That our identities matter is obvious, as a quick look around the contemporary scene shows. But as worldbuilders, we need to ask a few questions:
- How does a group identity form?
- How is a group identity maintained and perpetuated?
- How and when does a group identity shift over time?
- When does a group identity become politically salient?
- What happens when groups come into conflict?
Now, this is a massively tricky field that a lot of people have grappled with for millennia. Any answers we settle on are going to be incomplete, and that’s okay. Remember: all models are wrong, but some are useful. For our purposes, “useful” means that a model helps us develop story conflicts and keep them organized.
One thing to keep in mind: in the most fundamental sense, “groups” don’t do anything. Only individuals do. On the other hand, the cumulative influences of the many individuals of one’s group can structure the choices available to the individual, so that we can talk about group action and mean something real. Still, the individual always has the option of flipping over the table and walking away, so to speak.
Any “group” tendency has to act on the individual level to mean anything. That is particularly true when we talk about politics. Groups don’t magically decide to take political positions or engage in political conflict; particular individuals within the group actively choose to do so and to convince or force others in the group to follow along. That also matters for fiction; we generally tell stories about people, not groups of people.
With that as our basis, let’s talk about ethnic groups.
There’s lots of possible definitions for “ethnic group,” and different theories for how such groups form and dissolve. But since we are not trying to explain the whole world, but to develop a useful tool for worldbuilding, let’s narrow our focus to three such lenses—which we will call primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist.
In a primordialist lens, an ethnic group is based on some real, immutable basis. A people exists because its members share ties of blood, deep history, and culture. Try as you might, you can never truly escape your ethnic group; it is a part of you. Similarly, you can never truly join another ethnic group, because even if you interact with it or even marry one of its members, you lack the deep heritage that they share with each other, and that you share with the ethnic group of your birth. In a fictional story, this might be an even more powerful force: ethnic groups might make up entirely different species, or have different magical talents, or whatever. In a primordialist viewpoint, ethnic identity is pretty much a given.
In an instrumentalist lens, by contrast, ethnic groups are constantly changing and adapting to the world and their own changing needs. People within the ethnic group are always reinterpreting its traditions, its practices, its relations with other groups, the boundaries between in-group and out-group. Tribal societies usually espoused an ancient blood identity in mythic terms, but pragmatically incorporated other bloodlines as a matter of course through adoption or marriage ties. In the instrumentalist viewpoint, the focus shifts from ancient history to modern practice: how the ethnic group is reproduced across generations, how it maintains or modifies its cultural practices, how it defines itself and distinguishes itself from others.
The constructivist lens shifts its focus again—not to what the group thinks of itself, but what others think of it. Constructivists recognize that at the extreme, some ethnic groups may coalesce from previously unrelated peoples who are thrown together by circumstance and kept together by the attitudes of those around them. Consider the category “Black.” Africa is a massive continent, and the peoples living there have a long history of national enmities and bloody wars, as peoples tend to do. Yet when African slaves were brought to the Americas, their previous identities suddenly became less important than the fact that the surrounding white freemen considered them all to be in the same group. Over time, Blacks began to see themselves in the same terms, by necessity: if others were going to relate to them as a particular identity, they needed to grapple with what that meant and to adapt to the needs of their circumstances.
“White” too has shifted in constructivist terms. Once, Irish and Italians were considered “lower races” by “white” Americans. Today, they are not. The difference was not in how these groups see themselves, but in how the majority society’s views of them changed. Similarly, many non-whites today think of Jews as white, even though most Jews would tend to resist such a label. But even if we reject thinking of ourselves as white, Jews need to be aware of the consequences of such a label and how it changes the way that others view us. (Asian-Americans, meanwhile, appear to be the “new Jews” in many respects, and are starting to awaken to what that means in political terms.)
A much more ancient example would be the Apiru of the Ancient Near East. Originally “Apiru” showed up in Mesopotamian texts as a reference to indigent, landless laborers or mercenaries. Over time, the term apparently took on an ethnic meaning. One might suppose that the existing landless class started to see itself as a group, the same way that the surrounding properties classes did, and to act accordingly. Ultimately, the Apiru became a feared enemy of the existing political order; in Middle Bronze Age Canaan, Apiru frequently conquered city states and massacred their political elites, and the cities’ Egyptian overlords were unable to stop them.
(Some have speculated that the Apiru are the historical basis for the Israelite people, though there is little evidence linking the two other than the claimed etymological link between Apiru and Ivri, Hebrew. I think the argument weak, based on my review of the debate. But I digress.)
Importantly, ethnic group identities can be constructed or altered through government action. (And so can other forms of group identity, which I hope to discuss later.) For example, American Indian tribes once had fluid criteria for membership, and frequently welcomed European settlers who were trying to escape the oppressive political or economic systems of their day; but today, the tribes are largely defined by reference to blood quantum, a racialist categorization not adopted by the tribes of their own choice, but imposed by the United States government. Similarly, British colonial officials in Africa would frequently mash together several local groups into artificial “tribes” and appoint leaders over them, the better to control them administratively.
In real life, all of these lenses and more are operating at once, in a confused tangle of forces pulling us in many directions as we navigate our own identities. In fiction, you can find it useful to think of them separately, and then to purposefully layer them on top of each other if it helps your story.
(EDIT: apparently this is not the first time I’ve written about this topic. A similar post from 2018 covers some of the same ground, but not all; but also touches on how group identities can be activated in political terms, which I hope to flesh out in a future post.)
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)