Standardizing Ethnic Data in the Face of Real-World Ethnic Complexity by Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins. Extensive research efforts are underway in many quarters worldwide, to better understand the ethnicities of the world. Much is known. Much is now better understood. Even new ethnicities have recently been discovered. But our knowledge is still spotty. Not everybody knows all the information now available in so many quarters. But how do we make sense of all this new information? How do we really share it? How do we ascertain how this various information relates across the very different databases?Human culture is extremely varied. Humans are creative, flexible and innovative, leading to continual changes in the world’s ethnic landscape. (See Dealing with Ethnic and Linguistic Change.)
Plus our knowledge is still at best incomplete. As cultures continue to develop and change and as societies continue to redefine themselves, as languages change and new forms of speech and culture develop, new ethnicities constantly develop. This is the pattern of human history.
Some may be surprised to learn that the greatest single force in the world today in anthropological and ethnographic investigation is found in the worldwide Christian mission community. A great movement to fill the gaps in people group information arose in the 1990s. This entailed an unprecedented desire to share information and combine resources and efforts.
But how do we make sense of all this new information? How do we really share it? How do we ascertain how this various information relates across the very different databases?
The body of information on people groups of the world has grown amazingly. The analysis and publication of ethnic information has grown to enormous proportions. Our understanding has been complicated by the extensive details gathered over the last three decades and the extensive availability of this information to more people, especially since the development of the Internet.
How can we enable more people to gain access to more of the ever-growing bodies of information on human ethnicity?
One Great List
One way tried in the recent history of modern Christian missions was to look at ways to merge the various data from various sources into one large combined list. These efforts continually met with frustration over logistics, management and complexity, due to the extensive differences in need, type of information, amount of detail and the purposes and goals of the disparate agencies.
In the early 1990s more sharing efforts arose and some creative new approaches were tried. A serious interest on the part of several world agencies led to the development in the late 1990s of Harvest Information System (HIS).
The Registry of Peoples
The HIS approach was to establish standard codesets that could used in a flexible manner to identify bits of information about peoples of the world in such a way that very different sets of information could be compared if they used the standard codes. This was already happening with languages in the use of the Ethnologue language codes, now the ISO world standard for world languages.
For ethnic groups of the world, the Registry of Peoples (ROP) was developed, followed by other Registries for various purposes. In 2001, the first Public Release of the Registry of Peoples was posted on the HIS website. Updates are posted every 6-12 months, as ethnicities are continually reviewed, as data from disparate contributing sources is sifted and analyzed and as new information changes or clarifies the general picture of the human ethnicities in our world.
Clarifying Ethnicity and Ethnicities
With the concept of sharing without merging, a “Standard” list of peoples becomes a side issue. When one common list of peoples becomes the primary focus, only impedes our understanding of peoples of the world. Any standardization by definition imposes itself on the resulting view of ethnicity.
More pressing, I would think, is clarifying the picture of ethnicity, the map of the ethnic landscape, from the bits that various sources know. Hundreds of research projects and cultural investigations are underway all over the world by various personnel: academic, mission, social, linguistic, economic, and such. All these stand to enrich our overall knowledge of the peoples of the world.
Our goal is to facilitate the discovery by enabling any or all investigators to learn what others are finding and how they have interpreted it or classified that at the current time.
What we are attempting to discover are the dynamic characteristics of each human society at whatever level, in order to enter into relationship with them in a creative and productive manner of deep worldview-level communication, in order to convey our sense of the Good News we have found in the message of the Kingdom!
While Data Management proffers clear bounded categories and regularity, the real world is actually dynamic, changing, fuzzy at every level. This is certainly the case in ethnicity! The Scientific Method is helpful here, using the approach of discovery and analysis. But we find there is no Final Analysis. There is no such thing in Ethnicity. Because it involves human beings! See the article The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Finding Similarity, Exploring Difference
The Registry of Peoples codes enable you to find any similarity and expand your explorations by tapping into another database’s knowledge without compromising your own!
This way discovery can be accelerated by everyone sharing their partial knowledge and views from different levels of investigations into a broader pool that everybody can have a first-hand opportunity to analyze and evaluate on their own terms!
Areas of difference between and two or more people lists or databases present opportunities for further research, verification, clarification or interpretation, for an ever-sharper view of the human social groupings with whom we want to communicate. Communication in the worldview is the ultimate goal – communicating at the deep-identity decision-making level of the cultural worldview.
This is why Harvest Information System has put so much effort into defining and developing codesets. We want to facilitate the exchange of information from the varied sources on a broader basis. To democratize the knowledge, if you will. Of course there are many factors and logistics to bear in mind.
But the idea of a Standard list seems to be the stumbling block where Missions Research foundered for some years, if not decades. Agencies could never agree on what to include, how to classify, what names to use, where to combine or divide similar groups.
Complexity of Ethnicity
We can share, compare and evaluate information from a wide range of sources. But the previous-generation thinking of merging everything into one master ethnic database is not the way to do it. That has proven unworkable.
