Ethnicity and Communication

What does recent research in ethnicity and communication tell us about the theory and practice of communication in contemporary societies?


In this paper, I will explore the concept of ethnicity and use it as a frame to look at how recent intercultural communication research has evolved. I will first define “ethnicity”, contrasted with the related concepts of race, nationality, language, and culture. Introducing the research space surrounding ethnicity and communication, I will examine how stereotypes and intergroup attitudes play a role both in society and within the research community. I will use a 2010 case study to illustrate how ethnicity affects people’s communication with others. I will then explore intercultural competency, that is, how people of different ethnicities can communicate more effectively. I will then describe how, through globalisation and culture mixing, ethnicity has become less relevant for research as focus has shifted towards individual attitudes rather than national traits in order to better understand the cultural context of communication today. I will use a second case study from 2015 to demonstrate the emergence of transcendent identity in society. Finally, I will frame the changed thinking about ethnicity in the everyday reality of today’s world in the context of issues such as fear of immigrants and “post-racial Obama-ism”. In conclusion, I will summarise the contribution of ethnicity and communication research towards our understanding of how people communicate in contemporary society.

1. Defining Ethnicity

The term “ethnicity” is most commonly encountered in the news; the term “ethnic minorities” is used to problematize immigrant or religious subcultures. This slightly pejorative usage is not strictly accurate: the Oxford English Dictionary defines ethnicity as one’s “status in respect of membership of a group regarded as ultimately of common descent, or having a common national or cultural tradition.” Barnard and Spencer assert that the term came into use in anthropological research in the 1960s when it was used in a primordial sense to talk about the characteristics of a people that share a common biology (1996, p. 190). This broadened during the 1970s, they say, as two different views emerged – an instrumentalist viewpoint, where ethnicity is more of an ideological outlook that an individual forms as a result of the dominant societal and cultural influences in which they live, and a constructivist viewpoint, which views ethnicity as something mercurial, which cannot be constrained precisely into defined categories but instead is “a set of sociocultural diacritics [physical appearance, name, language, history, religion, nationality] which define a shared identity for members and non-members”(p.192) and thus will change as individuals move to a new setting or are exposed to new cultural influences.

1.1. Ethnicity and Race

It is important to distinguish the closely overlapping concepts of race and ethnicity. A race is a group of people sharing physical and biological features that differentiate them from other groups. An ethnicity or ethnic group shares culture or beliefs rather than biology. Originally these two concepts would have been highly coincident; indeed, some argue that this is how the term ethnicity came into being – as a socially acceptable way to talk about the common sociology of a race (Robinson & Giles p. 429). It has been criticised in this regard for reinforcing colonial “us and them” attitudes to non-Whites(Robinson & Giles p. 430). What is inarguable though, is that “ethnicity” is a concept whose definition is rooted in a desire to examine the social behaviour of groups with common ancestry or heritage.

1.2. Ethnicity and Nationality

Nationality is defined as the legal relationship between a citizen and a sovereign state, in which they were usually born (Vonk, 2012). If you look at an “ethnicity” form on a census or government document today, you will see not just racial categories such as “White” or “Black” but also categories for nationalities such as “Indian” or “Chinese” (ONS, 2016). This loose nomenclature treating nationalities and races as ethnicities is an unfortunate hangover from colonial attitudes present when at the emergence of the “ethnicity” concept. It perhaps made sense at before globalization, when the majority of each country’s population shared a common biological heritage. Today, after generations of migration and cross-breeding, a person’s nationality may not relate to their cultural identity and communication habits, so any attempt to track ethnicity through nationality will be flawed.


