In social science usage, a term coined (in 1953) to describe that condition ‘wherein certain members of a society in a given social context choose to emphasize as their most meaningful basis of primary extrafamilial identity certain assumed cultural, national or somatic traits’ (O. Patterson in Glazer and Moynihan, 308); a socio-political strategy of selective advantage enacted within a dominant political organization, which rests on insistence upon the significance of group distinctiveness and identity, and the rights that derive from it. Ethnic identity is not a ‘natural’ condition, but rather a self-conscious statement using selected cultural traits as diacritical marks. Ethnic groups are thus mutually exclusive, and are more usually constituted with reference to kinship than to territory. Dynamic and strongly contextualized, ethnic expression is characteristic of complex societies.
In the ancient Greek world, ethnic terminology is found from Homer onwards. Ethnicity, in the above sense, is of importance in two principal areas. First, in the context of the ethnos, a category of state which existed alongside the polis, but which is only rarely treated by ancient sources. Ethnē are diverse, with no single form of constitution. They are characterized by the fact that by contrast with poleis (which retained total autonomy), individual communities surrendered some political powers (usually control of warfare and foreign relations) to a common assembly. Their inhabitants were thus required to express a range of local and regional loyalties of varying degrees of complexity and strength. By contrast with poleis, the role of urban centres in ethnē varied greatly; settlement structures range from a high degree of urbanization and local autonomy (e.g. Boeotia, which was tantamount to a collection of small poleis) to scattered small villages with little urban development (e.g. Aetolia). According to Aristotle (Pol. 1326b), ethnē are characterized by their large populations. Although the ethnos is sometimes equated with primitive tribalism, social and political developments from the 8th cent. bce onwards (in religion and colonization, for example) often bear comparison with evidence from poleis, and the ethnos was a varied and long-lived phenomenon. Equally, ethnē have been seen as the origin or precursors of the federal states created from the 4th cent. onwards (e.g. the Achaean and Aetolian Confederacies). These, however, incorporated many former poleis, and relations between citizen groups were thus more formally constituted, often drawing on earlier concepts of sympoliteia and isopoliteia.
In Hellenistic and Roman times, the concept of ethnicity may be applied to a variety of ‘outsider’ groups (e.g. Jews) who sought or were accorded particular status or rights within a broader imperial context. Hence the status and political role of these groups varied over time, and ancient sources are often imprecise in distinguishing between ethnic groups, the natio (or nation, usually the dominant ethnic group in a region), and the tribe (which in the case of the Roman division of state, may originally have been constituted on an ethnic basis). See migration; nationalism; race.
Ethnicity has become particularly contentious in Late Antiquity. Traditional narratives of the Völkerwanderungen (4th–6th cents. ce) assumed that the outsiders moving onto Roman soil had long-established group identities based on shared material and non-material cultural norms. New understandings of ethnicity have combined with reconsiderations of the archaeological and historical sources to undermine this view. The old migration models have consequently required revision, and sometimes heated debate has followed on which particular sub-groups within units like the Visigoths or Vandals were responsible for asserting these group identities, based on what degree of continuity from the past, or whether, indeed, the coherence of such groups was largely an invention of Roman commentators.
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