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Ethnicity and Culture

Ethnicity and Culture
What is the difference between culture and ethnicity?Photo by Albert Dezetter

Ethnic group or ethnicity is the thing that describes you; it is a large group of people who have the same national, racial, or cultural origins, or the state of belonging to such a group (according to Cambridge dictionary). I bet you also heard about terms ethnic groups, ethnic consciousness, and ethnic identity. Why is ethnicity important? Because it can control opportunities and ways of functioning in the society. Ethnic identity is related to most aspects of life in our modern age, like career or partner selection, and education.

You set every man in his place,
You supply their needs;
Everyone has its food.
His lifetime is counted.
Their tongues differ in speech,
Their characters likewise;
Their skins are distinct,
For you distinguished the people.
(The Great Hymn to the Aten)

What is the difference between culture and ethnicity? Both are characterized by language, beliefs, and tradition. Well, let’s respond in a simple way: ethnicity is an inherited status related to genetic heritage, homeland, and history. David Horowitz, an American writer claims that “ethnicity and kinship are alike. The language of ethnicity is the language of kinship.” So, we can say that ethnicity is tightly related to genetic origins.

As for culture, it is learned in society and shared between generations, it is used for identification and it is non-biologic. According to the book A Companion to Ancient History (which was edited by Andrew Erskine in 2009), identity “is both constructed for the individual, by the values of the culture in which he/she is brought up and lives, and by the individual who defines himself or herself in relation to society’s norms. Societies create customs, traditions, and myths to bolster and legitimize a sense of belonging; individuals can subscribe to such values in a more or less self-conscious way.

Moreover, identity is a flexible construction. ” I’d say he is talking about the relation between culture and ethnicity. They are strongly connected and they have big influence one on another. It is a fact; you are Russian, Italian, German or French, though you may have been born in some other country maybe miles distanced from your original land. But if you stay long enough in your new country, its culture may change you and you will maybe identify yourself more with people in that country than with the people in your homeland. Stuart Tyson Smith points in his book Egyptian World that Ethnicity never exists in isolation.

If we have in mind that culture and ethnicity are tightly connected, then we come to the question: Which one came first in the course of history? Early humans were persons without nations or ethnicities, as we know. But they had their way of life that allowed them to survive, created and used some tools and weapons, and they occupied some new territories for producing more food. So, I guess the answer is: culture came first to make humans who they are today and to give them some cultural universals (concept of families based on blood connections, some rules, leaders, customs etc.) And I suppose George DeVos, an anthropologist, proves it in his definition of the term ethnic group: “It is a subjective symbolic or emblematic use of any aspect of culture (by a group), in order to differentiate themselves from another group.”

Max Weber was a sociologist who was very much interested in researching patterns of group behavior. He said: “It is understandably difficult to determine in general –and even in a concrete individual case– what influence specific ethnic factors have on the formation of a group. Any cultural trait, no matter how superficial, can serve as a starting point for the familiar tendency to monopolistic closure.”

Ethnic and cultural factors are really important in our lives. They make us feel more connected to some people, and they create unbreakable bonds between us and people we have never met. But on the other hand, differences between ethnicities can make some serious political and social problems, and we hear about that every day on the news. Numerous ethnic conflicts here and there do dictate that perhaps we  should remember the beginnings of the human story, when we all were just simple human beings with very basic needs and almost with identical means of survival.

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