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Lists, Codes and Real-World Ethnicity:
Thoughts on People Group Information Exchange

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

There are always different perspectives from which to analyze the complex of human ethnicity.  This means there are various ways to organize what you are finding in research on people groups (ethnic groups, peoples).

Varieties of Views

Thus the comparison of views and the exchange of information are critical to gain a common shared view of ethnicity and ethnicities.  Different assumptions and different classification systems portray the world differently.  Another way of putting it is that the way in which we attempt to systematize what we are finding changes to some extent our understanding of what we are finding.

We should always be critical of our conclusions.  The variety of new discoveries in research and the different views of what we are finding are a positive aspect of the discovery.

Classification and Discovery
A data model does not determine the peoples of the world.  Rather, it attempts to account for what is being discovered about human ethnicity – social and lineage groups of humans in their real-life settings.

The dynamic real world of human ethnicity cannot be captured in data fields!  But aspects of it may be represented.  The goal of cultural research and worldview investigation is to discover ethnic realities and to continue discovering more of the complex nuances of difference among such broad similarities across world cultures and societies.

We have to remain modest about how “accurate” any data set or people list can be, in light of the multi-dimensional complexity of real human identity and social life.

Our goal is to facilitate the discovery by enabling any or all investigators to learn what others are finding and how they have interpreted it or classified that at the current time.

What we are attempting to discover are the dynamic characteristics of each human society at whatever level, so as to facilitate cross-cultural communication.  In order for meaningful communication to occur across cultures, relationships must be established.  Relationships of respect, trust and credibility may then lead to creative and productive worldview-level communication.

The Final Analysis
I have perceived in some quarters an inordinate desire to finalize and standardize the classification of ethnic groups.  They envision one-to-one match between various people lists.  Somehow there is a simplistic feeling that to be accurate, the entities should match one-to-one, and the names should even be the same or similar.  We should homogenize all the lists to make One Great List.

This is in reality a barrier to sharing information no less formidable than the original problems we had trying to laboriously match by name alone!  The one-to-one limitation is just another variation of our old problem.  Codes are meant to bypass this problem, facilitating the sharing of insights and information even with differences in data structures, views of ethnicity or strategy approaches.

While Data Management proffers clear bounded categories and regularity, the real world is actually dynamic, changing, fuzzy at every level.  This is certainly the case in ethnicity!  The Scientific Method is helpful here, using the approach of discovery and analysis.  But we find there is no Final Analysis.  There is no such thing in Ethnicity.  Because it involves human beings!

The Unfinished Task
From a cultural point of view, we will never have a Final and Complete list (standard, or whatever it might be called) because it is the nature of Ethnicity to change.  I address this in my article the Rough Edges of Ethnicity.

Any listing or classification has to make choices about where to draw lines on a continuum of similar but slightly different social cultures, worldviews, and speech forms (commonly referred to as languages and dialects).  Thus we are involved in a quest of investigation and discovery.

Facilitating Exchange
Codesets are a "third-party" reference that enables each database to see what is in another database.  Where an entity relates in some way, or where there are totally different unmatched entries.

On some occasions, there will be exact matches between an entity in one View (database, or classification system) and another.  More often there will be differences in the boundaries and groupings.  The codeset will enable partners to compare and find matching, finding their similarities and differences.

Finding Similarity, Exploring Difference
The short version of that is the ROP codes enable you to find any similarity and expand your explorations by tapping into another database’s knowledge without compromising your own!

This way discovery can be accelerated by everyone sharing their partial knowledge and views from different levels of investigations into a broader pool that everybody can have a first-hand opportunity to analyze and evaluate on their own terms!

Areas of difference between any two or more people lists or databases present opportunities for further research, verification, clarification or interpretation, for an ever-sharper view of the human social groupings with whom we want to communicate.

Exchanging vs Standardizing and Merging
Over the years, various research efforts wanted to learn what other researchers knew and were discovering.  But the idea of a Standard list seems to be the stumbling block.  When they would discuss combining their information, agencies could never agree on what to include, how to classify, what names to use, where to combine or divide similar groups.

This is why Harvest Information System put so much effort into defining and developing codesets.  We want to facilitate the exchange of the varied sources on a broader basis.  To democratize the knowledge, if you will.  Of course there are many factors and logistics to bear in mind.

