/ Social Identity of Ethnic Minority Families: An Ecological Approach for the New Millennium


Ethnic minority children, youth, and families are often burdened with negative social identities. This is exacerbated by approaches to research and intervention that are based on erroneous descriptions, labeling, and categorization, which sustain and perpetuate inequalities for ethnic minorities. For the new millennium, families must be understood and supported by approaches that offer constructive strategies for adaptation. An ecological approach can effectively guide research, outreach, and intervention — while avoiding categorizing, labeling, and focusing on negative social identifies.

Key Words: ethnic minority families; social identity; ecological approach

    1. Lillian A. Phenice is Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.return to text

    2. Robert J. Griffore is Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.return to text

    The thesis of this paper is that the social identity formed by many of our ethnic minority children, youth, and families is the consequence of being identified as a member of a negatively defined social group. Ethnicity is conceptualized as having a common origin, or culture, that is handed down from one generation to another. One's ethnic identity is based on a mixture of language, religion, race, and or ancestry (Yinger, 1985). The concept of minority is a sociological term referring to dominance or power relationships. Minority groups are said to have unequal or limited access to power in a society (Mindel, Habenstein, & Wright, 1988). Inequality and limited access become dimensions of social identity as members of ethnic minority groups are singled out, labeled, and treated unequally on the basis of their cultural or physical differences from the dominant group.

    Van Dijk (1993), focusing on discourse analysis and understanding ethnic and racial inequality in society, has studied the ways majority group members write and talk about minorities in everyday conversations, textbooks, news reports, films, jokes, debates, and in academic and corporate discourse. In his analysis (see van Dijk, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1991), he asked: a) How do members or institutions of dominant white groups describe ethnic or racial minorities?; and b) What role do these descriptions play in the development, strengthening, legitimization, and perpetuation of white group dominance? Discourse analysis contributes to the understanding of what takes place at the micro level of social practices, involving the enactment and reproduction of intergroup relations and especially prejudice and ethnic stereotyping (van Dijk, 1993:93).

    In the everyday discourse of activities, ethnic minority individuals are often reminded of their unequal status in society by textbooks read, news heard, conversations overheard, research findings reported, and a number of other sources of information. To be a member of an ethnic minority group is to engage in battle with the forces of negative social identity.

    As it now stands, much of our knowledge about ethnic minority families is grounded in theories of structure and function, as described by Kingsbury and Scanzoni (1993). Families and society are interacting systems. Families contribute members to society for the workforce. They socialize children and make them productive members of society. However, when families vary substantially from the realm of the familiar and acceptable norms as they make their contributions to society and interact with other systems, they are seen as dysfunctional systems. Dysfunctional systems have negative social identities.

    Social science is quick to investigate that which is "deviant" or "dysfunctional" and make recommendations that are heavily intertwined with, and gain acceptability from, prevalent cultural stereotypes. Comparative studies of race and ethnicity can be questioned on methodological grounds. According to Ragin and Hein (1993), data collected are often truncated and biased, giving the appearance of scholarship but having little methodological substance. The fundamental utility of this kind of research for ethnic minority groups is highly questionable.

    According to Marger (1991), since the 1920s, research on American ethnic minority families has focused its attention on relations among majority and ethnic minority groups, using a comparative or cross societal framework. The poor and powerless were often compared with others more fortunate (Billingsley, 1970). It is not very different today. For example, there is profuse interest in "at risk" conditions of ethnic minority children. "Risk" factors are identified by a comparative mode of isolating conditions thought to impact the developing child. Social scientists have neglected to consider sufficiently the processes within specific contexts that shape social identity as members of ethnic minority groups.

    Social Identity Theory and Social Science

    Social identity theory can help to explain why perspectives often used in contemporary social science research adversely affect ethnic minority social identity. Social identity theory, based to a significant extent on the work of Tajfel (1978, 1981) is useful for analysis of individual perspectives, intergroup relations, and group structure and process. Social identity theory involves processes of categorization, labeling, and construction of stereotypical views. Within this framework, individuals are thought to identify with groups of which they perceive they are members and seek to construct a positive view of self, based on advantageous intergroup comparisons. Subjectively favorable comparisons are motivated by the need to see the self positively compared to others. This proposition assumes that members of a group have a positive view of their own group and, therefore, seek in their social identity development to construct a positive view of self. However, there is evidence to suggest that preference for one's own group differs between African American and white children (Andereck, 1992). For example, findings indicate that by the age of 4, white children prefer to play with other white children. A larger percent of African American children have no preference at the same age. At about 7 years of age, there are contradictory findings concerning group preference for both African American and white children (Rice, Ruiz, & Padilla, 1974; Zinser, Rich, & Bailey, 1981). Clearly children's social identity is in the process of becoming and not fully developed as in adults. However, evidence indicates that different patterns emerge for African American and white children. According to Banks (1994), ethnic minority individuals progress through different developmental stages of ethnic identity. Particularly noteworthy here is the concept that in Stage 1, Ethnic Psychological Captivity, the individual internalizes negative ideologies and beliefs that are institutionalized within society about his or her own ethnic group. Thus, processes of intergroup comparison for ethnic minorities may be more complex than previously thought. Moreover, the process of intergroup comparison is not entirely objective (Schaller, 1991; Schaller & Maass, 1989).

