Ethnicity in the Cities

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Cities are typically a mix of many ethnic identities. How does an ethnic analysis relate to the world’s multi-ethnic, multi-national cities, with their complex social structures and “detribalized” individuals?

Do the same social and anthropological principles enable us to understand the humans living in urban areas?

Ethnicity and Culture
Those who have grown up in the city tend to identify less with the ethnic identities of their parents. Even in situations where the people of the city and the people of the rural area are ostensibly of the same ethnic group, the culture of the cities is different from the culture of the rural areas.

A characteristic of cities is the lack of, or weakened, coherent interpersonal ties, leading to individualization, and ultimately the breakdown of the family. The focus shifts from “people” (extended family or tribe) to individual. Persons in the city may continue to positively relate to their rural relatives, but the ties to the extended family tend to weaken, and focus of the city dweller is on activities and places in the city, rather than on the strong family bonds.

Another way of describing what we refer to as ethnicity is simply family identity. Ethnic groups in simple terms are large families, usually claiming some historical common origin, though not always blood descent. Most ethnicities also have mechanisms for adding new members who are of a different descent, and of course, larger ethnic groups tend to be more diverse.

Detribalization
This shift away from the family, or ethnic, ties describes the process of detribalization. This process is already approaching its maximum in European and North American cities, where the process is heightened by the modern emphasis on the individual rather than the “nation” or ethnic group. Even in Africa, known for strong extended families, family may narrow down to the nuclear family, then to the single parent.

The cities are not “peoples” in themselves, but a cauldron of disintegration and reintegration. Thus there are factors common to most cities.  In fact a primary characteristic of “city” is atomization, or detribalization. This moves us, however, in the opposite direction from “people,” which entails a coherent, self-defining group.

Detribalized or detribalizing individuals or families do not in themselves constitute a new people (tribe) or ethnic group as such, but there are factors that may come into operation that lead to a new socio-cultural grouping that develops an identity that can be “a people,” a new ethnic group.

People in the Cities
How should we think about cities? First, the reference to “cities” has a different connotation from that of “people of the cities.” Cities are locales, not integral cultures. Culture is in people and the structures of their interactions. Cities are places where people live.   Cultures develop in cities, but cities are not cultures.

Further, the term “people of the cities” may entail some of the clarifications sought. In this phrase we use the term “people” for a collection of individuals, the people in the cities.

But a city is not just a collection of individuals. Each individual is part of some larger grouping that may be identified by several clear universal human characteristics, referred to in the term ethnicity. Thus we can communicate with these discrete groupings for greater effectiveness, rather than limiting ourselves to individuals or “aggregate” individuals gathered in some arbitrary or fortuitous groupings. This takes advantage of the natural social networks and structures of ethnic grouping.

Peoples in the Cities
Thus an ethnic, or “people group,” focus would try to identify the “peoples in the cities,” that is, the unique social groupings that express characteristics associated with ethnic identities. These identities might be ethnic groups otherwise identifiable in rural areas, or they might be new unique groupings.

The people group focus is not just sociological, but there is a sociological element to the character of “a people.” Social groups in themselves do not constitute a people. Language is also a factor of “peoples,” but likewise, language alone is not enough to make the aggregate persons in a city a people.

Retribalization
Still, people tend to seek out others similar to themselves, often by language or other cultural characteristic. So a process of retribalization occurs. This takes two forms:

1. Following older identities, like the neighborhoods in New York for Puerto Rican, Italian, Urban Black, Southern Black, Southern White, etc.

Group 1 simply extends the “old” people identities, but perhaps creates a new “segment” of that people. This segment may remain related to the old home country or rural segment, or may evolve into its own separate identity still related to the larger old stream and the old source culture.

This would describe the English-speaking Europeans of North America, in relation to the British origins. Many people of non-British origin now are part of the new English-speaking ethnic stream in one of the North American culture segments. They are not British, and neither are the “Anglo” North Americans. These English-speaking people of diverse background are a new “Anglo” ethnic group, with many segments (but closely related culturally to the old British group), living alongside other ethnic groups who also speak English.

2. New groupings, like in Nairobi, second generation persons who grew up in the city and feel more comfortable in Swahili or English than the grandparents’ language, aligning along lines of education, profession, or other factors.

Group 2 represents the development of new peoples, which still fit the currently-used people group definition. New people groups are always developing. The task is to identify the “group” (read as people, tribe or ethno-socio-linguistic group), and target them in their common language, thought-forms, felt needs, etc.

New Ethnic Streams
Some of us enjoy probing our ethnic heritage and exploring the overlays of various cultures in our past. Tribal origin of an individual is an interesting, but secondary, factor in identity. New people-group (ethnic) streams are developing all the time. Old ones are fading out of existence, often by merging into another ethnic stream.