1.3. Ethnicity and Language

If we consider that ethnicity is a measure of the shared culture of a group, then we can see that language clearly plays a significant role in this; especially in communication. As we will see in section 4, the question of acculturation is an important consideration when looking at communication in a cultural context. Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) comes into play here: this theory, developed by Howard Giles in the 1970s and revised in the subsequent decades, argues that people adapt their speech according to their perceptions of the listener, in order to communicate more effectively. This is often done by adapting language. This has been explored extensively in an intercultural context and is a field of study in its own right, as can be seen from journals such as The Journal of Language and Intercultural Interaction. For example, Gasiorek (2016) looked at minority and majority language preferences in Finland, and found that for Finnish (majority) speakers, they preferred speaking Finnish due to a desire to converge, whereas Swedish (minority) speakers were primarily motivated to diverge, so spoke Swedish. In other words, their desire not to conform to speaking Finnish beat their desire to speak Swedish. Clearly language is something that an ethnic group may share, but I will not discuss linguistic communication, accents, dialects and vocabulary choices in this essay. It is a topic in its own right that I will consider out of scope. I will focus on ethnicity and communication at a more general level – about what groups people identify with and how they choose to interact, rather than the content of their interactions.

1.4. Ethnicity and Culture

Ethnicity and culture are two deeply entwined concepts that are hard to disentangle, not least due to ethnicity’s origins as “the culture of a specific race” as mentioned in section 1.1. Culture, in the sense we are interested in here, is defined as “the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period.” (OED) There is clearly a very close relationship between ethnicity and culture, in that both are constructed by communication within an identifiable group of people (Dahl, 2014). I distinguish them thus: An ethnicity is not a culture, but the adoption and sharing by a group of people of specific cultural habits that help bind them as a group. For example, race alone is not enough to define an ethnic group (since it is probably not enough to build a culture around), whereas a shared nationality, religion, cuisine, language, heritage or geography is sufficient to give people cohesion.

There are many types of culture – for example the culture around a particular sport or political party, but most are not ethnicities. An ethnicity is a culture grounded in ancestry and family history – where you came from. An ethnic group has a shared culture which guides how they live their lives. I will return to the question of culture throughout this essay, as it has superseded ethnicity as a frame to talk about differences between groups of individuals, and indeed is now the defining feature of the discipline, which is now called Cross- Cultural Communication.

1.5. How can you determine a person’s ethnicity?

While there was once a time when you could determine a person’s ethnicity simply by looking at their skin colour, language or country of origin, this is no longer the case. Ethnicity is not determined by biology alone, but by the culture you identify with. Therefore, perhaps the best question to ask a person to identify their ethnicity would be to ask them what culture existed in their parental home when they grew up. To consider an extreme example, consider a racially African Black, nationally Polish Catholic person living in the UK after his parents immigrated here. To categorise him as African or Black ethnicity would be misrepresentative; he may have been raised in a household which embraced Polish culture, cuisine and language, or one that embraced traditional Catholic values, or one that fully embraced British values and spoke English. As such, his ethnicity might be Polish, Irish Catholic or British. This hypothetical example is useful in really nailing down what ethnicity is; it is the culture of life that you most identify with, that determines the way you live. Indeed, this definition can also be seen at the core of the discipline which is now known as Cross-Cultural Psychology: “Cross-cultural psychology is the systematic study of relationships between the cultural context of human development and the behaviours that become established in the repertoire of individuals growing up in a particular culture.” (Berry, 1997) Thus, to explore ethnicity, this field is where I focus my attention.

2. Intergroup Attitudes and “National Cultures”

I conducted a thorough literature review of recent research, including journals such as the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology and the Journal of Intercultural Communication, targeting research that pertains to ethnic cultures and communication. The research loosely falls into two types:

  • Comparative Research, which looks at how all people communicate by comparing different ethnic groups’ interaction behaviours and attitudes against each other.
  • Intercultural Research, which looks specifically at how different ethnic groups interact with each other across cultural boundaries.

The premise of comparative research is that each ethnic group has commonalities of behaviour and attitude, such that the ethnic identity of its members is the prevailing factor in determining how those people will behave and communicate. Toomela sums this up: “First, some systematic and statistically reliable difference between countries or nations is found. Next, it is argued that this difference ‘explains’ some aspect of individuals’ cognitive, emotional and/or social functioning.” (2003, p. 131). This approach arose as a follow-on from the “individualism-collectivism” school of thought; individualism views that each person acts according to their own choices, whereas collectivism is the idea that in groups, people stop thinking and just go along with their peers, the most extreme example of which would be mob mentality (Rowlands, 2006). This model has been strongly criticised (Adams, 2014). Chang and Jetten (2015) suggest that this effect of a culture on its adherents is best understood by combining the intersubjective approach (which examines the shared cultural representations of meaning at the centre of a group’s interactions) with the social identity approach (which looks at the construction of individual identity and attitudes in terms of how individuals self-categorize or group themselves). Participating in a culture does produce some commonality among members, but is it fair to compare nations as a whole, or do we risk reducing people to stereotypes?

