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Race, Ethnicity, and Nationunlocked

Race, Ethnicity, and Nationunlocked

  • Polly RizovaPolly RizovaCenter for Governance and Public Policy Research, Willamette University
  •  and John StoneJohn StoneDepartment of Sociology, Boston University


The term “race” refers to groups of people who have differences and similarities in biological traits deemed by society to be socially significant, meaning that people treat other people differently because of them. Meanwhile, ethnicity refers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. Ethnic differences are not inherited; they are learned. When racial or ethnic groups merge in a political movement as a form of establishing a distinct political unit, then such groups can be termed nations that may be seen as representing beliefs in nationalism. Race and ethnicity are linked with nationality particularly in cases involving transnational migration or colonial expansion. Anthropologists and historians, following the modernist understanding of ethnicity, see nations and nationalism as developing with the rise of the modern state system. This culminated in the rise of “nation-states,” in which the presumptive boundaries of the nation coincided with state borders. Thus, the notion of ethnicity, like race and nation, developed in the context of European colonial expansion, when mercantilism and capitalism were promoting global movements of populations at the same time that state boundaries were being more clearly and rigidly defined. Theories about the relation between race, ethnicity, and nationality are also linked to more general ideas concerning globalization and populist nationalism.


  • Identity

Updated in this version

Updated references, enhanced discussions of globalization and populist nationalism.

Introduction: Three Variations on a Theme

The three terms—race, ethnicity, and nation—represent forms of group identification that may be the result of internal choice, external categorization, or some combination of the two perspectives. “Race” is the most controversial term since it is based on a false biological premise that there are distinct groups of genetically similar human populations and that these “races” share unique social and cultural characteristics. This assumption was common among many thinkers during the 19th and much of the 20th centuries and still has a considerable following in folk theories and everyday discourse, but it has been completely discredited by scientific knowledge in biology and genetics. The popularity of such racist thinking is linked to its utility in justifying all types of group oppression and exploitation, exemplified by slavery, imperialism, genocide, apartheid, and other systems of stratification and segregation. Ethnicity, or the sense of belonging to a community based on a common history, language, religion, and other cultural characteristics, is a central concept that has been used to understand an important basis of identity in most societies around the world and throughout human history. When ethnic or “racial” groups combine in a political movement in order to create or maintain a distinct political unit, or state, then such groups can be termed nations and such movements may be seen as embodying ideologies or beliefs in nationalism.

In reality, there is a considerable overlap between racism, ethnicity, and nationalism. Extreme forms of nationalism often have a racial ideology associated with them, as was the case with German nationalism during the Nazi period (1933–1945) or Afrikaner nationalism in the era of apartheid (1948–1990). While some scholars use the term “ethnonationalism” (Connor, 1993) to merge the forces of ethnicity and nationalism, others draw a distinction between ethnic and civic forms of nationalism. The former comprises a sense of belonging based on common ancestry, while the latter focuses on membership in a shared political unit that can include citizens from diverse ethnic origins. However, the types of identity associated with these two variants of nationalism are rarely clear-cut and empirical cases usually consist of a mixture of features drawn from both phenomena (Brubaker, 2004, pp. 132–146). Academic studies of racism, ethnicity, and nationalism reveal the same imprecise boundaries between them, which suggests they should be treated as variations on similar social and political themes.

Historians have argued at length concerning the legitimate application of the terms to different forms of social relationships and intergroup attitudes. While slavery has existed in many societies throughout human history, a question remains as to whether it is reasonable to regard the position of Greek slaves in the Roman Empire as on a par with that of African slaves in North America, the Caribbean, or Latin America. If the specific form of “racism” in the United States was a product of a particularly vicious system of chattel slavery, to what extent then can we make generalizations about this term m to cover other historical cases of group domination? Many of the same problems arise in the case of nationalism, but here the arguments have centered on the issue of the origins of the phenomenon. When can we say that a sense of national identity first arose: in the Ancient World, during the 16th century in England (Greenfeld, 1992), or as an outcome of the American and French revolutions? Was nationalism a deeply rooted and continuous force in human history, or a relatively recent “invention” that acts as a convenient cover for other, more fundamental changes (Gellner, 1983; Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983; Smith, 1986, 2008)? Volumes have been written attempting to date the origins of nationalism and the types of forces that can be seen as central to its emergence as a major factor in the modern world. Like so many academic debates, much depends on one’s definition of nationalism—whether, for example, it is viewed as a mass or an elite phenomenon—and what combination of causal variables one chooses to include in its formation.

