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Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Determining Ethnicity in the Changing Streams of Language and Culture
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Research on ethnic groups of the world in some form or other goes back into antiquity.  But only in recent times have attempts been made to develop comprehensive and systematic information on all ethnicities of the world.  Much of our knowledge of ethnicity and culture is codified under the modern academic discipline of Anthropology.

But much of the early modern gathering and recording of ethnic information was done by Western colonial administrators and early Christian missionaries.  Missionaries commonly understood that they needed to know the language and beliefs of a people to effectively communicate.  In the 20th century extensive information has been collected by academic and mission agencies.  In the latter half of the 20th century, Christian mission circles have systematically collected information on the peoples of the world.

In the fields of linguistic analysis and cultural worldview, missionaries excelled in objective and standardized classification and comparison of languages.  But cultural information and ethnic data was more proprietary, less complete and certainly less shared.

By the 1980s several world ethnic databases had been developed.  But little or no sharing or exchange was going on.  As the desire arose to share data, problems were encountered that made it difficult to organize or even analyze the disparate comprehensive collections into any common database that could combine and pool all the data form the cooperative parties.  The needs, purposes and data structures were too different.

Early Misconceptions
Part of the problem was mixed assumptions and confusion concerning ethnicity.  Anthropology departments had high and consistent standards, but their material was not widely available before computers and the Internet.  Probably some mission strategists developing their own world ethnic data were unaware or even suspicious of the academic "secular" sources.

As mission agencies got involved in developing ethnic information, they were not always informed of the standard terminology and approaches of the academic disciplines.  This led to certain anomalies in the legacy data inherited by the later more anthropologically trained researchers and data managers now commonly carrying out ethnic research.

Many errors were made in early people group lists, due to the erroneous and simplistic assumption that a language represented an ethnicity.  (I address this in Peoples and Languages.)  Also it seemed some people just made up their own terms and categories without reference to disciplines specifically developed to deal with this, like Anthropology or Sociology, and related disciplines.

At the same time, we have to take seriously the common general conventions that prevail, following the weight of preference in drawing lines of distinctions in unclear cases of ethnic sub-groupings or super-groupings.

The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Similarly, virtually no attention had been given to the concept or process of Cultural Change.  This is where the rough and unclear edges or boundaries between ethnicities do not fit our western logical desire for clear-cut, agreed-on "entities" to represent the "tribes" or "ethnicities" of the world.

Studies were available on details of various peoples or ethnic clusters, pointing out changes their cultures were undergoing.  But there seemed no common way to account for this phenomenon of cultural change in any comprehensive and consistent manner in the static structures of databases.

By the late 1990s, extensive databases of the world's peoples existed.  But they assumed clear, static groups of language and ethnicity.  No one in the resaerch circles I related to, or in sources I read, was looking at how ethnicities change or die out, or how new ethnicities begin.  I began dealing with this in regard to the problem of cities, in round-table email discussions with cities specialists and ethnicity theorists in the late 90s.

This is when I first developed conceptual resources on multi-ethnic groups, and factors affecting ethnicities in the cities.

The Flowing Streams of Ethnicity and Language
Due to my work on ethnic history and language learning in Africa, I was called on more and more to assist various Christian missions in understanding the ethnicities of the world.  In looking at the extensive ethnic databases of major mission agencies, I perceived mis-conceptions that limited an understanding of human societies as they actually lived and viewed themselves.

Mission thinking did not seem to have taken into account the well-known idea of language or ethnic streams.  This refers to the continuing flow of change in an identifiable stream of language or ethnicity generation to generation.  It was as though it is all static categories and once we got it all down, they could rest a while.

But languages change.  Cultures change, too.  Whole peoples or segments of peoples move into another language stream and change languages.  They move into another cultural milieu, and change partially or completely.  They may keep their language and adopt the majority culture.  They may modify both only partially.  They may develop a new form of their old language stream, due to heavy cultural and linguistic borrowing and reduced contact with the home culture-language stream.

In North America, for instance peoples from Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, etc., moved the Canada or the US, and the second and third generations learned English, usually leaving off the Old World language.  This is one way ethnicities change, and new ethnicities arise.

This is not an unusual phenomenon.  It is a normal process.  This is a common pattern all over the world in every generation.  Africa, for instance, is a challenging, exciting and wondrous complex of mixed language and cultural, as well as genetic streams!  And what a wondrous, and frustrating, time are our colleagues having in South Asia!

The Cities and Cultural Change
And as far as I know, no one ever talked about the development of new ethnicities.  Cities theorists were resisting the concept of people groups, because it did not seem to take into account the roiling, confusing changes going on in cities.  They could not see how analysis by ethnicity could cover what they were discovering in the major world cities.  I addressed cities in standard people group terms, and contributed thoughts on this topic this to training for Cross Cultural Strategists while in Cyprus.

The missing link was the concept of cultural change — integral to ethnicity and thus, of course, to the concept of "people groups."  Every human has ethnicity!  That is inherent in the concept of being human.

All human individuals and groups have culture and language.  Whether they live in a city or on a farm, whether they live in a tribal society or a non-tribal society.  Ethnicity — and thus a proper People Group concept — can account for these factors irrespective of location or social milieu.

Tracking Cultural Change
In December 2002, I addressed the concept of cultural change in a training workshop for cultural researchers.  I provided some resources and perspectives under the general topic of processes of assimilation.

During the following few months, the database controller for a major Christian mission agency consulted with me on and updated design for their agency's database of world ethnicities.  He developed an assimilation component for the database, so that the agency's world network of researchers could begin looking at the variations and tracking movement between one language or ethnic stream and another, by generations or by geography.

I have addressed on this website various practical questions and concepts involved in the idea of ethnicity and cultural change.  I continue to address these issues as practical questions arise from actual field situations.  See the topic Defining Ethnicity.

