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Defining Ethnicity

Peoples and Cultures

Ethnic Distinction Among the Oromo
What Factors Make a People Group Distinct?

Orville Boyd Jenkins

I am researching the Arsi people of Ethiopia.  I have found information about the region these people are from and that they are part of a larger people group called the Oromo Borana.  What makes them a distinct people group from the other Oromo people?

The Arsi are not part of the Borana.  If a database has indicated such a relationship, it has accounted for the factors of the matter incorrectly.

The Arsi and the Borana are two of a group of three Oromo peoples speaking forms of the same language, who live in regions geographically within the political boundaries of Ethiopia.  The third people is the Guji.

As far as I know the Arsi live to the north of the Borana, whose living area continues south across the border of Kenya.  Their speech forms are so similar that they are classified by linguists as dialects of one language.

Due to these factors, there is some logic to considering these three related peoples as one, since they can all hear each other's speech.  This would not be my choice, because the distinguishing factors seem to indicate more separate identity than same identity.

It may be that in some database, someone entered the population of all speakers of this language as a people group, which does not seem to me to follow the standard definitions being followed by most researchers and by Harvest Information System partners.

Language or People
The technical classification name for this language is "Oromo, Borana-Arsi-Guji."  One name used for this language is "Borana."  (It is entered this way in the Kenya Ethnologue list.)  This might be why you would have "Borana" as a single entry in a database, with Arsi, and Guji (and maybe Borana) as sub-groups.

There is some logic to this, but to be complete and consistent, such an entry should have one parent entry (by whatever name) with three sub-groups.  Arsi and Guji are not sub-groups of Borana.  Also, someone might have simply made the mistake of entering the language group name and population as a people group.

The Arsi (Arusi, Arussi) are one of three Oromo groups whose forms of speech are close enough to be classified as one language by SIL.  Thus their language is listed as Borana-Arsi-Guji.  The Arsi name either comes from or is the source for the name of the Arsi province in Ethiopia.  Thus the designation "Arsi Oromo" actually means only that they are the Oromo who live in Arsi province.  The name Oromo is usually used to refer to them and the other groups of Oromo.

You can see the relative positions by going to the following URL and entering the name of each group (region):
Thus you can see that they are geographically distinct.  This is one factor in determining whether two social or ethnic groups are to be considered the same or separate entities.

The various Oromo can speak with each other to some extent, but the technical designations of Oromo languages in the Ethnologue are determined by technical analysis based on linguistic standards and literacy requirements in determining how close the various speech forms are.

Changing Sense of Identity
The socio-political situation of the Oromo peoples of Ethiopia is changing.An article on the the social history of the Oromo groups indicates that until recently, they have not focused on a broader Oromo unity as a primary focus of identity, focusing rather on the closer relationship groups.

This is an Eastern Cushite trait, optimized in the Somali people, who are sub-divided into thousands of clan and family groups by lineage, down to the family and brother-to-brother level, which then have hundreds of political-social cross alliances further confusing their ethno-social landscape.  Political issues are causing the various Oromo groups to reflect with each other on their common plight and re-evaluate their common identity.

Basic Reference Points
In general what you are addressing arises out of two primary factors.

1.  First, the way a group of individuals thinks of themselves.  Every family, or larger related grouping of humans is related in some way to a larger "parent" ethnicity, and to other "cousin" ethnicities.  Thus the self-identity is much like that in families.  If they consider themselves all one, we can to.  If they don't, you can have your own ideas about it, but have to acknowledge who they think they are and relate to them that way (and classify them, name them or relate to them on that basis).

So the first factor is that these boundaries within the Oromo family are self-defined, by kinship largely and then other factors.  They think of themselves as different and maintain a social boundary.  There is a broad group awareness among all the various Oromo groups, but they identify their sub-groups among themselves, and there is some language difference between them.  This also is a distinguishing feature.  (See factor 2.)

Think of branches of one family that have moved out and settled as they grew larger – for example, the Jones family of Wales.  Does every current Jones family consider the next Jones family their kinfolk?  Some do, and some don't, depends on how close, how important the past was, etc.  Hispanic surnamed people will value affinity more than Anglo heritage families.

This kind of thing is discovered and documented, as you suggest, by someone who lives with them.  This is the kind of thing a Strategy Coordinator is expected to accomplish as a first priority:  learning the people from the people, through relationships and time with them, and learning their language, which give extreme insights into the worldview.

2.  The form of their speech.  There are identifiable differences in the speech forms of each of the three Oromo groups involved here.  They are very close so they can talk to each other but there are identifiable, regular differences.  In this matter, again, we depend on those technically trained to analyze speech forms, until we are able ourselves to go there and learn the language for ourselves from the inside.

The formal classification of the speech of the three Oromo groups Borana, Arsi and Guji are close enough that they can understand each other, and according to the technical criteria of the Ethnologue, can use the same literature.  Thus the different forms of speech are classified as "dialects" of one "language."  The fact that there are three identifiable groupings, that also match the self-groupings give the picture of three individual ethnic entities.

In general the formal classification involves two components: a self-identity component and a technical, or academic, component to this.  For "classification" purposes, the latter is an artificial, imposed distinction necessary for the systems academics and foreigners need to understand and classify people groups.

Thus in many cases it is just a call – go one way or the other.  So a determining factor is the self-identity factor, how closely do the separate groups identify.

There is an additional strategy element that is added when you consider access and communication, that does not necessarily affect the "classification level."  At what level can you relate to build relationships, communicate and begin access.

Identifying People Groups
Let me refer you first to some resources on the factors involved in the identity of a people group.

There are other articles on the menu of Peoples and Cultures which will help in Defining Ethnicity.  Note particularly the section "How We Determine Ethnicity" in the article What is a People Group.

Keep in mind that the question that started this discussion asks about the social characteristics discoverable only by living in the culture and having a direct Borana or Arsi cultural mentor.  So we depend on the reports of such experienced people where our experience is lacking.

Elusive Answers
Actually this is one of the exciting aspects of cultural research, though likewise the source of much of our frustration:  you can't answer all the questions, you leave many aspects pending and always watch for snippets of insight to fill in details.  And the details are changing – peoples (ethnicities) change just as individuals do. Cultures continue to develop and change, so you will never catch up!  How frustrating.  How exciting!

In this regard consider another resource topic on this site, Assimilation.  This gives some models and processes by which ethnic groups change, merge or die out and how new people groups develop.

Let me recommed an article that addresses just this question.  The article describes some distinctions between the various Oromo groups.  Note that the author emphasizes the sense of rivalry between the various Oromo groups.

See Related Article
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Peoples and Languages
Race and Ethnicity
Italians and Race
What is a People Group?
What is an Ethnic Group

Written March 2003
First posted on Thoughts and resources 14 May 2004
Last edited 20 August 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

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