The Survey of Worldviews, a major international study of nearly 9,000 people, found that while national culture does play a major role in people’s common behaviours and attitudes, factors such as religious beliefs and family living arrangements have a much larger impact. (Saucier et al., 2015). Warner- Søderholm (2012)’s study provides a concrete, focussed example comparing identity and attitudes across Nordic cultures.

Social identity theory also contends that people inter-relate at two levels: as individuals, and as members of different social groups. Therefore, while people’s individuality will of course have a bearing on their behaviour and communication, members of an ethnic group will be strongly influenced by their attitudes to both the ingroup (each other) and the outgroup (those outside their collective). (Bourhis, 2007). Much of this involves stereotypes, which Zhu (2016) defines thus:

“Stereotypes are categorical perceptions of a group of people. They are often oversimplified. Once stereotypes are formed, they are universally recognized and remain unchanged for a long time. Ethnic or national stereotypes are consistent and pervasive across different countries.”

Ward & Hewstone’s study provides a good concrete example of the impact of stereotypes, where they found that in Malaysia and Singapore, Malays favour their own group more, while Chinese think quite negatively of their ingroup (1985). This question of ingroup and outgroup attitudes and the degree to which people ascribe stereotypes to strangers or outgroups has been a major focus of research over the last few decades. A recent study (Zhu, 2016) specifically examined stereotypes and attitudes among Chinese and US Americans and found that stereotypical perceptions continue to influence group attitudes. This is particularly important in today’s world, as I will explore in section 7.


The question of intergroup attitudes is something that researchers must pay particular attention to; van Bochove et al. examined the interviewer effect in cross-cultural research and found some evidence that interviewees tailor their answers to cross-ethnically accommodate (i.e. emphasise similarities with) their interviewers (2015).

The second type of research, intercultural research, has a number of different aspects, such as the degree to which individuals adopt their host culture, how their intergroup biases can influence their communication, and how individuals will adjust their communication according to context, especially if they identify with more than one cultural group or ethnicity at different times. Intercultural research will be explored in more detail in sections 3 to 6.

3. Case Study 1: Ethnicity’s Effect on Intercultural Interaction

Paper: Intercultural Interaction at a Multicultural University: Students’ Definitions and Sensemakings of Intercultural Interaction (2010) by Rona Tamiko Halualani, San José State University, San José, CA, USA

In order to explore more deeply the idea that people of different ethnicities communicate differently, I will use this intercultural research as a case study. I will outline the method used, summarise the findings, provide a brief criticism and then conclude with some thoughts on the significance of this work:

3.1. Method

The author carried out an extensive recruitment process across 5 different academic disciplines at a multicultural university in the Western USA. Students were invited to participate in interviews about their on-campus interactions, and those interested students were invited to complete a demographic questionnaire collecting numerous variables, including ethnic/racial background, gender, age, major, year group and working and travel patterns, but also relevant factors such as socioeconomic status and number of years living in the US. Over 16 months, 450 responses were collected, and the researchers carefully analysed the responses to produce a diverse sample set of 149 students including representatives from as many different categories as possible. 80 agreed to take part, and each participated in an in-depth interview. Of these 80, 26% were Asian, 22% Latino, 25% European, 18% Black and 8% mixed-race.

The interviews explored how participants defined intercultural interaction (both in terms of what it is, and what it is not), what makes a positive versus a negative intercultural interaction, and participants’ own stories of intercultural interactions. A cross-disciplinary team then coded the interview transcripts looking for demographic clusters or patterns of answers.

