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Analysing the Implications of Gracia's Familial-Historical View of Ethnicity for Ethnic Inclusion

by Michael Barkasi, Department of Philosophy, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania[1]



This paper addresses the problem of determining ethnic group inclusion. Using primarily a theoretical argument based on Jorge Gracia's research in ethnic identities, the paper develops a method by which inclusion in ethnic groups can be objectively determined. Though mainly theoretical, the paper references relevant sociological research when appropriate. An often-noted lack of theoretical work on ethnicity in the social sciences motivates the discussion and analysis.

The paper begins by outlining Jorge Gracia's theory of ethnicity. Then, by analysing the implications of Gracia's theory, propositions about ethnic group inclusion and individual membership are derived. Once the criterion for ethnic group inclusion is determined, an application is given from the sociological literature. The paper concludes that the criterion given for ethnic group inclusion is not only consistent with the standard views on ethnicity, but also that it provides a theoretic framework for understanding how ethnic group inclusion relates to the structure of ethnic groups themselves.

KEYWORDS: Identity, Inclusion, Ethnicity, Gracia, Relations



In his recent book Surviving Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality (2005), Jorge Gracia has put forward what he calls the 'Familial-Historical' view of ethnicity. In this paper, I give an overview of what this theory means for issues of ethnic inclusion. After an analysis of the premises found in Gracia's theory, I will demonstrate the implications these have on determining inclusion in ethnic groups. While ideally such an analysis might lead to a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for ethnic group inclusion, no such results are reached here. Instead, the analysis answers three questions. First, what does it mean when an individual is included in an ethnic group? Second, how is inclusion achieved? Lastly, what sorts of interactions are possible for people of different ethnic groups?

It should be noted that the structure of this paper is hypothetical. I will be arguing that if Gracia's concept of ethnicity captures accurately the common uses of the term in the social sciences, then the following holds true about ethnic inclusion. Unfortunately, space does not allow for a comprehensive defense of Gracia's view. Most of the value of Gracia's view lies in its utility, which this analysis expands. While the focus of this paper will be theoretical, reference is made to supporting sociological research.



Gracia's work on the concept of ethnicity is an attempt to understand the unity shown in many ethnic groups while at the same time trying to understand better the nature of ethne themselves. One of Gracia's main concerns might be referenced as the 'diverse yet unified' problem, alluding to the fact that there can be great diversity inside even the most unified ethnic groups. Barth has called this the problem of variation (Barth, 1969: 29). Using Hispanics and Latinos as his example, Gracia says:

A satisfactory conception of ethnicity, then, needs to explain two things: First, the unity of ethnic groups and their difference from other groups; second, the diversity found within ethnic groups themselves […] At the same time, a satisfactory explanation must also explain the diversity within the overall Hispanic/Latino group. In short, it must explain how it is possible for the group to have any unity and at the same contain much diversity. (Gracia, 1999: 33-34)

To deal with the "diverse yet unified" problem, Gracia draws largely from Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblance.[2]

Gracia's first main contention is that members of ethnic groups are related by family resemblance. The idea is that we say things are part of a group because they have something in common. Some groups, however, are not defined by one single common feature, but are rather defined by a common set of features, all of whose members share in at least part of the set. There is a family resemblance, in Wittgenstein's technical sense, between two objects when some features of the two objects are in some such common set. Gracia's primary contention then is that the members of ethnic groups share a family resemblance and lack an essential, defining feature. Ethnic groups are groups which are defined by a set of features and whose members all partake in the set.

For Gracia it is not that all individuals of the same ethne must have some defining quality, but rather that all members are related together by a set of qualities that they all may or may not have. Gracia gives an example of this type of group.

