Ethnicity describes a group of people with a shared national or cultural identity.

What is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity, race, and national origin are sometimes used interchangeably, but ethnicity is distinct from both race and nationality. While race denotes physical traits such as skin and eye color, ethnicity is a term that encompasses national origin, culture, and shared heritage. People in the same ethnicity are considered by themselves or others to share some history.

Ethnicity does not necessarily indicate biological reality. For example, a Caucasian person adopted into a Latin American family might consider him or herself ethnically Latino. However, some sociologists use ethnicity in contrast to race to denote genetic origins.

Ethnic traditions and ethnic identity can change over time. A particular ethnic group might, for example, have one cultural identity in one generation and completely alter this tradition in the next generation. Historical aspects of ethnic identity can also influence stereotypes.

Ethnicity in Psychology

Ethnicity can play important roles in psychology. Ethnicity can shape a person’s identity, politics, and traditions. For example, an ethnically Jewish person might place a high value on following Jewish customs and traditions. Also, different ethnic groups sometimes have different cultural norms, and these norms can affect behavior. This is particularly important in psychotherapy because mental health professionals must understand how cultural and ethnic norms can affect a person’s behavior, their assessment of their own behavior, their preferred method of treatment, their interpersonal relationships, and more. In recent years, mental health professionals have become increasingly aware of cultural competence–an attempt to learn about other cultures and engage in treatment practices that show respect for a wide variety of cultures rather than imposing the dominant culture onto people who seek therapy.


  1. Ethnicity vs race. (n.d.). Difference and Comparison. Retrieved from
  2. The sociology of race and ethnicity. (n.d.). Trinity University. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-7-2015

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