Glossary of Terms


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affirmative action
a program or policy intended to correct the effects of past discrimination in employment, education, housing, etc.  Usually affirmative action in the United States includes out-reach programs, hiring goals, set-asides, and/or extra opportunities for members of underrepresented minorities.
assimilation  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the absorption of an individual or minority group of people into another society or group.  This is achieved by learning and adopting the cultural traditions of the society to which assimilation occurs.  It is also often hastened by intermarriage and de-emphasizing cultural and or biological differences.
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boundary maintenance
reinforcing an ethnic group's unity and distinctness by emphasizing the traits that set its members apart from others, rather than what they share in common with them.
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a group of people thought of as a unit because they are similar in terms of social and/or economic factors.  In America, for instance, a class distinction is commonly made between "white collar" well paid office workers and lower paid "blue collar" factory workers and manual laborers.
colonial powers
a term referring mostly to the Western European nations that carved out colonies in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and the Pacific during the 18th through the early 20th centuries. The U.S., Russia, and Japan also acquired colonial empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
cultural relativism
judging and interpreting the behavior and beliefs of others in terms of their own cultural traditions and experiences.  This suspension of one's own ethnocentric views is necessary in order to begin to truly understand another culture or ethnic group.  See ethnocentrism.
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the act of distinguishing differences between people and showing favoritism or prejudicial rejection of them.  See prejudice and stereotype.
the movement of cultural traits and ideas from one society or ethnic group to another.
drop of blood criterion
see hypodescent.
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enculturation  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the process of being socialized to a specific culture.   Through enculturation an individual learns the statuses, roles, rules, and values of his or her own culture.  The most intensive period of enculturation is usually during early childhood, but the process continues throughout life.
ethnic group
a category or group of people considered to be significantly different from others in terms of cultural (dialect, religion, traditions, etc.) and sometimes physical characteristics (skin color, body shape, etc.).  Commonly recognized American ethnic groups include American Indians, Jews, Latinos, Chinese, African Americans ("blacks"), European Americans ("whites"), etc.
ethnicity  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
ethnic group identity.
ethnic symbol
selected traits used as symbolic badges of identity to emphasize distinctness from other ethnic groups.  Dialect, religion, and style of dress are common ethnic symbols.  Biological characteristics, such as skin color and body shape, may be used as ethnic symbols as well.
ethnocentrism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the feeling that your own group's cultural traditions and values are correct and superior to all others.  This is usually coupled with a generalized dislike and even contempt for people who have other cultural traditions.   Ethnocentrism is universal in that all people around the world are ethnocentric to some degree.  See cultural relativism.
ethnocide  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the act or attempt to systematically destroy a people's ethnicity or culture.  Usually the term ethnocide is applied to intentional acts resulting in culture death.  The legalized "kidnapping" of Native American children so that they could be educated as Europeanized Canadians and Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is an example of ethnocide.  See genocide.
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see hunters and gatherers
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gender  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
sexual identity as male or female.  See sexism.
genocide  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the act or attempt to systematically kill all members of an ethnic group or culture.  The Nazi extermination of Jews and gypsies by the millions before and during World War II is an example of genocide.  See ethnocide.
globalization  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the progressive emergence of a single worldwide economic system and the simultaneous reduction in global cultural and political differences.  A presumed result of globalization would be the merging of previously separate political entities and the growth in power and prestige of international institutions.  See tribalism.
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heterogeneous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced society
a society consisting of many different ethnic and/or "racial" groups, social classes, languages and/or dialects, and cultural traditions.  The U.S. and Canada are heterogeneous societies.  See homogenous society.
Hispanic  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
referring to Spanish and/or Latin American cultural traditions.   In the U.S., Portuguese speaking Brazilians also are often considered Hispanics for official census recording purposes while people from Spain and Portugal are frequently excluded.  See Latino.
homogenous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced society
a society that predominantly or entirely consists of people who share the same ethnicity/race, language, and cultural traditions.  Most small-scale societies are homogenous.  A few large-scale ones, like Japan, are as well.  See heterogeneous society.
hunters and gatherers
people who live in more or less isolated, small-scale societies and obtain their food by foraging wild plants and hunting wild animals.   Hunters and gatherers are also referred to as foragers.
hypodescent  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the criterion for assigning individuals to specific "races" based on only a distant hereditary relationship.  The Nazis used this criterion for labeling people as Jews whose only connection with Judaism was a grandparent.  Similarly, it has been used in North America to label people as African American even if they were mostly European in biological ancestry.  Hypodescent is also known as the "drop of blood" criterion.
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large-scale society
a society consisting of thousands to millions of people.   Such societies depend on intensive agriculture and have cities with complex political and economic systems.  See small-scale society.
Latino  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced    (feminine form is Latina)
in contemporary American usage, this is a person of Hispanic ethnic identity.
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majority group
an ethnic/racial group that has the largest population and usually the greatest economic and political power in a society.  The majority group in North America today consists mostly of European Americans.  See minority group.
melting pot
a society in which immigrants and native ethnic/racial minorities are assimilated into the dominant national culture.  Those who prefer this model for America generally advocate encouraging assimilation in order to reinforce national unity.  See multiculturalism.
minority group

