Ethnicity Definition in Sociology

Fitness Class Stretching
FatCamera / Getty Images

In sociology, ethnicity is a concept referring to a shared culture and a way of life. This can be reflected in language, religion, material culture such as clothing and cuisine, and cultural products such as music and art. Ethnicity is often a major source of social cohesion as well as social conflict.

The world is home to thousands of ethnic groups, from the Han Chinese—the largest ethnic group in the world—to the smallest indigenous groups, some of which include only a few dozen people. Almost all of these groups possess a shared history, language, religion, and culture, which provide group members with a common identity.

Learned Behavior

Ethnicity, unlike race, is not based on biological traits, except in the case of ethnic groups that recognize certain traits as requirements for membership. In other words, the cultural elements that define a particular ethnic group are taught, not inherited.

This means that the boundaries between ethnic groups are, to some degree, fluid, allowing for individuals to move between groups. This can happen, for example, when a child from one ethnic group is adopted into another, or when an individual undergoes a religious conversion.

It can also happen through the process of acculturation, whereby members of a native group are forced to adopt the culture and manners of a dominating host group.

Ethnicity should not be confused with nationality, which refers to citizenship. While some countries are largely composed of a single ethnic group (Egypt, Finland, Germany, China), others are composed of many different groups (United States, Australia, Philippines, Panama).

The rise of nation-states in Europe in the 1600s led to the creation of many countries that are still ethnically homogenous today. The population of Germany, for example, is 91.5 percent German.

Countries that were founded as colonies, on the other hand, are more likely to be home to multiple ethnicities.


Different ethnic groups do not use the same criteria to define group membership. While one group may emphasize the importance of a shared language, another may emphasize the importance of a shared religious identity.

French Canadians are an ethnic group for whom language is paramount. It is what connects them to the French colonists who first settled Canada in the 1600s and what distinguishes them from English Canadians, Scottish Canadians, and Irish Canadians. Other aspects of culture, such as religion, are less significant when it comes to defining who is and is not French Canadian. Most French Canadians are Christians, but some are Catholic and others are Protestant.

In contrast, religion is an essential part of ethnic identity for groups such as the Jews. Unlike French Canadians, Jews do not define themselves based on a single shared language. In fact, Jewish communities throughout the world have developed a variety of different languages, including Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Aramaic (not to mention the many Jews who speak English, French, German, or any other of the world's many languages).

Because ethnic groups are self-defined, it is important to remember that no single aspect of group identity (language, religion, etc.) can be used to sort people into one group or another.

Crowd of sports fans cheering
Flashpop / Getty Images

Race vs. Ethnicity

Unlike ethnicity, race is based on physical traits that are inherited, such as skin color and facial features. Racial categories are broader than ethnic categories.

Today, for example, the U.S. Census divides people into five racial categories: White, Black or African American, Indigenous or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

Modern scientists regard race as a social construct, and racial categories, like ethnic categories, have changed over time.

What Is My Ethnicity?

Because ethnicity is more of a cultural practice than a science, you probably grew up understanding your own ethnicity in a way that tests will never be able to measure. The food you ate, the traditions you practiced, and the language(s) you spoke are all essential aspects of your ethnic identity.

If you are interested in learning more about your exact ancestry, you can do so using a variety of DNA testing services.

DNA Testing for Ethnicity

DNA testing—available through services such as 23andMe, MyHeritage, and LivingDNA—allows people to explore their genealogy using their genetic information.

Examining DNA can reveal information about a person's ancestry and ethnic background. While the principles of DNA testing are sound, the private companies that offer this service through home-testing kits have been criticized for their methodologies.

Sheldon Krimsky, a scientist at Tufts University, says that these companies "don’t share their data, and their methods are not validated by an independent group of scientists."

Since each company uses a different database of genetic information, Krimsky says the tests can only give an indication of probabilities:

"The results are in no way definitive; instead each company uses common genetic variations as the basis for saying the probability is that 50 percent of your DNA is, for example, from North Europe and 30 percent is from Asia, based on how it compares to the information in its database. However, if you send DNA to a second company, you might get different results, because it has a different database."

The popularity of DNA testing for ancestry has also generated concerns about data privacy.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "Ethnicity Definition in Sociology." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, October 2). Ethnicity Definition in Sociology. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Ethnicity Definition in Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).