    Social identity theory is useful in considering the relationship between ethnic identity and attitudes toward out groups (Romero & Roberts, 1998), and the intersection of race and gender relative to social identity (Patterson, Cameron, & Lalonde, 1996). However, ethnic minority perspectives are often overlooked. For example, according to Oyserman & Harrison (1998), how race and identity are represented socially affects African Americans' racial and ethnic identity. The authors suggest that this identity can serve useful purposes, such as moderating the effects of racism. However, the many adverse outcomes must be emphasized. A model of social identity must take into account ethnic minority group differences. Social identity positively affects whites in the form of privilege (McIntosh, 1998), where as this is not necessarily the case for ethnic minorities.

    Social Identity and "Helping" Words and Actions

    Labeling is central in social identity theory. Individuals are given labels and social attributions based on group status. For ethnic minority children, youth, and families, these labels place them at a social disadvantage and can adversely affect their self concepts. In much contemporary literature, ethnic minority children and youth continue to be described as "at risk." This label can be a powerful shaping force on the social identities of members of ethnic minority groups. AdamsJohnson & Evans (1998) studied the effects of labeling for African Americans and whites, using data from the National Longitudinal Youth Survey for youth aged 11 to 17 years old. The results suggest that informal labels can have a more substantial impact on delinquency for African American youth than white youth.

    One's social identity focuses on comparisons people make between a dominant group and one's own ethnic minority group. Thus, discourse that features negative comparisons with other groups tends to adversely influence ethnic minority social identity, contributing to an attitude of increasing dissatisfaction with one's social identity. Through information and interactions, individuals become aware of differences as well as one's group affiliation. As more negative information and interactions occur, preliminary attitudes concerning social identity of the group become more negative and can result in psychological conflict and related behaviors (Andereck, 1992).

    Inquiry about social problems, based on a comparative framework, often serve the purpose of reinforcing and strengthening negative social identities of ethnic minorities. Too often, this inquiry complements a pervasive focus on ethnic minority individuals and families as causes of social problems. Of course, it is wrong to assume that ethnic minority families are responsible for all of society's problems. Yet, this is neither understood nor effectively acknowledged. Problems such as drug use and crime are phenomena of the white and upwardly mobile middle class as well; however, how often are these mentioned in everyday discourse?

    Currently, there is an emphasis on "assets" and "strengths," rather than on risk factors. However, such descriptions also call attention to negative characterizations of ethnic minority individuals and families, albeit somewhat less directly. In truth, these presumably less offensive labels and references are little better than characterizations as "poor but humble" and "poor but rich in spirit." Such phrases indirectly diminish the worth of ethnic minority families. Whether direct or indirect, labeling calls attention to an imputed disadvantaged or element of dysfunction. Negative social identity status attributed to ethnic minority children from a "single parent household" serves as one example.

    Ethnic minority children and youth are reminded over and over again that the social identities of their ethnic groups and families are inferior. They are reminded by the results of short term interventions, often based on a comparative framework involved in the enactment and reproduction of prejudice and stereotypes, which can lead to what Seligman (1975) defined as "learned helplessness." Interventions based on group comparisons and negative social identities can have the effect of creating learned helplessness in individuals. Efforts to help ultimately may have the opposite effects: reducing self efficacy and self-help behaviors, while increasing learned helplessness. These outcomes further reinforce the perception of negative social identity for ethnic minorities.

    Once a phenomenon is identified as dysfunctional or as a social problem, helping hands reach out to save troubled children and to reduce risks for families. However, if an intervention does not have its intended effect, it is often said that the clients failed to allow the intervention to succeed. Interventions are blameless; however, those who are "helped" have, it may be said, failed to cooperate. Thus, an extra measure of strength, resilience, and determination of ethnic minority families is required to continue with their lives in spite of failed interventions.

    Toward an Ecological Approach

    How can a different approach to research and study of ethnic minority families change all this? To the extent that negative social identities have hampered ethnic minority families, we have the opportunity to help break the cycle maintained by ineffective, short-term interventions, and by application of inappropriate research methods to understand ethnic minority children, youth, and families.

    We urge that scholars recognize the implications of social identity theory and shift the analytic paradigm in research and teaching of ethnic minority families. It is counterproductive and destructive to focus on comparative factors that contribute to negative social identities of ethnic minority children, youth, and families. As an alternative, we propose a more complex holistic framework such as the family ecosystems approach to study ethnic minority children, youth, and families.

