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29 - Ethnicity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2019

Aedín Ní Loingsigh
Affiliation:
University of Stirling.
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Summary

‘Ethnicity’ is a fluid concept that interconnects in complex ways with other forms of social identification. It refers to notions of belonging based on shifting combinations of common geographical origins and cultural traditions. Etymologically, the term derives from the Greek ethnos. Originally, ethnos denoted large groups of animals or insects and, by metaphorical association, invading armies ‘where great size, amorphous structure, and threatening mobility’ were emphasized (Tonkin et al. 1996, 19). This early use evolved to describe groups of people with a shared identity yet who were always also ‘other’, usually in an inferior way. By the mid-nineteenth century, ethnos had come to be understood as a band of people, or tribe, with shared characteristics. As a substantive, the term did not impose itself in English, largely because the idea of ‘race’ made it redundant. However, by the earliest dictionary appearance of ‘ethnicity’ in 1972 (Oxford English Dictionary), sociologists were signalling the term's value both as a means of breaking with the biological mis/understandings of ‘race’ and offering a response to the identity formations of postcolonial migration. While the extent to which these objectives have been achieved remains a matter of debate, ‘ethnicity’ is now routinely deployed to foreground the cultural bases of identity but also to stress subjective interpretations of such factors by those who claim an ethnic identity and those who attribute it.

How and why does ‘ethnicity’ matter to critical understandings of travel writing and vice versa? At the most basic level, travelling lifestyles serve as the fundamental basis on which the ethnic identification of nomadic groups around the worldis constructed. Metaphors of nomadism in critical language have tended to obscure these connections between travel and ethnicity. However, in contesting the hegemony of static and bounded ways of thinking, such metaphorical usage can evoke the manner in which the mobility of nomadic ethnicities has been perceived as ‘threatening’ rather than enriching. On the other hand, the apparently detached reporting of the traveller has frequently been valued for his/her ‘outsider’ perspective on the connections between fixed, instrumentalist understandings of ethnicity and violent conflict (see Moffat 2012).

Assumptions regarding the traveller's ‘neutrality’ can often be based on the understanding of this figure as a ‘non-ethnically’ marked observer of the ‘ethnically marked’ Other.

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Chapter
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Keywords for Travel Writing Studies
A Critical Glossary
, pp. 84 - 86
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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