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Ethnicity, Language and Population
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

What is the minimum population that constitutes a viable ethnic group?

This interesting question opens up some stimulating vistas.  We are addressing perspectives here that help us question and clarify our deeper assumptions, as well as practical working conventions, in defining and identifying ethnicity.

Population and Ethnicity
To put the question into focus, let me restate the question in some other ways:
1.  How small does an ethnic group have to become before you stop listing them?
2.  How big does a unique ethnic group have to be to be added to a list of peoples of the world?
3.  How many similar individuals do you have to have to consider them an ethnic group?

Foundational Points
Our foundational reference points for this question might be these principles:
1.  All human beings have culture. It is inherent in what is meant by "culture."
2.  All groups of human indidivuals have a social structure for relationships
3.  The complex of this social structure and the language used for inter-relationships within that structure, make up the complex referred to as "ethnicity"
4.  Each such grouping of similar individuals withtheir social structure is referred to as an ethnic group (or an ethnicity, or an "ethnolinguistic people").

Population and Ethnicity
In analysis of the aspects of ethnicity, it seems the population is not a factor in ethnicity.  The matter depends on the actual group and their viability in terms of ethnicity, not a raw number.  Ethnicity is an inherent factor we discover, not a factor we determine.

Ethnicity or Data Management
Involved in the question as you present it here is the context entailed in the word "viable."  It appears this is a database management question, rather than a question about ethnicity.

The standard attributes of ethnicity would determine whether an identified group of discovered size should be considered a separate group (primary entity) or a sub-group (segment) of a larger group.  This becomes an organizational question, of how various identified ethnic entities relate to one another in your data system.

I don't see how an arbitrary number can be set, other than for cut- off points for a defined strategy.  In the latter case, it depends on the purposes and goals of your agency. According to their mission statement and stated strategy, various ethnic databases of different agencies will vary.  Ethnographers and other ethnic researchers will need more precise information and will likely want more detailed and complete information in their classification system.

Academics will want their information to be standard in form and content, the system and clssificaiotn to be complete, as a value in itself.  The data carried, and how it is organized, will be differnt for various NGOs or commercial etnties, according to thei precision and detail needed for their purposes.  the population just defines your working limitations for the particular project, team, etc.  Some agencies may have only certain categories of peoples, perhaps by populaiton size:  under 10,000; under 100,000, over 1 million, under 1000, etc.

Three Levels of Focus
Ethnographers cannot determine how big an ethnic group is.  They can only discover it.  Actual lists of ethnicities of the world are interested in accurately portraying the real- world situation.  Then there are then two additional levels (besides the ethnic classification) two levels of consideration about how you account for what you found.

1.  Classification conventions.  These are databases management considerations, solely for managing the info in the actual database, or determining how or what is presented in the reports.  For ease of management, a database may determine to list only entities of certain sizes.

Or they might gather several smaller entries as a cluster into one primary entry, because of size.  This is a database convention, only secondarily related to the ethnic identification we purport to report.  This type of practice has really confused some of the perspectives on people groups, because database conventions, and limitations for database management, have become deciding factors in identification, usurping ethnicity itself.

2.  Administrative (strategy) considerations.  This is related to access strategies and administration of teams and resources applied.  This level entails more specific information, and a team will have much more information by which they make strategic decision and practical access decisions.

These are only secondarily related to the top-level classification, which should represent as closely as possible the self-identity of the group of individuals (the society, tribe, family, etc.) involved.

Thus population numbers as such are not a factor in ethnicity.  Population can very well be a factor in database conventions for managing the data, through clustering, sub-levels, cut-off points for various priorities, etc.

Dwindling Language Speakers
The email discussion that presented the original question on people group size commented that there was a minimum number considered as "viable" in linguistic evaluations.  In regard to situations where languages are becoming extinct, this does bring us to a question about ethnicity.  Language is a primary component of ethnicity.  But more specifically the question involves the relation of ethnicity to language.  Here again, as with ethnicity, we need to distinguish inherent factors of language use from ethnicity self-identity related to the speakers of the language.

If a people's (tribe's, nation's, family's) language is changing, this is an indicator that affects olur understanding of their ethnicity.  Languages die and new languages develop all the time.

Likewise, ethnicities die and new ones develop all the time.  Ethnic groups can also shift language streams, and thus their identity is lost to history.  The individuals of such ethnicities may continue their genetic or even their cultural stream, but under the umbrella of the new language or cultural stream.

This happens right before our eyes in all nations of the world as major populations migrate, or individual families move.  (See related article on this phenomenon: Rough Edges of Ethnicity:  Determining Ethnicity in the Changing Streams of Language and Culture, which also links to other helpful information.)

These concepts are dealt with under the topic of Assimilation.  Resources are available on this site for a basic reference perspective on the factors involved in ethnic change.

Language vs Ethnicity
The question of size as posed entails a focus on languages that skews the perspective here. Note that this is related to number of speakers of a language.  This is not the same thing as an ethnicity (people, people group).

The classification of a language as "Extinct" or "Almost Extinct" is again a practical working convention, not a definitive report of a language's social and ethnic status.  A linguistic specialist says it like this:

"We arbitrarily listed all groups under 50 as Nearly Extinct. That designation means that we would not usually translate for that few."  (The Ethnologue no longer reports Dead/Extinct or Nearly Extinct languages.)

Note that this is only a practical strategic decision (related to need or resources), not a declaration related to the ethnic character of remaining speakers of that language or their broader culture group.

This language analysis specialist continues:
"It might be hard to have a single number as a minimum, but groups might have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

Total Ethnic Change
Sometimes it affects a whole ethnic group.  Traditional "tribal" societies are usually the focus here.  The young people move off, marry into other language streams, become bilingual and lose the language in their children's generation, etc.