It is partly the association with difficult-to-change biological properties that has made racism so controversial and yet so attractive for dominant groups. In the middle of the 19th century, Gobineau’s (1853–1855) Essay on the Inequality of Human Races set out an analysis of human society and history using a racist model, and its popularity and widespread adoption by other thinkers served to reinforce the political realities of group domination for almost a century. It was cited approvingly by several influential American sociologists and historians in order to justify Southern slavery in the United States and acted as a precursor to the influential theory of an “Aryan” master race destined to rule or exterminate “inferior” racial groups, which underpinned the cultural and political thinking of such figures as Richard Wagner, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler. Similar conclusions developed along parallel tracks in Anglo-American intellectual circles that employed a distortion of Darwin’s ideas of natural selection introduced by an influential group of thinkers, the Social Darwinists. Perhaps the best refutation of Gobineau’s assumptions was found in the critique by his friend and colleague Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America (1835–1840) and The Ancien Regime and the Revolution (1856). Tocqueville pointed to the historical tendency of all-powerful groups to assume the permanent nature of their superiority over those whom they had conquered and continued to dominate. A simple understanding of the rise and fall of empires and nations showed how improbable the assumption was that any particular system of group domination would last indefinitely. This implicit power model of race relations, while by no means the only system of thought designed to account for racial hierarchies in nonracial terms found among scholars, nevertheless recurred in the writings of social scientists and historians during the latter half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries. Despite their often less than progressive ideas on many issues affecting the society of their day, prominent thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Vilfredo Pareto understood the political basis of imperialism and colonialism and were very much opposed to both of them. Thus, the former referred to European imperialist policies as “social cannibalism,” and the latter attacked the hypocrisy of the so-called civilizing mission of the colonial powers as nothing more than an excuse for exploiting their superior force (Stone & Rizova, 2014).

One of the clearest developments of this type of explanation of race, ethnicity, and nation can be seen in the writings of the influential German sociologist Max Weber (see Stone & Dennis, 2003). In keeping with his general framework that stressed the analogies between economic and social life, Weber conceived of these three types of group formation as another manifestation of the general tendency toward monopolization frequently found in economic life as well as in society as a whole. Such a formulation helped to explain the variety and often quite arbitrary nature of group boundaries—in one situation it would be religion, in another it would be language, or in a third it could be “race”—which happened to be used as the markers defining membership or exclusion from the group. Sometimes all three factors might be superimposed on each other to create the boundaries separating the dominant from the subordinate groups; on other occasions these characteristics appeared to cut across group membership in one or another combination. Nevertheless, the defining feature of this historical process was to establish increasingly strict criteria for membership and exclusion that, once set in motion, became a self-reinforcing process. Just as economic competition in the long run often results in monopolies under market capitalism, so too do groups seek to monopolize the life chances and other benefits of social hierarchy within multiethnic and multiracial states, or between states in the international arena.

In the middle of the 20th century, the defeat of the Axis powers of Germany and Japan, and the unraveling of colonialism, combined with powerful protest movements such as the civil rights struggle in the United States and the antiapartheid campaign in South Africa, were some of the forces diminishing the crude divisions between racially defined groups on a global scale. That said, the importance of ethnicity and the persistence of nationalism have proved to be surprisingly resilient. Premature declarations that modernity and globalization would inevitably undermine peoples’ allegiance to ethnic attachments, or spell the end of national sentiment, have turned out to be unfounded. This is not to claim that in certain spheres the influence of ethnicity and nationalism has become relatively less powerful, or indeed that racism has been abolished, but rather to point to the protean character of these basic types of identity and their ability to adapt, mutate, and reemerge as historical conditions unfold. Thus, the end of the Cold War reduced the ability of ideological rivalries to mask and submerge all manner of ethnic and national divisions in a wider global struggle. As a result, toward the final decades of the 20th century, a Pandora’s box of previously muted national sentiments burst open in the Balkans (Rizova, 2007) to provide a counterexample to the surprisingly peaceful transition from apartheid to nonracial democracy in South Africa.

Race: Biology as Destiny

In spite of the intellectual demolition of the genetic basis of racial theorizing since the second half of the 20th century, the legacy of racism lives on. This is hardly surprising given the coalescence of European colonialism, the slave trade, and the imbalances of global power over the past 500 years. All of this began to unravel during the 20th century in a way that first questioned and then started to undermine the customary hierarchies of half a millennium. The intellectual evolution of human biology initially provided what appeared to be a simple explanation for the apparent correlation between power and race. In the 19th century, biology rivaled theology as the perfect way to legitimize group domination. Subordinate groups no longer had to be damned by the Almighty to perpetual inferiority when they could be damned by their genes. In some ways the utility of biological excommunication was rather less than that justified by faith since the former was always subject to empirical refutation. As knowledge in the biological sciences progressed, greater evidence supported the view that all human population groups shared an overwhelmingly common genetic heritage and what was even more compelling was the fact that variations within so-called races were far more significant than any variations between these categories. As biological explanations seemed harder to sustain, a new consensus started to emerge in academic circles that races were social constructions and therefore that differences were the product of cultural traditions and historical circumstance that could, and no doubt would, change with time. The biological explanations of racial differences were thus false and so other factors needed to be used to explain the social reality behind group differences.

What Alexis de Tocqueville understood as a result of his historical perspective, and Max Weber appreciated by his comparative research, was increasingly supported by the scientific advances in the field of human biology. Not that this was a smooth transition from a paradigm of racial theorizing to an understanding of human difference in terms of resources and power. The elegance of justifying inequality as a consequence of scientific inevitability continually reoccurred in one form after another. Often the proponents were not “racist” in a direct sense of the term, and some had strongly antiracist credentials, but the result of this form of theorizing was almost indistinguishable from earlier biological arguments. Thus sociobiology, based on the twin concepts of kin selection and inclusive fitness, might be seen as entirely divorced from vulgar racial thinking. However, by elevating the “selfish gene” to the master explanation of all human activity and creation, this argument had the potential to offer an approach uncomfortably close in its implications to the theory that Gobineau had proposed a hundred years earlier. It is no surprise that the experience of biological theorizing and its consequences throughout the 20th century have subjected such ideas to a far more skeptical appraisal and caused their proponents to be rather more cautious in linking genetic characteristics to cultural and social outcomes.

