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Dealing with Ethnic and Linguistic Change
Overcoming Assumptions and Mis-Conceptions in People Group Strategies
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In recent years, efforts have been made to bring various lists of world ethnicities closer together.  Several major world agencies have worked to more closely align their lists of the world's peoples groups.  Correlating lists and comparing data has been hampered by various factors.

Over the years since the 1980s, various mission agencies and other groups have developed databases of the peoples of the world.  Data gathering on the world's peoples had been going on since the 1960s.  But objective, consistent data became a serious goal in the latter part of the 20th century.

Superdata Problems
Until the 1980s, various efforts at data gathering were isolated.  As the end of the century approached, a desire grew to share information.  Various ideas were considered, but no one could agree on methods of combining all data into one huge common database.  There were too many differences in what different agencies wanted and how they needed it organized.

Beyond that there were too many differences in how the ethnic data was viewed and organized.  What was a cluster? Where were the divisions made.  What were primary groups and sub-groups? What names were used for the different related levels of peoples, where in some clusters all the sub-groups called themselves by the same name?

There were too many differences in how ethnicity was understood and accounted for.  Agencies wanted more and more to exchange data of various kinds related to the world's ethnicities.  But the only was this could be done was by a laborious comparison of entries by name!  Names varied so much and the same names were used for so many different peoples, it was an error-laden process.

Different agencies used different various of the names for different clusters, primary peoples or sub-groups.  And there was further confusion between names used for languages and ethnic groups (tribes, etc.), not to mention common usages across the various colonial languages, and the local name or ethnic self-name.

Early Misconceptions
Part of our problem is overcoming and correcting early mixed assumptions that led to certain entries into the legacy databases we inherited or whose data we still relate to in our accumulated data.  Early lists commonly included overlapping categories, so individuals might be counted multiple times.  This was complicated when merging data from two or more databases.  The approaches taken would differ, so the various individual entities might not be equivalent entries.

Many errors were made in early people group lists, due to the simplistic assumption that a language represented an ethnicity.  (I address this in Languages and Peoples.)  Also it seemed some people just made up their own terms and categories without reference to disciplines specifically developed to deal with this, like Anthropology (basically built upon the work of early missionaries) or Sociology.

At the same time, we have to take seriously the common general conventions that prevail, following the weight of preference in drawing lines of distinctions in unclear cases of ethnic sub-groupings or super-groupings.  Different databases had analyzed and organized ethnic clusters in different ways.  Names didn't match.  Levels of division didn't match.

Differing Views of Ethnicity
One source of difference was that different databases drew boundaries between related groups at different points in the ethnic continuum.  It was hard to tell how and entity from agency matched or related to other entities from another.  A cluster name in one was the name of a single member of the cluster in another.  Many peoples of the world were known by multiple names.  the names chosen by the different databases often didn't match.  (We are still trying to find out what some names in older databases were intended to represent!)

It was to overcome problems like this that Harvest Information System developed the concept of the Registry of Peoples (ROP), which now provides a standard codeset that can be used for variations of ethnic data across databases.

In this plan of using standard reference codes, merging of data is not necessary, but data can be compared through use of the codes, to see where different databases have divided the range of ethnicities in a cluster, or where the agencies' views of ethnicity differ.

Cultural Change and Unclear Identities
Similarly, virtually no attention had been given to the concept or process of Cultural Change.  This is where the rough and unclear edges or boundaries between ethnicities do not fit our western logical desire for clear-cut, agreed-on "entities" to represent the "tribes" or "ethnicities" of the world.

By the late 1990s, no one in the mission community (that I am yet aware of, at least at the world level of information exchange), was looking at how ethnicities change or die out, or how new ethnicities begin.  I began dealing with this in regard to the problem of cities, in round-table email discussions with cities specialists and people group theorists in the late 90s.

This is when I first developed conceptual resources on multi-ethnic groups, and factors affecting ethnicities in the cities.

Ethnic and Language Streams
Mission thinking did not seem to have taken into account the well-known idea of language or ethnic streams -- The continuing flow of change in an identifiable stream of language or ethnicity generation to generation.  It was as though it is all static categories and once we got it all down, we could rest a while.

