key factor in this group self-identity.
The western access worker or strategist brings a cultural problem to this task. Because of the western cultural thought-forms, we take a "systems" approach, which is abstract in approach.
This procedure takes a name for a people and proceed to define who can be called by that name. In investigating people group identities in the Horn of Africa, one access worker was reporting some initial findings. His comment read "the people themselves ... believe they are . " The problem with that phrase is that it is a circular argument. This assumes already that they are a people by a certain name, so that we can refer to members of the predefined group.
An inductive approach would be more valid, starting with the individuals to determine who they feel related to. This approach begins with the concrete relationships and natural social groupings of individuals, families and the larger society.
So the operative question is "Who does this individual, family or social group feel related to?" What other families or groups do they consider themselves related to and in what ways?
It is necessary to ask (by observation, investigation and direct questioning where possible) how individuals or smaller communities commonly identify themselves. Then following that relational path, what is the largest such relational grouping within which ideas are exchanged and social obligations are maintained.
Find out what the group call themselves at each relational level. A clue to the primary grouping for self-identity and the larger affinity groups will be the various names related sub-groups call themselves and each other.
This investigation of relational groupings will be the starting point for the strategic access person to determine the people group.
A major factor to keep in mind is the relationship of individuals who speak the language to the larger group identified with the language. Similarly, it is necessary to identify smaller groups speaking the same language to any supposed universal identity.
This is a simplified scenario of a very common and very complex pattern of human social ethno-linguistic identity.
For More on the Concept of Ethnicity:
Another version of this topic: What is an Ethnic Group?
Cities and Peoples
Culture, Learning and Communication
Hamyan Bedouin: The Phantom People
Multi-Cultural People Groups
What is Worldview?
Originally written in 2000, revised 2004
Rewritten 19 December 2006
Rewritten 1 January 2008
Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2000, 2004
Permission given for free download and use for personal and educational purposes. All other rights reserved.
What is Worldview?
Cities and Peoples
Culture, Learning and Communication Multi-Cultural People Groups
What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?
How to Do Research on the Web