Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Constructions of ethnicity, identity, and difference

Starting with the distinction suggested by Fredrik Barth in 1969 between the cultural ‘stuff’ and the social boundary-making processes of ethnic groups, the doctoral program explores problems of (culturally coded) processes of social differentiation and their evaluation (cf. Wimmer 2008, 2013).

This research field places its main emphasis on the level of agency, without neglecting the significance of political structures. We focus on the processes of self-ascriptions and ascriptions to others instead of reproducing primordialist approaches to ethnicity and identity in the analysis. At the same time, key concepts emerging from research on ethnicity offer a starting point for examining social differentiation along various dimensions including gender, race, origin, and class.

In this respect, well-grounded criticism of the notion of identity has underscored the need to develop a differentiated and specific analytical terminology. To this end, we will draw on concepts such as “identification and categorization,” “self-understanding and social location,” and “commonality, connectedness, groupness” (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). Identities can be situative and multiple; they can be present in empirical research as culturally and sociopolitically effective categories. The manner in which they emerge, forms of impact, and real political weight need careful consideration. 

Research projects

In her historical work on the “German” minority in South Africa, Sarah Schwab examines how it crystallized into a (real or imagined) community, demarcated itself from other groups, and acted as a social collective.

Likewise choosing a historical perspective, Ole Münch enquires into how on the rag fair of Victorian London variously positioned social actors formed groups and drew social boundaries. Furthermore, he analyses how those involved were socially and politically represented by their contemporaries, as well as in historical research.

Melanie Brand’s ethnographic research on domestic violence in South Africa takes a perspective drawing on questions of both culture and gender. She poses the question of the cultural constitution forming a basis for the sexually coded subject positions she is studying, and how these positions are negotiated.

Questions regarding the evaluation and comparison of cultural and social identities also stand at the center of Tilmann Heil’s research project, which examines processes of social hierarchization and their reversal from the perspective of variously positioned groups of migrants.

The research questions dealt with in these projects suggest two basic concerns: not only “identities” and their negotiation in processes of social differentiation, but also the assessment of these identities. Assessment should be understood here in a double sense, on the one hand as affective and normative, on the other hand as political, strategic, and power-centered. Through this sort of nuanced analysis of processes of differentiation and identification, we can gain increasingly greater understanding of sociocultural (dis)integration.


Barth, Fredrik 1969. Introduction, in Fredrik Barth (ed.) Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference, Prospect Heights Ill.: Waveland Press.

Brubaker, Rogers and Cooper, Frederick 2000. Beyond "identity", Theory and Society 29(1): 1-47.

Wimmer, Andreas 2008. Ethnische Grenzziehungen in der Immigrationsgesellschaft. Jenseits des Herder’schen Commonsense, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 48: 57-80.

Wimmer, Andreas 2013. Ethnic boundary making: institutions, power, networks. New York: Oxford University Press.