an ethnic/racial group that has a smaller population than the controlling majority group in a society.  Minority groups may also be based on shared gender, age, disabilities, political views, etc.  See majority group.

multiculturalism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a "salad bowl" model of society in which the permanent existence of unassimilated and partially assimilated ethnic/racial minorities is accepted and encouraged.  Those who advocate this model for America generally advocate providing special attention and assistance to minorities that had been underrepresented in the past.  See melting pot.
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pastoralists  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who obtain their food and other necessities by herding large animals, such as cattle, horses, or reindeer.  Pastoralism is usually an adaptation to semi-arid regions in which farming is not economically practical.
prejudice  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the act of judging someone or some thing before the facts are known.  Assuming that someone of a specific ethnic group or "race" will act in a particular way is an example of pre-judging them.  When people from different groups have little or no contact with each other, they are likely to hold prejudicial views about each other and to act upon them.  If the prejudicial views are inaccurate, they can be obstacles to productive dialog and understanding.  See stereotype and discrimination.
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a biological subspecies, or variety, that consists of a more or less distinct population with anatomical traits that distinguish it clearly from other races.  The human "races" commonly assumed to exist are mostly socio-cultural creations rather than biological realities.  They are ethnic groups that are defined on the basis of both physical and cultural characteristics.
a relatively benign form of using "racial" distinctions, such as skin color and facial characteristics, for reference purposes.   An example of racialism is identifying an accident victim as "an elderly Asian male."  In America, "racial" traits are commonly used along with age and gender distinctions when referring to people who we do not know personally.  See racism.
harmful prejudice, discrimination, and/or persecution based on presumed ethnic/racial differences.  An example of racism is not hiring someone for a job because of his or her skin color.  Similarly, giving someone a preference in hiring due to skin color can be racism if people with other skin colors are disadvantaged by this act.  See racialism.
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discrimination based on gender.  An example of sexism is excluding people from promotion to executive positions in a corporation due to their gender.
small-scale society
a society consisting of less than a few hundred people.   Such societies usually depend on hunting and gathering, pastoralism, or nonintensive farming and they do not have cities or complex economic and political systems.  See large-scale society.
stereotype  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a fixed notion or conception of people based on their group identity.  For instance, assuming that a particular Chinese businessman is going to be greedy and dishonest because you believe that all Chinese businessmen are.   Stereotyping is often at the base of prejudice and discrimination resulting from it.
sub-Saharan Africa  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the region of Africa south of the Sahara desert.
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tribalism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a strong sense of identity with one's ethnic group, tribe, or nation.  Tribalism is a counter force to globalization.
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underrepresented minority
a minority group that has a significantly smaller ratio of its members in education, government, business, etc. than other groups.   Underrepresentation usually results from poverty and/or discrimination.   African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans are considered by the national government to be underrepresented minorities in America today.
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Western Cultures
European cultures and cultures derived from Europe, such as the United States and Canada.  Western societies predominantly speak a European language and maintain European-like economic, political, legal, and educational systems.   These societies have been the principle sources of pressure towards globalization in the late 20th century.
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This page was last updated on Thursday, September 10, 2009.
Copyright 1997-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.