Say that we identify a group with six members: A, B, C, D, E, and F. And let us propose a set of six properties also: a, b, c, d, e, and f. According to this view each member of the group would have several of these properties as, for instance: A (a, b), B (a, b, e, f), C (c, d, f), D (b, c, d, e, f), E (a, e), and F (b, e, f). (Gracia, 1999: 38)

Ethnic identities then are merely an open set of relations that bind people together.[3] An individual is considered part of a certain ethne when he or she shares in these sets of relations. What defines the identity is not the same for every ethne. For instance, group A might depend heavily on its ties to land for its identity, but group B might depend heavily on its religion. It is also probable that group A and B's main relation is not sufficient to be included in the group. Group C might be even more different, with only a large number of weaker relations holding it together.

Gracia's second main contention is that the common features that make up this set – what I refer to as 'Gracian relations' – must have historical significance; that is, the features that constitute an ethnic identity must be significant in some historical respect. As Gracia points out, 'Historical relations tend to generate common properties' (1999: 34). Gracia models ethnic groups as sets of people that result from historical processes in which relations between individuals are developed.[4]

Another important point of Gracia's theory is his distinction between ethnic groups and ethnic identities.[5] Following the set model given above, we can say that the set of common features that defines a particular group is the group identity. This group identity is something objective, and identifying the identity is of course an empirical and historical matter that can be done by observing the group itself and tracing the roots of its culture. Gracia is motivated to distinguish this identity from the group itself because it is clear that groups rarely correspond to their identities. Groups generally fail to correspond to their identities because there are other factors that in practice determine inclusion. The study of these other factors is the domain of empirical sociology.

To summarise, Gracia holds that ethnic groups are defined by a set of common, historically significant properties of which members of the group stand in a family resemblance relation to one another. To say that an ethnic group is 'defined by' a set of properties means that the set of properties forms the identity of the group. Of course, this technical sense of group identity may not conform to the image all groups members have of the group. The contention, however, is that this technical sense of group identity can serve to characterize ethnic groups.

There are two advantages to Gracia's theory. The first is that it solves the 'diverse yet unified' problem. Along the same line, however, it also helps in understanding the internal change and development of ethnic groups. Ethnic group development and change is simply seen as a natural outcome of the changing historical relations that constitute the group identity and bind ethne together. Unity is seen to be preserved through these historical changes the same way unity is preserved despite concurrent diversity: through past and future members being related by family resemblance.

The second advantage is that it can account for both intrinsic and extrinsic properties of ethnic groups. Discussion about ethnic groups in the social sciences proceeds along two lines. The first, which could be called the Instrumentalist line, talks about ethnic groups as being minority groups, roughly defined by a common homeland, which are driven to maintain their unity in response to political need. The second, which could be called the Primordialist line, talks about ethnic groups mainly as social groups largely defined by a shared culture (Tilley, 1997; Van Den Berghe, 1981: 16-18). The former view focuses on extrinsic properties of ethnic groups, the latter on intrinsic properties. While much, though not all, theoretical discussion of ethnic groups falls into one of these categories, Gracia's view gives place to both internal and external influences.[6]

In addition to these two benefits of Gracia's theory, I will argue there is a third benefit. An analysis of Gracia's technical sense of ethnic identity shows that it can clearly answer questions of ethnic inclusion. The suggestion then is that Gracia's distinction between groups and identities allows for this technical sense of ethnic identity to serve as an objective criterion for group inclusion. An identity can serve as a criterion for group inclusion because it provides a theoretical model of the intrinsic properties of the group and it is objective because the set of properties that constitutes a group's identity is itself historical and objective.

I do not wish to suggest that external influences do not effect inclusion in ethnic groups (Starr, 1992).[7] Instead, by giving an account of inclusion in identities, I wish to give a possible account of how inclusion should function in ethnicity as an objective class. Next, I outline three formal implications that an analysis of Gracian ethnicity will provide. Then, I show what it would mean to be included in an identity.



Through analysis of Gracia's conception, three formal statements can be made to help demonstrate how inclusion in ethnic identities would function. These statements are not an exhaustive list, but merely the descriptions necessary to begin the discussion. The first I will call 'The relational statement of Gracian ethnicity', the second, 'The principle of involvement', and the third, 'The principle of relational significance'.

