Ethno-Cultural Symbolism and Group Identity

  • Elya TzanevaEmail author
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This chapter is aimed at helping researchers study the ways in which communities and individuals perceive their own ethnic identity under the conditions of cosmopolitanism, transnationalism and mobility. Such analysis, the chapter argues, can be successfully conducted within three main contexts: in the era of constant movement around the globe, the ethnic mobilizes and expresses its multiidentical, situational, and contextual nature. Thoughts are shared on the necessity of finding a precise scholarly lexicon and suitable combined approach to ethnic phenomena today. The term ethnic as a scholarly construct is suggested to combine the contents of both ethnos and ethnicity and to denominate the past and present specifics and processes of ethnic identity phenomenon. Also suggested is the use of ethno-symbolism to order and sort out, trace the dynamics, and reveal the malleable position of different identity components. Discussed are some specifics of the ethnic symbols, along with their classification and role at the ethnic/national level. Finally, some ideas are provided about the scale and order of the cultural symbols and their development in the recent global situation.


Ethnic Identity Cultural symbols Ethno-symbolism Globalization Multiculturalism 


Approaching the end of the new millennium’s second decade, social scientists and researchers should admit that the predicted and mostly expected tendency towards ethnic and cultural relational rearrangement, leading to unification/regimentation as a result of globalization (Bauman 1996; Rosencrane 2001; Cohen 2004), did not occur in social reality, and as a result minority cultures have not been assimilated into the leading industrialized nation states.

On the contrary, amidst the recent process of democratization in many different zones of older or newly promoted ethno-cultural contacts, a globalization-related dynamics and social reconfigurations happened, such as a rather unexpected flowering of ethnic movements, the activation of voluntary and forced migration and other forms of mobility, and changes in attitudes to ethnic values. With people easily moving around the globe, many areas – not only throughout their entire history but especially today – represent an explosive ethnic mixture of conflicting social, economic, and political as well as cultural views and respective interests. Many regions today offer rich diversity in issues of rivalries and conflicts, as well as border and memory issues associated with traditional and new ethnicities and their cultures. The reason for this is that, in most developing countries, ethnic cultures are expressions of long-established tactics of survival and the protection of groups’ livelihood, embodying life experiences and adapting useful influences, that today, even more than before, the group chooses to cherish and transmit. The ethnically diverse population, maintaining its contacts and keeping its different social and cultural characteristics, continues to create ideas, theories, programs, and respective tactics and strategies in the current social practice, which, whether officially promoted or neglected, feed into the various ethnic conflicts. If neglected or treated incompetently, the present forms of ethnic solidarity, confrontation, and movements within multiethnic states arising from past ethnic sentiments and current interests can create national and national-territorial problems in a global world and complicate the contemporary transition of many states to a political, economic, and ideological pluralism and democratic structure.

Mobility, migration, and refugees are today the key instruments of population change in Europe. As a result of mobility, migration, and integration, many communities and group members develop multiple affiliations and more complex group identities (Castles and Miller 1993; Vertovec and Cohen 1999), while keeping their ethnic loyalties strong. In many cases, the acculturation processes from the past are significantly substituted by the strengthening of ethnic identification and self-identification on a large scale. This has an impact on the current population size in Europe with migration flows of two million non-EU immigrants, with foreign citizens making up to 7.5% of persons living in the EU Member States in 2017, and almost 22 million non-EU citizens living in the EU (Eurostat 2017). According to a demographic projection (Lanzieri 2011), by 2060, persons of all nationalities with at least one foreign-born parent are expected to account for about 33% of the EU-27 population. The national countries and their societies will inevitably become increasingly diverse in an ethno-cultural sense. Remaining an important aspect of group consciousness, the ethnic identity shows its malleable nature in adapting to the new circumstances.

The discourse of ethnic culture in its dynamics as a mediator for a “rearrangement of national space due to ‘globalizing’ forces” (Berking 2003) is therefore a logical and analytical way to discuss the relationship between current ethnization and globalization. With such an approach, a twofold problem comes to the fore: on one hand, what is happening with the national in the context of increasing contemporary ethno-cultural diversity?; and on the other, what is the destiny of the ethnic in the contemporary nation state, which is usually multiethnic and multinational? Actually, this is the question of how ethnic the national culture is today, and, in a more general context, how can the ethnic be defined today on a canvas of mobility, escalating a population’s diversification and cultural variety, since it is beyond doubt that cultural diversity is the main characteristic of today’s “global village.” The following text offers a view on those problems by focusing on the methodological and historiographical points of the subject and projecting them onto the contemporary social background.

Contexts of investigation. Research on how group identity is constructed through symbols is especially meaningful for communities demanding self-determination and rights; respective claims for them are usually underwritten by the ethno-symbolic cultural definitions of identity. Actually, the interplay between this diversity and contemporary national societies is analyzed within the interpretative framework provided since the rise of modernization theory and, later, by the theoretical study of nationalism. As a result, a distinctive characteristic in the study of ethnic phenomena in the last few decades became the growing convergence of its subject with the theme of nation and nationalism. This convergence of research fields directed scholars’ interest either to the mechanisms that create social cohesion among an ethnically distinctive group of people – a cohesion which under different circumstances can reach a certain degree of intensity and make that group significant in some sense, usually political – or towards the examination of emerging loyalties to the state and their transformation from attachments to the previously existing ethnic formation. This rapprochement between the notions of national and ethnic occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, and even today in the sociological literature there is a tendency to consider these two viewpoints of ethnicity, nations and nationalism together (Koptseva et al. 2011; Smith 2009; Eriksen 1993; Hutchinson 1994; Hutchinson and Smith 1996; Guibernau and Rex 1997). No matter how old and criticized these approaches are, both aspects are important today, for example, in the adaptation of migrants, refugees, seasonal workers, to a receiving country’s culture and life through the processes of the melting pot, assimilation, acculturation, homogenization, pluralism, multi-, inter-, and transculturalism.