3.2. Findings

The authors found distinct and differing attitudes to intercultural interaction among the four ethnic groups:

  • Latino students saw intercultural interaction as exchanges characterised by cultural respect.
  • Asian American students saw intercultural interaction as establishing common ground and “sameness” so that they could be seen as individuals, not ethnic stereotypes.
  • Black/African American students saw intercultural interaction as “difficult conversations” confronting other ethnic groups’ prejudices and cultural judgements toward themselves.
  • White/European American students saw intercultural interactions as conversations that serve as proof of their open-mindedness and acceptance of all cultural groups.

All four groups shared a belief that intercultural interaction is a “given” in a demographically diverse area. Black students qualified this by saying that only a subset of these inevitable interactions were “authentic” – those that tackled the question of cultural differences head-on.

The authors use these findings to conclude that all ethnic groups define intercultural interaction in relation to their own specific cultural and historical needs or experiences and that ethnicity is a major factor in framing their perspectives. Their conclusion is that these different cultural needs must be catered for, and that positive intercultural interaction does not happen automatically.

3.3. Criticism

The paper has an unusually strong recruitment process, and a great deal of effort was made to find a diverse and representative set of interviewees. The analysis is thorough, but the authors do slip into generalisations by talking about each ethnic group as a homogenous group with a single viewpoint, e.g. “Latino interviewees framed intercultural interactions as exchanges characterized by respect” (p. 315). Also, they did not do any statistical analysis to determine whether the findings are significant; admittedly this would not be easy with non- numerical data.

There are two specific criticisms to be made on the subject of race and ethnicity. Firstly, the author deliberately equates race and ethnicity, writing “race/ethnicity” rather than separating the concepts. Neither term is defined. As such this is a missed opportunity to explore the difference between race (i.e. biology) and ethnicity (the construct) and participants’ views on how these two distinct things affect their perceptions. The author does not define “culture” or explore what culture means to the participants.

Secondly, the author reported that 8% of participants were “mixed race”, yet no mention of this group is made in the results or analysis. Failure to analyse this group is a missed opportunity to explore biracial attitudes, the competition of cultural ideas, or the changing of cultural attitudes as ethnic cultures collide.

3.4. Significance

The paper is especially relevant to the topic of this essay as it explicitly looks at how ethnicity affects intercultural communication. It has wide research significance because of its clear identification of distinct cultural attitudes towards intercultural interaction among different ethnic groups. This is important because it confirms that ethnic groups do communicate differently, and that their ethnic group membership is a key factor in this difference. This study also serves as a useful springboard to examine the question of intercultural competence and its importance in effective intercultural interaction, which will be explored in the next section.

4. Acculturation and Intercultural Competence

Geert Hofstede, in his research of the impact of culture on workplaces observes that “Culture only exists by comparison.” (2017) This is an echo of Piaget, who observed that in a homogenous society, “conditions necessary for elimination of childhood mentality cannot appear. There is no discussion, no exchange of points of view.” (1928/1995, p. 207). It is evident that through colonisation and immigration, every country in the world now experiences cultural collisions between minority and majority groups. This creates questions of acculturation (variously referred to in literature as adjustment, acclimatisation, or adaptation, though ‘adaptation’ can also refer to the ultimate state of being adjusted). Acculturation is the process of cultural and psychological change that individuals and their ethnic groups go through as they adapt to the dominant culture, and aligns with the constructivist viewpoint of ethnicity. Adjustment can be integrative, where the two cultures overlap, and stably co-exist as part of a multicultural society, or assimilative, where the minority group adopts the host culture to such a degree that it blends indistinguishably with it. Either way, members of both groups (but especially the ethnic minority) face challenges in how to adapt and interact across cultural boundaries.

This is the basis for intercultural competence (sometimes cultural intelligence), which is the knowledge, skills and dispositional attributes that an individual possesses that allow them to act in linguistically and culturally complex situations and effectively accommodate the demands of living in a host culture (IGI Global). This has been a major area of study over recent decades, with many different models of adjustments and metrics developed for assessing an individual’s level of adaptation.

One compelling model is the mindsponge proposed by Vuong in 2015, illustrated below, where each individual has core values central to their identity, surrounded by a comfort zone which buffers them from shocks of the external environment and grows like a sponge as it absorbs new cultural norms and rejects others (perhaps due to intergroup bias or prejudices) based on the context being experienced.