The first implication, 'The relational statement of Gracian ethnicity' (GE) is: For all ethnic identities, there are relation(s) such that these relation(s) constitute the ethnic identity as such.[8] This implication is simply a limited restatement of Gracia's theory that focuses on the role of relations.

The focus of this statement is the role which relations play in a group. For Gracia, relations are the totality of what defines an ethnic group. What is meant by 'relations' will vary greatly depending on the group, but in general relations refer to the properties shared by individuals who identity with the group. These relations are often instantiated in cultural phenomena (such as customs, traditions, religion, and the like), or in a tie to land, in genealogical links, or in a shared language. For example, the relations that bind Canadians together as a group might include a love of hockey, a shared land connection on the northern part of the North American continent, and a shared cultural history.

Applying statement GE to this example, hockey and a shared land and cultural history are the particular relations that constitute the substance of Canadian ethnicity. It is important to note from that example that inclusion inside the ethnic group does not necessitate participation in all relations.[9] A person is considered Canadian when he simply participates in some number of the relations that comprise the group.

This leads to the formal statement of 'The principle of involvement' (PI) which is: For all individuals and for all ethnic identities, an individual identifies with an ethnic identitiy and the ethnic identity influences the individual.[10] Simply put, since ethne are defined as relations, and since individuals participate in these relations, then the individuals who are participating in the relations share in the ethnic identity: they are involved in the ethne. By 'involved in the ethne' I mean if the identity is formed by properties (a, b, c) then the individual involved shares in properties (a, b, c). Conversely, since the individual's participation in the identity is active, then the identity has therefore come to define part of the individual. I say the individual's participation is 'active' because he is only involved in the group – and hence the identity – by engaging in the defining properties or relations that make up the group. The relational nature of ethne Gracia defends would seem to necessitate this sort of engagement.

It might be objected that not all properties of a group require active participation. For instance, skin color is undoubtedly an important part of many identities in which one need not actively participate. While this is true, since no one property is essential, to share an identity requires being involved with other relations that are active. For example, to say I am Canadian or to involve myself in any group will require me to share properties that are active. The existence of some passive properties then does not refute the claim that involvement itself in a group must be active, as there will always be some properties in which one must be actively participated.

The last formal statement is only a strengthened version of the previous two. 'The principle of relational significance' (RS) is this: For all ethnic identities, there exists a relation(s), such that the relation(s) are equivalent in all ways to the ethnic group.[11] This statement moves from relations 'constituting' to relations 'being equivalent to'.[12] This difference will become more meaningful as the argument progresses.

This statement about Gracian ethnicity should be no surprise. Gracia's metaphysical construction of ethnicity leaves little room for anything to keep relations from comprising the whole of ethnic identity, and therefore being its logical and formal equivalent. Returning to our Canada example, for instance, beyond hockey and the land and cultural ties, for Gracia there is no other essential thing, material or not, which can be defined or thought of as being 'Canadian ethnicity'.



To begin the analysis I am assuming the validly of Gracia's basic vocabulary: that is, that there are 'ethne', 'individuals', and 'relations' as he puts forward. Next, I am assuming that the basics of his theory, as explicitly formulated above, are correct: that is, that (I.I) there are some relations that are apart of each ethne which comprise the ethne. That (II.I), individuals and ethne share a reciprocal relationship – individuals are included in ethne, and ethne influence individuals. Most importantly, that ( III.I) there are some critical relation(s) whose participation in them is equivalent to participation in the ethne. The point that is key in Gracia's theory is this last assumption ( III.I), and I wish to explore this point further.

First, note the idea of some sort of equivalence between critical relations of an ethne and the ethne itself. I believe it seems reasonable to assume that this equivalence leads to some critical point of inclusion where once an individual participates in x number of relations he shares the ethnic identity. Since Gracia has done away with any sort of single, passive essential feature – such as a link through birth to a certain land – which is required to be included in a group, we are left only with relations. Since Gracia does not suggest that an individual must participate in all relations in order to be included, we are left with some dynamic between participation in relations and inclusion.[13] It is due to this that I suggest this point of inclusion must exist.