We will never reach a common, standard agreed list of world peoples. Ethnicity is just too complicated. And it changes too fast. Like languages, “ethnicities” (peoples, people groups, tribes, etc.) die; they merge, they change and new ones develop. Every year ethnic groups disappear and news ones are discernible.
The great cities of the world are seething cooking pots for new ethnicities, not just social segments. Cities are so important because the initially-confusing patterns we discern are new ethnicities under development. How exciting!
One View Fits All?
But we still hear comments on the need for everyone’s data to look alike. This is just another version of putting everything into one large common database. This seems to misunderstand just what ethnicity is.
Ethnicity is just too complex. The ways of viewing and analyzing ethnicity are just too complex. We must deal with it in multiple dimensions. Multiple Views.
Homogenizing the information is one good way to distort the real-world picture we really want! Having the same information that looks the same in everybody’s version is a different matter from sharing all the information from various sources.
The multiple views are important in understanding different aspects of the phenomena we are investigating. We need to probe the multiple dimensions of Ethnicity. Let’s explore the 4th Dimension of Ethnicity, not just a 2-dimensional spreadsheet simplification!
As information can be shared, views will surely draw closer together. The problem for classification is the limitation of a data sheet to represent the multiplicity of social networks and cultural patterns that constitute what we call “Ethnicity.”
But still, that is a somewhat different matter than how a code operates and how a codeset can facilitate the exchange of information.
Codesets – A Reference Mechanism
I understand a “codeset” to be a reference mechanism for finding or comparing information. The purpose of the codeset as understood in the HIS working context is for finding similar information in another database. There is no assumption that each database must adjust somehow.
The goal of HIS is not to simply provide a universal correct or “standard” list of ethnicities. Classification is not the goal. That is just a helpful step along the way to understanding and engaging. The goal is comparison and exchange of information, with the end result of communication at the deep worldview level in each self-identified “ethnic group” or “people group” of the world!
The goal is specifically meant to avoid the idea that there should be one “standard” that everyone is expected to follow, but to facilitate the understanding and exchange of information based on different views of ethnicity, without limiting any contributing database.
Distractions from Discovery
The dynamic real world of human ethnicity cannot be captured in data fields! The goal of cultural research and worldview investigation is to discover ethnic realities and continue to discover more of the complex nuances of difference among such broad similarities across world cultures and societies.
There are always different levels and directions from which to analyze the complex of human ethnicity. Thus the comparison of views and the exchange of information are critical to gain a common shared view of ethnicity and ethnicities.
Varieties of Views
The problem lies in interpreting what our ongoing research discovers. There are various ways to organize what you are finding. Different assumptions and different classification systems portray the world differently. Another way of putting it is that our attempts to systematize what we are finding change to some extent what we are finding. We should always be critical of our conclusions.
The variety of new discoveries in research and the variations of views of what we are finding are positive aspects of the discovery. The end goal is to communicate and build relationships that can lead to meaningful expressions of the Good News in a culture, not a “better” classification system. (Though we agree that ideally new findings may lead to adjustments in the classification system.)
Codesets are a “third-party” reference that enables each database to see what is in another database. Where an entity relates in some way, or where there are totally different unmatched entries.
On some occasions, there will be exact matches between an entity in one View (database, or classification system) and another. More often there will be differences in the boundaries and groupings. The codeset will enable partners to compare and find matching, finding their similarities and differences.
Classification vs Discovery
I have perceived in some quarters an inordinate desire to have one-to-one match between people group lists. Somehow there is a simplistic feeling that to be accurate the entities should match one-to-one, and the names should even be the same or similar. We should homogenize all the lists to make One Great List.
This is a barrier just as formidable as the original problems we had trying to laboriously match by name alone! The one-to-one limitation is just another variation of our old problem. Standard codes are meant to bypass this problem, facilitating the sharing of insights and information even with differences in data structures, views of ethnicity or strategy approaches.
Let me put that another way. There are various reasons resistance is encountered in attempting to homogenize information to One Great List. The particular priorities and interests of a researcher or agency affect what they look for, what they find and how they account for it in their data.
The attainment of a Standard list of peoples has taxonomical value for purposes of analysis. But we will wisely acknowledge that the very systemization necessary to enter data in to predefined fields in a database limits the View we gain from the data!
More important for strategic communication purposes is an understanding of the underlying worldview and the social structures of the various human communities in the world, with the goal of intimate communication at the deepest level of self-understanding, where life-changing decisions are made, where the gospel penetrates to the core of their reality.
The Unfinished Task
From a cultural point of view, we will never have a Final and Complete list (standard, or whatever it might be called) because it is the nature of Ethnicity to change. I address this in the article Dealing with Ethnic and Linguistic Change
Any listing or classification has to make choices about where to draw lines on a continuum of similar but slightly different social cultures, worldviews, and speech forms (commonly referred to as languages and dialects or language families). Thus we are involved in a quest of investigation and discovery. And also of interpretation.
Let’s heighten our discovery. Let’s celebrate the dynamic reality of human cultural complexity that we find! Let’s share all the information anyone can gather. Let’s consider all the View of Ethnicity all the independent analysis provides.
Let’s probe the unknown edges of human Ethnicity to better understand our world and communicate meaningfully!
Italics and bold added.