R. Brubaker wrote: “The intricate and ever-recommencing definitional casuistry in studies of ethnicity, race, and nationalism has done little to advance the discussion, and indeed can be viewed as a symptom of the noncumulative nature of research in the field” (Brubaker, 2004, p. 11). It is difficult to disagree with this: in the context of endless conceptual disputes regarding the nature of ethnicity and the ways of studying it, the increment of knowledge is quite difficult. In order for truth to be born in a dispute, it is necessary, at a minimum, that the disputants have some common grounds for their positions. Ethnicity, as S.V. Cheshko stated, “invariably slips through your fingers, despite any methodological tricks” (Cheshko, 1994, p. 39).

Nevertheless, there are reasons for cautious optimism: a number of common grounds already exist, although they are not always reflected in academic thinking. Firstly, it is obvious that ethnicity and the ethnic exist, few people argue with this (although we will consider this point of view further on). Secondly, it is equally obvious that ethnicity is present in the political field: although in the early 1990s there were optimistic forecasts about its departure from the political agenda (Gellner, 1994), now it is not so evident. Moreover, even in the conditions of modern Europe and the European Union, regarding which this optimism was the greatest (presumably, a supranational identity would supplant national and ethnic identities; we will also return to this thesis), ethno-regionalist and right-wing populist parties based on ethnic mobilization are successfully functioning. Beyond this circle of understanding, justified debates are starting: what phenomena can we define as ethnic and how can ethnicity influence political processes?

The discipline called Ethnic Political Studies was referred to by some researchers as a quasi-science in the early 2000s (Voronkov, 2009, p. 35), and now it appears to have “gained its right in the struggle” and has become firmly established in the academic vocabulary. Meanwhile, only certain aspects of the state management of ethnic diversity are still considered to be its subject in order to prevent the development of conflict scenarios (Turaev, 2004; Abdulatipov, 2004). At the same time, the nodal points of intersection of ethnicity and politics are at the center of attention of modern comparative political science and political theory. What are these points and what should be the focus of modern ethnopolitical analysis? In this material, we will try to offer our own answers to these questions, based on a critical reflection of the existing academic texts and discussions.


Although the “Soviet theory of ethnos” was characterized by the definition of ethnos (not ethnicity) as a certain fixed social group with a set of stable characteristics (Bromley, 1983), at about the same time, in the second half of the 20th century, Western European and North American anthropology disputes concerned the degree of persistence of ethnic markers. Since the late 1980s, ethnicity was introduced in Soviet and then Russian science largely through Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences V.A. Tishkov, who performed “Requiem for an Ethnos” (Tishkov, 2003) as if for a fixed group. Indeed, textbook disputes between conditional primordialists and conditional constructivists (H. Hale convincingly proves the heterogeneity of these categories (Hale, 2004)) are primarily not about whether an ethnos is a stable community of people (with the exception of marginal interpretations); now the subject of discussion is the limits of the flexibility of the very category of ethnicity. “Ethnic boundaries began to be understood not as the boundaries of groups in space (in the Kushnerian sense) but as mental markers along which groups can line up (in the Barthian sense)” (Tishkov, 2016, p. 7).

In the 1970s A. Cohen demonstrated that potentially the category of ethnicity can be applied almost unlimitedly to any groups that have common patterns of normative behavior and are part of a larger group of the population (Cohen, 1974, p. ix). The British anthropologist has proved (within his own paradigm) that what can be called ethnic is, for example, a group of brokers in the City of London, who are “socio-culturally as distinct within British society as are the Hausa within Yoruba society” (Cohen, 1974, p. xxi). However, such a broad interpretation of an ethnic group as any one connected by certain, albeit, flexible, ties, although it has some heuristic merits, can significantly complicate academic studies: in the absence of a clear categorical apparatus, the latter are practically impossible. In particular, some of our colleagues were even convinced by the intellectual exercises of the instrumentalists of the futility of any attempts to define ethnicity: there is a point of view according to which “an “ethnic” community cannot in principle be described even as a set of persons with one or another “ethnic” identity (…) . There is no concept – there is no phenomenon” (Filippov, 2006, p. 94).