Recognizing that such a point exists though is important. The vast differences between different ethne also would lead to each one having a different inclusion point, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I think it reasonable to conceive of this inclusion point as some sort of function between shared relations and acceptance.[14] The dynamics of this inclusion/relation mechanism would certainly be complicated, though it suffices only to understand that Gracian ethnicity's heavy reliance on relations leads to it.

In practice, the level of acceptance shown to an individual by the group at large may not just depend on how the individual stands in respect to the point of inclusion. It is again certainly beyond the scope of this analysis to proceed much further with this idea. Especially considering the instrumental side of ethnic groups – the political or practical motivations one individual might have for trying to strengthen their claim to a certain ethnic group – inclusion becomes a complicated issue. It is sufficient to note that while there are many instances of individuals being included in a group for practical reasons, on this model, determining who actually has a certain ethnic identity is a matter of participation in the critical relations. What becomes important though is that this basis for inclusion – a critical point for determining who shares in an identity – exists at all.

The second point, which I wish to build off the third assumption ( III.I) involves a logical substitution. Assumption two (II.I) states: individuals are included in ethne, and ethne influence individuals. Following assumption three ( III.I), a substitution can be made. From these assumptions, we can restate the principle of involvement as this: for all individuals and the ethne-critical relations in which they participate, the relations affect the individual as the associated ethne would. In other words, individuals and relations share the same sort of reciprocal relationship that individuals and ethne do. The more active side of this relationship is that the relations – particularly culturally based rituals, customs, and norms – that individuals participate in shape who they are. The converse side of this relationship is more interesting, however: it is that individuals, through relations role, belong in a degree to the ethne that is comprised of the relations the individual participates in.



The final part of the analysis is based on the above two points: first, the concept of the critical point of inclusion; and second, the restated second implication. The conclusion is that the ethne to which an individual belongs depends on the relations in which he or she participates.

While simple, this consequence of Gracia's theory influences the dynamics between ethnic groups. In effect, the lines between groups are blurred and inclusion in an ethne becomes relative and shifting. The other effect of accepting that inclusion is a function of participation in historical relations is that someone could be legitimately included in more than one ethne. To demonstrate better the workings of these consequences, they will be applied to the case of American Indians.

In his article 'Some Observations about racial boundaries and the experiences of American Indians' (1997), C. Matthew Snipp addresses the very issue of ethnic inclusion. Snipp begins with a discussion on the development of what it means to be multiracial. His focus is on American society, and he suggests that only since the rise in the multiracial population has there been serious research into multiracial people (Snipp, 1997: 669).

Snipp then discusses the problems which arise in a multiracial population. The main issue is that of deciding inclusion (Snipp, 1997: 673). Partly because of the conception that race and ethnicity are fixed categories, multiracial people are often forced by society to claim association with one group. Seeing the fallacy in this, Snipp looks at Native Americans, a group which has a long history of dealing with multiracial individuals. As Snipp points out, being a Native American is different from most other ethnicities found in America, as it involves special political rights and access to governmental services and land that are available to only natives. Naturally then, determining just who is a Native American is an issue.

Complicating the issue is the fact that as a group, Native Americans are very multiracial. Most Native Americans are not full blooded, and instead are of mixed blood. There are three general ways to decide if an individual is a native (Snipp, 1997: 678). First there is blood quantum, second, tribal membership, and third, self-identification. The determination of who is or is not an American Indian – and has access to the associated reparations – can depend largely on arbitrary decisions about what level of blood quantum is sufficient, or how admission into the tribe will affect the tribe itself.

Snipp eventually concludes that this is the best that can be done for now. He says that 'there is no way to adjudicate these claims about who is an authentic Indian without some measure of arbitrariness' (Snipp, 1997: 682). What Snipp leaves us with is a very instrumentalist account of the problem. There are material advantages to being a Native American: and these make it an issue at all. There is the arbitrary decision about blood quantum, the political processes of tribal acceptance, and the personal choices of individuals to try to associate with the group. While accurate, the assessment leaves open the possibility that inclusion could be objective, not arbitrary.