Despite the variety of approaches, the research on ethnos/ethnicity and the other ethnic issues (all of them interweaved in the notion of ethnic identity) remains one of those themes in social sciences that seem to not only generate recurrent and intensive debates, but also feed doubts about how correctly the subject has been investigated, especially on the theoretical level. The confusion derives from the different substances advanced by scholars in these categories in the past and today as both social and research phenomena. Recently, based on the analysis of case studies, it is not difficult to conceptualize their dynamics (Cohen 2004; Leoussi and Grosby 2006; Tzaneva 2015): Today’s countries, with their national societies in a globalized environment, are modern constructs often fashioned from selectively chosen and reworked premodern materials, receiving additional activation and change, new components, and contents under the motive of new interests and goals.

Their dual character, as modern and global inventions constructed largely from reworked premodern materials, has made the interplay among nations and their old and new ethnic essence difficult to fathom for scholars working in both the “Western” and “Eastern” liberal social-science traditions. Both “schools,” however, agree that to express and frame theoretically their existence today is to ascribe to the groups within a nation, certain identity. Identity itself is an immutable, subjective, and evolving concept, defined by the process of identification. Among the various identifications, the only ethnic identity that matters is the one that the individuals as members of the group ascribe to. It is socially constructed as self-identified, and is perceived as such. It is constructed under the direct influence and guidance of societal interests and culture in interplay. The process of its establishment draws much of its content and energy from preexisting and newly added forms of solidarity and multifaceted images of collective belonging. It respectively explores the formation and expression of national identity by examining the role of cultural and “culturalized” political and economic factors and the way these have been shaped, adapted, reordered, and changed over time by the mobilizing power of those factors. The scholarly approach should therefore seek the development of contemporary globalized ethnic identities as changes in consciousness brought about by cultural shifts (motivated and driven by societal powers and interests). Recently, many attempts have been made to conceptualize the methodological bases of ethno-cultural studies under the conditions of globalization (Tomlinson 1999; James and Mandaville 2010; Lechner and Boli 2012). Intended to give some historiographical and methodological insights for a possible interpretation of the state of the ethnic in the contemporary global world, the text below begins with some basic notions from the ethnic lexicon in use, judged according to their potentials to adequately analyze the present-day social processes.

Being one of the major forms of group (collective) identity, ethnic identity often surprises today’s researcher with its malleable character. Both components of the phenomenon’s nomination – the classification of ethnic and identity – are problematic regarding their content and form. The outset and early development of the globalized world set standards and tried to argue perspectives about the academic future of both these components. However, the social and political reality produced its own picture and caused significant turns in the line of scholarly investigation. The variations of ethnic terms such as ethnic, ethnos, ethnie, ethnicity, core/kernel of ethnos, identity, and nation are steadily being used in the public language. In scholarly discourse, however, they are often omitted or substituted due to ethnic nihilism, which was fashionable at the start of the millennium, and especially strong (at terminological level) in the Russian social science. “I don’t use the term ‘ethnos’,” wrote V. Tishkov (the most prominent representative of the school which actually invented ethnos), “because I don’t know what it is” (Tishkov 2003). Up to the present day, in trying to adequately reflect the processes, the term ethnos acquired gradually different nuances: from denotation of a social-cultural historical group with certain specifics, through bio-cultural and natural-geographic formation with mainly behavioral uniting characteristics, to an ethnic substance present in a member of a group (Bromley 2008; Rybakov 1998), the last coming closer to an attributive understanding of ethnic as present in the non-Russian schools of thought. Recently, in the global era, some scholars, especially ethnologists, have tended to interpret ethnic only as a tool for scholarly analyses, devised and used by academicians (Tishkov 2001; Banks 1996). In neo-Marxist “ethnos theory,” the idea was shared that the only way to make sense of the variety of branched and subordinated ethnic terms is to view the main one among them – ethnos (adopted from the meaning of the original Ancient Greek) – as such a category of classification and an academic construct that serves analytical purposes (Tzaneva 2015).

The potential definitional problems were outlined early in the etymological history of the term (beginning in the 1950s) in Western social science as well. At that time, ethnicity was first used to characterize the “quality of ethnic groups.” The conceptual framework elaborated in the United States later saw the alignment of national-cultural particularities within the formation of a homogeneous and culturally standardized society – a society quite different from our contemporary one. Hence, the earliest conceptions of a melting pot and ethnic pluralism, which sought to explain such diverse phenomena as social and political changes, nation building, identity formation, and cultural and political assimilation (and in some attempts even race relations), are now often empty vessels in most cases, and more or less of historiographical interest only, although they can still prove adequate and vivid in some real situations in our ethnically dynamic world.

It is in the field of socio-anthropological literature and the conceptual apparatus of contemporary ethnology where ethnicity is generally defined in terms of a cultural ethos, such as shared customs, institutions, rituals, values, intentions, relations, and behavior. Yet the members of an ethnic group who possess a common “cultural ethos” were always seen as sharing “a genetic and/or a linguistic, religious, national and social connection.” Meanwhile, more than 20 years after M. Weber’s successful attempt to combine the cultural and political aspects of ethnic, many scholars still think that a distinction must be made between cultural and political ethnicity (the former referring to a belief in shared cultural values, the latter to a political awareness or mobilization). Actually, this highlights the complex incorporation of several forms of identity in today’s world also known as multiple identities. Suggested and elaborated in the past, this context is workable today in the situation of constant mobility and settlements in unfamiliar environments, when the multitude of identities receives its concrete and detailed expressions.

