The variable ties that bind: Content and circumstance in ethnic processes

Stephen Cornell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


This article attempts to disentangle the differential effects of content (what group members share) and circumstance (the situations they encounter) on ethnic processes. In contrast to much recent work in ethnic studies that pays attention primarily to the logic and process of boundary construction, the primary focus here is on what lies within the ethnic boundary, on the variable content of ethnic identities and the role content plays in patterns of ethnic persistence and change. The article proposes a typology of group attachments, suggesting that the content of collective identity varies continuously (low to high) along three dimensions: shared interests, shared institutions, shared culture. Ethnic groups vary - within and across groups and over time - in the degree to which each of these constitutes a basis of group attachment and, potentially at least, collective action. Furthermore, this variation has consequences, via interaction effects with circumstance, for patterns of group persistence and transformation. While circumstances constrain and shape ethnic identities, the content of those identities mediates the effect of circumstances on ethnic persistence and transformation. Group attachments based largely on shared interests, for example, tend to be more subject to the impact of circumstantial change, other things equal, than group attachments based on shared culture. The article argues that to fully understand ethnic processes, we have to understand not only the ways in which circumstance and action construct identities, but also the different kinds of identities or group ties that circumstance and action construct. It draws briefly on a number of examples to illustrate these points.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)265-289
Number of pages25
JournalEthnic and Racial Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Collective identity
  • Culture
  • Ethnic groups
  • Ethnicity
  • Institutions
  • Interests

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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