Nevertheless, racism has been a persistent and powerful influence on social life for much of the 20th century. The frequently quoted prediction of W. E. B. Du Bois (1903) in The Souls of Black Folk, that the color line would be a defining division in human society for the following hundred years and that it would be not merely an American conflict but global in its reach, has been more than fulfilled by the passage of time. Against the backdrop of the history of the 20th century, which witnessed the decline of European domination over much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the struggle for civil rights in the United States and South Africa, and a succession of genocidal massacres that stretched from the gas chambers of Auschwitz to the killing fields of Rwanda and Darfur, it is often hard to imagine why racist ideas have not been totally discredited. Although some people, perhaps those coming from societies less conscious of the civil rights and liberation struggles of the 20th century, may still believe in the fallacy of racial difference, among the educated populations of the world these beliefs appear to be of diminishing significance. That said, it would be completely wrong to regard racism, and antagonism based on racial divisions, to be no longer a significant element in the conflicts that continue to tear apart much of the fabric of contemporary global society. This paradox, of greater understanding of the nature of “racial” conflict on the one hand, and yet the continuing persistence of race on the other hand, requires a careful dissection of the meaning of “race” in contemporary society. The complexity of the topic and the manner in which such thinking has subtly shifted has led some social scientists to write about “racism without racists” (Bonilla-Silva, 2006) and still others to devote much scrutiny to a related, counterintuitive phenomenon, “ethnicity without groups” (Brubaker, 2004) and the “slippery nature” of contemporary racisms (Solomos, 2020).

It is already generally accepted that race is a social construct, an idea—in this case a scientifically erroneous one—that is in the minds of people. The enormous variability of racial systems from one society to another, and in different historical periods, demonstrates that racial background has little intrinsic importance, and that racial identity is rather a powerful legacy of cultural tradition and social inertia. Nevertheless, the changes that still need to take place in order for all white Americans to accept their black fellow citizens not only as governors, leading officials, and even as their President, but also as residential neighbors, remain to be realized. Despite the two-term Obama presidency (2008–2016) and the premature use of the term “post-racialism” to describe it, such unexpected progress has been quickly put to rest by the arrival of the explicitly racist language and actions of the Trump administration (Stone & Rizova, 2020). The Black Lives Matter movement (Dennis & Dennis, 2020), along with the rise of white nationalism, part of a global trend toward populist nationalism, provide widespread evidence of the continuing significance of race throughout the world.

The long-term difficulty in overcoming this legacy can be explained in part by what Charles Tilly and Thomas Shapiro have termed “opportunity hoarding,” the passing on of assets between generations that favors whites over blacks at a ratio of 10 to one (Shapiro, 2004; Tilly, 1998). Another historical perspective that helps to explain the entrenchment of racial privilege is the manner in which the discussion about “affirmative action” has been framed. Increasingly, scholars are linking dominant “affirmative action” to the New Deal and to those policies designed to assist white veterans, notably the GI Bill, after World War II (Katznelson, 2006). A parallel discussion is to view the implementation of apartheid in South Africa, between 1948 and 1990, as another type of affirmative action for the benefit of the dominant (white) political group. Its demonstrated effectiveness in raising the lower class of Afrikaners—the bywoners—out of poverty helps to explain some of the subsequent levels of racial inequality in postapartheid South Africa.

Returning to the American case, one only needs to drive through the heart of major, or for that matter minor, American cities, examine the student populations of so many of the worst American public schools, or simply consider the statistics describing the inmates of the American penal system (Alexander, 2010), and the reality of the continuing significance of race is hard to deny. Furthermore, the health disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 revealed the heavily disproportionate numbers of black and brown casualties among the infection and death rates in America. These figures, together with the often lethal police violence exposed, yet again, by the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, show how black and white lives are by no means subject to the same opportunities and risks in contemporary America.

To focus on the American case is to survey only part of the problem. However, because of its high ideals—crafted by the slave-owning proponents of democracy for a “civilized” elite that did not include either women or minorities—the United States has been at the center of a storm of ethical debates about who should be granted full membership of, and who should be excluded from, the rights and privileges of freedom. The problematic nature of this debate can be seen in the preference of so many black slaves to join and fight with the British colonial forces in the 1770s against the advocates of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Given the bias toward white property-owning males, this decision was based on a rational calculation that London was more likely to end the “peculiar institution” than the slave-owning “democrats” meeting in Philadelphia (Schama, 2006). This is not to glamorize the motives of the British who, no sooner had they lost the fight in North America, went on to pillage Africa, Asia, and other exploitable parts of the globe as they scrambled to “civilize” the rest of humanity.

But racism is certainly not confined to the Anglo-American world. The evolution of rather different patterns of racial hierarchy and group conflicts can be seen in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. As Edward Telles (2004) has argued in Race in Another America, Brazil has been plagued by powerful traditions of racial distinction, but the dynamics of race relations follow a different logic from that underlying the pattern found in the United States. Despite the ideology of “racial democracy,” formulated in its classical manner by Gilberto Freyre’s (1933) The Masters and the Slaves, few social scientists or historians would seriously deny that Brazilian society is permeated by considerations of color (Bailey, 2020; Fritz, 2011). The fundamental difference is, in some cruel paradox, that individuals, under the rules of the Brazilian system, can, so to speak, “change their race,” while blacks in America, conforming to the pressures of the one drop rule, cannot.

