Key Concepts to Guide the Study of Ethnic and Cultural Groups

Key Concepts to Guide the Study of Ethnic and Cultural Groups

    Banks (1999) explains 11 key concepts to guide the study of ethnic and cultural groups (p. 57):

1.  Origins and immigration - anchor

2.  Shared culture, values, and symbols

3.  Ethnic identity and sense of peoplehood

4.  Perspectives, world views, and frames of reference

5.  Ethnic institutions and self-determination

6.  Demographic, social, political, and economic status

7.  Prejudice, discrimination, and racism

8.  Intraethnic diversity

9.  Assimilation and acculturation

10.  Revolution- anchor

11.  Knowledge construction- anchor


1.  Origins and Immigration.  It is important to study origins and immigration patterns of ethnic and cultural groups (Banks, 1999).  It is understood that most groups in the United States came from other lands; however, archeologists believe that Native Americans entered North America by crossing the Bering Strait between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago (Snipp, 1989).  When studying the origins of the first Americans, it is crucial to discuss with students that many Native Americans believe they were created in this land by the Great Spirit (Champagne, 1994).  It is beneficial to study both perspectives on the origins of Native Americans and should be presented and respected in the multicultural classroom (Banks, 1999).

back to top - anchor these    

2.  Shared Culture, Values, and Symbols.  Most ethnic groups in the United States have distinctive cultures and values that are complex and dynamic (Banks, 1999).  This can be a result of an interaction of their original culture with the host culture in the United States, from ethnic institutions created partly as a response to discrimination, and from social-class status.  These unique characteristics of cultures are always in the process of formulation and change.  An example of an ethnic cultural characteristic is Black English, a form of English spoken by some African Americans (Heath, 1983; Kochman, 1981).   

back to top

3.  Ethnic Identity and Sense of Peoplehood.  A common sense of identity results from a shared history and current experiences (Banks, 1999).  Ethnic groups tend to perceive themselves and to be perceived by others as independent and detached from other groups in the population.  For example, African Americans and Mexican Americans' shared sense of identity is reinforced by the racial discrimination they experience.  This shared sense of identity can and often does go beyond national boundaries.  Most Jews in New York and London have common feelings about the Holocaust (Dershowitz, 1997).  Most African Americans identity with the struggle of the blacks in South Africa (Banks, 1999). 

back to top

4.  Perspectives, World Views, and Frames of Reference. Because of the shared sense of identity described above, people within the same ethnic group often view reality in a similar fashion (Banks, 1999).  Many Latinos in the United States are likely to have positive opinion toward bilingual education and believe that their children should be able to speak both Spanish and English (Crawford, 1989).  However, Latinos in the United States have diverse histories, origins, and social classes, and there is a variety of opinions on every issue within Latino communities, including bilingual education (Banks, 1999).  Richard Rodriguez (1982) and Linda Chavez (1991) are both known Latinos who express conservative views on a variety of issues, including bilingual education.

back to top

5.  Ethnic Institutions and Self-Determination.  Many ethnic institutions that were formed in response to discrimination and segregation (e.g., African American churches, colleges; Japanese and Jewish social organizations) continue today because they help ethnic groups to fulfill their unique social, cultural, and educational needs (Banks, 1999).  Other ethnic institutions, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, were created to work for the civil rights of specific ethnic groups and to fight discrimination.

back to top

6.  Demographic, Social, Political, and Economic Status. Current demographic, social, political, and economic status are areas to explore when studying ethnic groups (Banks, 1999).  For example, the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States increased from 3.5 million in 1980 to 7.3 million in 1990, a 107.8 percent increase, compared to a 53 percent increase for Hispanics, a 13.2 percent increase for African Americans, a 6 percent increase for Whites, and a 9.8 percent increase for the total U.S. population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994).

    The economic and educational status of ethnic groups are not constant (Banks, 1999).  Considerable improvement in the economic and educational status of African Americans and Hispanics occurred during the 1960s and 1970s; however, these groups lost ground in both economic and educational status during the 1980s.  Census figures in 1988 reveal that during the 1980s, the percentage of Whites living below the poverty level decreased, while the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics living below the poverty increased.  In 1994, 9.7 percent of Whites, 30.7 percent of Hispanics, 30.6 percent of African Americans, and 14.5 percent of all races lived below the poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994).