Thus in practical terms, the ethnic group is disappearing.  Initially we can more objectively identify this in language.  This is one area where the Ethnologue's information is so helpful, in its reporting of Extinct or Almost Extinct languages.

Under 50 speakers with a history of decline, is indeed a valid point of practical loss of ethnicity.  The maintenance of the language is virtually impossible at this level.  Often the ethnic identity continues, but with a linguistic identity that might be considered a dialect of a neighbouring language (in Africa and South America, with many small groups this often happens.

Discovering Ethnicity
But remember, we are not defining, we are discovering.  We don't know who the "peoples" are till we find out from them who they see themselves to be. We can't say how many of them there will be till we discover it in the field.

Then for our formal classification limitations, and overall abstract consistency, we develop or adjust the categories as well as we can to represent a real-world perspective, that is still manageable within the limitations of our human understanding right now.  We continue to learn more and refine our categories and entries.

Ethnic Groups and Individuals
This is why there are so many groups called Tonga in Southern Africa, speaking so many different languages or dialects of language some called Tonga and some not called Tonga.

The ethnic group with whatever language is the polar focus:   language balanced against the set of other ethnic factors.  It get messy sometimes.  So, for instance, Tonga speaking Tonga dialect of Chewa develop a different ethnic identity from Tonga who speak a form of Tonga.

If at some point all people called Tonga, or all people speaking any speech form (language or dialect) called Tonga finally disappeared (maybe they start calling themselves something different in their smaller groups), then we could say Tonga has died out as an ethnic group.

This is different from genetic continuity.  Individuals can marry anyone, live anywhere, adopt any cultural pattern, speak any language.  Rarely does a genetic line end.  It is only a relative matter.

Ethnic Language as a Cultural Marker
Language is a key factor in these smaller groups.  Sometimes, a family (the name for such a small related group that was once a "tribe") may reinvigorate itself with a renewed interest and practical efforts to revive their language.  A group of under 100 speaker for a language unintelligible with any other language will find this virtually impossible.

Some native American tribes in the dozens or 200 to 300, however, have revived their language, teaching it in a school setting.  But English is still their native tongue.  Thus the teaching of the old traditional language is only a practical way to accentuate their ethnic identity, though English is still the language.  Language is a major component, but not always the deciding component, of ethnicity.

This may sound complicated, but it relates some of the reality we deal with.

Size and Identity
My correspondent whose question sparked this article reported that several participants at an international conference on ethnicity voiced strong concerns when they discovered that a listing of world ethnic groups included some with very small populations, such as 17, 24, 31.  They protested:
"Then my extended family would constitute a distinct people group!"

My answer is:
Only if they are individually unrelated in unique self- identity, culture and speech to any other broader group.  Does your extended family consider themselves part of a larger primary culture group?  Numbers do not determine that ahead of time.

The other side of that is that every group of whatever size is always subdividable.  It is a matter of perspective and practicality; and self-identity operates at this level.  So there is some difference in identity all the way down to the extended family, then nuclear family, then individual.  The question is the importance of the particular practical implications.

Self-Identity and Classification
So we are back to the basic markers of ethnicity, as outlined in various sources.  Simply put, how separately does a certain group of whatever size identify themselves, and what is their communication pattern with other groups (families, villages, tribes, etc.)  All our words -- tribe, clan, nation, people, ethnicity, people group, cluster -- are only practical working terms.

The determining factor is what we actually find in the situation, and then how we can best and most consistently account for it. All our database are simply attempts to account for what he have discovered up to this point.

Size is virtually a null factor.  Rather, in communication and access strategy considerations, the question is:
What does it take to effectively communicate and implement your goals (education, community development, health awareness, literacy, etc.) in the mother tongue of the group (or individuals in question) -- thisis where true decision-making occurs -- in the cultural context of their worldview?

We usually don't know what the group is till we have asked that worldview question, that cross-cultural communication question.  Only then do we get some practical data that helps formulate the answer.  The physical difficulty of getting into some of these situations, for ground-level research, with the kinds of perspectives we need to determine that, is a primary limitation to the quality and accuracy of all our data.

Sufficiently Large
The correspondent who brought up this question comments:
The traditional people group statement is "a sufficiently large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another."

Then he asks:
What is sufficiently large?  

That is exactly the problem with this kind of a definition.  My correspondent does not indicate where he found this definition.  I note he refers to this as "The traditional people group statement."  By the word "statement" here I assume he means definition.  But this statement is different from working definitions I have been familiar with or have formulated myself over the years.

It seems to assume there is some other reference point other than the self-identity of a group of people themselves which determines when they get to be considered a real ethnic group!  The definition he quotes assumes there is some objective external standard which determines how big a "sociological group" must be to qualify for the vague category the original writer must have in mind of "people group" or "common affinity."

Making up Rules?
The original definition does not seem to tell us what that is.  So what objective guidelines do we have to tell us what is "sufficient" and what in "insufficient" as a population to count as an ethnicity?!

We can't just go around making up our own rules for this kind of thing.  It must arise out of the evidence we actually discover in each case.

As discussed above, it is possible that the original definition was actually a data management guideline and not meant to be a definition of ethnicity.  It is very important that we be clear just what it is we are talking about when we ask definitional question likes this.

Also related:
Ethnicities and Names
Peoples and Languages
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Tribe and People
What is a "People Group"


Topic first addressed 21 September 2006 in email discussion
Finalized as an article and posted on Thoughts and Resources 26 September 2006
Last edited 28 February 2022

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright 2006, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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