What Are the Differences Between Nationality and Ethnicity?

Nationality and ethnicity are two very different terms that are often incorrectly used interchangeably.

Demographic Terminology

When reporting the demographics of a particular population, researchers utilize a wide range of terms to classify people. These classifications are determined by specific demographic factors, including age, sex, education, economic status, and marital status. Most have relatively clear definitions, but the meaning of other terminology used in demographics is less clear. Some commonly confused demographic terms are “nationality” and “ethnicity." These terms, although somewhat related, are often incorrectly used interchangeably. This article explores the differences between the two words, as well as how they are connected.

What Is Nationality?

Nationality refers to the country from which a person originates. In many cases, nationality is the country where a person was born, but that is not always the case. The term nationality should only be used to identify the membership a person has with a specific country, which is determined by the nationality policies of that country. It also refers to the protections offered to an individual by their state of nationality. This concept is most similar to citizenship, although technically citizenship is associated with a person’s internal political relationship with their country, whereas nationality is associated with a person’s international interactions. For example, nationality does not always guarantee the right to participate in the political processes of a country. Identifying with nationality often results in feelings of nationalism or patriotism. Examples of nationalities include the following identities: British, American, Indian, Canadian, and Nigerian.

What Is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity has much less association with the country where a person was born or is residing. Instead, ethnicity is used to describe a group of people who share a common culture based on factors such as language, religion, ancestry, clothing, cuisine, and heritage. A person may change ethnicity by way of acculturation, religious conversion, or the adoption of a different language. Nationality, however, may not change. Belonging to a specific ethnicity means belonging to a specific subgroup within a larger population. The ethnicity of a person relies on the inherited characteristics held by that person. Individuals relate to this ethnic group and identity as a result of their shared history, beliefs, and traditions. Ethnicity is often categorized as one (or multiple) of the following groups: ethno-racial, ethno-national, ethno-linguistic, ethno-religious, and ethno-regional. Ethnicities include the following identities: the French-Canadian in Canada, the Kongo in Africa, and the African-American in the United States. In short, nationality is more of a legal concept, whereas ethnicity is cultural.

Relationship Between Ethnicity and Nationality

Although both terms have distinct differences, ethnicity and nationality may be linked, particularly in instances involving international immigration or colonialism. For example, as people change the locations of their residency, or as the governing power changes their official nationality, such as through colonialism, they tend to identify with people who share their ethnicity. This also explains how people with the same nationality may have different ethnicities. One example of this is evident throughout African countries, where colonial borders have been maintained post-colonialism. These political borders do not respect the traditional, tribal borders and result in multiethnic countries as tribal members find themselves divided among nations.

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