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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier: National minorities
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWhat are minorities?- some possible criteria
View the documentThe basis of prejudice
View the documentPolitical representation
View the documentInternational legal protection
View the documentThe minority lights trap
View the documentThe African context: asset or liability?
View the documentA policy overview
View the documentTowards a new system of protection
View the documentLinguistic minorities in the European Conununtry
View the documentCreating marginalised dependent minorities Relief programmes for refugees in Europe
View the documentIndigenous peoples
View the documentSome examples of minority situations

What are minorities?- some possible criteria

by Lorenza SQUARCI

To understand the situation of minorities, it is necessary first to consider what is meant by the word 'minority'. The need for such a definition to be precise is perhaps not immediately obvious: it is a word which is in everyday use and most people have a fairly clear idea, in general terms, of what it means when they use it. Lawyers, however, have sought to establish the word's meaning within clearly defined limits. It is obvious that legal protection is likely to be all the more effective if there is no disagreement over what is being protected! But definition, as is so often the case, poses problems.

From a political standpoint, it is important to ensure the objectivity of legal definitions - they should not exacerbate existing separatist tendencies within a state or contribute to rivalries between states. Any definition required for the purpose of protecting minorities must, therefore, aim to be as clear as possible. It is important to avoid definitions which are so broad as to be pointless, while those which are too narrow might run the risk of excluding certain situations and consequently, of depriving the groups in question of any protection that the law provides.

It was not until the 20th century that the question of identifying minorities was really tackled. The authors of the League of Nations Covenant were the first to consider it, while subsequent peace treaties and conventions increasingly began to focus on the more general issue of human rights. In 1950, a UN subcommittee was instructed actually to look into the protection of minorities and, with a view to establishing the parameters of the subject, this body reached the following conclusions:

-the term 'minority' referred to nondominant groups of a population which had and wished to preserve ethnic, religious or linguistic traditions or characteristics which were distinctly different from those of the rest of the population;

-these non-dominant groups had to be large enough to be able to develop such characteristics

-members of minorities should be loyal to the state of which they were nationals.

According to Louis Mirth, a minority 'is a group of people who, by virtue of their physical or cultural characteristics, are distinct from the other people in the society in which they live because of different and unequal treatment and who, therefore, consider themselves to be the subject of collective discrimination. Having minority status means being prevented from fully participating in the life of society'.

A socio-political concept

Despite these attempts at a legal definition, the notion of minority should first be approached as a socio-political concept. When one talks of minorities, one should keep four things in mind.

The first is the concept of community. For a minority to exist in reality, its members should have characteristics which both unite them with each other and differentiate them from the rest of the national society, so that they form a distinct community of their own.

The second important element is also a quantitative one. A group which has religious, linguistic or historical cohesion is only effectively a minority if it meets two conditions as to size. It should have enough members to give it a certain significance at national level and it obviously should be smaller than the rest of the population so that the latter occupies a position of strength vis-a-vis the former. The result of this is that the possibility of oppression is inherent.

A position of strength tends, above all, to imply economic and social advantages, so the true scale of the minority phenomenon is to be sought in an analysis of the place that minorities occupy in the economic and social system. Historically, certain linguistic, religious and other groups have been excluded from or exploited in the production process. It is worth noting that the reverse can also occur where a minority is in a (real or imagined) position of economic privilege and the majority reacts against this. European anti-semitism and the treatment meted out to certain Asian communities in East Africa are examples of where this has happened.

The third component is a psychological phenomenon, that of minority awareness. For an established, numerically inferior group to be a minority in the true meaning of the word, it needs to be aware of being a minority. Minority awareness has a reciprocal element in that not only does the smaller group consider itself a minority, but it has to be treated as such by the majority-the vital basis for oppression. And where there is oppression, a minority will assimilate the anxieties and frustrations of the dominant group.

Nation... State

In addition to the above socio-political elements, there are a number of practical circumstances which can be invoked in the identification of minority groups.

One may, for example, refer to the concepts of nation and state-which are by no means synonymous. A minority, in this context, may be the 'extension' of one or more sovereign states beyond its borders-the Magyars in Romania or the 'Austrians' in Italy. It is also possible to have minorities such as the Tibetans or Basques which are 'nations' without states in the sense that they do not have any real ethnic links with the larger state entity to which they 'belong'.

A minority may be identified by language, religion or territory (an island or an area bounded by rivers or mountains, for example).

For the purpose of identification, the question of the will of the group in question is relevant. Clearly, a minority cannot appear on the political scene unless, as stated earlier, it is aware of its existence and of having its own values.

Objective factors such as political, religious or linguistic persecution are all that it takes to arouse such group awareness.

Another approach may be to classify minorities in the light of the way they are officially regarded. They may be recognised as self-governing states or regions, they may have specific linguistic or cultural freedoms or, in some cases, they may have no recognition at all.

The right to self-determination is generally recognised but this is only feasible for minorities which are grouped territorially. Such communities can be treated differently from scattered minorities, the latter generally having to be content with a personally-based system of protection (i.e. one founded on human rights).

A further complication can arise in the case of a 'double minority', that is to say, a 'cub-minority' which is part of a larger group which, in turn, is a minority vis-a-vis the wider society.

