Ethnicity seems at first sight a very obvious, even natural, thing. References to ethnic minorities and ethnic conflict saturate the media on a daily basis and are a familiar feature of popular and academic discourse alike. And yet, for something that seems so ubiquitous and ordinary to us today, the concept of ethnicity is a surprisingly recent invention: the first known use of the word ‘ethnicity’ dates from 1920 and it did not acquire widespread currency until the 1960s. What explains the remarkable rise of ethnicity in the twentieth century? Why were pre-existing concepts deems inadequate or inappropriate? What kinds of phenomena does the concept of ethnicity make visible and what does it conceal? Through an extensive survey of scholarly writings, policy documents, and archival material from Geneva, London, and Paris, this book reconstructs how terms such as the English ‘ethnicity’, the French ‘ethnie’, and the Russian ‘etnos’ were invented and popularised in the twentieth century. Rather than being an ancient or natural phenomenon, as is so often assumed, the book shows that ethnicity is in fact symptomatic of a fundamental structural transformation of the global sociopolitical order: the passage from a hierarchical world of empires to an ‘anarchical’ world of sovereign nation-states. Not only did the concept of ethnicity provide a seemingly egalitarian lens through which questions of human diversity could be discussed, it participated in a veritable conceptual revolution that also reconfigured the meaning of older categories such as ‘nation’, ‘race’, and ‘civilisation’. Through this comprehensive conceptual reshuffling, racial and imperial hierarchies were exorcised from the international plane and the governance of human diversity was recast as a domestic matter of state administration. An incredible amount of conceptual labour has gone into the effacement of global racial and imperial hierarchies, and the concept of ethnicity has been at the very heart of this endeavour.
Jaakko Heiskanen is Lecturer in International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.