But languages change.  Cultures change, too.  Whole peoples or segments of peoples move into another language stream and change languages.  They move into another cultural milieu, and change partially or completely.  They may keep their language and adopt the majority culture.  They may modify both only partially.  They may develop a new form of their old language stream, due to heavy cultural and linguistic borrowing and reduced contact with the home culture-language stream.

In North America, for instance peoples from Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, etc., moved the Canada or the US, and the second and third generations learned English, usually leaving off the Old World language.  This is one way ethnicities change, and new ethnicities arise.

This is not an unusual phenomenon.  It is a normal process.  This is a common pattern all over the world in every generation.  Africa, for instance, is a challenging, exciting and wondrous complex of mixed language and cultural, as well as genetic streams!  And what a wondrous, and frustrating, time are our research colleagues having in South Asia!

The Cities and Cultural Change
And as far as I know, no one ever talked about the development of new ethnicities.  Cities theorists, notable Viv Grigg, were resisting the concept of people groups, because it did not seem to take into account the roiling, confusing changes going on in cities.  I addressed cities in standard people group terms, and contributed this to training for Strategy Coordinators/Leaders while in Cyprus.

The missing link was the concept of cultural change -- integral to ethnicity and thus, of course, to the concept of "people groups."  Every human has ethnicity!  That is inherent in the concept of being human.

All human individuals and groups have culture and language.  Whether they live in a city or on a farm, whether they live in a tribal society or a non-tribal society.  Ethnicity -- and thus a proper People Group concept -- can account for these factors irrespective of location or social milieu.

Tracking Cultural Change
In December 2002, I joined Dr. Jim Haney, Director of the Global Research Department of the International Mission Board, SBC (IMB), to address the concept of cultural change under the general rubric of processes of Assimilation.  We provided resources and perspectives on this in a training session for the IMB's 25 or so Regional Research Coordinators.  Jim developed an assimilation component for the IMB's database.  This database, called CPPI (Church Planting Progress Indicators), now enables teams to observe and track the variations within a population group or ethnicity.  This provides a reference point for marking progress between one language or ethnic stream and another by generations or by geography.

These concepts, including process charts, are online on this site.  Similar resources are posted also on my professional Resource Site.  These are included in a standard training resource used by the IMB and other mission agencies, also posted on the Strategy Leader Resource Kit: Research for Strategy, integrated into the SLRK resource site, and downloadable as a training course on CD

This CD resource set, as well as the online resources, are updated periodically as new research findings or discussions bring forth updates to various articles or PowerPoint presentations.  (A few profiles have recently been added or updated on the website that have not yet been added to the CD course since its last update in March this year.)

Non-mission Use and Sourcing
Incidentally, I have also discovered that these resources are being used outside the missions community.  I get email correspondence, with requests for use, contributions to topics or questions about additional matters in ethnicity or language, etc.

These communications come from high school and college professors in various countries and even members of the various ethnic groups I've written about.  Correspondence or questions come from both individuals and representatives of ethnic associations or agencies, representing, for example, Yazidis, Kurds, Tutsi and Tigrinyas, as well as various other professional or lay persons.

Many of the individual enquiries lead to new articles, when the question seems to be a general one that would throw further light on our problem of understanding and classifying ethnicities.  All my articles have arisen out of actual questions or practical problems being dealt with in the field.  (I have several dozen such topics in notes on my hard disk, which I have not had time to finalize.  I just collect, add and formulate till it is ready to publish.  Time spent on these arising topics just depends on how important the question is.)

Accounting for Observed Ethnicity
In June 2006, I assisting in a project comparing the ethnic entities of two very active current world databases, the Joshua Project and  In a telephone conference following up on my review of several countries, the independent data analyst who was conducting this comparison project consulted me about some questions he had on certain entities.

We discussed various specific entities where there was some question of the identity or a mismatch between the two databases.  He was attempting to understand the ways the two agencies had accounted for various entities or factors, and possibilities for variation.  I outlined various factors involved in the different ways, that can still be equally logical and appropriate, to classify and account for various factors we all see in the field.