Nevertheless, we do not share the radical pessimism of the respected author cited above. In response to the research of Cohen and a number of other radical constructivists and instrumentalists, attempts were made to limit the ethnic and introduce it into some basic coordinates. For F. Barth and V.A. Tishkov, ethnic is primarily cultural, in combination with the social (Barth, 1969; Tishkov, 2003, p. 115). However, then again, is that not too broad? J. Rothschild, K. Chandra, and A. Weber with coauthors went a little further (independently of each other) and proposed a criterion of the transfer of group membership by inheritance (Rothschild, 1981, p. 9; Chandra, 2012, p. 10; Weber et al., 2016, p. 3]. Indeed, practically all groups that we consider ethnic have the idea of the possibility of natural self-reproduction (logically related to the idea of a common origin, but not reducible to it). It is clear that, in fact, an ethnic group can also grow through cooptation; but the idea itself, the myth of self-reproduction and the hereditary transmission of membership is, in our opinion, a really basic characteristic of an ethnic group.

However, there are also groups that have the idea specified above but it is hardly possible to consider them ethnic; in such a case, we can add the previously discussed cultural indicators. It is the cultural properties shared at the group level that indicate “why the existence of the category is substantial and legitimate” and provide members of the group with a common “social biography” (Handelman, 1977, p. 190). Thus, instrumentally, we can define an ethnic group (which has common ethnic characteristics at a particular point in time) as a social group that has distinctive, broadly understood cultural traits and an idea of the hereditary transmission of group membership.

In this case, objections can be made: a number of confessional groups are also associated with cultural otherness and natural reproduction; shall we call them ethnic? The answer is yes. Many researchers intuitively associate only linguistic features or special customs with ethnicity, which is not true; religion can become the same marker of ethnicity if it has a distinctive meaning in the society in question. A classic example is Northern Ireland, where confessional groups of Protestants and Catholics have been perceived and described as ethnic for several centuries, while the actual origin and knowledge of the Irish Gaelic language has lost its meaning (Jenkins, 2008).

Another example pointing to the contextual, indexical significance of certain ethnic markers is Rwanda, where a common language, religion, and culture have not overshadowed the purely social distinctive features of the Tutsi and Hutu (Panov, 2020). And on the framework of these social differences, the propaganda of the “Radio of the Thousand Hills,” and before that of the colonial administration, erected a harmonious building of genetic (in the meaning of origin) and phenotypic differences. Even the bloody genocide of 1994 did not destroy this building, and its sketches are periodically reproduced even in the works of very eminent sociologists (see, for example, Mann, 2012).

In Europe, an example of a rather arbitrary ethnic construction can be seen in the Cagots, a group of the population in southern France, historically discriminated against for unclear reasons; versions have been put forward of their origin from the Cathar sect or from the carpenters' guild. Simply put, those markers become ethnic, which the individual and society see and think are meaningful, culturally determined, and hereditary, be it skin color, church attendance, language, or land size. This was brilliantly formulated by the Russian ethnographer A.S. Myl’nikov, who wrote that ethnicity implies a contrast of perception; something that “is capable of surprising the observer “from the outside,” while remaining for the observer “from the inside” something ordinary, familiar, and therefore not always fixed” (Mylnikov, 1999, p. 111).

We now return to one of the original theses: it is obvious that the ethnic identity understood in this way cannot be supplanted by the national, suprational, or supraethnic (for example, pan-European) identity if only because in this case we will still talk about identity or rather ethnic identity, albeit, located at a different level of the hierarchy of ethnic identifications. Thus, the common identity of Europeans, as having a conditional European cultural heritage, is also an ethnic identity (perceived as a civilizational one), and it should be analyzed from the point of view of ethnopolitical dynamics. The institutions of the European Union do not create a replacement for the existing ethnic identifications, but only add another one to them (more precisely, they reactualize it after the period of domination of national-state identifications of the modern era).

The definition formulated above, although somewhat narrowing the field of understanding of ethnicity, still appears to require certain reservations. Indeed, the European nobility at a certain stage of development combined both distinhuishing features of ethnicity, cultural and hereditary: the noble culture differed from the peasant culture, as did the language of communication, and even at times the genealogy, traceable to the Normans or Franks (Rothschild, 1981, p. 35). The same applies to some other class and guild groups both in Europe and outside Europe. Nevertheless, it is not possible to clarify our understanding of ethnicity in such a way that these examples do not destroy it. If we extrapolate modern theories of ethnicity to periods of flourishing guilds and estates, they can indeed be considered ethnic groups, and I see no contradiction here.


