Symbolic ethnicity

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The celebration of Saint Patrick's Day in the United States by Irish Americans is an example of symbolic ethnicity.[1][2][3][4]

Symbolic ethnicity is a term coined by German-born American sociologist Herbert J. Gans in 1979. He described it as "a nostalgic allegiance... a love for and pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior",[5] often formed by mass media images.[4] According to Mary C. Waters, ethnicity is still an important component of American identity, but it has become "a voluntary, personally chosen identity marker rather than the totally ascribed characteristic" over the years.[6]

The phenomenon is attributed to Americans of European ancestry, most of whom are influenced and/or assimilated into the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant community, which dominated the country's political life since its creation.[4]


The term was first used by Herbert J. Gans in the article named Symbolic ethnicity: the future of ethnic groups and cultures in America published in 1979[7] in the Ethnic and Racial Studies journal.[8]


The phenomenon of symbolic ethnicity is largely attributed to European Americans, because "Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian Americans do not have the option of a symbolic ethnicity at present in the United States" and for them "in which ethnicity does not matter for white Americans, it does matter for non-whites."[4]

Gans described symbolic ethnicity the process in which "ethnic identity is solely associated with iconic elements of the culture." He particularly focused on later generations of Catholic and Jewish American who "have begun to re-associate themselves with their ethnic culture." According to him "the ethnic associations were mainly symbolic and that the traditional community interactions were lost." They identified "their ethnic race in a personal perspective as opposed to a communal one", which resulted in a "outward ethnic identity that uses superficial symbols and icons to label and categorize a certain race." People start to identify their ethnicity by media images as accepted through past associations based on social and historical judgments.[9]

Stephen Lee describes the term:

An example of symbolic ethnicity given in 2006 book Identity And Belonging: Rethinking Race And Ethnicity in Canadian Society is "individuals who identify as Irish, for example, on occasions such as Saint Patrick's Day, on family holidays, or for vacations. They do no usually belong to Irish-American organizations, live in Irish neighborhoods, work in Irish jobs, or marry other Irish people."[4] The book describes the term as

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 B. Singh Bolaria, Sean P. Hier (2006). "Optional Ethnicity for Whites Only? by Marcy. C. Waters". Identity and belonging: rethinking race and ethnicity in Canadian society. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press. ISBN 9781551303123.  External link in |chapter= (help)
  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, Vol. 37, No.3. Connecticut College. Retrieved 1 December 2012. 
  6. ^ Ammerman, Nancy T. (2007). Everyday religion observing modern religious lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780195305401. 
  7. ^ Gan, Herbert J. (January 1979). "Symbolic ethnicity: the future of ethnic groups and cultures in America" (PDF). Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (1). 
  8. ^ "Symbolic ethnicity and symbolic religiosity: Towards a comparison of ethnic and religious acculturation". Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 1 December 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Lee, Stephen (December 1993). "(E)race: Symbolic Ethnicity and the Asian Image" (PDF). University of British Columbia. Retrieved 1 December 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gans, Herbert J. (1 January 1979). "Symbolic ethnicity: The future of ethnic groups and cultures in America*". Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1080/01419870.1979.9993248. 
  • Waters, Mary C. (1990). Ethnic options : choosing identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520070837.