This involves the different focus and strategy purposes of an agency, what factors they need to or wish to account for and internal consistency within each database.  Some discrepancies occur only because there are different assumptions and a different viewpoint in mind.

Likewise, different researchers and agencies will discover or focus on different factors.  Thus  the cross-talk arising from comparison of data is of great value.  It may provide a broader range of information, and to some extent a broader range of conceptualizations (interpretations) of that information.

The differing pictures that arise from the various datasets may also be of help in better understanding, and perhaps coming to a more common agreement in our understanding, of the underlying ethnic realities we observe.  That is, a more common accounting of a more complete range of the factors ethnicity.

Categories of ethnicity, names and groupings are not universal factors in the structure of the universe.  Our entries, names and categories in our databases are attempts to account for the exciting and confusing morass of factors that we intuitively perceive as "ethnicities."

Internal Consistency
A critical principle for a reliable database of ethnic information is internal consistency in its categories.  One thing all these differing accountings across databases should have in common, however, is the principle of counting each individual only one time.  The groupings are not metaphysical, clear-cut boundaries.  People have different way of defining and describing themselves in multiple relationships.  Similar factors are always involved, but how each family or larger group organizes and understands these differences.

You will get different answers from an individual or family, depending on the level of association at which you seem to be asking the question or at which they wish to present themselves to you.  I have collected some examples of this, under the title "Ethnicities in View," and plan to publish this shortly on my website.  It was developed originally for a colleague to use in one of his training sessions he was conducting in Cultural Worldview Investigation.

Level of Identification
The point is, it depends on the level of identity you are able to discover, or choose to focus on, how your system is going to account for a certain group of related individuals with their form of speech, in contrast to other similar groups of related individuals, with their form of speech.  A standard interchange reference format is needed to provide the interpretation between the systems.

We are classifying for understanding of the real-world.  But strategy level factors, at the very local level require a different, more narrow and specific accounting.  There can be a meeting point for comparison and exchange, however, if the standard reference is clear and the same reference system is used.

This is the purpose and intention of the HIS coding system.  The ROP codes may be used to relate viewpoints in various databases, and in fact assist in finding where varying valid viewpoints relate.  Using the standard set of codes will also enable data managers and editors to discover internal discrepancies, and enable us all to evaluate more carefully the gathered data.

Likewise, analysis of speech forms may vary — there are several different lists or schemes purporting to account for speech forms of the world.  But use of one, such as the HIS Registry of Languages (now simultaneous with the ISO language codeset managed by SIL) enables ethnic databases to relate and compare their data on the basis of language.

Language is one component of ethnicity.  But like all other components of ethnicity, it can be perceived and dealt with differently in analysis and classification.  A consistent codeset provides one objective standard of reference, as the ROP does for the ethnic identities.

Ethnic databases will vary, in the primary entities they list and how they sub-divide them.  They will differ in how they account for various factors.  Some situations are simpler and clearer than others.  The recent sharing of data, the extensive verification work being done in major databases and the work being done to compare and exchange data raises the integrity and credibility of all the collections.  An added benefit is broader availability of excellent work of regional researchers not commonly referenced before.

It is exciting to see the growing use of common sources, and the critical comparisons, producing "data dialogue" among various concerned agencies, schools, foundations and amateurs.  The Internet has been a great boon to collecting and comparing information, providing a broader common base for awareness and analysis, upon which previously unrelated research can now be more commonly known.

Also related:
[Text] Determining Ethnicity
[Text] Assimilation:  How Ethnicities Develop and Change
[Text] Multi-Cultural Ethnic Groups
[Text] Ethnicity in the Cities
[Text] Sharing and Comparing People Group Information: Standardizing Ethnic Data in the Face of Real-World Ethnic Complexity

Also related on the Interent:
Ethnic Names and Codes:  Correlating People Lists (How Codes in the Registry of Peoples Enrich the Exchange of Ethnic Information)
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
[PowerPoint] Assimilation — How People Groups Develop and Change
[PowerPoint] Toward a Model of Assimilation
[PowerPoint] Identifying a People Group


This article arose 23 June 2006 from an email discussion with ethnic researchers on related topics
Finalized as an article and posted on SLRK 1 July 2006
Last edited 4 August 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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