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Ethnicity and ethnic groups – an explanation of these terms

An ‘ethnic group’ has been defined as a group that regards itself or is regarded by others as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics that will help to distinguish the group from the surrounding community. Ethnicity is considered to be shared characteristics such as culture, language, religion, and traditions, which contribute to a person or group’s identity.

Ethnicity has been described as residing in:

the belief by members of a social group that they are culturally distinctive and different to outsiders;

their willingness to find symbolic markers of that difference (food habits, religion, forms of dress, language) and to emphasise their significance; and

their willingness to organise relationships with outsiders so that a kind of ‘group boundary’ is preserved and reproduced

This shows that ethnicity is not necessarily genetic. It also shows how someone might describe themselves by an ethnicity different to their birth identity if they reside for a considerable time in a different area and they decide to adopt the culture, symbols and relationships of their new community.

It is worth noting that the Traveller Community is recognised as a distinct ethnic group in the UK and Northern Ireland, but only as a distinct cultural group in the Republic of Ireland.

Ethnicity is also a preferential term to describe the difference between humans rather than ‘race’. This is because race is a now a discredited term that divided all peoples based on the idea of skin colour and superiority. There is only one ‘race’, the human race as we are essentially genetically identical. For example, there is no French ‘race’ but the French people could be described as a separate ethnic group.