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The Concept Of Ethnicity In The Book Ethnic Groups And Boundaries

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Our world is more like a room stuffed with people in different ethnicities than a spheroidic. Using our greatest mighty homeland, People’s Republic of China, as an example. China has roughly nine million and six hundred thousand square kilometers of territory stuffed with one point four billion of population and there are different ethnicities like Han, Uyghur, Mongol and Tibetan etc. In the following section, let’s further talk about one established anthropologist and his or her contributions to the study of ethnicity.

Background of the Author

The author of “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries” was called Thomas Fredrik Weybye Barth. Barth was a Norwegian social anthropologist. He was born on the twenty-second of December in 1928 in Leipzig. Barth grew up in an academic family and he was interested in origins and evolution when he was still young. He became a professor at Boston University at first and he held lots of professorships at different universities like University of Oslo, the University of Bergen, Emory University and Harvard University afterward. In the 1985, he was designated as a government scholar.

Background of the Book

Ethnic Groups and Boundaries was published at 1969s in Norway. Today this much-cited classic is regarded as the seminal volume from which stems much current anthropological thinking about ethnicity. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries introduces readers to important theoretical issues in the analysis of ethnic groups Including Norway, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mexico, Afghanistan, and Laos.


Definition of Ethnic Group

A lot anthropologist pointed that the term of ethnic group has a few characteristic.

First of all,it is massively biological self-perpetuating which is the continuation of physical characteristics through heredity. For examples like the color of the eye, skin color or facial appearance, these are all identified by physical characteristics. Second, it shares fundamental cultural values, realized m overt unity in cultural forms. Chinese people and Chinese people in a foreign country are celebrate the lunar new year same times in different country. The diaspora retains its culture in the world. It is base on their same culture. They are the same ethnic group. Third ,ethnic group will makes up a field of communication and interaction.It is like a lot people think that Jews often discuss the use of money with their friends. Also, they have their own language to communicate with each other. Fourth, ethnic group has a membership which identifies itself, and is identified by others,as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories of the same order. Now this is the explanation of identity.

Anthropologists use these methods to define ethnic group.These methods type definition is not so far removed in content from the traditional. We still use these. It means that a race equals to a culture also equals to a language. When we knew about the race, culture and language either one thing about a man, we can easily know other two things and what ethnic group does he belong to. For Fredrik’s opinion, these is not clearly define that a formulation prevents us from understanding the phenomenon of ethnic groups and their place in human society and culture. We can not think these 4 methods is absolutely right. Racial difference, cultural difference, social separation,language barriers, spontaneous and organized enmity are affects our to understand the ethnic group of them. No objective fact can represent an ethnic group. It should use above information and history of the personal to defined his ethnic group.

So, Fredrik point out the term boundary. We can imagine each group developing for its cultural and social form in relative isolation. This history has produced a world of separate peoples, each with their culture and each organized in a society which can legitimately be isolated for description as an island to itself. The island is too small but it is isolation to develop its own culture, language etc. They can called been a ethnic group. Boundary is also can defined the ethnic group.

The Boundaries of Ethnic Group

So , the new term “Boundary” which invented by Barth , what is the core meaning of it?

Barth think that we couldn’t define a ethnic group by its culture ,society ,history ,race or language anymore,but using boundaries, . Boundaries doesn’t mean the region boundaries , it mean the social boundaries, We should define a group with exclusivity and attribution between groups. In the competition of ecological resources, a group often limits the ‘boundary’ of our group by emphasizing specific cultural characteristics, so as to distinguish it from the surrounding groups. Barth’s point of view reminds us that objective feature theory can only see the ‘characteristics’ of subjective recognition, but there is no way to explain the boundaries of ethnic groups, and there is no way to explain the experience of people on the boundary.

Barth believed that traditional anthropologists over-emphasize the importance of ‘cultural differences’ in distinguishing ‘ethnic differences.’ Because early anthropologists did not clarify the relationship between ethnic groups and culture, they often fell into the logic of defining ethnic groups with cultural traits, which led many anthropologists to actively seek different cultural traits to explain the differences between different ethnic groups and make ethnic groups The difference looks like a different cultural catalogue. It means that there is a group boundary between different ethnic groups. The ‘boundary’ of the ethnic group is like a ‘container’ that can accommodate different social cultures. People can flow at the boundary, but the boundary will still exist. The maintenance of ethnic boundaries often requires only a few cultural traits, without the need to retain most of the cultural traits. In short, Barth’s greatest contribution is to clarify the differences between ethnic groups and culture, to propose the analytical concept of ethnic “boundary”, and to point out that ethnic boundaries are generated in interactive social relations.

Therefore, Barth helps people define different ethnic group much clear by the terms “Boundaries”.