Individualism in the United States may be characterized the philosophy of social mobility, but it does not breach the color line. The very fluidity of the Brazilian system has made it in the past a more subtle and complex problem to solve, although the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018—the “Trump of the Tropics”—revealed a new, and hardly nuanced, slant on racial democracy. The Brazilian case can be seen as a cautionary tale concerning the strengths and weaknesses of a comparative perspective. On the one hand, viewing the patterns in one society in isolation from a wider lens invites a form of myopia that greatly diminishes the value of the exercise; on the other hand, embarking on elaborate comparative analyses without a close understanding of the complexities of each situation invites another type of bias. Nevertheless, trying to place rather different systems within a wider framework has become increasingly necessary as the forces of globalization continue to foster closer links between virtually all societies as they are bound together by the ties of an interlinked global system. The exercise becomes even more challenging when one recognizes that there are “many globalizations” (Berger & Huntington, 2003) and that no society is ever static as far as its intergroup relationships, or indeed most other aspects of its structure and culture, are concerned. In many of the classic attempts to formulate such broadly comparative models of racial conflict—Pierre van den Berghe (1967) and Anthony Marx (1998), for example—the United States, Brazil, and South Africa are often the key reference points. But the shifting nature of race relations in all three of these societies reveals how difficult it is to predict the future direction of multiracial societies.

From being the bastion of racial oppression under the apartheid regime, South Africa has been regenerated as a society where nonracial democracy is the dominant political consensus.

The full implications of this profound and, in many respects, surprising transformation of a rigid racial hierarchy raised enormous hopes for the future direction of the country. However, understanding the nature of social change and how far it has affected the lives of most citizens of the new South Africa is an important illustration of the dynamic nature of most racial systems over time. It is also an excellent way to develop insights into the generation of racial conflict by analyzing those situations where, despite the presence of so many of the characteristics that are often associated with violence, it simply did not take place on anything like the scale that most experts, politicians, and ordinary people predicted. Nevertheless, a quarter of a century later, we have a more realistic assessment of the degree to which “Mandela’s miracle” has transformed South African society or rather has replaced one elite, which was racially defined, with another system of privilege, but one less loosely linked to racial divisions. A succession of disastrous political leaders following Mandela, from Thabo Mbeki, with his tragic refusal to address the AIDS crisis, to the rampant corruption of Jacob Zuma, has squandered much of the promise of a democratic South Africa (Moodley & Adam, 2020).

Ethnicity: Group Divisions Rooted in Culture

The power of race as a boundary marker has been continuously demonstrated for the past two centuries in many societies throughout the globe. Its persistence, despite the intellectual bankruptcy of its genetic rationalization, cannot be attributed solely to ignorance, and this explains why education alone is often an insufficient antidote to racial thinking and hierarchies built on racial divisions. Economic, social, and political changes are all part of the process by which racial stratification is challenged, modified, and in some cases overturned. Claims about the relative significance of race or class, and whether strategies emphasizing political mobilization or economic self-sufficiency and advancement hold the key to transforming racial disadvantage and oppression, have been at the core of racial debates throughout the 20th century. Another complication is the overlap between racial markers and ethnic boundaries that often exacerbates such conflicts. Ethnic divisions can be just as deep-seated and ethnic conflicts just as violent as those linked to a racial divide. Language, religion, history, and culture merge and intersect in varying degrees in many of these conflicts. Which factors prove to be salient in any one situation largely depends on the particular historical circumstances that frame the subsequent patterns of ethnic relations.

Among the critical events that influence ethnogenesis and ethnic conflict are patterns of global migration and the related forces of conquest, genocide, settlement, and types of assimilation, integration, and pluralism. Migration has been an endemic force in most societies and in recent centuries has even been incorporated into the founding myths of states that view themselves as based on migration, rather than being derived from some claim of indigenous ownership of a specific land. Such migrant societies include not simply the United States—a self-proclaimed “Society of Immigrants”—but also Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Canada. In reality, most societies over time have experienced considerable influxes of new peoples and large outflows of population groups motivated by a variety of factors including the search for economic opportunities, flight from political persecution or military destruction, and the quest for freedom of religious practice and expression, to mention just a few. Some societies encounter inflows and outflows simultaneously, while others include migrants and settlers of varying lengths of time—seasonal migrants, “guest workers” (gastarbeiter), transnational communities, nomadic peoples, diasporas, “global cosmopolitans,” undocumented workers, and refugees—and most change the composition and scale of migrant flows and influence over time. Thus, Italy and Ireland were major sources of global migration, particularly the transatlantic movements to North and South America, for much of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. However, by the turn of the 21st century, it was the impact of migrants trying to enter these two parts of the prosperous European Union (EU), as opposed to the previous tradition of sympathizing with poor migrants escaping famine and rural poverty, that became the salient issue in both societies (O’Dowd, 2005). A similar dramatic reversal in perception could be seen in the opposition and violence directed at refugees and economic migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and other sub-Saharan African states living in urban townships around Johannesburg in 2008.