Having dealt with what we mean by ethnicity at this stage, we move on to a more pressing question: how does ethnicity interact with the political process? Ethnopolitics is a set of specific measures applied (a) by the state in cooperation with ethnic groups and (b) by ethnic groups in interaction with each other in order to redistribute power and prevent conflict situations. The study of ethnopolitics in this context implies the study of both models of ethnopolitical management and the dynamics of ethnopolitical interactions, as well as the features of ethnoconflict management and ethnic leadership. These aspects of the relationship between ethnicity and politics are quite obvious and are beyond the scope of the discussion of this article. We are more interested in the fact that many political phenomena are ethnicized, that is, they acquire (naturally or artificially) ethnic semantic content; there is also a reverse process, the politicization of ethnicity. However, how do we separate the ethnic in politics from the nonethnic, what forms of politicization of ethnicity are most relevant in our century and can be key starting points for ethnopolitical analysis?

Let us propose the following hypothesis: at present, the political phenomena most prone to ethnicization are populism, nationalism, and regionalism (as a special case of the latter). We explore these relationships in more detail.

Populism is one of the most discussed political phenomena now, which has not left the light of academic spotlights for several decades. As noted by C. Mudde, “more articles and books have been written on far right parties than on all other party families combined” (Mudde, 2016, p.  2). A number of researchers even talk about the “populist hype” that has gripped the academy (De Cleen et al., 2019) and the desire to label any political phenomena with negative connotations as populism. One of the basic definitions of populism, which we will take as a base in this article, is the strategy of a political struggle (Weyland, 2001, p. 14), based on antielitism and holism (see also: Oskolkov, Tevdoi-Bourmouli, 2018). In other words, populism is a set of political stratagems, the main one of which is the rhetoric of opposing the people and the elite, as well as the idea of the people as a single entity with a common will, which populist politicians express.

At the same time, the division of populism into right-wing populism, which emphasizes the rights of the “indigenous population,” and left-wing populism, which plays on economic contradictions, has become relatively conventional (Priester, 2011). What is called right-wing populism is usually associated with nationalism, primarily in the nativist form of the latter, in which the core of the people are organically opposed to outsiders. It is obvious that the mentioned core has a pronounced cultural properties that distinguish it from these “foreigners,” and that membership in it is perceived as inherited. Hence, right-wing populism may well be synonymous with ethnic populism or ethnopopulism. Moreover, let us assume that it is the term ethnopopulism that is more relevant in the conditions of modern party-political systems, since the very concepts of right and left in the programs of European populist parties become extremely blurred. Speaking about right-wing populism, we are inevitably forced to make reservations that its economic agenda does not necessarily have classical right-wing features, and the boundaries of the right-wing political agenda are also very arbitrary; the proposed term ethnopopulism makes it possible to remove these contradictions. Thus, while R. Madrid understands ethnopopulism as a desire to include representatives of all ethnic groups in the electorate of the party (Madrid, 2008), E. Jenne prefers to define it as “a discourse that equates ‘the people’ with ‘the nation’ and holds that sovereignty should be an expression of the will of the ‘nation-people’” (Jenne, 2018, p. 550). We understand ethnopopulism as a subcategory of political populism that uses ethnic identification in its rhetoric. Synthesizing the two concepts, we formulate the definition of ethnopopulism as follows: the strategy of a political struggle based on antielitism, holism, and mobilization of ethnic identity as cultural and inherited. The definition, of course, is controversial, but it seems to us useful in this analysis.

From what has been said above, it follows that nationalism is also primarily ethnically colored. However, then what about the textbook division of nationalism into “ethnic” and “civic” (see, for example: Greenfeld, 1993)? This dichotomy is not unproblematic. A. Smith drew our attention to the fact that any civic nationalism (based on the understanding of the nation as a community of citizens) has ethnic components: “Even the most ‘civic’ and ‘political’ nationalisms often turn out on closer inspection to be also ‘ethnic’ and ‘linguistic’” (Smith, 1998, p. 126). In addition, a community in a nation under certain conditions can also be considered as culturally conditioned (for example, membership in a French or German nation implies loyalty, respectively, to French or German culture, no matter how we interpret it). Moreover, membership in the nation is a priori heritable: most concepts of acquiring citizenship by birth imply that a child born to citizens (or even to one citizen) will also become a citizen. Therefore, within the given theoretical framework, almost any nationalism can also be considered ethnic (Jenkins, 2008, p. 151), if only because the ideologists of nationalism appeal to a certain framed group identity.

Let us consider the previously formulated theses on one of the most relevant examples of right-wing populism and nationalism in Western Europe: the Dutch party “Forum for Democracy” (Forum voor Democratie). Of course, the rhetoric of the Forum is based on antielitism: the opposition of the people of the Netherlands to the left-liberal elite, the “left church” (linkse kerk). “The people of the Netherlands” are seen as a single entity with a certain common will, volonté générale. At the same time, the leader of the party, T. Baudet, appeals to the German civilization, the boreal [northern] world (boreale wereld), that is, to a certain historical and cultural community to which all the Dutch belong by birthright. The same characteristics distinguish the French National Rally (Rassemblement national): its leader, Marine Le Pen, calls for “freeing the French people from an arrogant elite,” implying the homogeneity of both of these groups, and insists on the priority of the French over immigrants who do not share the French cultural heritage and the “general will” (De Jonge, 2021).

Regionalism can be seen as a variation of nationalism, in which the loyalty of the nation is transferred to a specific region (narrowed down to it). If a region is viewed purely as a territorial unit with no cultural otherness, then regionalism has no ethnic character. In other situations, we are talking about ethnoregionalism, and we are again dealing with manifestations of ethnicity in political processes. Moreover, ethnoregionalist parties, in the case of Europe united in the European Free Alliance, can conditionally be viewed as both nationalist and ethnopopulist (Newth, 2021): for instrumental purposes, they discursively mobilize the ethnic identity of the inhabitants of the region. Holism and antielitism (as the opposition of their own ethnic group, understood integrally, to the politically dominant ethnic group in the state, often in accordance with the theory of “internal colonialism” by M. Hechter (Hechter, 1975)) lies at their ideological core.

Let us take the Scottish National Party as an example of an ethnoregionalist party. Since its inception in the first half of the 20th century, the party has exploited the conventional opposition of the “people” in Edinburgh or Aberdeen to the “elite” in London or Leeds. At the same time, the SNP appeals to the regional and conditionally “national” feelings of the electorate, united by loyalty to Scottish culture and the idea of Scottish independence. We note that Scottish ethnicity in the understanding of the SNP is open, and any British subject living in Scotland and demonstrating the indicated loyalty can accept it (Panov, 2021; Okhoshin, 2020). Therefore, the criterion of heredity in this case potentially dies out, although it continues to sound implicit. To a certain extent, the same applies to the Welsh party, Plaid Cymru. Against, Sinn Féin, the main ethnoregionalist actor in Northern Ireland (although advocating irredenta rather than full independence) is less open to nonhereditary incorporation due to the greater radicalism of its rhetoric (Shapke, 2019). Also the Basque Solidarity Party (Eusko Alkartasuna), which separated from the Basque Nationalist Party in 1987, speaks in its program and electoral manifestos almost exclusively about the Basque people, who are considered as a single entity, regardless of state borders, and acts in the interests of this ethnic group in two states at the same time: Spain and France. Party ideologists consider the common ethnic identity of the inhabitants of the Spanish Basque Country and the south of the French New Aquitaine to be a sufficient base for redrawing the current state borders and creating a united and independent Basque state on this territory, regardless of the opinion of the Parisian and Madrid elites.

CONCLUSIONS What Should Researchers of Ethnic Politics Study?

By the basic characteristics of ethnicity, we mean cultural conditioning (broadly understood) and the idea of the inheritance of group membership. Based on these characteristics, we can identify a number of problematic points of modern ethnopolitical science that lie outside the boundaries of the relations between the state and (un)organized ethnic groups that have become classical for it: populism (ethnopopulism), nationalism (ethnonationalism), and regionalism (ethnoregionalism). Each of these phenomena has ethnic connotations, is built to a large extent on the emphasis on cultural otherness and inherited properties. Therefore, we propose, firstly, to proceed from a fairly broad, albeit, limited by some basic coordinates, understanding of ethnicity; secondly, to consider the activities of populist, nationalist, and regionalist movements and parties as nodal points of intersection of ethnicity and politics and, thus, as the main directions of modern ethnopolitical analysis. Thus, the current ethnopolitical agenda in the studies of the European Union goes beyond migration and consociational (in the case of a few multiethnic federations: Belgium, Switzerland, Bosnia and Herzegovina) issues and covers both the problems of forming a common European identity and the latest trends in the development of party-political systems.