Ethnicity is playing an ever-increasing role in catalyzing national separatist movements, civil liberty struggles, and intergroup conflict. As a consequence, the investigation of ethnic relations has acquired top priority for social scientists interested in processes directly affecting world peace and the protection of fundamental human rights.
In spite of the need for a better understanding of the dynamics of ethnicity, the anthropological analysis of this topic has contributed only modestly to it. This may partly have to do with the great influence exerted by a "circumstantial" view of ethnic relations, focusing attention on the intergroup process of negotiation by which ethnic boundaries come to be defined rather than on the cultural factors precipitating group differentiation. In turn, this theoretical model may have acquired its influence because it fits particularly well the perspective of postmodern anthropology, which has come to deny the reality of culture as a mechanism catalyzing stable and integrated patterns of behavior.
Whether or not one agrees with those who see postmodern anthropology itself as the product of an intellectual paradigm that is as profoundly influenced by consumer capitalism as its previous evolutionary paradigm was influenced by industrial capitalism, it is important to realize that trivializing the cultural component of ethnicity has profound implications. Among them is the disregard for the rights of populations victimized by Western colonialism, whose aspirations to self-determination are specifically based on claims of cultural uniqueness.
Theoretical views of ethnicity are inextricably linked with theoretical models of culture but also inevitably involve the treatment of politically volatile issues such as nation-building and regional separatism; this gives particular urgency to ensuring that the scholarly dialog on this topic be truly multicultural and international.
The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) is the only institutional framework specifically aimed at increasing the world-wide exchange of anthropological knowledge. The fulfillment of this goal seems particularly important in certain areas of research, and ethnicity is definitely one of them.