Different societies have different mechanisms for accommodating ethnic diversity. Some seek to assimilate newcomers as rapidly as possible, while others have more fluid systems of differential incorporation—segmented assimilation, to use one of the common terms employed in the North American literature—with a variety of possible forms. Not all migrant groups wish to become completely integrated into the mainstream of the dominant society; many do but are not accepted without a long period of acculturation and a fierce struggle for structural inclusion. The constant interaction between racism and ethnicity can also be seen in the manner in which some ethnic groups are more readily accepted than others and, in certain cases, migrant groups of one ethnic background may receive advantages denied to oppressed indigenous minorities. In the United States, many of the white ethnic groups, in order to achieve greater acceptance by the core society, quite specifically distanced themselves from blacks and Native Americans, who had been living as stigmatized sectors in the society for centuries prior to their arrival. How the Irish “became white” (Ignatiev, 1995; Roediger, 2007) was a pattern repeated by many other immigrants, such as the Italians, Poles, and Eastern European Jews, who arrived toward the end of the 19th and in the first two decades of the 20th centuries. Other ethnic groups were also assimilated in patterns that reflected the particular set of characteristics that they possessed, in terms of human and social capital, as well as the economic, social, and political conditions prevailing during the period of their arrival. Thus, Cubans fleeing the Castro revolution in 1959, and for the duration of the Cold War, benefited greatly from the ideological struggles of the period. Haitians, arriving in Florida at much the same time and escaping the murderous regimes of the Duvaliers, received far less support. Although color may have been part of the equation, the political advantage of being fervent anticommunists was probably an even more important factor.

While North America and Western Europe shared many similar patterns of migration and assimilation during the first two decades of the 21st century—unlikely parallels between Mexican and Muslims having been raised by social scientists on both continents (Huntington, 2004; Zolberg & Woon, 1999)—even societies with a strong ideology of ethnic homogeneity were forced to confront their actual diversity. Germany’s powerful ethnic nationalist tradition (Alba & Foner, 2015; Alba et al., 2003) has had to be modified by the increasing integration of the European Union, so that second- and third-generation Germans of Turkish ethnic background could no longer be regarded as permanent aliens. Much the same is true of Japan, and not only Ainu and Burakumin, but also Koreans, Chinese, and Okinawans are increasingly self-conscious minorities that have started to challenge the monoethnic ideology of post-World War II Japan (Lie & Weng, 2020; Tarumoto, 2020). In China, with its enormous population of 1.3 billion, relatively small numbers of ethnic and religious minorities nevertheless constitute a group of approximately 100 million people, and the situation of the Uighurs, Tibetans, and Hui have started to receive greater scholarly and political attention (Hou & Stone, 2008). This is hardly surprising given the monumental transformation of Chinese society as the workshop of the modern world, and the types of pressures that such an economic transition creates for all peoples involved in this historic process. Not only are there massive internal migratory movements linked to rapid industrialization and urbanization (Luo, 2020), but the adaptation of minorities to these forces almost inevitably results in language change and perceived threats to traditional ways of life. As for the Tibetan case, China’s vast population has allowed a pattern of outside migration of Han Chinese that for the nationalist critics is seen as tantamount to “ethnic swamping,” a variant on ethnic cleansing with a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Contemporary China is facing yet another policy dilemma between playing an increasing global role on the one hand, and using the forces of rising nationalism on the other hand (Hou, 2020).

In Africa, ethnic divisions have been a continuing legacy of imperialism that has followed on into the postcolonial era and resulted in much conflict and bloodshed. Even decades after independence, many African states are still permeated by political systems closely linked to ethnic (tribal) loyalties, making a winner-takes-all electoral system unsuited to resolving the problems of state-building and economic development. Nigeria’s war to prevent the Biafran secession (1967–1970), the genocidal massacres in Rwanda (1994), and the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan (2003–) are some prominent examples of independent Africa’s struggles with the impact of ethnic conflict. The South African situation was another case where a society that was deeply divided by racial and ethnic boundaries managed to resolve these conflicts in a remarkably peaceful form of negotiation. The society simply redefined the racial and ethnic boundaries to include all groups on the basis of full citizenship for everyone. Whether the South African model, with its distinctive use of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and many other unique features, can be a successful long-term experiment in nonracialism remains to be seen. However, some of the lessons learned from the South African case have been applied to other conflict-torn areas of the world, such as Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain.

The last two cases illustrate the diverse boundary markers that can be found in regions plagued by ethnic conflicts. In Northern Ireland, “religion” was the ostensible ground for group solidarity and division, the centuries-old difference between the Protestant ruling group and the Catholic minority being the manner in which the conflict was framed. However, the underlying struggle appeared to most analysts to have little or nothing to do with doctrinal matters and much more to be based on those who regarded themselves as part of Britain (the “Protestants”) and those who identified with Ireland and being Irish (the “Catholics”). In the Basque case, language and cultural divisions, closely tied in with feelings of historical separation, represented the ethnic glue behind a strong sense of Basque identity and the movement for separation from Spain (Conversi, 1997). For both situations, however, many social scientists interpret the struggle as one between groups divided on the basis of nationalism. Once an ethnic group moves toward mobilization with the goal of creating a separate state, or joining a different state from the one that it is currently a part, then ethnicity is transformed into nationalism.

