In contrast to race, ethnicity refers to cultural traits that can be used to distinguish between human groups. Many anthropologists during the middle of the 20th century, particularly Ashley Montagu, believed that the concept of race (as the basis of racism) had been utilised as a mechanism of social exclusion for far too long, and that it should be replaced by the concept of ethnic group.
According to Montagu, an ethnic group can be understood as one of a number of populations, which grade into one another and together comprise the species Homo sapiens, but individually maintain their differences, physical and cultural, by means of isolating mechanisms such as geographic and social barriers. Where these barriers are of low power, neighbouring ethnic groups will intergrade or hybridize with one another. Where these barriers are of high power, such ethnic groups will tend to remain more or less different from each other or replace each other geographically or ecologically. Although ethnicity can provide an explanation for social exclusion between ethnic groups, it is an evolutionary concept that also recognizes that different populations may have the same or similar origins.
Despite these arguments against race and in favour of a biological concept of ethnicity, the concept of race continues to be used as a classificatory tool by many evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and a minority of anthropologists and remains a root concept in newgenics and neo-eugenics, which seek to improve the human species through biomedical means.
Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity
With the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution at the end of the 19th century, anthropologists began to understand that much of the variation found both within and between human groups was the result of environmental factors. Human groups were not degenerating – they were evolving and adapting to local environmental conditions, both physically and culturally. This led many to question the reliability of typological approaches to racial classification.
In 1900, Joseph Deniker, published The Races of Man, looking at the study of anthropology and ethnography and the problems of racial classification. This book represents what is likely the first published argument that the traditional anthropological race concept should be replaced by the notion of ethnicity. Deniker seemingly anticipated many of the debates that would arise in the biological sciences and anthropology during the mid-20th century and into the 21st century, drawing on many problems with systematic taxonomy in general, and its application to humans in particular.
Deniker appreciated the great cultural and biological variability of human groups, and was sceptical of attempts to give a systematic view of all the peoples of the earth, either socially or physically. He was primarily interested in fundamental questions about the nature of human groups and their relations to zoological phenomena, leading him to ask:
Do these real and palpable groupings represent unions of individuals which, in spite of some slight dissimilarities, are capable of forming what zoologists call ‘species’, ‘subspecies’, ‘varieties’, in the case of wild animals, or ‘races’ in the case of domestic animals? One need not be a professional anthropologist to reply negatively to this question. They are ethnic groups formed by virtue of community of language, religion, social institutions, etc. . . . and are by no means zoological species.
Franz Boas published a number of papers between 1910 and 1913 under the heading ‘Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants’. This collection has become classic in anthropology for its demonstration of the plasticity of the human form. Boas’ premise was that the principle data to be collected must relate to the differences in composition of the immigrants arriving in the United States at different periods, and to the changes that may take place among their descendants born in the United States. Boas analysed anthropometric data from over 13,000 European immigrants to the United States and their descendants, focusing primarily on the head form of living individuals using the cephalic index (calculated by dividing the head breadth by length and multiplying by 100) in order to study change in constitution over time. It had been previously assumed that the cephalic index demonstrated heritability and was resistant to environmental influences and therefore average values for the index should remain constant between types.
Boas’ results demonstrated that (1) American-born descendants of immigrants differ in type from their foreign-born parents. The changes that occur among various European types are not all in the same direction. They develop in early childhood and persist throughout life; and (2) the influence of the American environment makes itself felt with increasing intensity, according to the time elapsed between the arrival of the mother and the birth of the child.
Following the works of Deniker and Boas, and incorporating new understandings of genetic inheritance, anthropologists such as Julian Huxley and Alfred Haddon, as well as Ashley Montagu, began to attack traditional understandings of race and racial classification in the first half of the 20th century, in reaction to the eugenics movement and the Holocaust.
Huxley and Haddon’s main contention was that practically all human groups had a mixed origin, and, as a result, all possessed a great degree of genetic variation. As such, they took issue with the fact that while the term ‘subspecies’ had been substituted for race in other animals, migration and crossing in humans has produced such a fluid state of affairs that no such clear-cut term, as applied to existing conditions, should be permissible. The existence of such human sub-species was therefore considered to be purely hypothetical. Therefore, Huxley and Haddon preferred that the non-committal term ‘ethnic group’ be used.
Their idea of ethnic classification was one that would be quantitative rather than qualitative, and three-dimensional rather than based on single characters. They believed that the first aim of ethnic classification should be to give an accurate descriptive picture of the physical characteristics of different regional groups, in terms of certain agreed physical characteristics. For this we require not only averages and statistical estimates of variability for single characters, but curves showing their distribution in adequate samples of the population. This would require numerical estimates of the degree of association between different characters, which, he suggested, would enable them to give a descriptive classification of human populations in different geographical regions of the world, in terms of ethnic groups with certain physical peculiarities.
Similarly, Montagu’s indictments against the race concept, which state that the concept is fundamentally flawed is based on three basic premises: (1) it is artificial; (2) it does not agree with the facts of human variation; (3) it leads to confusion and the perpetuation of error. These arguments are based firmly in the primacy of genetic evidence to support typological racial classifications.
Montagu believed that anthropologists interested in the origins of human variation should view that variation not as taxonomists but from a genetic perspective, since the variation typically characterized as ‘race’ is a process that can only be accurately described in terms of the frequencies with which individual genes occur in groups which represent adequate ecologic isolates. If ‘race’ and ‘racial’ variability can best be described in terms of gene frequencies, then human biologists must seek to discover what roles the primary and secondary factors play in producing that variability.
Although very strong arguments have been made for the substitution of ethnicity for race, few scholars have embraced this conceptual shift, since race and racialism are so deeply ingrained in social and scientific discourse. Moreover, the concept of ethnicity requires a much more complex analytical framework in order to fully understand and appreciate the factors that affect group dynamics, making it very difficult to effectively operationalize the concept.
Billinger, M.S. (2000). Geography, genetics, and generalizations: the abandonment of ‘race’ in the anthropological study of human biological variation. Master’s Thesis, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University.
Billinger, M.S. (2007). Another look at ethnicity as a biological concept: moving anthropology beyond the race concept. Critique of Anthropology, 27(5), 5-35.
Montagu, Ashley. (1962). The concept of race. American Anthropologist, 65(5), 919–28.
Montagu, Ashley. (1964). Man’s most dangerous myth (4th Edition). Cleveland: World Publishing Group.
Notton, David, Stringer, Chris. (nd). Who is the type of Homo sapiens?” International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Available at http://iczn.org/content/who-type-homo-sapiens.