Maybe I should put that another way.  There are various reasons resistance is encountered in attempting to homogenize information to One Great List.  The attainment of a Standard list of peoples has taxonomical value for purposes of analysis.  But we will wisely acknowledge that the very systemization necessary to enter data into predefined fields in a database limits the View we gain from the data!

More important for strategic communication purposes is an understanding of the underlying worldview and the social structures of the various human communities in the world, with the goal of intimate communication at the deepest level of self-understanding, where life-changing decisions are made in the worldview approaches.

Ignore at Your Peril
If this level is not touched, only superficial changes will result out of the opportunities available for real alternatives in any society.  Medical, economic and other international initiatives have the reputation of foundering because they ignore this worldview matter and communication occurs only at superficial levels.  Cultures and communities are not engaged at the deep-worldview decision-making level.

Technology is imposed, rather than integrated.  Programs are administered from the outside or dumped on a culture whose worldview assumptions do not entail the factors required for maintaining these foreign systems.  Communicating in meaningful worldview terms is one primary goal of understanding cultures.

Complexity of Ethnicity
All research ideally continues to discover more detail about human ethnicity and tries to account for what is found.  But we still hear comments on the need for everyone’s data to look alike.  That goal of One Common List seems counter-productive to understanding the dynamic complex of real-world cultures we observe.

We will never reach a common, standard agreed list.  Ethnicity is just too complicated.  And it changes too fast.  Like languages, "ethnicities" (Peoples, people groups, tribes, etc.) die, they merge, they change, and new ones develop.  Every year ethnic groups disappear and news ones are discernible.  The great cities of the world are seething cooking pots for new ethnicities, not just social segments.

Each individual, research team, project or casual observer will discover different aspects of the ethnic environment.  Each view will be a partial picture.  Each locus of information will try to organize its findings into meaningful categories.  Hopefully, serious researchers will remain in touch with standard definitions and guidelines for understanding and analyzing ethnic findings, based on disciplines that specialize in these areas.  This would include anthropology, sociology, linguistics, history and the intersection of these.

As information can be shared, views will surely draw closer together.  The problem for classification is the limitation of a data set to represent the multiplicity of social networks and cultural patterns that constitute what we call "Ethnicity."

But still, that is a somewhat different matter than how a code operates and how a codeset can facilitate the exchange of information.

Codesets – A Reference Mechanism
I understand a "codeset" to be a reference mechanism for finding or comparing information.  The purpose of the codeset as understood in the HIS working context is for finding similar information in another database.  There is no assumption that each database must adjust somehow.

The goal of HIS is not to simply provide a universal correct or "standard" list of ethnicities.  Classification is not the goal.  The goal is comparison and exchange of information, with the end result of communication at the deep worldview level in each self-identified "ethnic group" or "people group" of the world!

The goal is specifically meant to avoid the idea that there should be one "standard" that everyone is expected to follow, but to facilitate the understanding and exchange of information based on different views of ethnicity, without limiting any contributing database.

Clarifying Ethnicity and Ethnicities
A "Standard" list of peoples seems to be a side issue that, when it becomes the primary focus, only impedes our understanding of peoples of the world.  Any standardization by definition imposes itself on the resulting view of ethnicity.

More pressing, I would think, is clarifying the picture of ethnicity, the map of the ethnic landscape, from the bits various sources know.  Hundreds of research projects and cultural investigations are underway all over the world by various personnel:  academic, mission, social, linguistic, economic, and such.  All these stand to enrich our overall knowledge of the peoples of the world.

Also related:
Classifying Ethnicity: a Broader Knowledge Base of World Ethnicity
Ethnic Names and Codes:  Correlating People Lists; How Codes in the Registry of Peoples Enrich the Exchange of Ethnic Information
Ethnic Names and Codes — Correlating People Lists:
        How Codes in the Registry of Peoples Enrich the Exchange of Ethnic Information
Rough Edges of Ethnicity

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
Identifying a People Group

Related on the Internet:
Harvest Information System
People Groups
The Ethnologue


This article is based on two papers first presented to the Stewards of the Harvest Information System 24 May 2008
This version written July 2008
Finalized and posted on OJTR 25 July 2008
Last edited 18 July 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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