The nature of these movements has been explored by scholars who emphasize a variety of different factors to account for the changing salience of ethnic and national struggles over time (Fearson & Laitin, 2003, 2005). Most of these factors are related to the relative power of ethnonationalist movements compared with the state structures they are fighting against. The components of the power equation can include many influences, including the legitimacy of the groups’ claims for national independence; whether such movements are united or consist of a coalition of conflicting parties; the extent to which ethnic groups and nationalist movements are spread across multiple state boundaries and are geographically concentrated or dispersed; the strength and resilience of the states that oppose them; and the geopolitical context in which the conflict is taking place. The situation of the Kurds illustrates several of these elements, such as the opposition to statehood from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and the opportunities for greater autonomy presented by the collapse of centralized political control that emerged as a consequence of the 2003 Iraq war (O’Leary et al., 2005). While the Kurds played a significant military role in the defeat of ISIS during the Syrian civil war (2011–) after the Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad proved decisive, the Kurdish forces were rapidly abandoned by their former allies, reflecting the number of states opposed to any idea of an independent Kurdish state.

The Continuing Significance of the Nation

Thus, ethnicity and nationalism form different stages along a continuum. Some ethnic groups, particularly those living in explicitly multinational states, are content to remain as part of a wider political unit. In certain cases, such as Switzerland, the state is fundamentally based on these separate group components, coexisting in various types of federal structures. The Swiss canton system is a long-established version of federalism that has been able to contain at least three major linguistic groups—German, French, and Italian speakers—in a united state structure.

However, the Swiss example is in many respects exceptional. The clear recognition that these types of arrangements may combine a high degree of autonomy for each national group while retaining the cohesiveness of the overarching political unit is but one way to manage ethnic diversity. Much depends on the perceptions of equal treatment and a just division of power and resources, which explains why these federal solutions are often difficult to maintain. Conflicts between Canada and Quebec, between Flemings and Walloons in Belgium, between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon, and between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in post-Saddam Iraq all point to the complexities of trying to contain the aspirations of diverse ethnonational groups within a single political structure. Lebanon was once regarded as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” before it descended into religious divisions amid corruption and outside interference.

Europe in the postcommunist period provides some interesting examples of failed federalism and federalist expansion taking place simultaneously. The collapse of Yugoslavia, which under Josip Broz Tito had been one of the most genuinely devolved, ethnically diverse states in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, demonstrates how rapidly such arrangements can disintegrate in the aftermath of political change (Sekulic, 2020). With the initial breakaway of Slovenia, followed by the wars between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, what had once been a unified power-sharing arrangement rapidly degenerated into a power struggle articulated in nationalist terms. The split with Montenegro, and the declaration of independence by Kosovo in 2008, finally left Serbia on its own, thus completing the total disintegration of what had been a unified state since 1918. While Yugoslavia was falling apart, much of the rest of Eastern Europe, having emerged from the political control of the Soviet system, was involved in a scramble to join the European Union. Just as one part of the continent was fragmenting into an increasing number of units defined by their dominant ethnic population, other parts, comprising firmly established states, were voluntarily surrendering some of their sovereignty in order to enjoy the benefits of an enlarged economic and political community. Thus, a continuing dialectic of national fission and fusion demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable about the strength and direction of nationalist sentiment, which can wax and wane depending on a range of economic, social, and political factors. The component parts of the former Yugoslavia would also join the scramble for EU membership in the early decades of the 21st century.

While European consolidation during and after the 1990s was a remarkable transition from centuries of rivalry and warfare, even this has to be seen as an ever-changing development. After having narrowly defeated the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, the United Kingdom was locked in a struggle to leave the EU in June 2016, after almost half a century of membership. While this was in part a political miscalculation by Prime Minister David Cameron designed to silence critics within his party, the surprising outcome and the protracted negotiations to work out an exit from the EU—Brexit—came to a head with the electoral victory of Boris Johnson in 2019. This outcome resonated with other global trends, including the unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential election together with a string of parallel political movements from Turkey to Brazil, from India to Indonesia, and including Russia and China. This revival of populist nationalism can be seen in part as a massive reaction to the uneven outcome of accelerated globalization (Brubaker, 2017; Stone & Rizova, 2020).

Furthermore, the expansion and internal dynamics of Europe were also influencing the types of internal “national” conflicts taking place between member states. Thus, the gradual solution of the centuries-old Northern Ireland struggle can in part be attributed to the lower salience of national boundaries resulting from the increasing influence of Brussels and Strasbourg. While many Unionists (Protestants) and Nationalists (Catholics) had a visceral dislike of dealing with Dublin and London respectively, the prospect of a fundamental shift in the European political center of gravity meant that both groups could increasingly bargain with a third party. This was the politically neutral European Parliament and Commission (bureaucracy), which rendered their traditional foes much less important and prevented compromise from looking like capitulation. No one would suggest that this was the only factor involved in the lessening of tensions and facilitating the historic power-sharing arrangement. The phenomenal growth of the Irish economy—the emergence of the Celtic Tiger—and the changed attitude of the American public toward “terrorism” (and hence financial support for the Irish Republican Army) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon were also critical developments pushing the parties in Northern Ireland toward completing the negotiations. However, given the earlier emphasis on the ever-changing nature of these group relationships, the arrival of Brexit raised a totally new obstacle to sustained peace in Northern Ireland. Whether peaceful cooperation can withstand the complex border issues resulting from the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU remains to be seen.

