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Ethnic Identity

Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America

Richard D. Alba
Copyright Date: 1990
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 390
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  • Book Info
    Ethnic Identity
    Book Description:

    Ethnicity is a central theme of the American experience. In this book, Richard D. Alba examines the changing role of ethnicity in the lives of Americans from a broad range of European backgrounds. Alba shows that while the ethnic origins of white Americans have less and less import in such measurable areas as educational and occupational achievement and marriage, they are still salient in more subjective ways.

    Using data from in-depth interviews with more than five hundred people, Alba examines the impact of ethnicity on food, friendships, organizational memberships, encounters with prejudice, and children's sense of identity. He shows how the specific ethnic backgrounds of white Americans have diminished in objective importance as intermarriage between Americans of different European origins increases and ethnically mixed ancestry becomes more prevalent. Ethnic identity among this group is increasingly symbolic, an attachment to a few cultural traditions, imposing little cost on everyday life. However, says Alba, ethnicity has emerged on the American scene in a new way with the formation of a new ethnic group based on ancestry from all parts of the European continent. This new group--which Alba calls the "European Americans"--has its own myths about its place in American history and its relation to the American identity. Its emergence has repercussions for racial minorities and new immigrant groups from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16087-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. 1 The Transformation of Ethnicity among Americans of European Ancestries
    (pp. 1-36)

    Ethnicity is a central theme of the American experience. Today, perhaps more than ever, Americans envision their nation as formed by the melding of many other nations, a process that continues, expanding now to include new immigrant groups from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This perception is given objective form in the Statue of Liberty, whose symbolic meaning has undergone an about-face. Once, the statue stood for the political and religious freedoms available in the United States, in contrast to many of the countries from which immigrants came, and thus it represented the New World’s decisive break with the...

  6. 2 Fundamentals of Ancestry and Identity
    (pp. 37-74)

    Ethnicity is inherently a matter ofancestry, of beliefs about the origins of one’s forebears. As Max Weber ([1922] 1968: 389) put it: ethnic-group members “entertain a subjective belief in their common descent.” Unlike many other group memberships, ethnicity is oriented toward the past, toward the history and origin of family, group, and nation.

    But ethnic identity need not be coterminous with ancestry (or, more precisely, with what is believed about ancestry). There are reasons to think that ancestry and identity may be increasingly divergent in the United States, as a result of the growing complexity of the ancestries of...

  7. 3 The Cultural Expressions of Ethnic Identity
    (pp. 75-123)

    To have value in comprehending the contemporary role of ethnicity in the United States, ethnic identity must not be reduced to a matter of psychology, that is, translated purely into terms of self-concept and inner orientation, or left at the level of how one presents oneself to others. As important, if not more so, are the behavioral and experiential expressions of identity, its crystallization into concrete patterns of action and relationship. These manifestations, as much as identity itself, are capable of nourishing social structures supportive of ethnicity. Such mundane actions as eating ethnic foods, enacting holiday rituals, peppering English speech...

  8. 4 Ethnicity’s Shadow in Social Experience
    (pp. 124-163)

    Culture is not the only realm where ethnicity can be manifested. When ethnic identities are salient, they cast shadows over much of experience; the tints of the ordinary social world are altered by their presence. Encounters with others, for instance, can be shaped by the ethnic identities of the participants, with a sense of commonality and even kinship quick to spring out of common identity and one of indifference, wary distance, or even hostility out of dissimilar ethnic backgrounds. Persons who hold ethnicity to be important may also be prompt in perceiving ethnic slights, in seeing the actions of others...

  9. 5 Ethnicity in Families
    (pp. 164-206)

    The taproot of ethnic identity nestles in families. Ethnic identity is, first and foremost, a matter of ancestry, of a self-definition that is both handed down within the family and created on the basis of family history. In the setting of the family, the child has the early experiences that can promote feelings of ethnic self-consciousness. The family is the arena where the cultural substance of the ethnic group—given mundane expression in food and language, but also communicated through family traditions—is initially acquired. The family is also likely to be the first group for the child in which...

  10. 6 Ethnic Social Structures: Friends and Organized Groups
    (pp. 207-252)

    Ethnic identity in the absence of ethnic social structures threatens to lapse into a purely private affair. Imagine an individual whose interest in his or her ethnic background is keenly felt but who lacks any close contact with fellow ethnics. Such a person would be unconstrained by social pressures in choosing the form this interest will take. Perhaps it will be reflected in a desire to know more about the family tree, culminating in a visit to the old-world villages from which ancestors came; or in the adoption of a holiday ritual, which can also help to instruct children about...

  11. 7 The Changing Map of Ethnicity: Ethnicity and Neighborhood
    (pp. 253-289)

    One of the most visible signs of ethnic difference is the ethnic neighborhood. Such neighborhoods can be found in both large and small cities throughout the United States, although they are concentrated in those places that have served as the historical receiving grounds for immigrants—in the Northeast and industrial Midwest and along the Pacific Coast and the Rio Grande. The ethnic character of neighborhoods is often quite prominent, visible in the names and nature of their small businesses, in the style and exterior decoration of their housing, and of course in the skin color, speech, and surnames of their...

  12. 8 Conclusion: The Emergence of the European Americans
    (pp. 290-320)

    The examination of ethnicity among whites has produced a paradoxical divergence: between the long-run and seemingly irreversible decline of objective ethnic differences—in education and work, family and community—and the continuing subjective importance of ethnic origins to many white Americans. This divergence casts a shadow of uncertainty over the ultimate significance of the transformation of ethnicity among whites.

    The objective decline of ethnicity has not been my main focus, but it has been glimpsed throughout and appears undeniable on the face of the evidence. Among whites, ethnicity has been in the past a powerful determinant of life chances—to...

  13. Appendix: The Ethnic Identity Survey
    (pp. 321-326)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 327-336)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 337-366)
  16. Index
    (pp. 367-374)