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Is there any objective way to describe ethnicity that does not rely on arbitrary sociocultural concepts like referring to racial constructs, modern nations like “Spanish”, or even continents like “European”, but instead just directly describes what traits/genes you have (skin color, facial structure, etc.)?

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    $\begingroup$ Please define ethnicity as you understand this relatively recent term, and explain how it differs from the term race, and is not a “socio-cultural concept” too. Examples are really needed if one is to attempt a biological (I assume this is what you mean by “objective”) definition. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jan 5 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ Ethnicity is a sociocultural concept. A description of ethnicity without sociocultural concepts wouldn't be objective, it would be wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 5 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ Ethnicity is a spectrum, with phenotypic stereotypes and with legacy sub-species based on geographical boundaries, which are unacceptable to call subspecies because humans are not animals, sidespecies would work better, although even then... Before 1000 years ago, there were thousands of tribes in relative geographical isolation, even in Europe, and Africa, which didn't have major mixing with other tribes enough to make them similar, for example the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo Rainforest, previous to agriculture booms, almost the entire world was highly differentiated in that sense. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7 at 19:04

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UN 1950 Declaration
As defined by the UN in 1950, 'race' refers to a biological concept while 'ethnicity' refers to a sociological concept. The same declaration said that the way people used the word 'race' was so out of line with biology facts, it would be better to stop using the word entirely:

To most people, a race is any group of people whom they choose to describe as a race. Thus, many national, religious, geographic, linguistic or cultural groups have, in such loose usage, been called “race”, when obviously Americans are not a race, nor are Englishmen, nor Frenchmen, nor any other national group... Because serious errors of this kind are habitually committed when the term "race" is used in popular parlance, it would be better when speaking of human races to drop the term "race" altogether and speak of ethnic groups. [Italics in the original]

Even that document is wrong however, in that it still proposes a definition of race could be rigorously defined, but we now know that is untrue.

Phenotypes
A phenotypic definition of race would determine if people were part of the same race using expressed traits. This basically amounts to phrenology, or the methods of phrenology applied to other traits, most notably skin color and intelligence. Even by 1950 most of these traits were shown to result from environment (e.g. nutrition, education) and not something inherent.

Genealogy
A genealogical definition of race would determine if people were part of the same race using family trees. In 2004 Nature published a study showing that the most recent common ancestor for all living human (the most recent person to shows up in every family tree) was probably from Eastern Asia and lived in ~50 AD. It further showed that the identical ancestors point, beyond which the family tree of everyone alive becomes identical, is ~2,100 BC. As the authors put it, "no matter the languages we speak or the colour of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who laboured to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu."

Genetics
A genetic definition of race would determine if people were part of the same race using genetic similarities. The problem with this is that Africans are so much more genetically diverse than anyone else. One 2002 study even found the Africans have more in common with Eurasians than with each other. There has actually been a recent push to stop using race as a factor in genetic studies.

How should we understand race
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as an article on race, which is a good place to start although it can get a little technical. It also has the section 'Race verses Ethnicity', which you would probably find interesting. Another interesting resource is The Price of Whiteness by Eric Goldstein, which describes how whether Jews were considered part of the White race changed in American multiple times, but always to the benefit of the upper classes.

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Race and Ethnicity are not biological traits. They are both inherently sociocultural concepts. They often have biological components associated with them, and sometimes (not always) those biological features help to define a person's race or ethnicity (more commonly with race). But they always have a social/cultural component. And to be clear, if someone is of European or African decent, that is an objective statement about them, even if it's not the most descriptive biologically.

The more objective biological traits can always be studied or talked about in isolation, and then related back to the non-biological components based on their frequency or infrequency in those populations. This is common in public health research. For example, you could talk about specific allelic signatures that occur more commonly in members of the Greek diaspora, or the frequency of sickle cell disease in people whose ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa.

My primary source is the cultural anthropologist that I'm marrying in a few months. When we met, she taught a university course on the subject of Race, Ethnicity, and Biology, so we had this discussion many times early on. This natgeo article also does a fair job of explaining it in general terms.

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  • $\begingroup$ How can you answer a question in a scientific manner if you do not define the term that you are discussing? Citing an acquaintance as evidence compounds the unsatisfactory nature of this answer. Other defects are misinterpreting the question as about "biological traits" — a term that the poster does not use. Until the poster gives examples of what he means by ethnicity, it is better to ignore the question. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jan 6 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ @David Thanks for your very useful feedback. If you think the question should be ignored due to incompleteness, you should vote to close and explain why in a comment so that others may be convinced to do the same. $\endgroup$
    – MikeyC
    Commented Jan 8 at 6:04
  • $\begingroup$ I commented to the poster with a request for specific clarification, as is one of the stated purposes of comments. It is only when that is not forthcoming that I vote/ have voted to close, choosing as the reason “lacks detail or clarity” which requires no further comment on my part. As you had answered the question I felt it appropriate to point out that you too were discussing something without defining it, and that I felt your answer unsatisfactory for that reason. Again, I was asking for clarification but from you, and may downvote / may have downvoted on that basis. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jan 8 at 8:47
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Describing ethnicity can be a complex and multifaceted topic. It often involves elements such as cultural practices, language, religion, shared history, ancestry, and sometimes geographical or national origins. While ethnicity can include objective elements like genetic markers or historical data, it's often self-identified or identified by others based on a mix of subjective and objective criteria. There isn't a universally accepted objective method to describe ethnicity because it encompasses a wide range of factors that can vary in significance and interpretation across different contexts and societies.

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    $\begingroup$ ethnic classifications based on "objective" genetic data are themselves subjective. there are a lot of subjective decisions that go into how you do that work. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 5 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ Like the poster, you do not define or give examples of what is meant by ethnicity, so your post is futile. Please finish the Tour and the Help on answering questions. Your answer is just an expression of opinion with no evidence in its support. This is not appropriate for this scientific question and answer site. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Jan 6 at 9:46

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