This is an example of the situation many of us “Westerners” are in: our families have shifted ethnic streams. Many of us are now part of a different, new, mixed ethnic stream, and thus a new people, or developing towards a new people identity.

The challenge here is to observe, investigate, discover and describe the characteristics of the new resulting “people group.”

Diversity
Diversity is one of the characteristics by which we may analyze a culture, tribe or worldview. Some cultures are highly diverse, others narrowly diverse. Diversity is highly valued by some groups, lowly valued in others.

So diversity is one factor affecting the topic under discussion. A highly diverse culture (people) may appear not to fit the “people group” definition or concept. Yet all individual humans are related in some way to other humans. The basis of relationship that constitutes a coherent ethno-socio-linguistic group are those factors that define them as a “people group.”

However, the fact that numerous individuals are gathered in one locale (city) does not, in itself, constitute them as a “people group.” But each of those individuals will have some connections with other individuals that do define them as members of some “people group.”

A Venerable Perspective
While sociological concepts may have helped formulate our modern “people group” thinking about ethnic character, it is a viewpoint documented in the earliest records of human culture.  Language and genetic heritage are natural and inherent aspects of human identity.   This is attested to, for instance, in ancient records recovered from the Assyrian empire.   The perspective of the Jewish-Christian Old Testament is also written fully in these ethnic or “people group” terms.

Two basic recurring words in the biblical text, for instance, are mishpahot (Hebrew, alternating with am) and ethnos (Greek, in the Septuagint and New Testament). These refer to ethnic groups, nationalities or tribes in English, not individuals or countries (geographic or political). Thus the “people group” perspective on the world recovers or extends an ancient and venerable insight, considered somewhat messy and troublesome in recent political history, which has focussed on nation-states.

Relational Insights
This “people” concept seems to cover everyone. It is simply a matter of discovering who relates to whom in what way, and developing appropriate approaches, communicating in unique ways that make sense in the language of that group and in their cultural context.

Urban relational groups exhibit complex, but identifiable patterns common to human identity. This allows, or even requires, a concept of “people groups” in which “urban” is a primary characteristic of some peoples.

I would not say that there is a separate breakdown of urban characteristics or categories, but that an adequate classification system would account for features/factors of all group identification, including those characteristics found in urban situations.

What do we mean by “relational?” Humans relate on multiple levels for various purposes. But many of these relationships are not sufficiently integrative to define a common identity. The ethnos (or ethnic) approach intends to include whatever factors of common human identity that are sufficiently integrative as to be a primary factor of group identity.

These questions are among those which help determine some of the relationships or characteristics. What is the basis of life-changing decision-making? Who do the individuals in question relate most closely to in their basic aspects of life: family, guild, office mates, spouses, extended family? What is the worldview? On what factors and values do they make their basic life decisions? What language do they speak at home?

Communication Theory
This ethnic perspective is heightened by Process Communication Theory, which analyses worldview and cultural filters in communication.   This is critical to business, government, education and other sectors that wish to “target” any specific region, language or national constituency, age group or other population segment.

Lack of attention to cultural difference or uniqueness likely accounts for the failure or decline of various religious groups in a rapidly changing society.  Religious institutions may lack awareness of ethnic (or regional) communication styles and worldview. This no doubt accounts for the fact that American pastors in some denominations have an average tenure of 18 months or less!

In general, it takes 12 to 18 months in a cultural setting just to learn one’s constituency and unique cultural character.  Then positive contributions and constructive change can begin.

Cross-Cultural Communication
The baseline for “group” or “relational” identity pertinent to communication would be “relational” factors of sufficient importance to become primary identification factors. The specific factors may vary from group to group. This is what the concept of “ethnicity” tries to discover.

This concept is common to both popular language and academic language. These find a common reference in the base meaning of our English word “ethnic,” coming from the Greek “ethnos.” A communication strategy that truncates this is not adequate.

Ethnicity
Ethnicity is an inherent characteristic of humanity. Thus any grouping of humans includes some ethnic component. However, there are groupings of humans that do not in themselves constitute ethnicity (are not sufficiently integrative as to be primary factors in group self-identity).

Unions, office workgroups, sports teams, and other social groups do not constitute ethnicity. Yet every individual has ethnicity. It is a matter of discovering and defining it. Such interests and activities may be components of ethnicity.

The rural-urban migration stream has been shown highly responsive to change. It is in such situations that individuals and families sometimes coalesce into new ethnic identities (people groups).

Change
The transition time is usually at least one generation. The problem is that there are multiple changes going on, and many come to the cities already in transition — because they have lost their identity, or want to lose it or modify it.  The second generation, growing up in the city, may become less open to change.

But their resistance to change is only one possible outcome, not an inevitable one. The patterns of change develop differently with each ethnic group or ethnic variation in the cities.

