Situational & Symbolic Ethnicity Research Paper Starter

Situational & Symbolic Ethnicity

(Research Starters)

Situational and symbolic ethnicity provide two ways for people to participate in their ethnic heritage while still maintaining membership in the broader, mainstream culture. Both concepts were originally conceived based on research that examined the descendants of European immigrants, a population that within a few generations becomes hard to distinguish as a distinct ethnic group. A growing body of research that examines realities for the descendants of immigrants from non-European communities indicates that the characteristics of ethnicity are more complex for these populations, although some aspects of situational and symbolic ethnicity still apply. People who claim multiple ethnic heritages are also redefining notions of situational and symbolic ethnicity.

Keywords Ascribed Status; Assimilation; Cultural Practice; Enclosure Model; Ethnic Group; Ethnic Re-Identification; Imagined Communities; Incorporation; Re-Traditionalisation; Situational Ethnicity; Symbolic Ethnicity



In 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois described the tension he felt in his duality. Membership in his race meant uneasiness with membership in his nation: "One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (in Spickard & Fong, 1995, p. 1379). A study of situational ethnicity points to a way to reconcile those two uneasy parts; when it is possible to move in and out of ethnic identity, as is the case with situational ethnicity, members of many groups have a way to have the richness of an ethnic identity, without alienation from the mainstream society. Symbolic ethnicity is another avenue that helps individuals reconcile membership in more than one group, allowing descendents of immigrants to have a "limited identification with an ethnic group that involves activities such as attending an occasional ethnic fair, cooking ethnic food for holidays or subscribing to a periodical dedicated to an ethnic identity" (Kelly & Nagel, 2002).

European Immigration

Waves of European immigration helped to create a model of assimilation, which predicted that once a population moved out of a culturally isolated situation, ethnic identification quickly faded. This understanding is based on Barth's argument from 1969 that "ethnic groups are not distributions of people to descent categories with different cultural attributes, but are social constructions of differences that are sustained through boundary-making activities of groups that are in social relationship to one another" (in Eschback & Gomez, 1998, p. 74). Especially for white Americans of European descent, ethnic identification is situational and voluntary, with boundaries being crossed repeatedly, including by marriage between groups. Spickard and Fong see the situation in reverse: Barth's definition is very European in its viewpoint, stressing that his outlook on the study of ethnicity is about the boundaries, not the "cultural stuff it encloses" (1995, p. 1378). Their study of Pacific Island Americans lead them to conclude that Barth's classic definition is not applicable to all; this group is inclusive, not about boundaries, but about centers of families, place and culture.

The longer that members of an ethnic group live outside of their native home, the more likely it is that they will become assimilated. According to the "assimilation model," ethnic identification becomes less integral to self-identification with the passage of time. Generally, new immigrants and their children choose to participate in activities that make their ethnic identification quite clear. As this participation decreases through subsequent generations, identification becomes more ambiguous. Some of the factors that encourage assimilation are a decrease in voluntary residential segregation, increasing social ties outside of the ethnic group, acquiring the dominate language and achieving social class mobility (Eschback & Gomez, 1998).

The Enclosure Model

Assimilation is not the only model available for understanding ethnic identity; a related idea is the enclosure model. Like assimilation, this theory considers the role that concentrated ethnic groups in segregated settings plays in ensuring a continued ethnic identity. While assimilation looks at these support structures for new immigrants as a transient phenomena, enclosure sees these supports as a means of continuing and strengthening identity. The competition model takes a different tack; as members of an ethnic group move beyond this structural support, ethnic identity may become more salient as members compete for resources with other groups, or see a need to organize as a definable group to ensure ethnic identity (Eschback & Gomez, 1998). These models predict that ethnic identity might remain more essential and less symbolic in subsequent generations.

