A people is any multiplicity of people considered as a distinct entity by the members of that group. To put it differently, a people at a given place and time constitutes a diverse group with members having dissimilar cultural, linguistic, geographical and other attributes and whose interactions are governed by shared interests, beliefs and goals. However, the concept of a people has special significance in the modern era. In much of the world’s development over the past century, people have become identified as a group rather than as individuals with unique characteristics, whose interaction affects the society as a whole and whose life experiences and choices determine the course of events in the future.
For much of the last century, people were viewed as an ethnic group, a designation applied by government and organizations to separate groups of people defined by descent, language, race or religion. The concept of an ethnic group had important political and social consequences for governments at different times and places. For example, the first nations to emerge from the mists of time were identified by their language, race or religion and established as states. The notion of nationality was used to justify the practices of slavery and discrimination against indigenous peoples. The expansion of European power and the associated notions of liberty, democracy and human rights made the idea of nationality more difficult to sustain.
In the nineteenth century, after the introduction of the term nation-hood (from panne), a more acceptable and flexible concept of people existed which came to include a diversity of national origins and identities. In certain parts of the United States, the term multiethnic became part of the people’s lexicon. In France during the late 1960’s, the concept of people’s identity became important after the movement for a European unity.
The concept of people’s identity was rooted in the evolution of collectivism. Individualism (the belief that there is no such thing as individual) and collectivism (the belief that there is such a thing as collective) are social groupings that have both been important in the history of thought. The tendency to use different social classifications (e.g., upper-class, lower-class, middle-class, working class, etc.)
The tendency to use distinct social classifications for people helped shape modern conceptions of what classes are. In addition, some important changes in the patterns of classification occurred because of new techniques of preserving records and information. These new technologies allowed nineteenth-century observers to see people as distinct categories, groups or races, which helped them categorize and classify.
Modern scholars have shown that the persistence of people’s perceptions of race, ethnicity and gender through the twentieth century reflects notions of racial and social class distinctions that are shaped by specific modes of access to land and other resources and by particular set concepts and ideas about the relationships between people and the categories they identify with. These notions also shape the cultural and social practices that surround sexuality, reproduction and family formation. This paper suggests that notions of race, ethnicity and gender emerge from the process of categorizing and the maintenance of unequal social arrangements. The ideas of people’s place in relation to these arrangements also help to shape the forms of romantic relationships and other social interaction that they engage in. Finally, notions of gender and ethnicity also contribute to the persistence of people’s search to understand human identity.