Immigrant Minorities in Europe - some theoretical remarks

Seminar Paper, 2000

8 Pages, Grade: very good


Europe has become an immigration continent in the last decades. Immigration from non-european and Southeast-european cultures has changed the economically and socially highly developed Western-european nationstates. It has not only affected their populational compostition but also very profoundly their cultural identities. The European societies have traditionally associated their political nation with one dominant, cultural group, with cultural homogenity and are now challenged by the greater ethnic diversity the immigration brought along. In this paper we want to focus on non-european immigrant groups in Western Europe cities.


Ethnicity has gained more importance as a scientific concept in different disciplines in recent decades, not least because of the increasing of ethnical conflicts, like the wars in the former Yugoslavia region. When writing about the phenomenon of ethnicity, the term itself and related concepts like culture, nationality, nationalism or ethnical minorities are often not discussed, although this concepts are not self-explanatory and can be ambiguous. Therefore it can be interesting to look at the underlying theories about ethnicity first when speaking about ethnic minorities or ethnic diversity, which we want to try to do in the following part.

Anthony D. Smith names the following six criterias to define ethnicity: a name, a common mythos of origin, a common history, a common culture, a territorial association and a solidarity feeling (cf. Smith 1986). However, Thomas Hylland Eriksen explains, that it would be misleading to think that ethnicity is built up by actual, objective similarities and differences of a community, as ”there is often greater variation within a ´racial´ group than there is systematic variation between two groups” (Eriksen 1993, p.4). According to Eriksen ethnicity can rather be defined as ” relationships between groups whose members consider themselves distinctive” (Eriksen 1993, p.6; italics by TP) or more precisly defined: ”Ethnicity occurs when cultural differences are made relevant through interaction. It thus concerns what is socially relevant, not which culutural differences are ’actually there’ ” (Eriksen 1995, p.251.). The stressing of social relevance shows, that it are the subjective believings of people regarding other people and themself, that just creates ethnicity and thus ethnicity is not something ”naturally” there. Pursuing this approach, the question arises: can two groups, with actually identical features, still constitute two different ethnical groups?

These statements by T.H. Eriksen reveal yet another fundamental aspect of ethnicity: that of relationship. Ethnicity can not exist with just one group. It is based on a distinction between Us and Them. Thinking about one single, isolated, ethnical group would be absurd, like the sound of one hand clapping, as Eriksen expresses it. Hence, contact between two or more groups is a precondition for ethnicity, as it is created through interaction and mutual comparison of people:

”For ethnicity to come about, the groups must have a minimum of contact with each other, and they must entertain ideas of each other as being culturally different from themselves. If these conditions are not fulfilled, there is no ethnicity, for ethnicity is esentially an aspect of a relationship, not a property of a group.(...) Ethnicity is an aspect of social relationship between agents who consider themselves as culturally distinctive”” (Eriksen 1993, p.11)

This aspect seems to be important also regarding the European nation states, based on cultural homogenity, and their encounters with non-european immigrant groups, that we will discuss later on in this paper.

Stuart Hall takes a similar approach when he writes that:

”If the black subject and black experience are not stabilized by Nature ... , then it must be the case they are constructed historically, culturally, politically – and the concept which refers to this is ‘ethinicty’. The term ethnicity acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity, as well as the fact that all discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual.” (Hall 1992, p.257)

A further basic element of ethnicity is its claim to so-called primordiality, which expresses, that ethnicity is something, that is already there when we are born. Yet, it seems that Eriksen is exactly questioning this point when he argues that ethnic categorisations are fluid, negotiable and manipulable, as he shows it taking e.g. the research results of Robert Part and the Chicago School as a precedency . (cf. Eriksen 1993, 19f.)

Virtually every person in the modern world belongs to some kind of ethnic group, ie has an ethnic identity, because the possibility to live in a culturally completely isolated country is de facto nonexistent nowadays. T.H. Eriksen gives four examples for different kinds of ethnic groups (cf. Eriksen 1992. P.4-8)

a) Urban minorities: In a European context these are mainly non-European immigrants in bigger cities, which is also the group we are focusing on later on in this paper. These groups often have to face discrimination on the labour market, cultural discrimination in the public sphere, as well as political marginalisation and loss of cultural identity, for instance the second-generations lack of a ”true” mother tongue. These groups are often culturally and ideologically oriented towards their mother country, but do never demand statehold or political independence. Instead they are seaking for economic integration in the host society, while trying to maintain their cultural distinctiveness. Often they have the prospect of going back to their mother country in mind.

b) Indigenous people: these are aboriginal inhabitants, which have a traditional, non-industrial mode of production and lifestyle. They are politically powerless and hardly integrated into the modern nation state and its institutions, like capitalism, militarisation and mass observance. The Sami people of northern Scandinavia are such an example. Typical problems of indigenous people according to Eriksen are, that their territorial claims are not respected by governments, threats of ”cultural genocide” through enforced assimilation or even physical genocide and a way of life requiring special measures in economic, political and educational matters. These groups are often fighting to keep their traditional culture, but are not claiming an own nation-state. Yet, they claim a certain political autonomy

c) Proto-nation-states or ethnonationalist movements are ethnic groups aiming at an own nation state, ”nations without a state” so to say, becuase they have more in common with nations, than with indigenous or urban minorities, like the Palestinians in the Middle-East, the Kurds in Turkey or the Tamils in Sri Lanka . They are claiming statehold and complete, political independence and are therefore separatistic. But also groups that want to change their nation-state-belonging through joining their territory a different state, like the separatist movements in northern Italy, can be considered in this category too.

d) Ethnic groups in pluralist societies: Eriksen uses this term for heterogenous, post-colonial states like Indonesia, Jamaica or Mauritius. These ethnical groups participate in a uniform political and economic system, but consider themselves as ethnically highly distinctive. They identify with their ethnical group rather than with the nation, but they are not secessionist. They rather express their ethnic identity through group competition.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


Immigrant Minorities in Europe - some theoretical remarks
Göteborg University  (Department for Social Work)
Course: Ethnic diversity & European Welfare Practice
very good
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
419 KB
Explanation of different theoretical concepts and definitions to the themes of ethnic minorities and work immigration. 112 KB
Ethnic Minorities/Ethnische Minderheiten, Ethnische Minoritäten, Immigration, Arbeitsmigration, Work Migration, Gastarbeiter, Guest Workers, Sozialpolitik, Social Policy, Sozialarbeit, Social Work
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Thomas Paster (Author), 2000, Immigrant Minorities in Europe - some theoretical remarks, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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