Dynamic Sourcing
Incidentally, I have also discovered that the resources I have developed on this site are being used all over the world.  I get email correspondence, with requests for use, contributions to topics or questions about additional matters in ethnicity or language, etc.  These communications come from high school and college professors in various countries.  also hear from members of the various ethnic groups I have written about.

Both individuals and representatives of ethnic associations or agencies have written. I hear from representatives of groups such as Yazidis, Kurds, Tutsi, Tigrinyas and Cuban Americans, as well as various other professional or lay persons.

Many of the enquiries lead to new articles, where the question seems to be a general one that would throw further light on our problem of understanding and classifying ethnicities.  All my articles have arisen out of actual questions or practical problems being dealt with in the field.  I always have several dozen such topics in notes on my hard disk, in various stages of thought and finalization.  I just continue to collect information, formulate ideas and add to a topic, until it is ready for publishing on the website.

Accounting for Observed Ethnicity
In June 2006, I assisted in a project comparing the ethnic entities of two very active current world databases, the Joshua Project and PeopleGroups.org.  In a telephone conference, the independent data analyst who was conducting this project consulted me about some questions he had on certain entities.

We discussed various specific entities where there was some question of the identity or a mismatch between the two databases.  He was attempting to understand the ways the two agencies had accounted for various entities or factors, and possibilities for variation.  I outlined various factors involved in the different ways, that can still be equally logical and appropriate, to classify and account for various factors we all see in the field.

The entities listed in a particular ethnic database are affected by
(1) the different focus and strategy purposes of an agency or researcher,
(2) the various assumptions each makes about languages and ethnic identities
(3) what factors each needs to account for, or wishes to account for and
(4) factors affecting the internal consistency within each database.
Some discrepancies occur only because there are different assumptions and a different viewpoint in mind, not because the information accounted for is wrong.

Likewise, different researchers and agencies will discover or focus on different factors.  Thus  the cross-talk arising from comparison of data is of great value.  It may provide a broader range of information, and to some extent a broader range of conceptualizations (interpretations) of that information.

The differing pictures that arise from the various datasets may also be of help in better understanding, and perhaps coming to a more common agreement in our understanding, of the underlying ethnic realities we observe.  That is, a more common accounting of a more complete range of the factors ethnicity.

Categories of ethnicity, names and groupings are not universal factors in the structure of the universe.  Our entries, names and categories in our databases are attempts to account for the exciting and confusing morass of factors that we intuitively perceive as "ethnicities."

Internal Consistency
A critical principle for a reliable database of ethnic information is internal consistency in its categories.  One thing all these differing accountings across databases should have in common, however, is the principle of counting each individual only one time.  The groupings are not metaphysical, clear-cut boundaries.  People have different way of defining and describing themselves in multiple relationships.  Similar factors are always involved, but how each family or larger group organizes and understands these differences.

You will get different answers from an individual or family, depending on the level of association at which you seem to be asking the question or at which they wish to present themselves to you.  I have collected some examples of this, under the title "Ethnicities in View," and plan to publish this shortly on my website.  It was developed originally for a colleague to use in one of his training sessions he was conducting in Cultural Worldview Investigation.

Level of Identification
The point is, it depends on the level of identity you are able to discover, or choose to focus on, how your system is going to account for a certain group of related individuals with their form of speech, in contrast to other similar groups of related individuals, with their form of speech.  A standard interchange reference format is needed to provide the interpretation between the systems.

We are classifying for understanding of the real-world.  But strategy level factors, involving communication at the very local level, require a different, more narrow and specific accounting.  There can be a meeting point for comparison and exchange, however, if the standard reference is clear and the same reference system is used.

This is the purpose and intention of the HIS coding system.  The ROP codes may be used to relate viewpoints in various databases, and in fact assist in finding where varying valid viewpoints relate.  Using the standard set of codes will also enable data managers and editors to discover internal discrepancies, and enable us all to evaluate more carefully the gathered data.

Likewise, analysis of speech forms may vary — there are several different lists or schemes purporting to account for speech forms of the world.  But use of one, such as the HIS Registry of Languages (now synonymous with the ISO language codeset managed by SIL) enables ethnic databases to relate and compare their data on the basis of language.

Language is one component of ethnicity.  But like all other components of ethnicity, it can be perceived and dealt with differently in analysis and classification.  A consistent codeset provides one objective standard of reference, as the ROP does for the ethnic identities.

Ethnic databases will vary, in the primary entities they list and how they sub-divide them.  They will differ in how they account for various factors.  Some situations are simpler and clearer than others.  Discussions among world agencies about clarifying the data indicate our common pool of world ethnic data is growing and firming up.

The Internet has contributed greatly to the exchange and comparison of information.  The new coding system in the Registry of Peoples provides an objective standard reference that enables extremely diverse ethnic data collections to compare not only their details but their views of ethnicity.  The work of regional researchers can now become more broadly known and used by world-level collections.

Also related:
Assimilation:  How Ethnicities Develop and Change
Classifying Ethnicity:  Coding and Comparing Ethnic Information:
        How the Peoples and Languages Codes of the Harvest Information System Facilitate a Broader Knowledge Base of World Ethnicity
Defining Ethnicity
Ethnic Names and Codes:  Correlating People Lists; How Codes in the Registry of Peoples Enrich the Exchange of Ethnic Information
Multi-Cultural Ethnic Groups
Ethnicity in the Cities

Also view related PowerPoint Presentation:
Assimilation — How People Groups Develop and Change
Identifying a People Group


This article is based on a 23 June 2006 email discussion with ethnic researchers
Article finalized and posted 1 July 2006
Updated in March 2013
Last edited 27 February 2022

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2006, 2008, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email: researchguy@iname.com
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