Over the past few decades, ethnicity, amongst third generation and beyond descendants of European immigrants in America, is thought to have evolved from a group-oriented protectorate to a more individualized form of identity. ‘Symbolic ethnicity’ is the name given by sociologists, who, working in the 1980s and 1990s within the confines of traditional assimilation theory, thought this to be the final step in that process. More recently, however, research within the social sciences has moved on, not just in how assimilation is considered, but also to newer immigrant and ethnic groups. In this study, I return to the concept of symbolic ethnicity and to those ‘older’ ethnics who, despite the assimilation process, continue to construct and maintain powerful links to an ethnic ancestry and homeland. From my observations of and interviews with dozens of individuals learning the Irish language throughout North America, I attempt to uncover why this connection persists, beginning with the subjective nature of symbolic ethnicity and ending with concepts of performance and performativity. I argue that these Irish not only knowingly construct their ethnic identities, but also unconsciously conform to a discourse of Irishness based on their perception of authenticity and tradition.
Source: Social & Cultural Geography, Volume 13, Issue 5, 2012