Sullivan, T. 2012. — The Role of Performance and Performativity in the Construction of Ethnicity.

Sullivan, Thomas. 2012. “’All I Want to Be All I Can Irish’: The Role of Performance and Performativity in the Construction of Ethnicity.” Social & Cultural Geography 13(5): 429 – 443.

Ethnicity’s evolution from “a group-oriented protectorate to a more individualized form of identity” (429). Why, despite assimilation, connection to and construction of ethnic identities — conforming to unconscious, repetitive discourses of ethnicity situated within personal perception/interpretation of what is authentic and traditional, as they practice everyday “ethnic” activities.

Concern with knowing history, religious rites, language, traveling to “homeland”, customs – despite being several generations removed from their ethnic ancestors/country. Takes from Hall (2000, 2006) in arguing that ethnicity is “a fluid and constantly changing process based on a collective narrative – a selective and oftentimes invented history” (431 here).

While ethnicity is performatively chosen as a symbol representative of identities, performances also stem from group-making collective identities based in unconscious practice of embedded norms – simultaneously performed informed by discourses, but also concurrently reinventing/revising these discourses — deciding what is authentic or traditional, thus valued. Framing ethnicities as a set of attributes and rules bounded by specific cultural markers (Nagel 1994).

Individual practice of ethnic choice as representation of perceived biological/ancestral connection – as “Cultural identity … is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’ – ‘[i]t is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture’ but instead ‘come from somewhere, have histories’ — ‘[f]ar from being eternally fixed in some essentialist past, they are subject to the continuous “play” of history, culture and power” (Hall 1990: 225 – here 434). Magnified in whites choice to play up certain ethnicities, but erase others.

Waters (1990) builds on Gans (1979) concept of symbolic ethnicity through removed-ethnics use of “ethnic options” – not just the voluntary, temporal choice of when to play on ethnicity, but the ability to select and focus on one ethnicity despite overlapping ancestries. Those that can play on ancestry may do so “on a moment’s notice because it is relatively free of the political, religious, and cultural baggage that wsa prevalent for those white ethics in past generations” (434-435, see also Halter 2000).  However, many POC are removed from the optionality of their ethnicities and the choice of performance (see also Kibria 2000; Waters 1994).

“Bryan who, through his ‘utterance’ (Austin 1962; see also Bourdieu 1991; Butler 1999), is striving to conform to this ideal. By acting on what he proclaims, Bryan is both adhering to a discourse of Irishness while participating in and allowing for the possibility of modifying it” (439).




Austin, J.L. (1962) How to do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Butler, J. (1999) Performativity’s social magic, in Shusterman,

  1. (ed.) Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, pp. 111–128.

Gans, H. (1979) Symbolic ethnicity: the future of ethnic groups and cultures in America, Ethnic and Racial Studies 2(1): 1–20.

Hall, S. (1990) Cultural identity and diaspora, in Rutherford, J. (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 222–237.

Hall, S. (2000) New cultures for old, in Massey, D. and Jess, P. (eds) A Place in the World? Places, Cultures and Globalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 175–214.

Hall, S. (2006) Who needs identity?, in du Gay, P., Evans, J. and Redman, P. (eds) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications, pp. 15–30.

Halter,M. (2000) Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity. New York: Schocken Books.


Kibria, N. (2000) Race, ethnic options and ethnic binds: identity negotiations of second generation Chinese and Korean Americans, Sociological Perspectives 43(1): 77–95.

Nagel, J. (1994) Constructing ethnicity: creating and recreating ethnic identity and culture, Social Problems 41(1): 152–176.

Waters, M. (1990) Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Waters, M. (1994) Ethnic options: for whites only?, in Pedraza, S. and Rumbaut, R. (eds) Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in America. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, pp. 446–454.


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