The further determination of ethnicity through cultural identification, but with respect to some characteristics of sociological type, was an advanced way of looking at the phenomenon. In this context, each present study should adopt the idea that ethnic formations cannot exist in isolation but only in contrast to other such groups. That is, the boundaries distinguish between two or more “somethings” which carry their own initial distinctiveness. Also entailed is the idea of a choice in the expression of ethnic identity or what is called “situational ethnicity” – that components of identity emerge and change situationally and do not express permanent absolutes. Respectively, when included in a territorial state, “the conflict potential of ethnicity is highlighted” because of the contrasts in the differences of religion, language, descent, and history that reflect on groups’ social psychological modes. Living as a minority in a multiethnic society builds existing relationships to one’s own ethnicity (both in the foreign country and at home) and the host society simultaneously. This is expressed through identity components chosen for preferable identification in different situations of the new, often hostile, social milieu. Ethnic identity therefore also becomes contextual when forced to communicate these components within the milieu. So, ethnic in the era of mobility and migration mobilizes and expresses its multiidentical, situational, and contextual nature, and these are the three possible contexts within which it could be studied successfully today.

According to the latest research, other basic notions related to ethnos and ethnicity, such as kernel of ethnos, ethnic/nonethnic groups, symbolic ethnicity, multiethnicity, dual ethnicity, and quasi-ethnicity, are presented in both the contemporary Western and today’s Russian science with regards to the globalization processes (Wiener 2005; Koptseva et al. 2011). Still in use are the previous terms of ethnic groups, ethnic identity, ethnic community, ethnic unit, and ethnic relations as synonyms to ethnic, but they are being stepped back as they are subject to much misinterpretation today. To reveal the characteristics of ethnic today, both ethnos and ethnicity have a place for the following distinction in their meaning that seems reasonable and consensual: the first designates the grouping of culturally related people, associated with territory, economy, history, lifestyle, etc., while the latter – their psychological unity based on rationalization of the features mentioned and expressed in some standards of their behavior. Some scholars are in search of a combined term. A. D. Smith uses the concept of ethnie, perceived as the prerequisite of a nation, tied to both premodern and modern phenomena (Smith 1986). Also suggested (and used in this text) is the attributive ethnic, designating the social category and its symbolic content, also acknowledging the importance of the circumstances for their appearance. In the substantial body of literature on the subject in both schools, the notion and dominant meaning of ethnic is considered in continuously developing aspects, although some of its important characteristics still appear to be untranslatable into a language of theory. Even today, after a century-long study, many researchers of ethnic recognize that not all its meanings can be grasped through objective scientific methodology, especially those linked to psychological elements such as thinking, will, memory, and the main focus of ethnic – the ethnic identity. Conceptualizing ethnic identity is the general context for the investigation of ethnic today, and it demands the approbation and application of multiple and manifold viewpoints, even if this might sometimes seem eclectic.

A suggested convergence of research schools. It is the ethno-cultural approach that from the outset recognizes nations as modern constructs often devised from available and selected premodern, but also newly incorporated, materials. This is also true for the contemporary multiethnic civil nations which are willingly or forcibly accommodating ethnic newcomers who are trying to balance their cultural identifications between “foreignness and indigeneity,” and so are the host-countries. Because of this complexity, it is difficult to fit contemporary ethnic and national phenomena into accepted conceptualizations and established theories (e.g., the nation as a mode of production, or the nation defined in class and economic terms, as a product of industrialization, modernization/postmodernism and progress, or of institutional and political conflicts). The problem becomes more complicated when trying to clarify the mechanisms involved in the changes of ethnic, nation, and its identity under the influence of contemporary population motilities. Discussion on the relationship between ethnic and nation includes first the question how the scholar approaches the nation with its ethnic content, choosing between or combining the above-defined specifics of ethnos and ethnicity: as an intellectually constructed concept, an “instrumental” creation serving particular rationalized interests, or as a specific historically established ethnic and social formation. As stated, this was the main dilemma between the “theory of ethnos” and the “theory of ethnicity,” and the answer gives radically different directions for today’s presence of ethnic in the national picture of the global world. Therefore, for such research, the possibilities for bringing both concepts closer together in one integrated vision to study the phenomenon of ethnic must be considered. Before suggesting this, an analysis is needed to relate the developments traced to certain similar, even parallel, antinomies in the orthodox Eastern European and mainstream Western European/American theories of ethnicity, ethnos, nation, and identity. There are recent studies that seek to demonstrate, rather than a simple convergence between the two general approaches, a similarity in the impasse, which scholars in the two traditions experienced in the face of nations’ dual characters and the re-appropriation of ethnically different materials in modern forms for novel purposes. How modern nations draw upon simple continuations of premodern (before) or foreign (recently) ethnic memories and cultural legacies but are growing to be different and even contradict them, is a complex process, focused on the social circumstances and procedural tools that allow nations to use and shape various characteristics in their need to construct innovative thinking and social sensibility.

