The everyday use of surname to determine ethnic ancestry
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.
KeywordsFamily History Social Psychology Social Issue Ethnic Identity Ethnic Background
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.
- Alba, Richard D. 1985 Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
- Barth, Frederik 1969 Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little Brown.Google Scholar
- Bonacich, Edna 1980 “Class Approaches to Ethnicity and Race.” Insurgent Sociologist 10:2 (Fall, 1980) reprinted in Yetman, Norman R., ed. Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life, Newton: Allyn and Bacon: pp. 62–78.Google Scholar
- Gans, Herbert J. 1979 “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (January):1–20Google Scholar
- Johnson, Charles E. Jr. 1974 “Consistency of Reporting of Ethnic Origin in the Current Population Survey” Technical Paper #31. Bureau of the Census. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
- 1985 “Ethnic Mixtures in the United States.” Sociology and Social Research 70 (October): 567–576.Google Scholar
- 1986 “Ethnic Groups in Flux: The Changing Ethnic Responses of American Whites.” Annals (September) 79–91.Google Scholar
- 1988 From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
- Okamura, Jonathan 1981 “Situational Ethnicity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 4 no. 4 (October).Google Scholar
- Paden, John N. 1967 “Situational Ethnicity in Urban Africa with Special Reference to the Hausa.” Paper presented at African Studies Association Meeting in New York, November, 1967.Google Scholar
- Patterson, Orlando 1977 Ethnic Chauvinism. New York: Stein and Day.Google Scholar
- Schneider, David M. 1968 American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Smith, Robert and Ellen Katzoff 1986 Content Reinterview Study: Accuracy of Data for Selected Population and Housing Characteristics as Measured by Reinterview PHC80-E2 Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
- Smith, Tom W. 1980 “Ethnic Measurement and Identification.” Ethnicity 7:78–95.Google Scholar
- 1981 “The Subjectivity of Ethnicity” unpublished mimeo.Google Scholar
- 1983 “Problems in Ethnic Measurement: Over, Under- and Misidentification.” Paper prepared for the American Statistical Association, Toronto, August, 1983.Google Scholar
- Vanden Berghe, Pierre L. 1985 “Race and Ethnicity: A Sociobiological Perspective” in Norman Yetman, ed. Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life Newton, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.Google Scholar
- Waters, Mary C. 1990 (forthcoming) Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar