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Ethnicity and Nationality in Mixed Genetics
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

My daughter and I are curious as to how we determine how much Irish, English, Italian we may be, etc.  Is it a mathematical formula? So, if my mother is 1/2 Irish and 1/2 Italian and my father is 1/2 Scottish or English (not sure really) and a 1/4 Portuguese and another 1/4 English, then do I assume that I'm a 1/4 Italian, 1/4 Irish, mostly English-Scottish and 1/8 Portuguese?

As a genealogist, I am also fascinated by these multiple streams in the history of most Americans, and enjoy trying to reconstruct the trees and missing details of the branches made up of these individuals from whom I descend, from several different genetic and ethnic lines.  The formula you have followed here is the standard way to do this.  Everything just halves with the next generation.  Then your percentages from both parents are added together.

This is really a more complex question than it might seem at first.  Since you have the details of your family history, the percentages you have worked out tell you your genetic heritage.  Sometimes this is related to your ethnic heritage.  But there is a deeper problem here, Your genetic heritage and your current ethnic identity are two different matters.

National Identities
Additionally, another problem arises here.  The identities you mention appear to be national identities, not strictly ethnicities.  And then you can always push the question farther back in history and toward more specific definitions.  What, for instance, does "English" mean?  Is Peter Ustinov English?  He has British citizenship, He speaks a form of English spoken in the United Kingdom as a native language.  But Ustinov?  That is a Russian name.

And what about Taliaferro and other Italian and Spanish names that have over the centuries become well established in the British nobility.  And the common ones, like Montgomery, a Norman-French name.  And Bernard or Barnett deriving from it, likewise.  And we are aware of the British (Celtic) base, then the Angles and Saxons, and the related Danes.  So how "English" are the English?

Starting Points
This is of course pushing the question to the edge, but I do this to illustrate that any starting point is artificial and arbitrary to some extent, as the various human groups have marched and migrated and merged and mixed, recombining bits of our common genetic pool.  But you see, the more you know about any one ancestor, the clearer your heritage is.

But your "heritage," whether genetic or ethnic, is only one component of who you are now.  Either one of these may actually be negligible to what we actually mean by ethnicity.

The ethnic identities that develop over time are more related to the social settings and relationships than to the genetic origins.  Quantifying that scientifically and mathematically is more difficult.

There are layers of different genetic and ethnic streams that have merged in England.  There are several layers of this.  The people in the part of Great Britain called England come from many different original language, national origins.

Three major categories are involved here.  The first factor is our lineage or genetic sources.  This is often what people think of in ethnic questions related to the European heritage.  But this is usually understood in terms of a second factor, national origin.  And then there is the cultural character or stream, which is usually more specific.

Let me look at "nationality" first.  You have defined your ethnic streams by geopolitical designations.  Those terms to some degree are also ethnic designations, or can be.  But nationality and ethnic group are not the same.

To compare from outside your context, let's look at the East African country of Kenya.  People may tell you they are Kenyan.  But there are different layers of meaning to that term.  They would mean initially that they are citizens of the geopolitical entity, the "nation-state" called Kenya.

They might also understand this in a geographical sense.  But if discussion proceeded, then they would want to tell you what Province or district they were from.  This would inevitably lead to their disclosure of their home district or village, which would entail the "tribe" or ethnic group they are from.  This could be easily identified by discussing the language of their home.

The comparatively small nation of Kenya (about the size of Texas) has about 125 ethnic groups speaking varieties of about 85 different languages!  So you see, it would depend on the level of identification you had in mind or were willing to look into.  So at that basic ethnic level, "Kenyan" is not an ethnic designation at all.  (It may at some point become so, as young peole of different tribes marry eaach other, and their children grow up in the new urban, detribalized or multi-trbalized Kenyan society.)

See my article illustrating this aspect of self-identification in Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Level.

The term "nationality" is also sometimes used to mean what country you were originally a citizen of, thus a political identity, not an ethnic one.  Most of the European countries have many ethnic groups with their several languages, also often referred to as "nationalities."  For instance, "Italian" as a national citizenship could include the ethnicities or "nationalities" Tuscan or Sicilian or Corsican.  So where precision is needed, we must be careful to distinguish nationality or citizenship from ethnicity.

In the United states popular references and designations usually follow nation-state designations, such as French or German.  For instance in US censuses, from 1880 the census reports the birthplace of the individual and each of their parents.  From state to state and census to census, I find some recorded as Germany while others for the same individual report Prussia.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the greatest power among the German states was the Prussian Empire.

What is German?
Different German States developed greater or smaller Empires at various times, that incorporated some or all the German-speaking states.  It was Prussia that was involved in the First World War, not any state named "Germany."  But some Americans referred to the Prussian Empire as Germany.  Some of the ethnic groups in the Prussian Empire were Prussian, Swabian, Silesian (Polish) and Alsatian.

The succeeding Weimar Republic was also called Germany.  The Third Reich of the Nazis was called Germany.

"Germany," thus, is a very general terms referring to different political or dynastic powers at different periods in history.  The boundaries of "Germany" changed every few years over its known history.  And various German states and Empires included peoples from many different ethnic and genetic origins and speaking many different languages.

Thus what would constitute the German "ethnicity" is a more complex question than the political designation.  You might associate it with the particular language of German.  But which German language?  There are a number of languages in the family called "German."

And what about Austria and Switzerland?  Are those German speakers German in ethnicity?  Is Austrian an ethnicity as well as a geo-political designation?

And what is Swiss ethnicity?  Switzerland is a federation of several ethnic and linguistic communities.  There are four national languages.  One of those four, Rhaeto-Romansch, is itself a cluster of tiny languages and their communities.  So there is Swiss nationality (citizenship)?  Yes.  Is there a "Swiss" ethnicity?  Probably not.

The Germanic family of languages itself is a rich and varied group of dozens of languages spoken across many geo-political regions of Europe and some in North and South America.  So nationality in the political sense is less accurate for technical reference.

Cultural Characteristics
Here it appears your focus is on genetic and ethnic streams in the broad sense.  Genetic history is in many cases closely associated with ethnic identity.  But it is important and helpful to note that virtually all ethnic groups now identifiable, especially in the European region, are multiple overlays of many different human groups over millennia.  So the genetic stream is extremely broad and varied as is the contributing ethnic influences over the period of known history, let alone prehistory.

What about the Irish?  Are Irish citizens whose native language is Erse of the same ethnicity as Irish citizens whose native language is English?  Are Irish-Americans the same ethnicity as Irish in Ireland?  What kind of connections and shared identity remain?

In determining ethnicity, the cultural aspects are actually more important than genetics or citizenship.  This term "culture" covers the components of social interaction and shared experience.

Merging and Melting
Think of it this way.  Any individual or family can change cultural streams.  Someone from elsewhere can move into a community, gain acceptance in the ways required by that community and gradually become part of that society.  They are, in fact, going through the process of assimilation to the new culture, and their children will be brought up in that environment, and thus socially "look like" the "indigenous" people.

How many generations does it take for a certain ethnicity to die out in the American melting pot?

Recent analysis of the American social and ethnic picture indicates that the "Melting Pot" is not as strong or complete a process as earlier thought.  The very fact that we see such prominent reference to different ethnic or "racial" groups attests to this.  Yet it is valid to speak of ethnicities dying out.  There is also the often overlooked parallel process of new ethnicities developing.   This is a constant process, and right now we see the process in all the cities of the world.

There is no one period of time in which we can say that ethnicities die out.  It depends on the dynamics and values of the particular immigrant group.  The factors are too varied for each situation.

You mention that one stream of your ethnic heritage is Italian.  In the US situation I have discussed, some "Italians" continue to be Italians in the US, while other "Italians" intermarry and merge into the general mixed stream of broader American culture and thus perhaps what we can call an "American" ethnicity.

Ethnicities most commonly "die" (disappear as a discrete social or linguistic entity) by becoming part of a larger group, through intermarriage or cultural absorption.  The new, usually smaller, stream merges with the broader stream socially, genetically and culturally.  The descendants of those immigrants became part of the host culture and generally of that ethnicity.  But where multiple large streams settle together, each will contribute to the mix, creating a new culture and ethnicity to one degree or another.  This is what is happening in the US and many other countries worldwide.  

On the other hand, often a particular cultural group or ethnicity or language group will experience a resurgence and revive when in danger of extinction or absorption.  I would say, without benefit of any specific study detailing statistics, that the latter is most likely to occur where a minority ethnic or national group has been forcibly repressed militarily or politically by a stronger ethnic or political group.  Sometimes allied minority groups combine efforts for resistance purposes, either militarily or culturally, and foster a process of merging that in turn creates a new ethnicity out of the two separate earlier minority groups.

See my discussions and illustrations on processes of assimilation.  These describe ways in which ethnicities grow and change, die out and how new ethnicities develop:  Assimilation:  How Peoples Develop and Change.

Language and Ethnicity
Language is an important component of what we call culture or ethnicity.  So if you think in terms of your language, this enables you to determine to whom you most immediately relate.  In a multi-cultural society like the US, many distinct groups have merged in to a larger society, and gradually come to largely use one language.

But some groups retained a more distinct identity.  For instance you and I share Irish heritage.  At certain times of US history, Irish migrated in family groups and moved into new settlement areas, gradually learning the American way of speech in their area.  Their children might not have had other Irish to marry.

The new conditions of living together also brought a different way of thinking about identity and practical matters, so Irish and Scottish and English, sprinkled with German or Polish, or Czech (as in North Texas) all began to think of themselves as "belonging" together.   Their common experiences led to a common sense of identity, a solidarity and social unity.

New Significant Experiences
This set of common Shared Significant Experiences is a basic feature of culture or ethnicity.  In this kind of setting, then, it was less noticeable that a Czech girl might marry an Irish boy.  Their origins and genetic heritage or former language was not the primary aspect of identity, but the common experiences they had had.

I said earlier that language is a factor.  As all the immigrants dealt with one another, the expedient for common communication became English, spoken by the largest group of "first families."  In Pennsylvania this English competed with German, well into the 1800s, and Dutch remained a factor in New York (formerly New Amsterdam) for some time.

But in general, English became the lingua franca.  In most situations the newcomers learned English, the children became native speakers.  This was simply an expedient related to moving to a new social setting.  Usually by the third generation the community lost their original tongue, but not always.

One family moving in would obviously have no reinforcement of their previous social and cultural situations.  They began sharing new, different Significant Experiences, so their culture and self-identity began to shift.  This would not change them from who they were, but would modify them into someone different from the people who remained in Poland or Italy and were not subject to the Anglo-American forces of culture.

The Polish coming in great numbers to the Midwest established Polish schools and even a university in the Chicago area.  These continued operating into the present, gradually adding English language courses and streams of study for the more fully assimilated generations.  American-born Poles began to marry non-Poles.

A similar process occurred with immigrant German communities in Texas.  Into this generation German was still the native language of a large community in the Hill Country of Texas and until recently in North Texas.  The Germans also contributed to the broader Texas culture.  Oktoberfest is now a big celebration in Texas, just as St Pat's Day.

Of Two Lands
For Italian-Americans in this process of assimilation, for instance, some of these intermarried and mixed-culture individuals may foster close contact with Italian-American culture groups.  They may culture contacts with Italian groups in the homeland.  But in order to live effectively in their new host culture, they will adapt in various ways.

In the 2nd and 3rd generation even though they maintain ties with the home culture, they will grow different and distant.  A new "Italian" ethnicity will develop in the new land.  Individual families or individuals who marry non-Italians not be as intimately involved with Italian identity or consider themselves as singly Italian as those who remain in Italian enclaves as has occurred in New York and Chicago.

In the frontier areas of American settlement the focus changed from the national identities they had left in Europe.  As the common language enabled a wider sharing of the general society and daily experience together, their Polishness or Englishness or Czechness was not the primary focus anymore.  They all spoke English, they all dealt with the same forces of the frontier, or the same pressures of the urban centers, the difficulties of the factory owners, etc.

The Irish as a people spoke a Celtic language.  But English was thrust upon the Irish by their Norman-English conquerors and occupiers.  We know that even in Ireland, English became the language, due to centuries of occupation and oppression by the English, and well as various other cultural and economic pressures.

But this did not make them English.  The geography of Ireland and great coherent population kept the Irish identity alive as a separate concept and social unit, even as they migrated into the English language stream.  The great waves of Irish into the cities in the 1800s also led to enclaves of Irish, who more willfully congregated together and formed their own communities.  These conditions reinforced their social cohesion.

Social Cohesion
This social cohesion is an important part of ethnicity.  For the immigrant Irish, this was supplemented by the class distinctions of Anglos who thought themselves also better than the "Irish race," which even classed the Irish as black.  This term "the Irish Race" was used by both Irish and Anglo advocates.  Among Anglo writers in the 1800s the term was used by commentators both favorable and unfavorable to the Irish.

The conflict and competition occurred more in the East Coast cities, and especially in Boston.  Ethnicity is closely related to language, but even though the Irish immigrants spoke English, the Irish accent became a point if distinction.

Social cohesion was missing for many of those who migrated west with the development and settlement of the frontier.  For my family, we did not "experience" being Irish.  We only know we had an Irish heritage.  And we also learned about the other streams of ethnicity in our family.  Thus our experiences that made us who were in our psyche and relationships were not Irish but American.

Genetics and Ethnicity
We can determine the percentage of genetic sourcing if we have enough information.  This is what you have in the mathematical formula you have suggested.  But your ethnicity is yet another dimension, arising out of you present circumstances, socialization and self-identity.  This includes how these different genetic heritages, which were associated with certain ethnicities, affect you now in your current set of experiences and relationships.

Genetic heritage is different from our ethnicity.  Ethnicity is developed or to some degree agreed upon by participants, and depends on the shared experiences and mutual acceptance.  You see this in the groupings within one society, that at some level might be considered as one society, but in reality contains many ethnic groups.  The native language of most groups of people in the US, for instance, is English.

But we will find distinctions at some level of society.  Sometimes it is due to enforced distinction, which may be largely artificial, like the more obvious color distinctions that led to the creating of "race" as "color" in the US, forcibly separating the residents of African origin from those of European origin.  Similar steps were taken against Asians and Eastern Europeans.

So the number of immigrants settling in the same community or the number of people of any similar culture living together, whether by their own choice of enforced by others, can lead to a distinction of class or caste that becomes one aspect of self-definition.  These factors go into ethnic identity.  Ethnicity is largely an interaction of Self-Identity with the attitude of others.

Recovering Ethnic Heritage
In the US the lines of separation are blurred and the general trend has been to enhance the blurriness.  Your question reflects a counter-trend in the recent American concern to discover our ethnic/genetic heritage.  This turns our thoughts to the past and the stream of events and people that have led to us.

This can tell us much about how we got to where we are now, but is a story of passage and change, rather than a redefinition, I think.  I am excited to learn more specifically about my Irish and Scottish ancestors, and likewise to learn about the Native American streams that are part of me genetically and historically, but they have not directly determined who I am ethnically today.

American Ethnicity
The mixed genetics of most Americans does not involve the various historical ethnicities.  But as I emphasized earlier, we normally think not so much of ethnicity as of "nationality."  As the various immigrant nationalities mix and merge, what we are seeing is the development of a new ethnicity.  But American society is so diverse, in effect, we see many different new ethnicities.

The development of an "American" ethnicity is still in great flux.  There are various sub-groups, self-identified in various ways.  But there is a greatly shared set of Shared Significant Experiences across these individual groups with some distinct Shared Significant Experiences.  This indicates how "ethnicity" is a matter of focus at different levels.

This complicates the answer to your question, but indicates how complex "ethnicity" is.  The living experiences and interaction of various discrete groups in one geographic area, the languages preferred or necessary and the levels of mutual acceptance all go into determining ethnicity.  No one of us today can sort out how much of which historical ethnicity is now part of our current ethnicity.  What we mean by ethnicity is more dynamic and time limited.

Changing Streams
As American history indicates, people can change ethnic streams, no matter what their genetic streams.  Likewise they can change language streams.  Language and social interaction are critical aspects of culture and ethnicity.  And each society will have various sub-groups which recognize certain distinct characteristics and expectations.  So our ethnicity can be defined at different levels of our interaction with different groupings or circles in the broader society.

Some societies are more unitary (this is illustrated in the "tribal" sort of society) than others, which are more characteristic of the urban world as a whole, and characteristic of the American society, which also is developing common national cultural characteristics alongside those differing characteristics on a more regional or local level.  The more people move around across these regional and local levels, the more homogenous the general culture will be.

This also means that as we see now, change and diversity are high values in the general American culture.  Some more local or "ethnic" culture groups might have narrower tolerance within their own communities for variation.

Also related
Assimilation:  How Peoples Develop and Change
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Level
Shared Significant Experiences
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity

Also related on the Internet
My Jenkins and Related Genealogy Research


Topic initially addressed in an email and article initially developed 5 December 2009
Article finalized and posted 15 December 2009
Last edited 31 March 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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