To extract and analyze the cultural essence of ethnic today, its attachment to the two abovementioned contrasting concepts (approaches) of investigation should be conceptualized. According to a primordialist” (“essentialist”) position, which has grown unfashionable in recent years, the social markers (manifested as loyalties, attachments, endowments, etc.) were primary, or taken as given. This approach emphasized the naturalness and stability of culture, religion, history, and emotional links within communities that derived from place of birth, kinship relationships, religion, language, and social practices through members’ lives that are “natural” for them and that provide a basis for an easy affinity with other people from the same background. These attachments constitute the givens of the human condition and might be rooted in the nonrational foundations of personality. They develop in childhood and remain with the person through the whole life; consciously or not, they often provide a basis for the formation of social and political groupings. Even in threatening moments – for example, when the objective cultural markers do not really exist, including under foreign political domination and forced and voluntary migrations, or in situations when people are removed from their origins or have rejected their childhood identifications (refuge cases) – ethnic loyalties are supposed to continue reflecting not real but imagined, memorized, or idealized uniting/distinguishing factors. Therefore, the resulting identity is often viewed as being “based on national and ethnic factors rather than civilizational ones” with “old heroes and narratives, with ethnicity and religion playing a major role” (Martins 2010). According to C. Geertz, the personal and collective identity of the ethnic groups’ members, although an interplay between contemporary dynamics and past loyalties, is mostly driven by ties of blood, mother tongue and language, homeland, religion, historical memories and images, and traditional attachments (Geertz 1996). So, the main advantage of a primordial perspective, applied to present-day situations, is focusing the attention on the active emotional power of ethnic ties. But in using this view, the researcher cannot explain the dynamics of past and contemporary ethnics or the political consequences sometimes marked by quick changes in political partners, loyalties and preferences, and group political behavior. The contrary idea that cultural symbols and cultural affinities are used by a certain group of interests, or an elite, seeking instrumental advantage for themselves or the group they claim to represent, is central for the modern perspective on ethnicity in all its branches: “instrumental/situational/mobilizationist.” Ethnicity is seen as strategically “constructed” and susceptible to redefinition in concrete situations, needing to be assessed in each context separately. The mobilization of loyalties obviously affects the self-definition of the group and its boundaries, which can be shifted and extended, so ethnicity appears to be an artifact imagined by political and cultural leaders in accordance with their particular interests. This approach tends towards an idea that ethnicity has no content of its own, no independent status; it is “nothing but a tool for pursuing nonethnic goals” for different interest/status-groups. Within constructivist readings of ethnicity dynamics, “material terms” are elaborated, such as competition for resources, distribution of resources, elite strategies, status and wealth, and power and rational choice (Banton 2008). They do not deny the existence of bonding through symbols and loyalties but view symbols and culture as resources for achieving positions desired by different groups’ elites.

Although this perspective pervades in the modern debates on the subject, ethnic phenomena are much more than just manipulative instruments. No doubt, ethnic boundaries are fluid; they move and change, but some immanent characteristics of the group keep the balance within those boundaries and maintain them. So, despite the “natural” temptation for the researchers to give preference to one or another of the existing approaches, and to apply it critically to their concrete study, and also because of the comprehensive and changing character of the ethnic phenomena themselves, a theoretical and methodological strategy combining these approaches should be employed in the study of ethnic. Today, there is no doubt that fruitful ideas and concepts from different approaches and perspectives may be combined to reveal the nature of the phenomenon more adequately. Even in the early 1980s, within the dominant modernist perspective, there were some reasonable suggestions to create “an exploratory synthesis of primordial and mobilizationist approaches” to developing ethnicity for the purpose of an adequate study (McKay 1982). Later, a huge breakthrough happened by recognizing that “approaches to ethnicity are not necessarily mutually exclusive” (Tishkov 2001).

A fruitful suggestion was offered in the field of anthropology, in which ethnicity was assessed as referring to people’s classification in a context of “self-other” distinctions on the cultural level (Eriksen 1993). Accordingly, the ethnic identity is viewed as referring to: “the individual level of identification with a culturally defined collectivity …” (Hutchinson and Smith 1996). The separate existence of a given ethnic formation is defined by the unique balance between universal cultural features (characteristic for the whole of human civilization), the general (characteristic for a large group of neighboring or somehow related peoples), and the particular (characteristic only for a given local group). In combination, these features create a cultural configuration that makes the “cultural level” of the group objectively different and unique and determines it as such in a specific social context; within a spatial frame, corresponding characteristics will be global, regional, and local (Genchev 1984). Because of the distinctive combination of those features, the ethnically determined grouping looks to be distinct from all similar establishments; it looks different to its “own” people, as well as to “strangers” or “outsiders.” If brought together, the “own” people and the “outsiders” should share the unique notions of the mentioned cultural “foreignness and indigeneity” in an effort to create their mutual belonging to a political and cultural community of the whole state (Castles 2000).

To study how these notions develop towards successful co-existence, an approach and investigative mechanism should be suggested that brings together the expertise of the above dichotomized views. It will help to use the contrasting views and scholarly debates for providing useful explanatory and normative insights for understanding the phenomenon. This approach should combine the earlier established (and often considered “essential”) attachments and loyalties within their historical trajectory and transformation, with their recent (“modernist,” “postmodernist,” and “globalized”) applications. This approach, labeled as ethno-symbolism, was developed from the 1980s mostly by Anthony D. Smith and his followers within the tradition of historical sociology, stressing cultural continuity and the role of historically preserved and transferred affiliations. As an academic current, the ethno-symbolic approach reflects the interest in the creation and representation of complex identities, as well as their adoption and modeling by the ethnic group over time, and therefore contains potentials for application within the constructivist perspective. In recent decades, serious and successful attempts have been made to apply the ethno-symbolic approach as a working synthesis in this perspective (Hutchinson and Smith 1994; Guibernau and Hutchinson 2004; Leoussi and Grosby 2006; Smith 2009; Kaplan et al. 2011; Tzaneva 2015). Now, “the question is rather how far such synthesis can be empirically helpful” (Hutchinson and Smith 1996).

