Ethnicity vs Nationality: Similarities and Differences

ethnicity vs nationality, explained below

Ethnicity and nationality are related concepts, but they are not interchangeable.

Here are their definitions. Pay attention to the subtle differences:

  • Ethnicity refers to a shared cultural or historical identity based on common ancestry, heritage, language, religion or other shared experiences regardless of geographical location. 
  • Nationality refers to legal and political membership in a specific nation-state defined by borders with a particular government that provides protection to its citizens and enforces law within its jurisdiction. Nationality entails formal recognition from states in form of citizenship rights and responsibilities associated with the status.

Key Differences Between Ethnicity and Nationality

While nationality is often tied to one’s place of birth or legal ties like naturalization, ethnicity is more cultural and can be shaped by various factors such as ancestry traditions, beliefs, or even personal preference.

Ethno-cultural groups may identify themselves with more than one nation-state because their identity transcends geographical boundaries (Edgell, Gottfried & Granter, 2015; Ritzer, 2015).

(A good example here is the Kurds, who are a distinct ethnic group with their own culture and traditions, but whose traditional homelands span Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. As a result, Kurds who share a close-knit culture may nonetheless have different nationalities from one another).

Furthermore, nationality creates more formal obligations between individuals and the state than ethnicity does (Jones, 2012). For instance, nationality implies the requirement to pay taxes and obey laws governing public order. Indeed, for some nationalities, you still need to obey their national laws even if you’re overseas (e.g. American nationals having to do tax returns even if they live overseas).

Overall then, while ethnicity relates more to cultural identities like customs, language or way of life passed on through generations, nationality is more focused on legally recognizing individuals’ membership in a particular nation-state which involves state-embedded rights and obligations within its territory (Ritzer, 2015).

Key Similarities Between Ethnicity and Nationality

While ethnicity and nationality are distinct concepts, there are definitely some similarities between the two:

  1. Both refer to Group Membership: Both involve a sense of belonging to a larger group – whether that’s rooted in shared cultural ties (ethnicity) or legal/political membership in a nation-state (nationality).
  2. Both affect our Identity: Both can shape one’s identity and influence their relationships with others, as well as the way they perceive and interact with the world around them. While ethnicity is the more obviously identity-forming feature, today, many people see their nationality as integral to their identity as well (Edgell, Gottfried & Granter, 2015).
  3. Treatment and Prejudice: Both can also have real-world implications for how individuals are treated by institutions or authority figures, ranging from immigration policies to employment opportunities to access to education or healthcare (Plummer, 2021).
  4. Influence on Tastes: Additionally, both ethnicity and nationality can influence aspects of an individual’s lived experiences like food preferences/cuisine, clothing styles or music tastes (Ritzer, 2015).
  5. Pride: Lastly, both ethnicity and nationality can give rise to positive feelings such as pride in one’s cultural heritage which is often tied up with personal identity and fostered through celebrations such as ethnic festivals/national holidays (Rubenstein & Healy, 2014).

Examples for Contrast

Ethnicity ExamplesNationality Examples
1. Hispanic/Latino: This term refers to people from or with ancestry from Spanish-speaking cultures in Latin America or Spain itself. The cultures within this category are diverse but may share common traits like language, food, and music.1. American: It is a nationality that refers to those individuals who hold citizenship in the United States of America and serves as a collective identity that includes both native-born citizens and those who have immigrated to become legally recognized members of American society.
2. African American: This ethnic group typically has roots in Africa and is descended from enslaved Africans brought to North America during the colonial period. African Americans have developed important cultural practices such as blues and jazz music, soul food etc.2. Japanese: People who hold Japanese nationality are typically citizens of Japan, a nation whose history can be traced back many centuries, and whose identity is kept alive in their literature and art forms, while also being blended with modern trends in recent decades.
3. Pacific Islander: This group includes individuals who trace their ancestry back to Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji etc. Along with distinctive cuisine they have provided global popular culture with hula dancing and Tahitian dance.3. Mexican: Mexicans are people referred to by nationality holding citizenship in Mexico. While Mexico has been enriched by generations of indigenous Mesoamerican culture (alongside Spanish influence), an immigrant can become Mexican through legal naturalization.
4. Asian Indian: A person of Indian descent originating from the region containing present-day India or surrounding nations like Pakistan Bangladesh etc., often having Hinduism or Islam as a main religion along with rich cultural practices like traditional dress etc.4. Russian: Russia is a proud nation whose history spans over 1,000 years. The nation was once governed by Tsars, and was also the central nation in the Soviet Union until 1991, and today stands as a large independent nation spanning the Asian and European continents.
5. Irish-American: People from Ireland or with Irish heritage comprise this ethnic group which has a unique narrative involving immigrants who sought economic opportunities in America while still retaining fondness for their origins home country’s traditions such as holiday Saint Patrick’s Day.5. Egyptian: People share an Egyptian nationality if they hold citizenship to the North African state. Egypt contains rich cultural heritage items, ranging from pyramids of ancient pharaonic civilization, and items from Coptic Christianity legacy.

Detailed Definitions and Explanations

What is an Ethnicity?

At its core, ethnicity refers to a shared identity based on cultural or historical ties between individuals who are perceived as having a common ancestry or heritage.

But ethnicity is far from a static construct. It’s shaped by dynamic social, political, and economic forces that can change over time in response to changing circumstances (Edgell, Gottfried & Granter, 2015).

Some ethnic groups may define themselves primarily by their language, religion, or customs; others may emphasize more subjective factors like shared experiences or a sense of community.

One challenge of studying ethnicity is that it can be difficult to disentangle from race – another social construct linked to skin color or visible physical characteristics.

But whereas race tends to be more visible and fixed (at least on the surface), ethnicity is often more fluid and mutable depending on how individuals choose to identify themselves (Jones, 2012; Rubenstein & Healy, 2014).

Despite its complexities, understanding ethnic identity has become increasingly important as global migration patterns continue to shift and diversify.

By exploring the various factors that shape ethnicity – from cultural traditions and historical narratives to political systems and economic structures – we can gain a deeper appreciation for the diversity of human experience while also recognizing our shared humanity.

What is a Nationality?

Nationality, not to be confused with nationalism. is a legal and political term that refers to an individual’s status as a citizen or member of a particular nation-state.

In other words, nationality is determined by the laws and policies of a given country, and it involves rights and responsibilities that are tied to that membership (Plummer, 2021; Ritzer, 2015).

Nationality can be tied to various criteria such as place of birth, ancestry, or even marriage to a national. It can also involve complex processes such as naturalization for those who wish to become citizens of another country.

While nationality can provide individuals with certain privileges and protections within their home country, it can also create exclusions and barriers for those who do not belong or fit into the dominant cultural or ethnic group (Edgell, Gottfried & Granter, 2015; Rubenstein & Healy, 2014).


Ethnicity and nationality are distinct terms, but they have clear overlaps. I’ll often get my students to draw Venn diagrams in class so they can input similarities and unique features of the two concepts. To extend upon this task, we can also introduce race as a third related, but also distinct, concept.


Edgell, S., Gottfried, H., & Granter, E. (Eds.). (2015). The SAGE handbook of the sociology of work and employment.

Jones, A. (2012). Human Geography: the basics. Routledge.

Plummer, K. (2021). Sociology: the basics. Routledge.

Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. Sage Publications.

Rubenstein, J. M., & Healy, M. (2014). The cultural landscape: An introduction to human geography (p. 510). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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