What is Ethnicity? Definition, Features, Differences with Caste

What is Ethnicity?

The term ethnicity refers to the fact or state of belonging to a social group, united or closely related by shared (common) cultural aspects such as language, religious belief, common heritage, traditions, etc.

Ethnicity refers to the cultural practices and outlooks of a given community of people that set them apart from others. Members of ethnic groups see themselves as culturally distinctive from others in society and are seen by those other groups to be so in return. Different characteristics may serve to distinguish ethnic groups from one another, but the most usual are language, history or ancestors, religion, and style of dress or adornment.

What is an Ethnic Group?

An ethnic group is a collection of people whose members identify with each other through common cultural aspects such as language, religious belief, common heritage, traditions, etc. In other words, an ethnic group is a population with shared genetic and cultural traits, making them distinct from other populations because of these traits. The process that results in the emergence of an ethnicity is known as ethnogenesis.

The term “ethnic” is derived from the Greek word “ethnos” which means a people i.e. Non-Christian and non-Jewish. In most countries, one large core majority group does not ethnic itself as an ethnic group. Rather they consider only the minority group to have ethnic identities.

In many multiethnic societies, ethnicity, and diversity are things to be proud of and celebrated. Shared ethnic identity often makes people and gives them a strong sense of belonging. Some ethnic groups of Nepal, are Jhangad, Dhimal, Sherpa, Tamang, Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, Chepang, Tharu, etc.


The characteristic of ethnicity include;

  • unique cultural traits, such as language, clothing, holidays, and religious practices.
  • a sense of community.
  • a feeling of ethnocentrism (your culture as the “best”).
  • ascribed membership from birth (you are born into it).
  • territory (occupying a distinct geographic area by choice and for self-protection)
  • It is an unorganized group.
  • related to the people in a national population.
  • has a distinct identity.
  • emphasis is given to cultural characteristics rather than physical and biological characteristics.
  • is found in all modern states.
  • ethic groups of all countries are minority group which is disadvantaged marginalized and mostly unrepresentative.

How is Ethnicity a basis for Stratification?

Over the last 40 years, reforms and policies have addressed inequality based on ethnicity in areas such as education, employment, and criminal justice.

For example:

  • Many employees have formulated equal opportunity policies to support equality and diversity.
  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission has the power to enforce equality laws and to shape public policy on equality issues.
  • Within organizations, awareness of institutional racism has been raised.

Ethnicity describes one form of social stratification. Ethnicity, when understood as a sense of belongingness perceived in terms of identical physical and cultural features is close to the concept of a race like black or white and culture respectively. Ethnicity is the collective we-felling of individuals in a group formed on any basis like caste, class, region, religion, etc.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, there have been revolts by the ethnic groups of Nepal demanding equal and equitable representation from service sectors to the government and end the discriminatory treatment by the state. The demand for ethnic identity and respect for indigenous rights were the most significant issues put forward by them. Hence, the multi-ethnic country Nepal has been a cradle for stratification based on ethnicity.

However, lately, the constitution of Nepal has calmed down the ethnic movements through the provision of reservation (quota system) in the governance and service sectors. This has helped reduce the severity of ethnicity-based stratification to some extent.

Differences between Caste and Ethnicity

The differences between caste and ethnicity can be listed below;

  • Caste entails a hierarchy such as high caste group and low caste group. Whereas, ethnicity entails social equivalence.
  • The hierarchy in the caste system legitimizes economic exploitation and political marginalization of lower castes. Whereas, the social equivalence of ethnicity does not inherently legitimize such exploitation and marginalization.
  • There is strictly endogamy marriage in caste groups. Whereas, there is comparative restriction in marriage lesser different ethnicity.
  • Caste is more of an order that is forcefully imposed which is rooted in Hindu Scriptures. Whereas, ethnicity is more of recognition that the opposite group identifies with on the basis of unique cultural traits such as food habits, dialects or language, attires, locality, etc.

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