In the end though, just what is it to be an American Indian? Snipp leaves us with 'American Indian' as a political identity to be given by tribes, 'American Indian' as a cultural tradition, and 'American Indian' as an individual identity to be chosen by an individual. Gracia's notion of ethnic identity is helpful here also in linking these senses, and establishing non-arbitrary standards of inclusion.[15]

Firstly, we may say briefly that what makes up American Indian Identity is whatever set of historical relations are important to the group. The problem then is to define just what role this American Indian Identity plays in the complex processes that actually happen in the real world. Secondly, we may dfferentiate between the objective identity that is American Indianness and the subjective groups that result as the end of political and social processes.

My suggestion is that it is legitimate to say there is both an identity, as Gracia suggests, of American Indian, and actual groups that result from social processes that can also be called American Indian. It seems then that the reason we can call these groups American Indian is because they at least in some parts instantiate the identity of American Indian. Snipps has described inclusion in terms of the group, I suggest inclusion can be described in terms of the identity. Since identity is fundamental to the group, inclusion in the identity seems an objective basis for inclusion in the group.

So in answering the question, 'who is American Indian?', it seems that whomsoever shares in the identity is one. Of course, as before, determining who shares that identity depends on the idea of a point of inclusion based on the objective, historical relations that form the identity. It seems reasonable then to differentiate between a legal status as a member of an ethnic group and an objective claim to participate in a certain ethnic identity.

To summarise, 'ethnic group' is a term used to describe a variety of social groupings that arise for many reasons and cannot easily be classified any other way. These groups generally form around a certain ethnic identity, even if the motivation for grouping might be purely political. It seems then that to be a member in these groups, one can become a member either by legal status or by objective participation in the group identity. Group dynamics are complicated though, and the group might not always function in an objective way. This though does not seem to negate the fact that there is an objective way of attaining group membership, and, one would hope, acceptance.



At the start of this article I stated that I wished to answer three questions. They were: one, what does it mean when an individual is included in an ethnic group? Two, how is inclusion achieved? Three, what sorts of interactions are possible for people of different ethnic groups?

Putting aside the legal answer to question one, an objective answer can be given. To say that an individual is included in an ethnic group means that the individual has a legitimate claim of involvement in the critical relations that form an ethnos. I also suggest that inclusion is a matter of degree. Some individuals clearly will have a claim to the critical relations that form the identity of a group. Other individuals though will have much less of a claim to critical relations or even only claims to non-critical relations that from the identity of a group. Those individuals though still have some claim, however, and accordingly still have some right to be included.

Inclusion – the right to claim a certain ethnic identity –is achieved by having a claim to the relations which form the identity. For instance, if one of the critical relations of being an American is celebrating American holidays, then the fact that my family has historically also celebrated those same holidays gives my family a legitimate claim to that relation. Another instance might be that it is very American to play Little League Baseball as a child. If I have played Little League Baseball as a child, I lay claim to that relation. An Individual has a certain identity when they partake in the relations that form the identity. While others have discussed the importance of participation for inclusion, Gracia's theory gives participation a central role (Karlsen, 2004: Rudinow, 1994).

Lastly, then, is the question of what sort of interaction is possible between people of different ethnic groups. While of course many types of interaction are possible, this analysis leads to one interesting possibility. I suggest that interactions that lead to inclusion are possible between individuals of different ethne. Taking again the example of playing Little League baseball, if I have played it as a child, and now my son plays it, we are again able to claim that particular relation. Now if I happen to have a new neighbour who has just immigrated to America, and I help him and his son become involved in Little League Baseball, this sort of interaction between us is enabling the neighbour to claim the identity also.[16]

This account of inclusion is an account of inclusion in ethnic identities, not groups. One might object that since it is based on a theoretical concept – Gracia's familial historical view of ethnicity – it has little value. Consider, though, the relationship between groups and identities. I have suggested before that ethnic identities are the things around which ethnic groups form. They are 'ethne': what a person intends to convey when they identify or wish to identify themselves as by associating with the group. It is also clear that ethnic groups do not always do justice to their identities. Other instrumental forces shape the development of groups beyond the identity itself. Often the identity can be abused, and used only as a means to some other end that is driving the group.