Just as different ethnic groups have different attitudes toward change, so each new urban group has, or develops, its own values regarding change.   Each will be more open to change in some areas of life and more closed in others.  They are the new ethne of the cities, coalescing on new cultural characteristics.  Religious affiliation is one value affected by urbanization and change in the first and second urban generations.

This process of detribalization involves what is called secularization, both religious and ethnic. (In ethnic terms, this process is also called deparochialization.)  Further, after the secularization stage involving all the changes, retribalization usually occurs. But it may be hard to map. New ethnic groups are developing constantly – the cities are a major cooking pot for new ethnicity.

The third generation of such a cultural transition may exhibit a renewed interest in their grandparents’ ethnic identity and origin. This might develop into a retribalization on the old identity. Alternatively, this “neo-ethnic” entity may begin to see itself as distinct, but related, sub-group of the original ethnic group. (See Retribalization, 1, above.)

Urban and Ethnic
I have seen comments referring to urban definitions as opposed to ethnic definitions. I question this distinction between “urban” and “ethnic” definitions. This seems to claim that rural people are ethnic while urban people are not! I say that “ethnic” concepts entail all these human characteristics, rural or urban. However, not every identifiable characteristic of urban areas or urban individuals is in itself an integrative factor.

Urban characteristics and rural characteristics are both sets of cultural characteristics, just another way of saying they are ethnic characteristics.

For example, in many cases economic condition, while obvious, is not a sufficiently integrative factor. For instance, in certain North American cities, there are poor Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Whites, Italians, etc. Yet this is not sufficient to make them think of themselves as one coherent group. They are Puerto Ricans first, then Poor; White first, then Poor, etc. But for communication strategy, there are some common strategies that may be used with all poor ethnic segments, tailored, then, for their ethnic distinctives.

Social Structures
Cities have their own networks, neighborhoods and associations, based on class, economics, geography, ethnicity, etc. However, these characteristics are not unique to cities. These are also components or characteristics of nations, regions, districts, tribes, etc. Some countries are more stratified or segmented than others.

An individual is by definition a part of a people group, even if we find characteristics so unique that we could say the people group is only one family or clan. And in fact, as peoples decline, or develop, this is exactly the case, which history documents plentifully.

Where or How?
Cities are “locales.” Every place where people live is a “locale.” The point of an ethnos approach is how the people relate, not where they live. Various structures of social relationship are those ethnic components.

These social structures are valid factors in considering ethnicity. And it appears to me the sociological structuring is very little different in the various human settings. They are different not in kind, but only in specific forms and structures.

The same types of factors must be accounted for in human interrelationship whether urban or rural. All these may be defined as “tribal” (ethnic) in the basic meaning. Note that I referred earlier to the corollary process of retribalization (=reethnification). This is a human universal, which takes various forms.

However, the socio-political structures, imposed on a geo-political basis, are not in the same category as the “ethnic” social structures, the “inherent” social structures of human culture.

“Gangs” in the city are a more recognizable form of “tribe.” A “constructed” tribe, to be sure, but exactly along the lines of dozens in the history of Africa, and comparable ethnic groups that arose in the history of Europe.

The traits are similar; or at least, they deserve as much attention to discover how similar they are. Anthropologists study all aspects of human behavior in all settings.

It would seem valuable to analyze urban areas for sociological categorizations. Some of the categories of urban dwellers identified may be nascent “people groups,” or already-developed “people groups.” It is also consistent with the concept that some people groups are primarily or totally urban and some are primarily or totally rural.

Summary
Ethnicity may well be centered in an urban identity. At the same time, however, different strategies of communication and relationship-building are required for urban and rural communities of the same people group.

Other categories may be identifiable as segments of broader people groups. Communication strategies (such as for business or social services) may be validly developed for various identifiable interest groups on grounds other than, or in addition to, ethnolinguistic categories. Be careful to distinguish between segments within one ethnolinguistic entity and social segments or strata. Various social segmentations/stratifications may cut across ethno-linguistic identities.

A component of any strategy is the degree to which any individual or group define themselves by language or ethnic lineage. I would say that any population segment can be identified by the same set of characteristics commonly understood as “people group” characteristics. This can account for transitional peoples, population segments and individuals.

The transitions (from one ethnic group into another), coalescences (into a new, unique ethnicity) and divergences are conditions accounted for by differences in the value and priority given to any characteristic by that group. Look for the “sufficiently integrative” factors.

The term “multi-cultural” itself, more characteristic of urban centers than rural, defines one type of culture, or “ethnicity.” Yet, just living in the same city may not be sufficiently integrative as to be a primary factor of a group identity.

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
The Jenkins Millennium Culture Centre
Email: researchguy@iname.com

21 July 2001
Last updated 29 May 2006
Copyright ã Orville Boyd Jenkins 2001, 2002
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.