The academic scholarship on nationalism has involved a series of debates about the fundamental nature of the phenomenon that is being analyzed. Proponents of primordialism, ethnosymbolism, and modernism, the three most influential perspectives in the literature, have argued extensively about the content and origin of nationalism. Some maintain that this form of identity is rooted in a long and continuous association of specific peoples, whether it is tied to a perceived cultural history often stretching back over centuries, if not millennia, or whether it is, in fact, a relatively recent form of identity. Others date nationalism to the Industrial Revolution and/or the political revolutions in America and France in the late 18th century and claim it was largely “invented” by modernizing elites in an attempt to unify political structures. There are a large number of permutations and combinations of these basic perspectives. Most primordialists avoid the genetic mechanisms associated with sociobiological arguments—Pierre van den Berghe being a notable exception—for the same reason that the overwhelming majority of scholars analyzing “race” are careful to emphasize that they are describing a fictitious construction based on a poor understanding of biological processes. Thus, sociologists such as Edward Shils and Steven Grosby stress cultural and social mechanisms that bond human groups together on the basis of family, culture, and territory. While not biologically programmed, these cultural affiliations are deeply felt and are often experienced with great intensity, which helps to explain the power and resilience of nationalist sentiments. A related emphasis on the strong psychological basis of much nationalism can be found in Walker Connor’s analysis of what he calls ethnonationalism (Connor, 1993). Connor draws a firm distinction between two closely related, but he would insist distinct, sources of identification: nationalism, which refers to loyalty to an ethnic group or nation; and patriotism, which is defined as political identification with the state.

The fact that the nation-state, a perfect overlap between one specific ethnic group and a given political unit, only exists in a few cases, and even then is only an approximation to reality, explains the nature of so many types of nationalist conflict. States often seek to incorporate minority ethnic groups into the structures and culture of the dominant group, and this can often result in reactive resistance by the minority group(s): subordinate nationalism to counter dominant nationalism. A related distinction that is frequently made is between ethnic and civic nationalism, a difference between those states that explicitly attempt to fuse the nation and the state and those that try to maintain an ethnically neutral political organization. In practice, this too is an analytical dichotomy that was initially developed to contrast the types of nationalism found in Eastern Europe and those typically prevailing in the Western states of the continent. Once again, no matter how much the civic ideal-type is professed, it is rarely pure in form, and many of the cultural characteristics of the dominant group are subtly, or often less than subtly, incorporated into the basic assumptions of the state.

Other theorists of nationalism tend to emphasize the modern nature of the phenomenon, insisting that none of the forms of identity that characterized society for long periods of human history share the vital ingredients of the modern understanding of the term. There are several variations on this perspective, some coming out of the Marxist tradition that dismisses nationalism, like religion, as yet another form of false consciousness, and others that view the emergence of nationalism as an integral element of modernity. The former perspective regards nationalism as an ideological smokescreen hiding the “true” interests of the working classes so that the owners of the means of capitalist production can better exploit them. It is a variant on the divide and rule strategy that promotes ideological confusion and pits worker against worker on the basis of a totally irrelevant set of distinctions. Modernity theorists, meanwhile, do not link the rise of nationalism with the growth of capitalism alone but see it as stemming from a combination of political, social, and economic forces generated by the Enlightenment. One result of the economic and political revolutions of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the scientific and technological advances associated with these historical transformations, is the need for mass education to build a culturally homogeneous platform to sustain these developments (Gellner, 1983). Central to these changes, and resulting as an unintended consequence of the functional requirements of a modern lifestyle, are conditions that encourage and sustain nationalism.

The ethnosymbolists, exemplified by the writings of Anthony Smith (1986, 2008) and John Hutchinson (2005, 2017), take a middle position between modernist social construction and the sense of historical continuity. While Smith and his colleagues are fully aware of the cultural foundations of nations, they are also equally cognizant of the role of myths, symbols, and the frequently distorted collective memory that underpins all the major forms of nationalist movements. This middle path between the extremes of construction and continuity provides a valuable balance that helps us to understand a wider range of nationalist movements, from those with a pedigree stretching back millennia to the nationalisms of the postimperial era during the 19th and 20th centuries. With the emergence of a variety of interpretations of how and when nationalism developed in modern society, much of the current debate concerns an assessment of the impact of such forces as globalization, religious fundamentalism, and international nonstate terrorism as factors that may shape the continuing importance, growing salience, or declining significance of nationalism in the future.

Globalization and Populist Nationalism

Is it possible that racism, ethnicity, and nationalism will become much less salient in the coming decades? If so, what would be the explanation for such trends? Social scientists do not have a particularly good record in predicting far into the future. While W. E. B. DuBois was remarkably prescient in seeing the power of the color line throughout the 20th century, other predictions have proved to be far less accurate. For example, a claim that the advance of science and technology, as a crucial component of the “rationality” of modernization, would make religion obsolete in the latter half of the 20th century has not turned out to be correct. The particular forms of identity that are likely to be salient or, in contradistinction, may quite probably diminish in significance in the decades to come remains an enduring question.