Finally, it may be necessary to distinguish between indigenous and immigrant minorities.

When one talks of 'minorities' there are a number of associated terms which come to mind. Words such es 'melting pot', 'assimilation' or 'integration' are often used to refer to a particular situation involving one or a number of minorities on the one hand and a majority community on the other.

These are all expressions which are liable to cause confusion. Their potential for ambiguity arises from the fact that they are used both to describe a situation and to indicate a process. Given the complexity of the subject in general, with so many different forms of minority situation throughout the world, it is useful to seek clearer definitions of the relevant terminology.

It is worth emphasising, in the context of these terms, the wide differences in the treatment or status of minority groups. There are a great many variables relating to language, religion, culture, skin-colour and so on, which enter into the minority/ majority equation. When in the face of such diversity one talks of 'losing an original culture', it should be recognized that it is normally a question of degree. The total loss of a culture rarely, if ever, happens. Equally unlikely is the complete preservation of an original culture uninfluenced by the norms, values or habits of the majority in a given society.

Melting pot

According to the Collins English Dictionary, 'melting pot' as a sociological term means 'an area where many races, ideas etc are mixed'. The Webster's dictionary includes the idea of racial amalgamation.

The term, therefore' refers to a situation where minorities intermingle, brought together through similar social, political, economic or ideological goals. Each group may well retain an element of its own identity-at least during an interim phase -but in the longer run the original identity will 'fade' in a process of merging to achieve common objectives. The underlying idea is that something entirely new is created from the 'old' ingredients.


Drobizheva and Guboglo, in their study entitled 'Aspects of Interpersonal and Intergroup Communication in Plurilingual Societies', which was presented at a symposium on multilinguahsm in Brussels on 13-15 March 1986, put forward the following definition of 'assimilation': 'Disappearance of distinctive ethnographical features; objectively the loss of specific elements of material and non-material culture and subjectively the loss of feeling of belonging to a particular ethnic group.' Simultaneously, they say it involves 'acquisition of traits belonging to another culture, which replace those of the former, accompanied by the subjective feeling of belonging to the second culture'.

For the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, to assimilate is to 'make like' or to 'absorb into the system'. Collins talks of 'being changed into another under the influence of one adjacent to it'. But in the context of groups of peoples living together in a society, Webster's offers the most comprehensive description, referring to 'socio-cultural fusion wherein individuals and groups of differing ethnic heritage acquire the basic habits, attitudes and mode of life of an embracing national culture'.

Assimiliation is, accordingly, characterised by the abandonment or renunciation of one's original culture. In effect, minorities become absorbed (over time) into the wider society. Such a process does not preclude the possibility that the 'host' culture will be influenced or altered in some way but it is essentially 'one-sided'.


The difference between assimilation and integration may be a subtle one but it is nevertheless important. Drobizheva and Guboglo describe the latter as the 'formation of common features in an ethnically heterogeneous group'.

The Concise Oxford speaks of 'combining parts into a whole' and indeed, refers explicitly to the ending of racial segregation

Likewise, Collins, which refers to 'the act of amalgamating a racial or religious group within an existing community. But the crucial point, elucidated in Webster's is that the incorporation which takes places into the society 'on the basis of common and equal membership of individuals' does not involve the complete extinction of pre-existing and differing group characteristics.

Thus in contrast to assimilation, integration is seen as a process which allows the minority to enter something (a group or society) which already exists, without necessarily involving the loss of Original culture'. Minorities may indeed choose no' to integrate in given circumstances. Assimilation implies no such choice.

Diversity in unity

One further expression which is gaining in popularity is 'diversity in unity'. It refers to those types of organisation (social, political, economic etc), specifically created to deal with situations where different nationalities, cultures or linguistic groups are required to work together. The aim is to allow for the differences to be maintained and respected- rather than to suppress them in the interests of some 'common cause'. Federalism is sometimes described as a system which seeks to maintain 'diversity in unity'. In practice, the Swiss confederal system provides a good example of this approach.

Minority reactions

Minorities are not identified solely in terms of their distinctive features. The way they react to their situation, if at all, is also important.

Where minorities hope for peaceful cohabitation with the majority and with other minorities, there is cultural pluralism. This involves a desire for a united economic and political basis, combined with a tolerance of cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.

Assimilation is also a possibility. This involves the agreement of, or perhaps more commonly, the acquiescence of the minority in a process which leads to absorption (over time) into the majority group, with a view to everyone being treated as an individual. The minority melts into the mass. Of course, this can only happen if the majority agrees (or acquiesces) as well.

Alongside these visions of pluralism and assimilation, there are two other possibilities which involve the highlighting, rather than the ironing out, of differences.

First, there is the secessionist tendency, in which the minority seeks to obtain political and cultural independence. This is likely to develop where cultural pluralism or assimilation has failed. A second phenomenon, which is more unusual but by no means unprecedented, is where the minority goes beyond a desire for equality or separation, and instead seeks to dominate the majority. This requires a conviction of its own superiority on the part of the minority.

Despite all efforts at classification and identification, it is clear from the complexities outlined above that there are no easy answers. If the issue of definition alone can throw up so many unanswerable questions, one may well ponder whether the 'minority question' can ever be solved.