    The family ecosystem as described by Paolucci, Hall & Axinn (1977) and Bubolz & Sontag (1993) is a holistic approach to the study of families. A family ecosystem is made up of relationships between family members, and by patterns of reciprocal influences embedded in networks of environments. Family behavior may be understood in terms of energy exchanges within environments. The family takes in resources (inputs of matter-energy and information) as well as produces resources in the form of human energy (outputs). Processes of transforming, utilizing, and managing these resources are governed by decisions made by the family. Families are engaged in adaptation activities to reach certain outcomes (outputs), such as to improve their quality of life. For further elaboration of the family ecosystems, review of a chapter by Bubolz and Sontag (1993) is recommended.

    In an attempt to understand ethnic minority families, it is important to move away from risks and assets and focus instead on the dynamics of process relationships as related to three important concepts: inputs, throughput, and outputs. Input variables include material resource variables, human resource variables, and information. Material resources include, for example, income, financial/ capital assets, amount, condition, and state of repair of material assets. Human resources include age/numbers of people in the family, social background, educational background, previous experience, kinds of training, and other unique characteristics. Information as resource includes various characteristics of data, such as language usage, types of reading materials in the household, as well as the influence of TV.

    Outputs include social capital in the form of human development, products created or shared, services provided or produced, health and well being of individuals as well as ideas and actions emanating as the result of family actions. Some output variables relate to production of human and social capital for parents, such as parent involvement activities, attendance at parenting meetings and volunteer activities related to school programs. For children, some output variables include school attendance/ absenteeism, safety issues, health, as well as social and interpersonal skills, and cognitive and physical development.

    The concept of throughput requires considerable elaboration and careful definition. (Given the scope of this paper, the previous recommended reading is encouraged.) Throughput refers to behaviors, techniques, strategies, or, more generally, approaches used to transform or utilize the resources that flow through the family. Throughput variables include prevailing behavioral processes, such as patterns of decision making, family planning, communication styles and behaviors (e.g. conflict, cooperation), parenting behaviors (child rearing patterns), and rituals or governing regulations of the family system such as traditions. In the case of minority families, one must develop a perspective of throughput that incorporates the minority family's unique needs, values, and perceptions, as well as purposes and goals.

    Behavior processes, the basic units with which throughput processes may be measured, are shaped by individuals and by the culture of the family in pursuit of goals, with particular attention to strategies and techniques that have been effective in the past. Culture, from this perspective, refers to and includes shared norms, values, beliefs, and assumptions, and the habitual behavior and artifacts that express these orientations such as found in symbols, rituals, stories, and languages of the minority families. Behavior processes are the prevailing patterns of behavior, interactions, and relations within the family, either between individuals or within the family group. A key process in transforming matter-energy and information is adaptation. This includes such dynamics as cooperation, conflict, coordination, decision making, problem solving, influence and power relations, controlling and rewarding behavior, goal setting, and most importantly, communication in managing and sustaining human development.

    An ecological approach takes into consideration processes of interaction in families that influence the formation of structures — the enduring relationships of individuals. These structures define ethnic and cultural family characteristics, including roles and responsibilities, patterns of power distribution and coalitions, throughout the family's developmental stages.

    Inputs, throughput, outputs, and structures are defined within environments. Environments identified by family ecologists are the human-built environment, the social-cultural environment, and the natural-physical environment. These environments include institutions and conditions that may have both short- and long-term impacts on the family — including social institutions, the legal system, scientific and technical knowledge, population distribution and composition, political systems, and local and national cultures surrounding the family.

    An ecosystems approach structures an analysis of families based on a system of ecologically comprehensive variables that influence minority families and, therefore, affects the development of self within families. For example, some structural variables are measures of life stage of family, age/numbers of people, parent roles, parental responsibilities, child's roles, child's responsibilities, and relationships in the family.

    An ecosystems approach can illuminate complex relationships between the individuals, families, and environments. These complex relationships include:

    • the family's ability to obtain resources
    • the family's ability to transform resources to achieve intended outputs
    • the systems and institutions with which the family interacts and its relations with them
    • the family's responses to external problems and demands, and
    • the ways in which the family discovers and takes advantage of opportunities.

    An ecosystems approach to research on minority individuals and their families should be based on several essential principles. First, the design should include conditions external to the family system that influence the flow of resources to families. It should include considerations of throughput as well family output. Second, in ecological design it is important to note that families are influenced by their members as well as by their environments. Third, ecological design should incorporate variables of adaptation as well as status, since families are constantly changing in various ways. Families make reactive changes in response to internal or external problems. Families make anticipatory or proactive changes, which are aimed at improving before problems arise. Families make incremental changes, which do not alter the family system abruptly. Families also make strategic changes, which may involve basic changes, for example in family goals or environment. Fourth, ecological design should view minority families as family ecosystems, rather than as containers of problems or hooks on which to hang labels such as "broken families," "single parent families," "dysfunctional families," or "deviant families."

