Herder's Heritage and the Boundary-Making Approach: Studying Ethnicity in Immigrant Societies*


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    Address correspondence to: Andreas Wimmer, 264 Haines Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095. E-mail: awimmer@soc.ucla.edu. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the conference “Grenzen, Differenzen, Übergänge” organized by the Volkswagen Foundation in Dresden 2006, at another Volkswagen sponsored workshop on “Concepts and Methods in Migration Research” in Berlin in November of that year, at the Center on Migration, Policy, and Society of Oxford University in February 2007, at the Ecole des hautes études en travail social of Geneva in March 2007, and at the workshop on “Changing Boundaries and Emerging Identities” at the University of Göttingen in June 2008. Special thanks go to Richard Alba, Rainer Bauböck, Homi Bhaba, Sin Yi Cheung, Han Entzinger, Hartmut Esser, David Gellner, Ralph Grillo, Raphaela Hettlage, Frank Kalter, Matthias König, Frank-Olaf Radtke, Karin Schittenhelm, Dimitrina Spencer, Steven Vertovec, Susanne Wessendorf, and Sarah Zingg Wimmer for comments. I thank Claudio Bolzmann, Wilhelm Krull, Karin Schittenhelm, Steve Vertovec, Matthias König, and Claudia Diehl for inviting me to the above venues. My departmental colleagues Rogers Brubaker, Adrian Favell, and Roger Waldinger offered generous advice and criticism that I wish I had been able to take more fully into account. Wes Hiers was kind enough to carefully edit the final version (and to teach me that “that” and “which” are not the same).


Major paradigms in immigration research, including assimilation theory, multi-culturalism, and ethnic studies, take it for granted that dividing society into ethnic groups is analytically and empirically meaningful because each of these groups is characterized by a specific culture, dense networks of solidarity, and shared identity. Three major revisions of this perspective have been proposed in the comparative ethnicity literature over the past decades, leading to a renewed concern with the emergence and transformation of ethnic boundaries. In immigration research, “assimilation” and “integration” have been reconceived as potentially reversible, power-driven processes of boundary shifting. After a synthetic summary of the major theoretical propositions of this emerging paradigm, I offer suggestions on how to bring it to fruition in future empirical research. First, major mechanisms and factors influencing the dynamics of ethnic boundary-making are specified, emphasizing the need to disentangle them from other dynamics unrelated to ethnicity. I then discuss a series of promising research designs, most based on nonethnic units of observation and analysis, that allow for a better understanding of these mechanisms and factors.