An ethnic identity seems to be more fundamental then the group itself; groups form around identities. Identities relate to groups by being the objective basis for the group. Adding to this theoretical claim is the fact that ethnic groups themselves are only instantiated in particular instances (McKay and Lewins, 1978: 413). Ethnic groups involve interactions and relations between individuals, and at this level ethnic identity is important. Ethnic identity allows different individuals to connect and prompts association (Okamura, 1981: Fuller, 2003). Since in terms of interactions ethnic groups are talked about in particular cases, and since ethnic identity is what allows for ethnic associations between individuals, ethnic identity appears more important for inclusion anyway.




[1] Michael Barkasi is in his final year of a BA Philosophy Degree at Kutztown University. He is currently applying to graduate schools and plans to specialize in Logic.

[2] See Wittgenstein (1953) pp. 27-28. Gracia calls his conception of ethnicity a 'familial-historical' conception (Gracia, 1999).

[3] Barth discusses something analogous to this, though he refers to the 'trait inventories' of ethnic groups (Barth, 1969: 12). Barth's whole take on these trait inventories differs fundamentally from Gracia's. Without being overly general, Barth believes these trait inventories are derivative of the interactions between group members, or as he says the boundary conditions. As I will argue, one can equally well characterise the boundary conditions between groups by looking at their trait inventories. See the introduction to (1969).

[4] The suggestion that there must be a historical aspect to the defining features of ethnic groups is not new. For one detailed discussion, see Smith, Anthony (1981) chapter 4.

[5] McKay and Lewins discuss the need for a similar sort of distinction in (1978).

[6] Of course others have put forward theoretical accounts of ethnicity that handle both as well, not the least of whom is Van Den Berghe in (1981).

[7] Starr provides a detailed discussion on the relationships between Social Categories and the forms imposed on them by the state.

[8] We might symbolize this statement as: [S\R(sUS L Rs). Here, we have formalized ethnic identities as a set, which they are on Gracia's view. The upper-case 'S' represents this set. For simplicity, the Gracian relations are formalized as one place predicates—here, uppercase 'R'. The lower-case 's' here is an individual constant. The 'L' represents material implication. The symbolization says that for any set S there is at least one predicate R that is implied by set membership.

[9] This result is compatible with the symbolization of GE. We avoid falsifying the material implication by stipulating a restriction on the domain of R. We say that a particular predicate can only be instantiated for R if 'Rs' is true. (Of course, this turns our expression into a tautology).

[10] We might symbolize this as the converse of GE: [S\R(Rs L sUS), though this symbolic characterization is narrower then what the English says.

[11] This we might symbolize as a bi-conditional version of GE and PI: [S\R(Rs O sUS).

[12] Along with the symbolization, we rather might say 'relations being implied by to implying'.

[13] In keeping with the symbolizations, what this suggests is that the predicate 'R' not stand for any particular relation in which s participates, but rather that the predicate 'R' stands for a set of relations, whatever that set is that implies membership for s in S.

[14] Here is where the inadequacies of the symbolization show. It would be difficult to symbolize this function in the terms we have used above. All we are simply stating is that the set of relations R that satisfies the predicate in the above formalization depends on both the identity itself and outside influences.

[15] However, in many ways, it is still instrumentally driven.

[16] This idea I presented before more simply as 'if individual A is a part of group X, and individual B is a part of group Y, and one property of group X is Q, then B participating in Q includes him in some degree in group X.'



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Barkasi, M. (2008), 'Analysing the Implications of Gracia's Familial-Historical View of Ethnicity for Ethnic Inclusion', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 1, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

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