Ethnic history

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Ethnic history is a branch of social history that studies ethnic groups and immigrants. Barkan (2007) argues that the field allows historians to use alternate models of interpretation, unite qualitative and quantitative data, apply sociological models to historical patterns, examine more deeply macro-level policies and decisions, and, especially, empathize with the ethnic groups under study.

Defining the field[edit]

Ethnic history is especially important in the U.S. and Canada. Oscar Handlin (b. 1915), the director of scores of PhD dissertations at Harvard University was an important pioneer and sponsor of ethnic historiography. Handlin's Pulitzer-prize-winning interpretation, The Uprooted (1951) was highly influential.[1]

Major encyclopedias have helped define the field; Handlin sponsored one published by Harvard University Press in 1980 that received wide media attention because it tied in with an American interest in their roots.[2][3]

Perin (1983) looks at the historiography of Canadian ethnic history and finds two alternative methodologies. One is more static and emphasizes how closely immigrant cultures replicate the Old World. This approach tends to be filiopietistic. The alternative approach has been influenced by the recent historiography on labor, urban, and family history. It sees the immigrant community as an essentially North American phenomenon and integrates it into the mainstream of Canadian culture.[4]

McDonald (2007) identifies five main areas of interest for scholarship on U.S. ethnic history: the origins and meaning of ethnicity, particularly the issue of whether it is inherited or invented; the origins of ethnic diversity (such as conquest, immigration, involuntary migration); models of ethnic adaptation (especially the Melting Pot, mosaic, salad bowl and kaleidoscope metaphors); ethnic incorporation into the social, economic, and political fabric of the receiving country; and minority group survival strategies, including responses to competing forms of allegiance like class and gender.[5]

Much research is done by reading the letters immigrants wrote to relatives back home, often comparing the advantages and disadvantages of their new lives.[6]

A significant trend has been to integrate ethnic history with other new historiographical tendencies, such as Atlantic history,[7] labor history or women's history.


The Immigration and Ethnic History Society was formed in 1965 and publishes a journal for libraries and its 829 members.[8]

  • The American Conference for Irish Studies, founded in 1960, has 1,700 members and has occasional publications but no journal.[9]
  • The American Italian Historical Association was founded in 1966 and has 400 members; it does not publish a journal [10]
  • The American Jewish Historical Society is the oldest ethnic society, founded in 1892; it has 3,300 members and publishes American Jewish History[11]
  • The Polish American Historical Association was founded in 1942, and publishes a newsletter and Polish American Studies, an interdisciplinary, refereed scholarly journal twice each year.[12]
  • H-ETHNIC is a daily discussion list founded in 1993 with 1400 members; it covers topics of ethnicity and migration globally.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oscar Handler and Mary F. Handler, "The New History and the Ethnic Factor in American Life," Perspectives in American History, 1970, Vol. 4, pp 5-24
  2. ^ Thernstrom, Stephan; Orlov, Ann; Handlin, Oscar, eds. (1980). Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674375122. OCLC 1038430174.
  3. ^ Paul R. Magocsi, ed. Encyclopedia of Canada's peoples (1999) excerpt and text search
  4. ^ Roberto Perin, "Clio as Ethnic: The Third Force in Canadian Historiography," Canadian Historical Review, Dec 1983, Vol. 64 Issue 4, pp441-467
  5. ^ Jason McDonald. American Ethnic History: Themes and Perspectives. (2007), ISBN 978-0-8135-4227-0
  6. ^ Walter D. Kamphoefner, "Immigrant Epistolary and Epistemology: On the Motivators and Mentality of Nineteenth-Century German Immigrants." Journal of American Ethnic History (2009): 34-54. in JSTOR, on deep-reading their letters
  7. ^ Colin Kidd, British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (1999)
  8. ^ See Immigration and Ethnic History Society
  9. ^ See American Conference for Irish Studies Archived 2011-01-09 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ See American Italian Historical Association
  11. ^ See American Jewish Historical Society and journal
  12. ^ See PAHA website Archived 2017-12-23 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ see H-ETHNIC website


  • Barkan, Elliott R. "Changing Borders, Moving Boundaries: Lessons from Thirty-five Years of Interdisciplinary and Multi-ethnic Research," Journal of American Ethnic History, Jan 2007, Vol. 26 Issue 2, pp 85–99
  • Gabaccia, Donna R. and Ruiz, Vicki L., eds. American Dreaming, Global Realities: Rethinking U.S. Immigration History (2006)
  • Glazier, Michael, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America (1999), articles by over 200 experts, covering both Catholics and Protestants.
  • Hoerder, Dirk. "Ethnic studies in Canada from the 1880s to 1962: A historiographical perspective and critique," Canadian Ethnic Studies, 1994, Vol. 26 Issue 1, pp 1–18
  • Levinson, David. Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook, (1998), ISBN 978-1-57356-019-1
  • McDonald, Jason. American Ethnic History: Themes and Perspectives. (2007) ISBN 978-0-8135-4227-0 [1]
  • Magocsi, Paul Robert, ed. Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples (1999), comprehensive scholarly guide to nearly all ethnic groups
  • Minahan, James. One Europe, many nations: a historical dictionary of European national groups (2000), ISBN 0-313-30984-1
  • Øverland, Orm, ed. Not English Only: Redefining “American” in American Studies (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2001). 202 pp.
  • Palmer, Howard. "Canadian Immigration and Ethnic History in the 1970s and 1980s," International Migration Review, Fall 1981, Vol. 15 Issue 3, pp 471–501
  • Thernstrom, Stephan; Orlov, Ann; Handlin, Oscar, eds. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674375122.