What Is Ethnic Identity? A Minimalist Definition

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter proposes a definition of ethnic identity that captures the conventional classification of ethnic identities to a greater degree than the alternatives. The goal of proposing this definition is to create a conceptual foundation for causal theorizing about ethnic identity. Ethnic identities, according to this definition, are a subset of categories in which descent-based attributes are necessary for membership. All categories based on descent-based attributes, according to this definition, are not ethnic identity categories. But all ethnic identities require some descent-based attributes for membership. The innovation in this definition compared to the alternatives is in a subtle but consequential change in the specification of the role of descent, contained in the distinction between "attribute" and "category," and in the minimalist position that ethnic identities are defined only by the descent-based attributes required for membership and not by additional features such as a common culture, a common language, a common history and a common territory. The chapter uses this definition to identify properties that can reasonably be associated with ethnic identity and those that cannot. It argues, by evaluating previous causal claims against this conceptual foundation, that most are not reasonable even when evaluated on their own terms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationConstructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780199980079
ISBN (Print)9780199893157
StatePublished - Jan 24 2013


  • Ancestry
  • Attribute
  • Category
  • Causal theories
  • Culture
  • Definition
  • Descent
  • Ethnicity
  • Identity
  • Language
  • Region

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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