Ethnic identity refers to an individual’s identity with a group of people who share physical and/or cultural traits that signal a blood relationship or a common and enduring descent. Beyond physical similarities, those characteristics include: a common language, common ancestry, and shared history, traditions, culture, religion, and/or kinship. When an individual recognizes that he or she shares these characteristics with others, unique individual and personal identities can dissolve, and a common identity with an enduring collectively can emerge.
Although ethnic identities can manifest themselves simply as distinct cultural practices and institutions of a particular ethnic group (i.e. “Chinese” food, “Latin” music, the “German” language, the “Russian/Greek/Serbian” Orthodox Church), ethnic group identity has had profound political consequences in international relations. In world politics, ethnic identity is often linked with claims to territory believed to be the exclusive “homeland” of a particular ethnic group. The ideology that legitimates this claim is an exclusive nationalist doctrine that is sometimes referred to as "ethnic nationalism." Ethnic nationalism is the belief that the members of a particular ethnic group are a "nation"-- part of an extended family with intrinsic rights to a particular piece of land. They believe that other groups that might inhabit or claim that land do not have those same rights. This belief has particular emotive power, providing ethnic groups with a crucial source of solidarity while it reinforces ethnic identity.
This ethnic nationalist ideal has been largely realized across the globe. In fact, the current system of nation-states is, for the most part, the product of a violent process of ethnic separation or outright destruction of ethnic groups too weak to claim territories of their own. In Europe, after massive population transfers in the wake of the two world wars, every state except two—Belgium and Switzerland--was designated as the territory of a single dominant ethnic group. For much of the developing world, decolonization led to violent ethnic disaggregation and the creation of states with distinct ethnic identities through the exchange or expulsion of local ethnic minorities. Salient examples include India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Israel. During the Cold War, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia were the only multiethnic states in the Soviet bloc. But at the cold war's end, each of these countries broke apart along ethnic lines, and their separate ethnic populations demanded a "homeland" of their own. Sometimes they achieved that goal: Czechs and Slovaks achieved it peacefully, Serbs and Croats achieved it through violent conflict. In some areas, ethnic groups have settled for ethnic minority status--with its accompanying limited rights and opportunities-- in the "homeland" of a dominant ethnic group. Examples include Hungarians in Serbia, Russians in Ukraine and the Baltic states, Turks in Germany, and Roma throughout the countries of Europe. Some are still fighting for a separate homeland or control of land claimed by another ethnic group: South Ossetiaians, Abkhazis, Chechens, Kosovars, and Tibetans are prominent examples of self-identified ethnic groups seeking varying degrees of autonomy that would grant them a homeland of their own.
The process by which ethnic identity groups achieve or wish to secure a homeland for themselves is far from complete. And that process is often violent when territory is contested. When two or more exclusive ethnic groups with emotional attachments to a piece of territory and claim the same homeland, they often resort to violent political struggle to determine whose homeland that territory will become. In fact, since the end of World War II, ethno-cultural conflicts over land have become the most common sources of political violence in the world. Many observers argue that “partition” is the most peaceful solution to these conflicts: a state and piece of land for each ethnic group, i.e. the Palestinians, the Kosovars, and the Chechnyians. But, given the multiplicity of ethnic groups in the world who seek a homeland they can call their own, there is not enough land to go around.
Many scholars have sought explanations for the rise of ethnic nation-states, for the oppression of one or more ethnic groups by others, and for ethnic conflict over territory. Two views dominate the debate: the “primordialist,” and the “constructivist.” The "primordialist" view asserts that ethnic identity is part of our essential human constitution and that our desire to identify with a group whose characteristics we possess is simply reflexive. Furthermore, the argument goes, we as humans indentify ourselves in opposition to other ethnic groups: the urge to reject "the other" was encoded in our oldest human ancestors. That urge has often resulted in oppression of weaker ethnic groups by more powerful ones, as well as xenophobia, and violent “ethnic cleansing,” the removal of one ethnic group from the land by another group who wants exclusive rights to the same land. The primordialist argument suggests that ethnic identity, with its markers of collective exclusivity, and tendencies toward xenophobia and intolerance are "natural" to the human condition. This explains the enduring role that ethnic conflict plays in world politics.
The “constructivist” argument, on the other hand, assumes that ethnic identity is malleable and dynamic rather than innate and unchanging. This view asserts that ethnic identity--indeed any identity-- is "constructed" by social, political, and historical forces, and that individual identities change over time as social contexts change. Furthermore, people exhibit different identities in different contexts. Identities disappear and return (or are “re-invented”). If, for example, an ethnic group is oppressed on the basis of ethnic identity, its members can either try to assimilate into the dominant group, taking on its identity for their own, or they can try to intensify group solidarity and identity in an effort to resist and struggle for equal rights or political control for the benefit of their own ethnic group. As equal civil rights have been granted to ethnic groups in the United States, for example, ethnic identity has gradually weakened, and there is little talk within those groups of achieving political autonomy. Constructivists hasten to argue that this does not mean that ethnic identity has lost all meaning; it simply means that it has become one of the many ways that individuals in the United States identify themselves and that ethnicity does not form the core of national identity in most developed multi-ethnic societies. They point out that in many world regions, ethnic groups sharing the same land, who once fought fiercely with one another, have also made peace, and different groups have found their loyalty transferred to a multi-ethnic nation. Examples include Whites, Africans, and African ethnic groups in South Africa, Pomaks, Turks, and Bulgarians in Bulgaria, or the Chinese and the Malay in Malaysia. Ethnic tensions continue in these places, as well as in the United States but apart from a few extremist notions, national identity is not linked to the belief that the nation is the "homeland" of one specific ethnic group. In these examples, even if accumulated hatreds once fanned the flames of violent conflict, they were attenuated by alternative memories, more current experience, and institutional incentives. From the "constructivist" perspective, primordial explanations that call on "centuries of accumulated hatreds" cannot account for situations in which different ethnic groups coexist peacefully.
Some constructivists explain ethnic separation and conflict in multi-ethnic societies as a result of the manipulation of ethnic identity by "ethnic entrepreneurs" in the political process. Ethnic entrepreneurs are politicians who appeal to a common ethnic identity in an attempt to gain support in their struggle for political power. They often have the incentive and the opportunity to exploit ethnic cleavages under conditions of injustice that their co-ethnics experience. "Bandwagoning effects" can work to the ethnic entrepreneur's advantage, intensifying ethnic identity: if one person sees his co-ethnics agreeing with the rhetoric of an ethnic entrepreneur, the costs of agreement with and support for that political entrepreneur decrease. Indeed, the costs of not joining might go up if co-ethnics accuse non-supporters of group betrayal . Furthermore, when one ethnic group jumps on the ethnic bandwagon, other groups are motivated to jump on ethnic bandwagons of their own in order to balance against the first group's strength. Ethnic identity is thus strengthened. Constructivists point out that this is the process by which ethnic entrepreneurs were able to gain adherents in the republics of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia after 1989, and why, for example, the separatist appeals of Abkhaz and Sikh ethnic entrepreneurs resonated with significant elements of the populations in these regions in different historical periods.