back to top

7.  Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism.  Prejudice, discrimination, and racism are important concepts for understanding the experiences of ethnic groups in the past, present, and future (Hannaford, 1996).  When groups with varying racial, ethnic, and cultural characteristics interact, ethnocentrism, discrimination, and racism develop (Hannaford, 1996; Omi & Whinat, 1994).  Institutional racism exists when the dominant  group has the power to implement its racial ideology within the institutions of society (Banks, 1999).  Groups like African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos have been historically and currently are victims of institutional racism in the United States; however, racism in the United States today is much more subtle than it was prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Cose, 1993; Feagin & Sikes, 1994).  

back to top    

8.  Intraethnic Diversity.  It must be kept in mind that there are substantial differences within ethnic groups even though ethnic groups share a culture, values, a sense of identity, and a common history  (Banks, 1999).  If this is not kept in mind, new stereotypes and misconceptions are likely to be created.  These differences result from such factors as region (e.g., whether rural or urban), social class, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, and political affiliation.  Although it is important to acknowledge that ethnic groups share many important characteristics, remember that we are describing groups, not individuals.  An individual may adhere to all of the  characteristics of his or her ethnic group, and this individual may also have a strong or a weak identity with his or her ethnic group.  

back to top

9.  Assimilation and Acculturation.  Understanding assimilation and acculturation are necessary for studying  the experiences of ethnic groups in the United States and the world (Banks, 1999).  To assimilate means to give up ethnic characteristics and adopt those of another group (Gordon, 1964).  Banks (1999) describes acculturation as, "The process that occurs when the characteristics of a group are changed because of interaction with another cultural or ethnic group" (p. 61).  Because the interacting groups exchange cultural characteristics, both are changed in the process. 

    The dominant ethnic or cultural group usually expects other groups to assume its language, culture, values, and behavior in most societies (Banks, 1999).  The dominant group is generally at least moderately successful in getting other groups to adopt its culture and values because of the power that it holds.  When ethnic minority groups hold on to many of their important cultural characteristics or when they are denied full participation in the dominant society after they have largely culturally assimilated, cultural conflict usually develops.

back to top

10.  Revolution.  A political revolution occurs when a fundamental change takes place in the leadership of a society (Theodorson & Theodorson, 1969), and usually this involves violent upheaval and armed conflict.  Other basic changes within a society that usually take place over a long period of time are also portrayed as revolutions  (e.g., the industrial and agricultural revolutions) (Banks, 1999).  Rather than sudden changes, these revolutions are gradual transformations of a society.  Revolution is necessary for comprehending the history of most ethnic groups in the United States because of the impact of revolutions on their past.  

back to top   

11.  Knowledge Construction.  When studying the history and contemporary experiences of ethnic and cultural groups in the United States, it is important for students to understand how cultural experiences, biases, and values affect the knowledge construction process (Banks, 1996; Harding, 1991).  It is also useful to guide students in constructing their own interpretations, and a transformative, multicultural curriculum can help to do this (Banks, 1999).  Students should be given chances to partake in building knowledge and to construct their own explanations of historical, social, and current events.  Knowledge construction is shaped extensively by the group experience of the knower.  

    Knowledge construction is a compelling idea in multicultural education because it can be taught across disciplines and content areas (Banks, 1999).  For example, it can be used to help students understand the values and assumptions that underlie the base-ten number system in mathematics, the scientific method in the natural and biological sciences, and literary interpretations in the language arts and humanities.  

back to top


           Banks, J.A. (Ed.) (1996). Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action. New York: Teachers College Press.

           Banks, J.A. (1999).  An Introduction to Multicultural Education (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

           Champagne, D. (1994). Native America: Portrait of the Peoples. Detroit: Visible Ink.

           Chavez, L. (1991). Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. New York: Basic Books.

           Cose, E. (1993). The Rage of a Privileged Class.  New York: HarperCollins.

           Crawford, J. (1989). Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice. Trenton, NJ: Crane.

           Dershowitz, A.M. (1997). The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century.  Boston: Little, Brown.

           Feagin, J.R., & Sikes, M.P. (1994). Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience. Boston: Beacon Press.

           Gordon, M.M. (1964). Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion and National Origins.  New York: Oxford University Press.

           Hannaford, I. (1996). Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

           Harding, S. (1991). Whose Knowledge? Whose Science?: Thinking from Women's Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

           Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

           Kochman, T. (1981). Black and White Styles in Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

           Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

           Rodriguez, R. (1982). Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: David R. Godine Publisher.

           Snipp, C.M. (1989). American Indians: The First of This Land.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

           Theodorson, G.A., & Theodorson, A.G. (1969). A Modern Dictionary of Sociology.  New York: Barnes & Noble.


           U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1994). Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1994 (114th ed.). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.