This works addresses a failing in intercultural competence research; as Kealey writes, “when we talk about cultural differences, we are usually referring to differences in national cultures… We tend to ignore the fact that every person is an amalgam of many “cultures” and that, for example, a Chinese scientist and an American scientist may well be able to transcend their cultural (national) differences and communicate easily because they share a similar scientific background, a professional culture which may well play a more significant role than that of their national culture.” (2015)

5. Culture Mixing

This brings me to the research around culture mixing. Section 1 mentioned that race or nationality alone is no longer enough to determine someone’s ethnicity, but in fact as society has become more and more globalised, we must go further. Ethnicity is no longer enough to accurately describe a person’s culture, nor that of a country. Van de Vijver et al studied the identities of a neighbourhood in Antwerp, and found that the residents had numerous social identities shaped by factors including family, religion, neighbours as well as their national identities and senses of belonging (2015).

Cultures do not exist in a vacuum, instead they cross-pollenate, bleed into each other and act in compound ways upon individuals. Indeed, it has been scientifically proven that cultures are heterogeneous. (Yu, 2015) Each culture can have a greater or lesser influence on people. This can be modelled as cultural tightness and looseness. (Uz, 2015)

What has happened as our understanding has deepened (and globalisation has increased) is that ethnicity – first used as a means to talk about the social construct of race rather than the essentialist, biological view (No et al, 2008) – has now outlived its usefulness as a way to fully explain an individual’s communication patterns or attitudes, since few individuals today live in a monoculture. Even in the poorest and least developed parts of the world, other cultures intrude and have influence, through technologies such as mobile phones, Internet, popular music and satellite television.

6. Case Study 2: Signs of Transcendence – Moving Beyond Ethnicity

Paper: Signs of transcendence? A changing landscape of multiraciality in the 21st century (2015) by Evelina Lou, Richard N. Lalonde, Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, Canada.

This paper explores culture mixing, and is a good illustration of how, as dual identities have emerged (Dovido, 2009), ethnic categorization is no longer effective to explain identity. By focussing on biracials (people who by definition are exposed to more than one culture), it allows the influences of multiple ethnicities to be considered. I will provide a summary of the research and its findings and offer some criticism and conclusions about what this signifies:


6.1. Method

The authors recruited a convenience sample of 201 participants, mainly students, all multiracial (having one ethnically White parent and one parent from a different ethnic group). Participants were asked for demographic information including the biological race of their mother and father. They then completed a questionnaire using a Likert-type scale, which was based upon Rockquemore’s Survey of Multiracial Experience [ref. in paper].

The primary question asked them to place themselves on a scale as to their identity and the role their races play in it. The authors introduce four main categories for biracial self-identity, also modelled by Rockquemore (1998):

  • Traditional identity – where the individual considers identifies with one race only, e.g. “exclusively Black”.
  • Border identity – where the individual considers themselves to be part of both races, i.e. they identify as biracial, which may or may not be socially validated (i.e. accepted) by others.
  • Protean identity – where the individual will shift between two or more traditional racial identities depending upon their context – for example, Asian when with other Asians, or White when with other Whites.
  • Transcendent identity – where the individual holds a consistent self- identity into which race plays no part, e.g. “human” or “citizen of the world”.

6.2. Findings

The survey results were analysed in four mixed-race groups, according to the two parents of each participant: Black/White, East Asian/White, South Asian/White, Latino/White. All four groups had a large majority (>80%) of participants identifying with non-traditional identities. The East Asian/White and Latino/White biracials mostly held a protean identity (40% and 31% respectively). The South Asian/White group’s majority held a transcendent identity (25%), and the Black/White group mostly held a validated border identity (35%). The four groups’ identity differences were statistically significant. The authors therefore conclude that while people “still perceive and judge themselves based on the prescribed racial categories” (p. 93), there is a universal shift towards a transcendent identity, and that this proves that race(ethnicity) should be reframed “as a social and cultural construction.” (p. 85)

6.3. Criticism

One limitation, which the authors do concede, is that the sample size was limited and not representative, and that the study needs to be replicated at scale if any generalisations are to be made.