Polyethnic Social Systems

Polyethnic was formed by “poly” and “ethnic”. Polyethnic social systems was first seen and explained by Furnivall along with his study about plural society in the earlier. He said that there will be a massive dimensions of cultural diversity and nation internal divisions leaving in a society after a state with polyethnic social system dominated by one of the ethnic group among the others.

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Here is an example for a typical polycentrism system.

Asia, it is a the largest continent on earth which also contained miscellaneous polycentric system in it. In the southeast area, we can actually see both analogous feudalism and prestige transaction domain welded all together. Contemporaneously, there are some regions in southwest asia are showing their economy with full monetization into it, meanwhile politically unificating is the polycentric in their characteristics. Besides those intact political form with modernity , we still see that there are some countries whose still running with ancestral fertile harmonization and political integration like the caste system in India.

In Asia, we can actually encounter distinct ritual etiquette and modernistic form of government in the same continent but not the same region, that is what we so-called polyethnic and polycentric system in Barth’s mind.

To simplify what Barth wanted to say is that we will not make any virtual profits from our so-called modernized system if we keep on using this modernized pattern continuously in this kind of epoch that putting utilitarianism in the first of our priority.

Pointing out the commonality among all these ethnic systems, they are all implying a series-wound of obstruction to play different roles in the same continent. All of them are in different position in transaction of the whole thing like the unlike ethnic identity stuffs are only chess pieces on the chessboard.

Paraphrasing it into a more comprehensive saying, which means ethnic identity is basically similar to sex and rank, all of them are some intangible and incorporeal hinders to restrict others in multilevel and different sides of activities. They are some vigorous constraints which can not be ignored and temporarily put aside. Therefore, the impacts and influences towards a person are tend to be absolutely powerful in the past.

Nowadays, we can see that there are more and more constraints has been push over and overthrow along with distinct continents has become more civilized and more into a modernized human society.

Interdependance of the Ethnic Group

In the world , there are lots of ethnic group. For each ethnic group , they are hard to survive base on an individual. That’s why ethnic group need to have a complementary with each other. In the other side , if there is no complementary , the boundaries of ethnic group will not exist because here does not have any interaction and communication between different ethnic. As a result , we know that complementary is important for maintaining the boundaries of ethnic group.

In Barth’s contribution , he also points out three reason of why maintain the boundaries is important. The first reason is complexity is based on complementary of culture differences. The second reason is the status of every member of a group must be highly stereotyped, so that each ethnic group can have complementary of their identity. The third reason is the cultural characteristic of each ethnic group must be stable, so that the complementary differences on which the systems rest can persist in the face of close inter-ethnic contact. I would use an example to explain the interdependence of ethnic group. The Norwegian is divided into two ethnic group , which is marginal farmer and lowland peasant. The two groups have different lifestyle , such as the marginal farmer is based on the exploitation of large areas and the lowland peasant tied to the farm and lives a stable and regular life. Because of the environmental difference , the two group will have interaction to complement their weakness .For instance , the marginal farmers buy up lowland calves in the spring for fattening , these are sold in the autumn and marginal farmers rent out mountain areas for the pasturing of sheep or horses because It improves the quality of the stock, since mountain pasturage is, especially for sheep, of considerably higher quality than lowland pasturage. Therefore , we can see that in the same area , there is a cultural difference and this cultural difference offer a chance to let two groups depend on each other , create a complementary.

For the identity of each ethnic group , the complementary is also based on different social status. People need to do different job to create complementary , no matter it is low ranking job or high ranking job. We know that we cannot survive in an individual , we need to depend on other people to form a group.


This book basically treats ethnic groups as a social organization, and Barth argues: an objective description of the ethnic group is not as good as observing the boundaries of the ethnic group want. In other words, he believes that when we study the ethnic group, if we over-emphasize the significant cultural characteristics of the ethnic group quality, it will become more like cultural analysis, not in the study of ethnic groups. Barth’s important contribution is: to study the study of ethnic identity from the cultural content to the boundary, and emphasize the line what is considered important is what deserves attention. The significance of this book is that the formation of ethnic consciousness does not lie in the shared cultural content of the ethnic group, but in the subjective group of people who distinguish between ‘my group’ and ‘he group’ boundary.

About ‘my group’ and ‘my group’, Barth defines the ethnic group from the exclusivity and attribution of the group. He believes that ‘ethnic group’ is a category identified by its own members, which causes the ethnic group to be the most ‘boundary’ rather than the ‘connotation’ of language, culture, blood, etc.; the boundaries of a group are not necessarily geographical boundaries, but Mainly ‘social boundaries.’ In the competition of ecological resources, a group limits the ‘boundary’ of our group by emphasizing specific cultural characteristics to exclude others. Bath’s view opened a new milestone in ethnic research. His views reveal the inadequacy of objective feature theory. Objective feature theory can only express the general connotation of a group at most, but cannot explain the problem of group boundaries. However, it is impossible to explore the issue of ethnic boundaries, and it is impossible to explore the issue of ethnic identity change.

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