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Ethnogenesis is the process by which a group of human beings comes to be understood or to understand themselves as ethnically distinct from the wider social landscape from which their grouping emerges.

Passive EthnogenesisEdit

Ethnogenesis can occur passively, in the accumulation of markers of group identity forged through interaction with the physical environment, cultural and religious divisions between sections of a society, migrations and other processes, for which ethnic subdivision is an unintended outcome.


The set of cultural markers that accompanies each of the major religions can amount to distinct ethnic identities, although the definition may be subject to change over time (for example, in 19th Century Europe it would be commonplace to conceive of Jews and Arabs as one 'ethnic' bloc, the Semites). Powerful distinctions between - for example - Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim ethnicities arise on the basis of languages each religion historically favoured (Latin, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Arabic respectively). The sources of religious differentiation are contested, among sociologists and among anthropologists as much as between the faith groups themselves.

From sect to ethnicityEdit

The line between a well-defined religious sect and a discrete ethnicity cannot be sharply defined. Sects which most observers would accept as constituting a separate ethnicity usually have, as a minimum, a firm set of rules censuring those who 'marry-out' or who fail to raise their children in the proper faith. Examples might include:


Geographical factors can lead to both cultural and genetic isolation from wider human society. Groups which settle remote habitats and intermarry over generations will acquire distinctive cultural and genetic traits, evolving from the information brought with them and through interaction with their unique environmental circumstances. Ethnogenesis in these circumstances typically results in an identity which is less value-laden than one forged in contradistinction to competing populations. Particularly in pastoral mountain peoples, social organization tends to hinge primarily on familial identification, not a wider collective identity.

Active EthnogenesisEdit

Ethnogenesis can occur actively, as persons deliberately and directly 'engineer' separate identities in order to solve a political problem - the preservation or imposition of certain cultural values, power relations, etc.

Colonial policyEdit

The Roman Empire strategem of divide et impera or Divide and rule has been used to a greater or lesser extent by each of the colonial powers that emerged in the modern period. Managing a territory from a distance places peculiar strains on the systems of legitimacy which arise more 'organically' within a polis. The British Empire proved especially adept at identifying and recruiting minority allies within subject peoples. The minority would receive special privileges, assisting the colonial power in its attempts to maintain rule, and would come to depend on that foreign rule for its own defence against the disadvantaged majority in its own country. Other European colonial powers, and Japan, deployed similar methods. The legacy of ethnic division arising from these externally-imposed power structures may still be felt in conflicts within, for example, Indian or Indonesian politics.

Belgium, Rwanda and the Hutu/Tutsi divideEdit

A particularly stark example of ethnogenetic colonial policy occurred in Rwanda in the 1920s and 30s, under the League of Nations protectorate granted to Belgium. Belgium allocated ethnic identity cards to Rwandans, institutionalizing a system of vicious ethnic discrimination. The minority Tutsi, mainly peasant farmers but including the existing monarchy and 'ruling class', were granted privileges denied to the majority Hutu. Belgium's exceptionally harsh colonial policing methods and politicization of what were previously existing ethnic lines created bitter divisions in Rwandan society.

The creation of the Moldovan identity in the Soviet UnionEdit

The Moldovan ethnic denomination was invented under Soviet rule in the 1920s[How to reference and link to summary or text], first to support territorial claims to the then-Romanian territories of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, and then, after the occupation of the two in 1940, to counter potential re-unification claims.

The recognition of Moldovans as a separate ethnicity, distinct from Romanians, is today a controversial subject. On one side, the Moldovan Parliament (which had a Communist majority) adopted in 2003 "The Concept on National Policy of the Republic of Moldova", which states that Moldovans and Romanians are two distinct peoples and speak two different languages, Romanians form an ethnic minority in Moldova, and that the Republic of Moldova is the legitimate successor to the Principality of Moldavia. On the other side, Moldovans are recognized as a distinct ethnic group only by former Soviet states. For instance, in the United States, no difference is made between Romanians and Moldovans. Moreover, despite alleged pressions for people to declare themselves Moldovan rather than Romanian, about 40% of the population of Moldova declared Romanian as mother tongue during the 2004 Moldovan Census.

Domestic policyEdit

Societies challenged by the obsolesence of those narratives which previously afforded them coherence can fall back on ethnic or racial narratives, as a means to maintaining or reaffirming their collective identity, or polis.

Language revivalEdit

Language is a critical asset for authenticating ethnic identities. The process of reviving an antique ethnic identity often poses an immediate language challenge, as obsolescent languages will lack expressions for contemporary experiences. In Europe in the 1990s, proponents of ethnic revivals are from the Celtic fringes in Wales and the Basque country.

Barbarian ethnogenesisEdit

Within the historical profession, the term "ethnogenesis" has been borrowed as a neologism to explain the origins and evolution of so-called barbarian ethnic cultures.[1] It is closely associated with the Viennese historian Herwig Wolfram (and his followers) who argue that barbarian ethnicity was not a matter of genuine genetic descent ("tribes"), but rather Traditionskerne ("nuclei of tradition") in which small groups of aristocratic warriors carried ethnic traditions from place to place and generation to generation; followers would coalesce or disband around these nuclei of tradition - barbarian ethnicities were freely available to anyone who might want to participate in them with no requirement for being born into a "tribe". Thus questions of race and place of origin became secondary and proponents of ethnogenesis will often claim it is the only alternative to the sort of ethnocentric and nationalist scholarship that is commonly seen in disputes over the origins of many ancient peoples such as the Franks, Goths, and Huns.[2]


  1. Walter Pohl. "Aux origines d'une Europe ethnique. Transformations d'identites entre Antiquite et Moyen Age". Annakes HSS 60 (2005): 183-208
  2. Michael Kulikowski (2006). Rome's Gothic Wars. Cambridge University Press. Page 53

See alsoEdit

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