Ethnic Relations

By Anonymous

Editor’s Note: The terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic’ groups are derived from the greek word ‘ethnos’, normally translated as ‘nation’ or commonly said, people of the same race that share a distinct culture. This paper begins by explaining the concept of Ethnicity and later provides certain examples of ethnic tension in India. It further goes on to explain the term ‘Ethnocentricism’.


Ethnicity is largely understood as cultural heritage manifested through language, custom, tradition and based on religion, region and gender roles etc. of a particular group of people. Like race its nature is primarily classificatory, but while race classifies from the outside, ethnicity is understood as a peoples’ own self affirmation and marking from the inside of their group, to establish an ‘us’. It is thus a route of self affirmation and also a collective phenomenon grounded in the interaction and political mobilization of a group, which is an ‘ethnic group’. It is a continuous process of identity construction, happening when an in-group person comes in contact with an out-group person – with symmetric and stable markers of difference, e.g. ‘language’

Ethnicity refers to groups of cultural factors. India has a relatively homogeneous race of people, but varying cultural differences, many of them based on religion. Gender roles and languages are also features of ethnicity as well as food preparation and preferences. Ethnicity covers a smaller subset of people than race, in other words you can be same race with different ethnicities.

Race is nature and ethnicity is nurture; that is, birth characteristics versus cultural heritage. Ethnicity is about tradition, learned behavior and customs. It is about learning where you come from and celebrating the traditions and ideas that are part of that region.

Ethnicity gives us room to change. On a movement from one region to another, we can assimilate and identify with that ethnic orientation. We cannot do the same with race. Race is biologically engineered features. It can include skin color, skin tone, eyes and hair color as well as a tendency towards developing certain diseases. It is not something that can be changed or disguised. Race doesn’t have customs or globally learned behavior. Race describes biological descent, ethnicity describes cultural heritage. Ethnicity is learned and race is inherited.

A race is a human population that is believed to be distinct in some way from other humans based on real or imagined physical differences. Ethnicity, while related to race, refers not to the physical characteristics but social traits that are shared by a human population. Some of the social traits often used for ethnic classification include:

  • Nationality
  • Tribe
  • Religious faith
  • Shared language
  • Shared culture
  • Shared traditions
  • Cuisine
  • Dressing styles
  • Regional affiliation


India is a country with multiple ethnic groups co existing with each other. This co existence however, is not always a peaceful one. Some examples of ethnic conflicts in India are:

  • The Kuki-Naga clashes in Manipur and Naga hills: Naga militants demand that all non Naga groups leave the territories of ‘Greater Nagaland’ leading to intense inter – ethnic conflict with the Kukis in the early 1990s
  • Khasi – nepali ethnic conflict in Meghalaya:

A village called Lampi is the source of conflict. It is claimed by both Assam and Meghalaya. The Gorkhas (Nepali speaking Indians) want the present Assamese authority in the village unchallenged, while the khasis feel the area belongs to Meghalaya. Existing mistrust and contempt between Nepali and Khasis has widened after the recent killing and assault of several Nepali migrant workers and gorkhas. (khasis speak a language which has no particular script like devnagari, on which nepali, the language spoken by gorkhas is based). Almost all khasis have converted to Christianity from their original religion. Gorkhas are hindus and worship the cow, which khasis eat. Khasis live in a matriarchal society whereas Gorkhas are patriarchal.

Assam rebellion – The United liberation front of Assam (ULFA) formed in April 1979 in response to an influx of non – Assamese population from Bangladesh and parts of north east India. This movement seeks to evict these ‘foreigners’ and seek greater autonomy from the Indian government.

Ethnic conflict generally involve a clash of interests or a struggle over rights: right to land, to education, to the use of language, to political representation, to freedom of religion, to the preservation of ethnic identity, to autonomy or self determination and so forth.


The terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic’ groups are derived from the greek word ‘ethnos’, normally translated as ‘nation’ or commonly said, people of the same race that share a distinct culture. Ethnicity is the product of human agency, a creative social act through which such commonalities as speech code, cultural practice, ecological adaptation and political organisation become woven into a consciousness of shared identity. The superiority or inferiority of such shared cultural identity is relative.

An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage that is real or assumed – sharing cultural characteristics. Members of an ethnic group are conscious of belonging to an ethnic group. The study of ethnicity has been dominated by two distinct debates – between ‘primordialism’ and ‘instrumentalism’. In the primordialist view, the participant perceives ethnic ties collectively, as an external given, even coercive social bond.

The instrumentalist approach on the other hand, treats ethnicity primarily as an ad hoc element of a political strategy, used as a resource by interest groups for achieving secondary goals such as an increase in wealth, power or status. The second debate is between ‘constructionism’ and ‘essentialism’. Constructionists view national and ethnic identities as the product of historical forces, often recent, even when identities are presented as old. Essentialists view such identities as ontological categories defining social actors and not the result of social actions.

Before Weber, race and ethnicity were often seen as two aspects of the same thing. Cultural differences between peoples were seen as being the result of genetically inherited traits and tendencies. With Weber’s introduction of ethnicity as a social construct, race and ethnicity were divided from each other. The non white ethnic groups in U.S. – blacks, latinos, Asians Americans are an example of a convergence of race and ethnic minorities.

Ethnic minorities are often associated with conflict and more particularly with political struggle. Ethnic contradictions have an objective basis in the social structure of society. Ethnicity is determined by the infrastructure of society, the mode of production and distribution.

The scapegoating of ethnic minorities is a persistent tendency. In most countries they face a future of continued discrimination, in a social climate characterised by tension and anxiety. Sometimes even countries with long histories of ethnic tolerance and integration can rapidly become engulfed in ethnic conflict. E.g. in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a region renowned for its rich multi-ethnic heritage. Centuries of migration and the rule of successive empires have produced a diverse, intermixed population composed predominantly of Slavs, Croats, muslims and jews. After 1991 with the fall of communism, major political and social transformations followed. This precipitated deadly conflicts between ethnic groups in several areas.

These ethnic conflicts were justified as ‘attempts at ethnic cleansing’, the creation of ethnically homogenous areas through the mass expulsion of other ethnic populations. A war which broke out in Bosnia in 1992 between Serbs, Croats and Muslims involved the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslim population at the hands of the Serbs. Thousands of Muslim men were forced into internment camps and a campaign of systematic rape was carried out against Muslim women. Western states intervened both diplomatically and militarily to protect the human rights of ethnic groups which become targets of ethnic cleansing. The fragile peace in Bosnia was maintained, but only through the presence of peacekeeping troops and partitioning of country into separate ethnic enclaves.

Ethnic cleansing involves forced relocation of ethnic populations through targeted violence, harassment, threats and campaigns of terror. Genocide, by contrast describes the systematic elimination of one ethnic group at the hands of another. The Nazi holocaust resulted in the death if more than six million Jews and remains the most horrific example of the planned extermination of one ethnic group by another.


The term was coined by W.G. Sumner (1906) in his book ‘folkway’ and is used to describe prejudicial attitude between in groups and out groups by which ‘our’ attitudes, customs and behaviour are unquestionably and uncritically treated as superior to ‘their’ social arrangements. It is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others.

Ethnic differences are wholly learned. Through socialisations, young people assimilate the lifestyles, norms and beliefs of their communities. Ethnicity is a purely social phenomenon that is produced and reproduced over time. Although it is maintained within tradition, ethnicity is not static. Rather, it is fluid and adaptable to the changing circumstances e.g. in the case of Irish Americans, popular customs from Ireland have been maintained and also transformed in the context of American society e.g. the boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parade in many U.S. cities.

 Edited by Hariharan Kumar

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