↑ Return to Articles

19. Identity beyond Notions of Ethnicity

Sub-sets of the Human Family?

It was stated (article #17 GKIS) that a species is defined, in biological terms, by a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. This defines the identity of mankind as a whole. However, as we zoom in, how do we define the distinctiveness of discrete sub-sets or divisions within the human family?


Ethnic Yi China Costume Jialiang Gao 2003 Wikimedia Commons

Ancestral Singularity

In their observations about The Nuer of North East Africa, co-authors Brubaker and Cooper create a hypothetical genealogical diagram in which everyone is related in different ways and to different degrees.

They consider two separate segments of descendents; group A and group B and state: The trouble with such an interpretation is that the very move that distinguishes A and B also shows their relatedness, as one moves back one generation and finds a common ancestor, who may or may not be living but whose social location links people in A and B. If someone in set A gets into a conflict with someone in set B, such a person may well try to invoke the commonality of “A-ness” to mobilize people against B. But someone genealogically older than these parties can invoke the linking ancestors to cool things off. The act of going deeper in a genealogical chart in the course of social interaction keeps reemphasizing relational visions of social location at the expense of categorical ones.[1]

There is no logical reason to limit the “relational vision” to one or two generations. All human beings on earth today trace their genetic trail to the first anatomically modern humans that emerged in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago within a ‘bottleneck’ or ‘ancestral singularity’ in which the numbers of survivors had dwindled to near-extinction. As a result of the low numbers of people found in this original ancestral group, genetic diversity within our species is relatively narrow.[2]

Acceleration in Ability


Irish Travellers National Library of Ireland Wikimedia Commons

Despite the limited variability found in the human genome, an incredible acceleration in ability has taken place within the species. It is unquestionable that modern humans are derived from the core of nature itself and share many characteristics found amongst other animals.

But, this leap in capacity, however it is described, marks an outstanding division in aptitude compared with the rest of the existing animal kingdom. What becomes more difficult to determine or delimitthan divisions between mankind and the rest of the living worldare differences within the human species.

All possible human sub-sets (e.g. ethnicities) trace their roots to a common origin. Therefore, any fundamental inherent “sameness” that might be used to distinguish one sub-set from another implies that the distinguishing trait(s) came about at some stage after the first appearance of mankind because that division was not present initially.

The inherent “sameness” that defines the human species (ability to interbreed) is and was identical for every sub-set that can possibly be devised. In other words, every sub-set is permeable to the “other” through interbreeding. The unity within the human family, based on its common origins and ability to intermix, resists any notion of fundamental internal divisions. There are none.

Difference of Grade not Essence


A Nepali couple during marriage Krish Dulal 2007 Wikimedia Commons

The counter argument may be made that ethnicities are distinct, persisting and long lasting. However, Brubaker and Cooper also make reference to Sharon Hutchinson’s[3] reanalysis of Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) work[4] and state: Her aim is “to call into question the very idea of ‘the Nuer’ as a unified ethnic identity. She points to the fuzziness of the boundaries of people now called Nuer; culture and history do not follow such lines … In this analysis, it not only becomes difficult to see Nuerrness as an identity but imperative to examine with precision how people tried both to extend and consolidate connections.[1]

The same rationale can be extended to all ethnic boundaries thereby thwarting the strict applicability of the term “identity” to any particular group.

Furthermore, in Shelter and Shadows Raymond Keogh points out that: … it is difficult to correlate what we term “tribal” or “ethnic” groupings with human genetic patterns. This is not to say that there are no such relationships; otherwise we would not be able to use genetic markings to trace the movements of people around the world. It is best to visualise the entire human genome as a continuum, which has arisen from a common base (our ancestral singularity) and which is now composed of clusters of certain genetic markers that have arisen as “appendages” on the human genome derived from isolation—deliberate in the case of Jews—or environmental in the case of several remote peoples. However, there are no clear-cut frontiers between these clusters, which put pay to any attempts that try to define tribal or ethnic groupings in specific genetic terms.[5]

In summary, differences among humans are one of grade rather than essence and, though helpful in the study of human behaviour, do not constitute separate “identities”. Confining “identity”rigorously and specificallyto the dictionary definition (as proposed in article #17 GKIS) overcomes all loose uses of the term.


The implications of this proposed change are fundamental because it’s now possible (and necessary) to distinguish between our common human identity and the fluid facets of the human condition like ethnicity and other changes (e.g. phenotypic modifications) that have arisen as a result of accidents of pre-history, history and geography. The disassociation between our basic underlying genetic structures and our superficialand often incorrectunderstanding of human differences, question the majority of diagnostic or “judgemental” tools we use to classify ourselves.


[1] Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. (2000). Beyond “identity”. Theory and Society. Vol. 29: 1-47.

[2] Oppenheimer, S. (2004). Out of Eden. The Peopling of the World. Robinson; pp. 16; 111.

[3] Hutchinson, S. (1995). Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cited by Brubaker and Cooper, 2000; p. 24.

[4] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon. Cited by Brubaker and Cooper, 2000; p. 24.

[5] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. An Awakening to Our Common Identity. Our Own Identity here.

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series


Identity beyond Notions of Race here