To avoid the controversial debate about its predominantly “essentialist nature,” I would suggest using ethno-symbolism as an instrumental research body (a set of contexts, symbols, and analytical methods) for studying how a national community, both in the past and global, could be considered and sustained. Such a view should be based on a consensual idea of ethnic that also combines the potentials of the existing concepts and opens up fields for the study of its symbols. A possible new anthropological direction understands ethnic as a complex cultural integrity of a group, existing in all individual members as an ethnic substance, with united external and internal components which are ordered and symbolically expressed (Rybakov 1998; Koptseva et al. 2011). Ethnic substance is an attribute of the personality – it is always in the individual, and visible in symbolic signs, even if, outside the main group, the person still carries a certain model of ethnic values and expresses them in sticking to norms, models and certain behaviors. Personal ethnic features are very stable, existing regardless of such conditions as change of territory, language, and even religion. Emotions and all their manifestations in loyalties, attachments, endowments, etc., are deeply associated with ethnic, and this also characterizes today’s ethnic groups living in multiethnic states. Such a view is obviously a combination of classical theories of ethnos and ethnicity through distinguishing objective and subjective ethnic properties. It also comes closer to the representatives of Western ethno-symbolism by indicating the presence of some stable ethnic structures in a person that are susceptible to mobilization and change.

Ethno-symbolism in this perspective handles the question of how cultural markers, or complex symbolic practices as expressions of these structures, appear and function as characteristics of a group. It can be used as an investigative textual and contextual tool for the dynamics of national identity in conditions of ethnic mobility – not as a theoretical approach (as stated by its founders), but as an instrumental construct for sorting out, tracing the changes, and revealing the malleable position of different identity components. Even serving as “actors” on a “cultural scene,” ethnic symbols have a serious political role when used to enhance ethnic/national awareness, and legitimize self-determination demands (Guibernau and Hutchinson 2004). By accepting the changeable nature of ethno-cultural symbols, ethno-symbolism also provides a terrain for studying their manipulation and the pressure on them from different social forces and interests, and also the mechanisms of their forced or voluntary adjustment to new social, political, and economic environments.

Investigating ethnic as an indexed and dynamic cultural hybridity. Culture, history, religion, language, and other markers not only shape but objectively distinguish ethnic groupings. They are also subjectively distinguishing and uniting indicators as far as group members interpret all these markers according to their different values and standards, and the historical and social contexts of their lives. The sum of these changeable interpretations creates the sense of community, or the sense of identity. For the existence and maintenance of that identity, the balance of the group’s markers needs to be rationalized. This necessity makes the dichotomy sameness/distinctiveness an element of a consciousness or identity and a subjective category. It is precisely this rationalization which provides the content of ethnic as a specific sense of identity. Hence, the conclusion that ethnic is that characteristic of the group which keeps its cultural content and inner integrity sufficiently balanced so that it can exist as a whole, without changing its boundaries as a group. In this light, the main analytical concept concerns the simultaneous historical/chronological alongside the situational/contextual character of the phenomenon, whose constitutive elements undergo change as actors seek to keep ethnic alive, or changes in the cultural content within the ethnic boundaries should be studied as a main research problem. Therefore, a suggested synthesis between the essentialist/primordial and situational/instrumental approaches to the ethnic in ethno-symbolic instrumental analysis, applied to and organized around the theory of symbolic boundary maintenance and development, seems reasonable.

Two other related research perspectives could be also of use: the “transactionalist” and “socio-psychological.” But the most detailed interpretation of the much-needed concept which emphasizes the persistence, transformation, and resurgence of ethnos/ethnicity through the device of cultural symbolism pervades the works of J. Armstrong (in the early 1980s) and especially A. Smith and his school (late 1980s to early 1990s and to the present), followed by a number of talented scholars, although their ideas are still not unanimously accepted in the literature as a general theoretical framework of the ethnic (Barth 1994; Horowitz 1996, 2004; Smith 2009). The validation of these ideas can be proven or rejected only by a multitude of case-study investigations. In this light, ethno-symbolism analyzes the nature of ethnic and interprets it as an embodiment of a hybrid cultural amalgamation of malleable markers.

Cultural hybridization is a result of cultural encounters that happen during the increasingly intense mobility of our time. In their fulfillment, ethnic contacts and contradictions, interaction, and exchange occur. Both “hosts” and “outsiders” participate in these processes with their look, dress style, manners and foods, music and dances, followed by more communicational means as feasts and celebrations, religion (faith, beliefs), stereotypes, education, and morals and values. Moving around globally, individuals and groups, families and kins, households, companies and neighbors, carrying this set of endowments, try to (1) keep their home identities and (2) construct their new ones. The former process is loyalty to an inherited and approbated cultural survival mechanism brought from home, the latter an adaptation to the new environments and experiences with the purpose of survival. This is obviously the interplay between long-established (primordial) and newly learned (constructed) norms, which again is in favor of the ethno-symbolic research mechanism combining the two linked but separate investigations. In this interplay, old and new values can mix and change their roles, places, and significance as identity factors and can also disappear or minimize their presence among the markers.