    An ecosystems approach can provide a basis for understanding structural, functional, interactive, and dynamic aspects of minority families that are not well understood. This approach may incorporate qualitative and quantitative methods. In either case, the outcomes can only be considered valid and reliable when the data are collected based on "trust." In everyday discourse and research, sensitivity is important in order to build rapport with people who have different cultural experiences. It is important for the people to affirm and positively value ethnic minority individuals and families. In the new millennium, family scholars and practitioners can lead the way.


    Adams, M.S., Johnson, J.D., & Evans, T.D. (1998). Racial differences in informal labeling effects. Deviant Behavior, 19, 157-171.

    Andereck, M. (1992. Ethnic awareness and the school. Newbury Park, CA. Sage.

    Banks, J.A. (1994). An introduction to multicultural education.. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    Billingsley, A. (1970). Black families and white social science. Journal of Social Issues, 26, 127-142.

    Bubolz, M.M., & Sontag, M.S.(1993). Human ecology theory. In P.G. Boss, W.J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W.R. Schumm, & S.K. Steinmetz (Eds.) Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach, pp. 419-447. New York: Plenum.

    Devore, W. & London, H.(1993). Ethnic sensitivity for practitioners. In H. P. McAdoo (Ed.) Family Ethnicity. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    Hurtado, A.(1996). Strategic suspensions: Feminists of color theorize the production of knowledge. In N. Goldberger, J.M. Tarule, B.M. Clinchy, and M.F. Belenky (Eds.) Knowledge, difference, and power: Essays inspired by "Women's Ways of Knowing" (pp. 372-392). New York: Basic Books.

    Kingsbury, N. & Scanzoni, J. (1993). Structural functionalism. In P.G. Boss, WJ. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W.R. Schumm, & S.K. Steinmetz (Eds.) Sourcebook of family theories and research (pp. 195-217). New York: Plenum.

    Marger, M.N. (1991). Race and Ethnic Relations. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    McIntosh, P. (1998). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In M. McGoldrick (Ed.) Revisioning family therapy: Race, culture, and gender in clinical practice (pp. 147-152). New York: Guilford.

    Mindel, C.H., Habenstein, R.W., & Wright, R.Jr. (1988). Family lifestyles of America's ethnic minorities. In C.H. Mindel, R.W. Habenstein, & R. Wright Jr. (Eds.) Ethnic families in America (pp. 1-14). New York: Elsevier Science.

    Oyserman, D., & Harrison, K. (1998). Implications of cultural context: African American identity and possible selves. In J.K. Swim & K. Stangor (Eds.) Prejudice: The target's perspective (pp. 281-300). San Diego, CA.: Academic Press.

    Paolucci, B., Hall, 0. & Axinn, N. (1977). Family decision making: An ecosystems approach. New York: Wiley.

    Patterson, L.A., Cameron, J.E., & Lalonde, R.N. (1996). The intersection of race and gender: Examining the politics of identity in women's studies. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 28, 229-239.

    Ragin, C.C. & Hein, J. (1993). The comparative study of Ethnicity: Methodological and Conceptual Issues. In J.H. Stanfield II & F. M. Dennis (Eds.) Race and ethnicity in research methods (pp.254-272). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    Rice, A., Ruiz, R., & Padilla, A. (1974). Person perception, self identity, and ethnic group, preference in Anglo, Black, and Chicano preschool and third grade children. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 5, 100-108.

    Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

    Schaller, M. (1991). Social categorization and the formation of group stereotypes: Further evidence for biased information processing in the perception of group-behaviour correlations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 21, 25-35.

    Schaller, M., & Maass, A. (1989). Illusory correlations and social categorization: Toward an integration of motivational and cognitive factors in stereotype formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 709-721.

    Tajfel, H. (1978). Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations. London: Academic Press.

    Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories: Studies in social psychology. London: Cambridge University Press.

    van Dijk, T.A. (1984). Prejudice in discourse. Amsterdam: Benjamin.

    van Dijk, T.A. (Ed.) (1985). Handbook of discourse analysis. (4 vols.). London; Academic Press.

    van Dijk, T.A. (1987). Communicating racism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    van Dijk, T.A. (1991). Racism and the press. London: Routledge.

    van Dijk, T.A. (1993). Analyzing racism through discourse analysis. In J.H. Stanfield II & F. M. Dennis (Eds.) Race and ethnicity in research methods (pp.92-134). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    Yinger, M.(1985). Ethnicity. Annual Review of Sociology, 11, 151-180.

    Zinser, O., Rich, M. & Bailey, R. 1981. Sharing behavior and racial preference in children. Motivation and Emotion, 65, 179-187.