Symbolic ethnicity

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In the culture of the U.S., the celebration of Saint Patrick's Day, by many Americans, not just of Irish descent, is an example of symbolic ethnicity.[1][2][3][4]

In sociology, symbolic ethnicity is a nostalgic allegiance to, love for, and pride in a cultural tradition that can be felt and lived without having to be incorporated to the person's everyday behavior;[5] as such, a symbolic ethnic identity usually is composed of images from mass communications media.[vague][4]


The term was introduced in the article "Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America" (1979), by Herbert J. Gans, in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies.[6][7]


The development of symbolic ethnicity, as a sociological phenomenon, is attributed to mainly to ethnic European immigrants of second and subsequent generations, because "Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian Americans do not have the option of a symbolic ethnicity, at present, in the United States"; a socio-economic circumstance "in which ethnicity does not matter for white Americans, [yet] it does matter for non-whites".[4]

This view, however, ignores the complicated history of actual race relations in the United States, including persons of black ancestry who appeared phenotypically close enough to perceived norms of "whiteness" to allow them to pass as white. It also ignores the reality of many Americans of Cuban, Argentine, and other Latino descent who have fair complexions and who are often subsumed into the general "white" population, including on historical Census Bureau returns, which did not have a separate category for "Hispanic". That term did not refer to a race in the traditional conception of the term, as it was understood during the 19th century. Many Latinos were recorded on official US government records as simply "white". This is doubly true for fair-skinned Latinos who only speak English, and remains true to this day, as the primary marker of ethnicity for Latino group membership is not physical appearance but rather language spoken.

Lastly, there are a number of "thin-blooded" Native American tribes where many members appear phenotypically white, such as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which often require only 25% blood quotient to be a member of the tribe (ie, 3 white ancestors and 1 Native American ancestor). Many of these people can easily pass themselves as white, if they so choose, thus rendering their ethnicity "optional", as well.


In the U.S., symbolic ethnicity is an important component of American cultural identity, assumed as "a voluntary, personally chosen identity marker, rather than the totally ascribed characteristic" determined by physical appearance.[8] As a sociological phenomenon, symbolic ethnicity is attributed to Americans of European ancestry, most of whom either are influenced by or assimilated to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) community.[4]

As such, symbolic ethnicity is the process of social identity whereby the person's "ethnic identity is solely associated with iconic elements of the culture" from which he or she originated. Gans's investigations concentrated on the later generations of Roman Catholic and Jewish Americans who had "begun to re-associate themselves with their ethnic culture", noting that "the ethnic associations were mainly symbolic, and that the traditional community interactions were lost". Those Catholic and Jewish Americans identified "their ethnic race in a personal perspective, as opposed to a communal" perspective, which actions produced an "outward ethnic identity that uses superficial symbols and icons to label and categorizes a certain race". That is to say, people identify their ethnicity by way of images from the mass communications media, as accepted through past associations derived from social and historical judgments.[9]

In (E)race: Symbolic Ethnicity and the Asian Image (1993), Stephen Lee describes symbolic ethnicity:

From unrelenting integration of outside influences, self-definition becomes less associated with the community as a collective and becomes more associated with personal ethnicity as self. As the definition of ethnicity becomes increasingly personal, the need to reassert the community associations decreases. Ethnicity then becomes a symbolic identity more than a lifestyle. The definition of ethnicity, as formed by cinema, follows this symbolic pattern. In fact, in most cinemas that deals with ethnic integration, ethnic lifestyle is inseparable from its symbolic codes. Ethnic lifestyle is not an associative or collective means of existence, but a symbolic code—an icon.[9]

In the book Identity and Belonging: Rethinking Race and Ethnicity in Canadian Society (2006), by B. Singh Bolaria and Sean P. Hier, symbolic ethnicity is defined by, with, and in the actions of "individuals who identify as Irish, for example, on occasions such as Saint Patrick's Day, on family holidays, or for vacations. They do not usually belong to Irish-American organizations, live in Irish neighborhoods, work in Irish jobs, or marry other Irish people."[4] Therefore, the symbolic identity of "being Irish" is:

