Ethnic Markers and How to Find Them

Human Nature 32 (2):470-481 (2021)


Ethnic markers are a prominent organizing feature of human society when individuals engage in significant anonymous interactions. However, identifying markers in natural settings is nontrivial. Although ad hoc assignment of markers to groups is widely documented in the ethnographic literature, predicting the membership of individuals based on stylistic variation is less clear. We argue that a more systematic approach is required to satisfy the basic assumptions made in ethnic marker theory. To this end we introduce a three-step ethnographic method to assess the presence, recognition, and transmission of markers of group identity: continual scans, a utilization survey, and a comparative classification task. Applying the method to a study of culturally significant motifs in the South Pacific Island nation of Tonga, we provide evidence that the motif set satisfies basic theoretical assumptions and thus the motifs are likely expressions for social coordination. We also found that the coordinating role of each motif is variable and requires further investigation.

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