Ethnic Groups: Definition, List & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Ethnicity?
  • 1:01 Identifying Ethnicity
  • 2:05 Arab
  • 2:33 The UK
  • 3:34 Kurds and Romani
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
David White
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Ethnicity can be a challenging or confusing concept to describe. Through this lesson, you will learn a broad definition of ethnicity and explore some of the components that are used to comprise and identify different ethnic groups.

What Is Ethnicity?

What are the major things that make you feel as though you belong in a certain group? Among other things, you probably speak the same language, celebrate the same traditions, and share a common history with others in the group. These elements comprise the culture to which you belong. When that is considered in the context of your nationality and race, it could be a strong indicator of your ethnicity.

Broadly speaking, a person's ethnicity is their heritage and ancestral roots. Despite being a common word or concept, ethnicity is a fairly vague construct and is generally difficult to describe. This is due in part to differing contexts. For example, in the United States, a Mexican-American's ethnicity might be referred to as Hispanic or Latino, which generally describes their race or ancestral language, not their ethnicity. In another country, that same person's ethnicity might be described as Mexican, referring to their culture and heritage.

Identifying Ethnicity

The previous example illustrates how difficult it is to define or identify a person's ethnicity, which is why many demographers and government institutions use broad categories. In the United States, for example, much of the population would likely be referred to as ethnically European because their ancestral roots are in one of many European countries. However, individually these people would probably identify their ethnicity by a specific country like Italy or Ireland, or a region.

One of the more productive and less complicated ways of identifying ethnicity is through self-identification, when a person chooses how they describe their ethnicity. For instance, an African American might broadly be categorized as ethnically African, but because their parents emigrated from the Republic of Congo and have maintained their cultural traditions, that person might self-identify as ethnically Congolese. It might be useful to explore some of the more well established ethnic groups to shed some light on the different elements used to define them.


One of the most common ethnicities that you've probably heard mentioned is Arab, which refers to people from western Asia and northern Africa. As one of the largest ethnic groups, these individuals share the Arabic languages, are largely Muslim, and practice many of the same traditions. In this case, it is language, religion, ancestral origin and, to a lesser extent, race that comprise this ethnic category.

The UK

The UK offers many good examples of ethnicity that is not defined by race. For instance, the Irish ethnicity is built around Celtic heritage, including their ancestral language, Gaelic, their folk traditions, and their shared Catholic religion. Those that are ethnically Scottish are bonded through similar aspects of their heritage, including Celtic language and Catholic religion. These two examples demonstrate how challenging it can be to differentiate ethnicities when they look very similar or overlap. In this case, these individuals could accurately be categorized as being of Celtic ethnicity, which also includes the Welsh, but that doesn't mean they're the same. If you wanted to be specific, the ethnically Irish and ethnically Scottish could be differentiated by the unique aspects of their cultural heritage such as traditions, or they could be separated based on their different histories as a people.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Ethnic Groups:

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least two to three paragraphs that describes the meaning of ethnicity and explains why it can be hard to define.

Example: Ethnicity takes into account a person's heritage and ancestral roots.

Essay Prompt 2:

In approximately three to four paragraphs, write an essay that explains the ways in which ethnicity can be determined. Be sure to explain the role of self-identification in defining ethnicity.

Example: Ethnicity can be defined in both broad and specific terms. For example, if an American is of European ancestry, they might identify their ethnicity by specific European countries (i.e., Poland).

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of approximately one to two paragraphs that describes the features of the ethnicity of the majority of the population in Eastern Europe.

Example: Slavic is the most prominent ethnicity in Eastern Europe.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that describes the characteristics of an ethnicity of your choice.

Example: You could use columns for different characteristics of your chosen ethnicity (i.e., art, literature, and music; customs, food, language, religion, etc.).

Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that illustrates the ethnicities found in Canada.

Example: Acadians.

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