. . . [an] ethnicity that is individualistic in nature and without real social cost for the individual. These symbolic identifications are essentially leisure-time activities, rooted in nuclear family traditions and reinforced by the voluntary enjoyable aspects of being ethnic.[4]

In terms of the derogatory term Plastic Paddy used to describe symbolic ethnicity in the Irish diaspora, Hickman (2002) states that the use of this term was "a part of the process by which the second-generation Irish are positioned as inauthentic within the two identities, of Englishness and Irishness...[10][11] The message from each is that second-generation Irish are 'really English' and many of the second-generation resist this."[10] This perspective suggests that symbolic ethnicity is a result of assimilation and some assimilated individuals may prefer to explore a culture that they may not have been raised with to a significant extent.

Many displays of what could be argued to be symbolic ethnicity, such as the study of Scottish Gaelic by the Scottish diaspora in North America, do not necessarily conform to the stereotype of individuals feeling entitled to a cultural ethnicity due to ancestry. Most Gaelic learners in one study, even those with Scottish ancestry, stated that Gaelic ethnic identity was not related to ancestry.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alba, Richard D. (1992). Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America (New ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 306. ISBN 9780300052213. Symbolic ethnicity is concerned with the symbols of ethnic cultures rather than with the cultures themselves, and this seems true also of the cultural commitments of ethnic identity: the cultural stuff of ethnicity continues to wither, and thus ethnic identity tend to latch onto a few symbolic commitments (such as St. Patrick's Day among the Irish).
  2. ^ Uba, Laura (2002). It Looks At You: The Returned Gaze of Cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 117. ISBN 9780791489079. While symbolic expressions of Irish ethnicity, such as St. Patrick's Day...
  3. ^ Jiobu, Robert M. (1988). Process, Praxis, and Transcendence. SUNY Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 9781438407906.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Marcy. C. Waters (2006). "Optional Ethnicity for Whites Only?". In B. Singh Bolaria; Sean P. Hier (eds.). Identity and Belonging: Rethinking Race and Ethnicity in Canadian Society. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press. ISBN 9781551303123.
  5. ^ Winter, J. Alan (March 1996). "Symbolic ethnicity or religion among Jews in the United States: a test of Gansian hypothesis". Review of Religious Research. 37 (3): 233–247. doi:10.2307/3512276. JSTOR 3512276.
  6. ^ Gans, Herbert J. (January 1979). "Symbolic ethnicity: the future of ethnic groups and cultures in America" (PDF). Ethnic and Racial Studies. 2 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1080/01419870.1979.9993248.
  7. ^ Gans, Herbert J. (1994). "Symbolic ethnicity and symbolic religiosity: Towards a comparison of ethnic and religious acculturation". Ethnic and Racial Studies. 17 (4): 577–592. doi:10.1080/01419870.1994.9993841.
  8. ^ Ammerman, Nancy T. (2007). Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780195305401.
  9. ^ a b Lee, Stephen (December 1993). "(E)race: Symbolic Ethnicity and the Asian Image" (PDF). University of British Columbia. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  10. ^ a b Marc Scully. (2009). 'Plastic and Proud'?: The discourse of Authenticity among the second-generation Irish in England. Open University p126-127. Marc Scully. (2009). 'Plastic and Proud'?: The discourse of Authenticity among the second-generation Irish in England. Open University.
  11. ^ Hickman, M.J. et al., (2005). The Limitations of Whiteness and the Boundaries of Englishness. Ethnicities, 5 160–182. Cited in Marc Scully. (2009). 'Plastic and Proud'?: The discourse of Authenticity among the second-generation Irish in England. Open University.
  12. ^ Newton, Michael. ""This Could Have Been Mine": Scottish Gaelic Learners in North America" (PDF). EKeltoi: 17. Retrieved 20 April 2017.

Further reading[edit]