This approach is closely associated with elaborated and approbated indexes of identity markers. The present reading of those markers understands them as susceptible to disappearance and evolution, to change and variation, over time and according to the particular interests of the people, the members of the group, involved. To study ethnic through its symbols, the concept of identity construction and dynamics through different socio-political periods should first be “loaded” with concrete and precise content, and then the dynamics should be traced. The investigation of identity’s structure as composed of a number of identifiers is the necessary beginning. The distinguishing features of ethnic as a sense of identity, and of a multiethnically composed contemporary nation, are usually organized in lists of criteria associated with both phenomena.

As a whole, those lists show an impressive stability and steady contents through time. One of the first attempts to formulate the attributes or “prerequisites” of identity on the national level was made by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1939. It formulated six criteria, which were rather formal in their expression (Nationalism 1966). About two decades later, B. Shafer, taking up this report, and using on the latest factual material, listed the following historical-political ingredients normally essential to the existence of nationhood. This list, which Shafer himself regarded as incomplete, consisted of ten statements: (1) an undivided territory actually or virtually held; (2) features in common, such as language, literature, and customs; (3) a minimum of common social (including religious) and economic institutions; (4) a common independent or sovereign government either actually or virtually in existence (type does not matter), or, with rare exceptions, the desire for one; (5) a shared belief in a common history and often in a common ethnic origin sometimes thought to be religious or racial; (6) some common values held by all nationals, or preference and esteem for fellow nationals; that is for those who share the common culture, institutions, interests, and heritage, or at least greater preference and esteem for them than for members of other similar groups (the “foreigners”) who do not share these; (7) pride in the successes and chagrin at the failures of national policy; (8) contempt for or hostility to foreign nationalities; (9) a devotion to the entity (even if little comprehended) called the nation (or patria, or fatherland) that embodies or symbolizes the territory, people, culture, institutions, interests, heritage and whatever else the people have or think they have in common; and (10) hope for the future national power. They do not all have to be present at the same time and in the same way or to the same degree. The varieties of combinations and emphases are manifold. The components of identity do not define the process of its creation in a global aspect, but taken together they describe its basic attributes, both real and mythical. J. Hutchinson and A. D. Smith, in their introduction to a volume of readings on ethnicity (Smith introduced ethno-symbolism in 1986 and 1991), list six main features of this type of community. They compose and create a specific set of endowments, loyalties, and identifications that every individual shares with other group members, and that are symbolically expressed: (1) a collective proper name; (2) a myth of common ancestry; (3) shared memories of a common past (4) one or more differentiating elements of common culture, normally including religion, custom, or language; (5) an association with a specific “homeland”; and (6) a sense of solidarity among major sectors of the population. This is one expanded list of the mostly concentrated index by Smith’s famous teacher H. S. Watson, who listed four factors in the process of the formation of national consciousness in the following order: “State, Geography, Religion and Language.” As pointed out by M. Nash, these: “index features … must be easily seen, grasped, understood, and reacted to in social situations” (Nash 1989). That is why the suggested lists or enumerations are similar in many respects; as already listed, they usually include such markers as proper name, common ancestral origin and kinship, common history, same culture, territorial boundedness, language and religion (sometimes also race or physical characteristics), sense of peoplehood and endogamy. The effectiveness of symbols in keeping ethnic group identity as distinct derives from the fact that these symbols represent features of the group which are usually considered objective by the members. During mobility and migration, the group boundaries are threatened and the process of the transformation of some subjectively perceived and fluid traits into more concrete objective ethnic features is more dynamic and strong (Smith 1981). Accordingly, the attachment to them can also get stronger, as if they are real, rather than imagined or invented symbols.

Having in mind the present picture of population structure as a result of mass mobilities, the differentiation between the so-called status and auxiliary symbols of ethnic, also called ascriptive (fixed by birth) and achieved (e.g., through culture, language, or religion), takes on a greater role. The first group of symbols consists of visible marks such as skin pigmentation, face and hair type, standardized body gestures, and other physical features and provides an important basis for making the “first-glance” distinction. When displayed, these symbols can differentiate and unite members of the group with both majority and minority status and in this way play an important part in systems of social composition. The psychological ground for this lies in the fundamental of ethnic groupings – since they are believed to consist of people who are alike by virtue of common ancestry, these conventionalized hereditary markers naturally become symbols of identification. But they cannot be the only or even the most important defining ethnic markers. To be recognized as valid by the members of a group, they must always be combined with other symbols of belonging, such as clothing, decals, adornments, flags, manner of behavior, language, dietary habits, and this is equally valid for areas where ethnic groups from the same race or population stock have long been in contact, so physical differentiation therefore becomes progressively more difficult. Their role is clearly rationalized today by “hosts” and “newcomers”: The debate in Europe about, for example, the burqa, hijab, niqab, etc., which might serve as a public affirmation of a group’s ethnic claim, becomes significant. In such cases, what Smith calls the “auxiliary symbols” of belonging and identity achieve a greater significance. Ethnic identity is viewed by some scholars along two other axes: a cognitive/affective axis and a specific/universal axis (Cohen 2004), where the ethnic symbols are organized with various presences at ethnic and national levels. The symbols are created in a cultural sense (Smith 1986), and their acceptance by the whole cultural environment is an aim of the civilized efforts of the states. Investigation through narratives, personal behavioral actions, and groups’ social and political activities, as sources for changeable order and meaning of the mentioned marker-indicators of identity, is a precise research path valid for each study in the handling of the problem.

