Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 303–324 | Cite as

The everyday use of surname to determine ethnic ancestry

  • Mary C. Waters


This paper examines the influence of surname on how descendants of white European immigrants to the United States, who are of mixed ethnic ancestry, determine their ethnic identification. It is based on 60 in-depth interviews about ethnic identity and family history, conducted with Catholic, suburban later-generation residents of Santa Clara County California and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (suburbs of San Jose and Philadelphia, respectively).

These respondents describe how other people identify them using their surname as an indicator of ethnic background as well as how they use surnames to identify others. They continue to use surnames for their own and others' ethnic identifications despite the fact that they are also continually made aware of the ways in which surname is a faulty, and often inaccurate, indicator of ethnic origin. Factors such as intermarriage, name changes and insufficient knowledge of types of surnames undermine the predictive value of surnames for determining ethnic origin. This examination of the day-to-day use of surnames to determine ethnic ancestry shows the discrepancy between the widespread belief that ethnicity is the naming of a fixed, personal, biological trait that is inherited from one's ancestors and the day-to-day evidence that ethnicity is a processual social phenomenon involving change, choice, and movement across ethnic boundaries for the individual.


Family History Social Psychology Social Issue Ethnic Identity Ethnic Background 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mary C. Waters
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyHarvard UniversityCambridge

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