It has long been assumed that for non-European groups, ethnicity and racial identity are ascribed. Especially for African Americans, intermarriage, even after it was no longer prohibited by law, remains fairly rare (Eschback & Gomez, 1998). However, for other non-European groups, such as Asians and Hispanics, the boundaries are not as clearly delineated as they are for African Americans. Even though their physical characteristics make them distinct from European Americans, segregation lines are not as strict as they are for African Americans. Their rates of residential segregation are lower, and their rates of marriage outside of their ethnic group are higher (Eschback & Gomez, 1998).


Werner Sollars calls ethnic groups "imagined communities rather than people connected by any essential, natural or unchanging relationships" (in Caminero-Santangelo, 2002, pg. 249). Caminero-Santangelo agrees, seeing in ethnic groups a set of "collective fictions" that are constantly evolving and being debated. She also uses Max Weber's concept of ethnicity as "a subjective belief in… common descent" (2002, p. 249). Cornell and Hartman provide an interesting insight into the relationship between the "imagined community" and the outside observers of the ethnic group:

To say that ethnicity is subjective is not to say that it is unaffected by what others say or do. Indeed, outsiders' conceptions of us may be a major influence on us leading to our own self-consciousness as an ethnic population. Others may assign to us an ethnic identity, but what they establish is an ethnic category. It is our claim to that identity that makes us an ethnic group (in Caminero-Santangelo, 2002, p. 249).

Anderson argues that the critical precondition for the "imagined community" is the widespread use of print to standardize language, allowing people over a widespread region to share a common means of communication. He asserts that "all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact' are to some degree 'imagined'" (in Macias, 2004, p. 301). Larger groups must therefore use symbols to create an identity. Macias explains:

To say that an ethnic group constitutes an imagined community is not to say that it is false or somehow lacking in legitimacy, but rather draws attention to the symbolic nature of ethnicity which may be meaningfully perpetuated, even as seemingly intrinsic cultural characteristics are transformed through social and historical circumstances (Macias, 2004, p.302).

Thus, ethnic groups are distinguished by the way they are "imagined."

Kelly and Nagel suggest that the twenty-first century is witnessing a resurgence of ethnic interest and identification, both in the Euro-American community and among other minority groups, even as those groups undergo revisions of their social and cultural institutions (2002). They cite as an example the community of Italian Americans, building on family networks, even as members move out of ethnic enclaves and into the suburbs. African Americans have drawn on both African and American cultural traditions to create Kwanzaa, a new holiday tradition that has a specific cultural context. This stands in contrast to the long-held idea of a "hegemonic" American identity, one that each new wave of immigrant absorbs, replacing their "primordial" identity brought with them from the home country (Spickard & Fong, 1995, p. 1366). In the past quarter century, it has become increasingly obvious that America is a place where people can meet and interact, but need not necessarily shed their ethnicity in all settings.

Gans traces symbolic ethnicity to the cultural patterns of the immigrant generation. Not all aspects of ethnicity achieve symbolic status, only those that follow "a common pragmatic imperative: They must be visible and clear in meaning to large numbers of third-generation ethnics, and they must be easily expressed and felt, without requiring undue interference in other aspects of life" become symbols for largely assimilated descendants of immigrants (in Macias, 2004, p. 300).


Gans sees two ethnic symbols that serve this purpose particularly well. The first is religion, but merely an "abstracted" and ceremonial form, without the chance of interference with daily life or on American ethics. Holidays serve the same neutral purpose. He points out that these symbols of ethnicity become visible in the mass media, in films and on television, making them part of American popular culture. These aspects of culture do "not require functioning groups or networks or practiced culture" (in Macias, 2004, p. 300). He makes clear the limited nature of symbolic ethnicity when he writes:

"The symbolic element" is "merely a necessary factor in symbolic ethnicity," while "the lack of involvement in organized ethnic groups or cultures" provides "the sufficient factor" without which symbolic ethnicity "is impossible" (in Macias, 2004, p. 300).

It is due to the lack of connection to the ethnic community that ethnicity becomes merely symbolic.

By the third generation past immigration, it is difficult to distinguish most European Americans as distinct ethnic groups. Through the process of intermarriage, most have been completely integrated into...

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