Of the three elements, racism seemed, until the arrival of Trump, to be the least likely candidate for a rapid revival as a basis of group categorization. There are several forces that could strengthen a general antiracist trend in modern global society. Olzak (2006) has stressed the need to integrate the changing nature of international organizations and processes into the analysis, particularly the complex ramifications of globalization with its impact on migration, transnational communities, suprastate institutions, and transnational corporations. Increased diversity in all the major societies as a result of the global transformation of the world economy, and the interconnections of capital and labor, can be expected to increase during the successive decades of the century. This will apply not only to the postindustrial societies of the First World, but also to the intermediate developing economies and to the Third World. The sheer diversity of migration patterns, internal flows within regional free trade areas, transnational communities whose dynamics will be enhanced by accelerated innovations in communication technologies and transportation, growing groups of highly skilled global migrants, and the unpredictable flows of refugees from political persecution, famines, and genocidal massacres, will all combine to increase the multiracial complexion of states and federations throughout the world. No one would expect these trends to be entirely in one direction, or to be without the potential for strong backlashes or reactive political movements against the type of social changes that such developments represent.

Ethnicity and nationalism, meanwhile, will probably be rather more persistent markers of group boundaries. There are several reasons for this conclusion. While the United Nations, as a global organization for political governance, has a role to play in trying to respond to crises and catastrophes that cut across state boundaries or involve multiple state conflicts, its structure is fundamentally state-bound. The Security Council’s veto power means that a coordinated response is extremely difficult when a particular state, or power bloc, deems such action to be a threat to their “national interests” or to set a precedent that can be viewed as “interference in the internal affairs of a member state.” Thus, on issues such as genocide, torture, brutal ethnic repression, and the blatant disregard for human rights, UN conventions are invariably ignored when geopolitical interests are involved.

If one overarching political structure is unlikely to reduce ethnic and nationalist sentiments, what about the impact of intermediate-scale organizations that bunch together clusters of states in regional groupings? What will be the net effect of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, the EU, NAFTA, and related supranational, but not global, institutions and treaties? Will they, on balance, help to diminish the types of ethnic and national mobilization as increased cooperation and mutual dependency in economic, social, and political ties start to extend the traditional boundaries of group interaction? Or will they lead to strong opposition, with political parties appealing to xenophobic solidarity, to setting up “Fortress Europe,” or building fences to try to curtail the increasing flows of illegal economic migrants that are a direct outcome of the trade and economic policies forcing capital and labor to seek out a new equilibrium? If we add the factors of international terrorism, environmental pressure resulting from global climate change, the worldwide implications of drug policies, and the competitive rivalries of major religious faiths, a volatile mix of influences will undoubtedly be unleashed.

Some sociologists such as Richard Alba (2008) point to demographic factors that could exert pressure on societies such as the United States to move toward greater economic and social justice for ethnic minorities. Given the differential fertility rates of dominant whites and those of minorities, particularly minorities of color, Alba suggests these trends will have a tendency toward minority inclusion in the upper levels of the U.S. stratification system. While in the past immigration from Europe was one mechanism that provided an alternative reservoir of talent to fill a range of positions in the economic hierarchy, since the 1960s the shortfall in the supply of scientific, technical, and managerial talent has often been filled by foreigners, either those directly recruited by U.S. corporations or American-trained aliens who choose to remain in the country and work after completing their higher education. Alba argues that this pool of talented individuals will be subject to increasing competition from many other growing economies and that, combined with the domestic demographic shortfall, the result will be the incorporation of more American minorities into professional, managerial, and technical positions. What is true of the United States is likely to be repeated in Europe with its even lower demographic rates of reproduction and similar patterns of migration both within the enlarged economic community and from the peripheral regions surrounding it.

None of these macro sociopolitical trends necessarily diminish the tensions that arise from increasing globalization that can be channeled along ethnic and nationalist grooves. In fact, the very success of the integrative economic forces may exacerbate ethnonational mobilization as a way to maintain meaningful identity in a world subject to mounting anomic strains associated with rapid and discontinuous social change. What Mann (2005) has characterized as “the dark side of democracy” is simply a further elaboration of the argument about the dual-edged sword of modernity, which has its intellectual roots in Weber’s pessimistic analysis of “rationality.” From the “banality of evil,” to cite Hannah Arendt’s classic formulation, genocide and ethnic cleansing are not so much a reversion to primitive violence as a logical outcome of many of the forces inherent in modern society. While it is true that there may also be a “banality of good” that can, on occasions, help to counter such threats (Casiro, 2006), it is unlikely that this will be the dominant outcome. “Rational” bureaucratic techniques tend to be harnessed to the goals of modern states, multistate alliances, and nonstate global actors such as multinational corporations. These modern methods can combine the destructiveness of scientific means with the tenacity of group identity to attain highly particularistic ends. Regrettably, there is nothing intrinsically benign in the forces underpinning the societal changes that have taken place during the first two decades of the 21st century. The precise balance between racism, ethnicity, and nationalism remains unclear but their possible eradication from future social, economic, and political conflicts seems highly unlikely.

Further Reading

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  • Suarez-Orozco, M. (2019). Humanitarianism and mass migration: Confronting the world crisis. University of California Press.
  • Tesler, M. (2016). Post-racial or most racial? Race and politics in the Obama era. University of Chicago Press.


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