Current Dynamics of Indexed Symbols. The scholarly thought behind the research in identity dynamics is that the listed components of identity are far from fixed and stable categories. They are in fact very malleable notions, which can be mobilized, activated, and ordered differently in different discursive contexts. According to the ethno-symbolic concept, each case study explores the dynamics of identity in the selectively chosen mobilization forms of collective attachments. For a better structuring of identity research, the investigated ethnic loyalties can be grouped according to their ethno-political and ethno-cultural parameters. The former are associated with all nuances of group members’ lives in political, economic, and social meaning, and their attitude to all state-related elements – territorial bound, market unity, government, institutions of power and authority, army, etc. – also including the emotional expression and feelings they provoke in members, such as pride, glory, dignity, sense of collective possession, and readiness to defend. This scale of ethnic symbols begins with ethnic labeling. The latter includes the rationalization of features with cultural meaning focusing on linguistic and religious and ending with ethnic imageology. In a situation of settlement in a host-country, the use of these symbols may reinforce the group’s assertiveness of self-determination claims and respective demands, as many case studies show (Kaya and Keranen 2015). Together, they create the group’s ethnic identity, which is transferable and variable in its content. As stated by A. D. Smith: “collective cultural identity refers not to a uniformity of elements over generations but to a sense of continuity on the part of successive generations of a given cultural unit …” (Smith 1991).

The systematic research on today’s choices of ethnic labeling is still an emerging field (Phinney 2003). Subsuming the different loyalties and the stock of endowments and identifications is the group’s ethnic name, the so-called ethnonym, considered the most significant among the ethnic symbols. The “proper ethnic name” is usually mentioned as the first marker of the ethnic by most existing classifications of identity’s attributes or features. The ethnonym is claimed by or ascribed to the group. A study of certain ethnic labeling and naming practices is an expression of the extent of the communication process in a contemporary global situation. Also proposed is research in the process of encoding an “identification idea” into a word or group of words and the decoding of that idea among the members of a group. Encoding refers to the selection of the term that the person (a member of the migrating group) feels best conveys the meaning intended; decoding refers to the fact that the hearer (a member of the host-group) must interpret it according to their own understanding. The accuracy of the interpretation depends on a mutual understanding between both groups. The content and meaning of ethnic names in the case of migration indicate the level of identity of both bearers of the ethnonym (newcomers) and users of it from outside (hosts); the adequacy of the mutual understanding shows the level of the spread of identity among the population and is a sign of the level of settlement and the acculturation process.

The researcher of ethnic names today should be aware of the fact that ethno-naming is always a “placing of labels for identification purposes” (Lampe 1982). “At home,” these are labels or signs of identification a person shares from the first moment of socialization into the family and kin group. The ethnic name is a group convention and has been identified as one of the first dimensions of language. Like all other kinds of naming, the ethnonym entails the establishment of certain verbal symbols to refer to specific things or categories, in this case ethnically determined values. This allows members of a group to make verbal distinctions whenever ethnic things and categories are concerned; these distinctions are regarded as correct and important within the group. When the members of an ethnic group learn appropriate words, they also learn the corresponding attitudes and behaviors that accompany them. The ethnonym (together with its variants and respective adjectives) generalizes all ethnic values and loyalties, especially when used as a differentiator. Its diffusion, frequency, and usage provide clear signs of the level of ethnic development and the degree of old and inherited/newly established identity purposes. Despite the limits of case studies, and although dependent on a combination of contextual factors, the authors agree that, in our global world, “ethnic labels have been increasingly used as prominent and meaningful markers of identity” (Phinney 2003). In a situation of mobility, their use has an extended ethno-uniting and ethno-distinguishing role. An important aspect of research will focus on the changing of personal ethnic names for employment, status, or other purposes, which has recently gained scholars’ attention (Giampapa and Canagarajah 2017).

The formation of a new identity consists of the creation of new ethnic categories, possibly through an extension of existing ethnic symbols and investing them with new content. The study of the ethno-cultural dimensions of ethnic investigates the development of those ethnic markers that have a distinct cultural denotation. This involves the further evolution and change of existing symbols, as well as the selection of new symbols and their infusion with national content, resulting in enhanced internal cultural cohesion. The first requirement in this process is the creation (based on the prior revitalization) of a shared belief in a common descent, fate and history, and the reinterpretation of the past. This process can be observed today in some Western European countries where migrants and refugees consciously identify their common historical symbols from the homeland with the attempt to share and pass them along to the younger members of the group. Research on this process involves a textual and contextual investigation into the question of whether, as a group, the members remember and commemorate the past, in what form and image, and who made the selection and how. Also, did this remembrance change and, if so, what was its reflection on the group’s consciousness, and is the purpose of the process identifiable?

Besides the ethnic labeling, the ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious sensibilities of nationhood form the next vital aspects or macro-strategies of what is called a “discursive construction of narratives” of national identity (Wodak and DeCillia 2007). At home, in the Heimatland, certain myths about language and religion were certainly major elements of the national project for the people who later chose to move. Language has often provided the initial criterion in delineating imagined social formations. The function of language in creating new loyalties is fundamental, as is evidenced by the interest which each nation has in the broadest possible acceptance of the worth and survival of its culture. The ethnic language is usually that aspect of ethnic that receives an immediate and most thorough rationalization in the ethnic identity of the group; consistently, no matter the culture, all people who speak an unknown language are considered “foreigners.” The relationship between the present-day migration (both skilled and not) and language is complex and nuanced, even if there is no doubt that the employment chances for the migrants are mediated through the main language. Some migration studies have proven the connection between the language in host communities with levels of the overall success of migrants (Adsera and Pytlikova 2010; Dustmann and Fabbri 2003). The native language has a greater importance in the everyday lives of all social types of migration and definitely preserves positions during at least two to three generations at their homes. The language dominant in the host country is a strong but controversial tool for redefining the identity dynamic of the newcomers (Giampapa and Canagarajah 2017).