Given the paper’s focus on ethnic group identity, it would have been desirable to see some survey questions exploring the common elements of participants’ cultures, as this would have allowed some analysis of the degree to which the different ethnicities’ cultures have fused or remained distinct, rather than just a focus on racial self-identity. It would also have provided evidence for the racial origins of different ethnic cultural traits. In this sense, from an ethnicity standpoint, the work is a missed opportunity, however this does not detract from this study’s strong value in providing empirical evidence supporting the emerging dominance of the transcendent identity.

6.4. Significance

The paper’s particular value is in taking a model of multiracialism that has previously only been applied to Black/White multiracials and applying it to different multiracial groups, allowing for the first time the self-identity of multiracials to be directly compared. It is also significant that by applying a model first developed around 16 years earlier, it is able to illustrate how the research focus has shifted over that period – from race-based analyses, often focused on Black/White demographics and Western perspectives, to questions of self-identity and cultural allegiance. This perspective also shows that the cultural mixing of society has increased such that non-traditional identities now prevail in multiracial populations, with many individuals going through conscious and deliberate thinking as to the way they choose to place themselves in a multicultural world. This is in line with other research showing embracing multiculturalism is now desirable (Celeste, 2014).

I chose this case study as a useful snapshot of current research relating to ethnicity in intercultural communication, but also because it deliberately targets the group which the first case study overlooked – the multiracial group. It is here (and by comparing the two case studies) that the cultural shift towards the mixed cultures we have today is most evident.

In addition, while this paper never explicitly mentions ethnicity, its view of identity as something shaped by racial heritage and culture is consistent with the constructivist view of ethnicity, and so we can see that what was once called ethnicity by researchers is referred to in different terminology today, and that it is the focus on culture and individual viewpoint that is now most important in understanding how people interact and communicate.

7. Ethnicity in Today’s World

Today, ethnicity is a concept which still has profound social impact, not least because it provides a language for us to talk about groups of people, different from ourselves, in a generalised way. The concept of “the other” (Postmes et al, 2015), which has become central not just to social psychology but to everyday life, has at its core the idea of judging an ethnic group by the ways in which they are different from the mainstream culture. This has become very important in our society, with fears of “ethnic” immigrants and refugees leading to profound political and cultural shifts such as Brexit in the UK or the election of Donald Trump in the USA.

In the USA, this rise in distrust of ethnic groups can in part be explained as a reaction to the rise of what some academics refer to as “multicultural Obama-ism”, where ethnic and multicultural Americans serve as evidence of “post-racial” thinking (Chen, 2015). It was believed that transcendent identity, had gone mainstream. The election of Donald Trump in the USA and the surge in popularity of far-right ideologies across Europe suggests this conclusion was premature. The world has not transcended race and ethnicity yet, and has a long way to go to do so.

The good news is that studies on intercultural competence and culture mixing continue, and as they do, our abilities to more effectively communicate across cultural boundaries should improve.

8. Conclusion

Through this essay, I have shown that ethnicity, a concept that emerged out of desire to examine the behaviours of different racial groups, has been useful in helping us understand how individuals and societies communicate. By modelling multicultural society as minority cultures choosing how to adjust to the majority cultures they live in, it has deepened our understanding of intergroup communication, and uncovered aspects including acculturation, identity, belongingness, culture mixing, ingroup favouritism and outgroup prejudice.

Ethnicity has also allowed us to more easily observe the choices people make as they communicate, by allowing comparison of communication styles between distinct groups. As a term, ethnicity has fallen from use, but its legacy is evident throughout sociology, social psychology and anthropology research, as a core focus on cultural influences upon individuals as the best way to explain their behaviour; the concept of “culture” remains a valuable one (Brumann, 1999). Ethnicity’s legacy is evident in society too, as fear and prejudice toward “the other” continues to affect today’s political and social climate, and thus, the communication choices people make in everyday life. Whether we have a utopia or dystopia (Bain, 2015) to look forward to remains to be seen, but it is clear that success depends on our ability to improve our intercultural competence and become transcendent individuals who are “citizens of the world” above all else.

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This essay was submitted as an assignment for the module “The Social Psychology of Communication” studied as part of my MRes in Digital Civics at Newcastle University in 2016-2017.





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