Ethnicity and the boundaries of ethnic studies

  • Marek Jakoubek
  • Lenka J. Budilová
Keywords: ethnicity, ethnic groups and boundaries, Fredrik Barth, ethnicity studies


On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference (ed. F. Barth 1969), the authors have taken the opportunity to pursue a critical revision of the reasons that have led to the great success of this work, which has played a key role in ethnicity studies within social anthropology and beyond the discipline. First, they look back at the time period when Ethnic Groups and Boundaries originated and asses the book in this historical context. This leads them to several unexpected findings: Firstly, despite the fact that Barth’s “Introduction” to the volume has become nearly iconic in ethnicity studies in the last 50 years, the term “ethnicity” itself does not occur there at all. It is also surprising that scholars and researchers of the period did not consider Ethnic Groups and Boundaries to be a groundbreaking book. Apart from this, the acceptance of the book was, particularly in the U.S., delayed and only gradual. The view of Barth’s publication through the eyes of his contemporaries thus does not correspond to the interpretation of its impact and significance that is widely held today. These facts led to a conclusion: If we insist on the fact that Ethnic Groups and Boundaries is a key and ground-breaking contribution to ethnicity studies within social anthropology (and beyond), it is necessary to reassess the arguments
that support this thesis.