Religion is a distinct dimension of human organization and one that often lies close to the sources of self-awareness and grounds of personal identification. Historical, literary, and folklore documents displaying ethnic identity show that its manifestations in many of today’s sending and host countries for migrants were connected with religion and interrelated with the religious dimension of identity. In most of them, religious consciousness does not possess a separate quality different in content from social consciousness in general. Belief involves other forms of social awareness and affects ideas of ethnic characteristics, both prenational and national. The relationship between ethnic characteristics and religious identities in the construction process of nationality and nation-building is especially evident where those formations had a stable premodern ethnic origin but lacked statehood and their own forms of religious and cultural organization. Together with cultures and identities, religions are also brought together in direct communication by the process of globalization and migration (Beyer and Beaman 2007). Specific for the religious encounters is that, today, religions enter through migration into a circle of controversies and conflicts, and as a result migrants’ religious identities are often reinforced.

The phenomenon of national imagining is complex and multidimensional and is designed in the context of the longue durée civilizational development of the society. Each contemporary study of newly appeared or changed ethnic images follows the cultural discourse as a prominent feature of the ethno-symbolic approach and claims engagement with the idea that the effort to trace the appearance of national images and self-images is actually a study of how the past (brought from the home cultures) cultural and spiritual achievements are “soaked” into the modern nation as a civilizational overlay. This is a contribution to understanding “the inner world of ethnicity and nationalism through the analysis of symbolic elements and subjective dimensions” (Smith 2009). It aims to study ethno-images as a constructive canvas for the national stereotypes, and ethnic imaginary as an aggregate of the technique of image-making, social practice of perception, and expression of the “otherness.” The role of ethno-symbolism as a tool for image and stereotype formation is viewed in the attendance of “myth, memory, symbol and tradition that modern national identities are reconstituted in each generation, as the nation becomes more inclusive and as its members cope with new challenges” (Ibid). These ethno-political and ethno-cultural dimensions – language, religion, traditions, historical memories, and images – are established in the early stages of ethnogenesis and developed later in accordance with the accelerating integration of the people involved. Here, it seems, the researcher comes to the crucial word of analysis – communication. The ancient and medieval world lacked the necessary level of communications among the people from same ethnic group for them to begin identifying themselves in national categories. One specific example of this idea was provided by Lerner in the 1960s, when he revealed the role of literacy, empathy, and the mass media in the process of the “achievement of mobility” by the ethnic group. This mobility, consisting of different kinds of communication, is necessary for the group to enter the political arena and announce its political demands. Later, K. Deutsch, pointing again to the role of communication, suggested that modernization does not refer primarily to the entrance of a large number of people into the political scene but to the creation, through the communication of a new knowledge of the world, a new set of aspirations, visions, and statuses, together with an intensive network of shared memories and messages among the members of the group. These communications intensified the integration of the society; eventually, they are the link between its economic status and the processes of group formation. The character of the internal ties in a given society marks the level of its social, political, economic, and cultural development; it also signifies the stage of ethnic development in this society, evidencing the readiness of the ethnic group to enter into those relationships that characterize nationhood. What must be studied in this process is the growth of “loyalties transcending those of primary [ethnic] groups.” The general view of K. Deutsch is that ethnic – as a network of communication that seeks to ascertain how culture, religion, language, and other “symbolic codes” bind the members of communities together and how this connection lasts for generations – is also a basic thesis for the time of globalization when the internal dynamics of this network come to the fore. The contemporary situation in the era of postmodernism and globalization is viewed by some authors as a process of “accelerating connectivity” (Tomlinson 1999), which again places communication at the center of social change. The engagement with the historical, political, and social dynamics through which culture comes to matter is, however, at the center of identity’s substance. What was once said of national identity as a “multidimensional concept [that includes E.T.] a specific language, sentiments and symbolism” (Smith 1991) is also true for the global situation and processes about the identity of composed civil state-organized nations. Single case studies should be directed towards revealing which among those indexed features are the major elements or “symbolic codes” of the “conscience collective” in the situation of a global population’s mobility and that provide the driving force for changing group identification. When a minority group lives and tries to survive in a multiethnic state (no matter if this is a recent migration in a global world or a historic settlement), the use by the individuals of “our” or “their” cultural symbols creates certain behavioral forms that signify the existence of an often confusing “dual identity,” as has been reported (Vertovec and Cohen 1999).


Today, many scholars assume that the leading characteristic of the societies in the world is their multiculturalism – precisely the people in them, and the groups and their identities shaped by more than one single culture, usually associated with territory, home and fatherland, mother tongue, memories, etc. (Sotshangane 2002). The effect of globalization is greater if, using these sets of existing identifications, new group and personal consciousness is built above the old one, which unites people within newly established parties. In this sense globalization appears to be a concept of uniformization. But if approaching cultural processes via the understanding of the effects of globalization “as they are felt within particular localities” (Tomlinson 1999), the much-needed creation of the united (not uniform), multiple, situational, and contextual identities of the ethnic groups living together will be visible.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum, Bulgarian Academy of sciencesSofiaBulgaria

Section editors and affiliations

  • Steven Ratuva
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and SociologyUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand
  2. 2.Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific StudiesUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand

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