What is an Ethnic Studies Degree?

Ethnic studies explores ethnicity and race from the interrelated perspectives of history, politics, economics, religion, and social and cultural realities. The field considers and examines the experiences of underrepresented minorities in the United States. It questions the origin and continuity of racism within the general context of American society and institutions. And ultimately, it seeks to provide its students with a critical understanding of contemporary society and a catalyst for social change and social justice.

Program Options

Schools that do not offer a standalone ethnic studies curriculum may offer a combined ethnic studies / area studies or ethnic studies / gender studies program.

Associate Degree in Ethnic Studies – Two Year Duration
An ethnic studies associate program typically combines courses in the major with some arts and science classes in subjects such as English literature and composition and the biological, physical, and social sciences. A community internship is often a component of the curriculum. As the associate curriculum is introductory in nature, some students go on to further education.

Here’s a sampling of courses in the major that ethnic studies students take at the associate level:

  • Latin American History
  • Latin American Art
  • The African American in the History of the United States
  • African American Cinema
  • African American Literature
  • The Mexican American in the History of the United States
  • Asia Pacific American History and Cultural Experience
  • Introduction to Native American Studies
  • Contemporary World Affairs
  • Race and Ethnic Relations
  • Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
  • Anti-Bias Perspective / Diversity Seminar
  • The American Mind
  • Cross-Cultural Psychology
  • Cultural Anthropology

Bachelor’s Degree in Ethnic Studies – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, programs in ethnic studies may be structured similarly to an associate curriculum and provide a multi-ethnic studies education, but with a more in-depth approach to the subject matter, and often a longer internship experience. Depending on the school, though, undergraduate students may also be able to choose a specialization in a particular area of ethnic studies.

Bachelor’s programs that offer concentration options generally require that all students, regardless of their chosen emphasis area, take some core courses in the discipline. Here are some possible compulsory classes:

  • Introduction to Ethnic Studies
  • Social Scientific Research Methods in Communication Studies
  • Immigration and Politics
  • Rights and Wrongs in American Legal History
  • Physical Health Disparities
  • Problems in International Relations

Here is a snapshot of three of the most common undergraduate specializations in ethnic studies:

African and African American Studies

  • Introduction to African American Studies
  • African Culture and Civilization
  • The History of African American Religious Experience
  • Blacks and the American Political System
  • African American Literature since 1865
  • Introduction to African Literature
  • African American History: African Origins to 1877
  • African American History after 1877
  • Conflict and Development in Africa
  • The Civil Rights Movement
  • The Rise and Fall of American Slavery
  • History of South Africa
  • History of American Jazz

Latino and Latin American Studies

  • Introduction to Latina / Latino Studies
  • History of Latin America
  • Colonial Latin America
  • Modern Latin America
  • Latin American Politics
  • Chicana / Chicano (Mexican American) Literature
  • Cuban American Literature
  • Peoples and Cultures of Native Latin America
  • Mexican American History
  • Colonial Mexico
  • Modern Mexico
  • Latin American and Global Relations
  • History of Brazil
  • Race in Modern Latin America
  • Revolutions in 20th Century Latin America
  • War and Human Rights in Latin America
  • Spanish American Literature

Native American Studies

  • Introduction to Native American Studies
  • Introduction to Great Plains Archaeology
  • Art and Anthropology of Native North America
  • Ancient Mesoamerica (Mesoamerica comprises the modern day countries of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico)
  • Native American History
  • Introduction to Native American Literature
  • History of Plains Indians
  • Native American Women
  • Contemporary Issues of Indigenous Peoples in North America
  • Indigenous Peoples of the World

Master’s Degree in Ethnic Studies – Two Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is normally a thesis based on original research. Some schools may offer a non-thesis report or exam track.

Doctoral Degree in Ethnic Studies – Four to Six Year Duration
The master’s program in area studies typically involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to their field. The Doctoral Degree in Area Studies is aimed at those who want to teach the discipline at the university level.

Master’s and doctoral programs in ethnic studies offer a further tier of specialization, as demonstrated by the particularly focused subject matter of these sample programs:

  • Ethnomusicology
  • Administration and Management of American Indian Natural Resources
  • Native Nation Building
  • Worship Studies – African American Worship
  • Latin American and Border Studies
  • Folklore
  • Comparative Race and Ethnicity in National, Hemispheric, and Global Contexts

While graduate level coursework varies depending on each individual student’s area of focus, compulsory courses typically address topics like these:

  • How research questions are constructed
  • Understanding techniques and tools historians use to create historical narratives using archival and historical sources
  • Research design
  • Social and cultural theory
  • Diaspora (a population that shares a common heritage who is scattered in different parts of the world), transnationalism, immigration, race, citizenship, identity, and community
  • Globalization and immigrant labor
  • Teaching ethnic studies

Degrees Similar to Ethnic Studies

Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time. The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.

Area Studies
Students of this discipline usually focus on a specific area or region of the world and study its histories, politics, economics, languages, and cultures. Area studies programs have names like African Studies or Asian Studies, while ethnic studies programs have names like African American Studies or Asian American Studies.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic/international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.

International Relations
Degree programs in international relations are concerned with looking at how states/governments relate to one another. These relations include trade, cooperation, disputes, conflicts, and war. The principles of diplomacy and foreign policy, international law, and organizations like the United Nations are also studied.

International Studies
By its very nature, international studies is an expansive subject. Therefore, programs in the field commonly offer concentration options in both geographic areas and specific topics such as international economics, global culture and gender studies, international public health, and intelligence analysis.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Awareness of global opportunities
  • Communication and collaboration
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity and avoidance of cultural stereotyping
  • Data analysis and interpretation
  • Preparation for a more globalized world
  • Research
  • Understanding of diversity, equity, and justice
  • Writing

What Can You Do with an Ethnic Studies Degree?

Graduates of ethnic studies programs apply their broad liberal arts education and their knowledge and understanding of ethnic groups and cultures in many different careers – from healthcare, education, and business to government, law, non-profits, and advocacy. Below is a sampling of potential employment sectors and job titles. While several of the roles listed require additional education, practitioners in all of them can benefit from the foundation provided by an ethnic studies background.

Potential Sectors

  • Business
  • Community and housing development
  • Community and union organizing
  • Community social service agencies
  • Counseling
  • Diplomacy
  • Education – secondary school, college, university teaching
  • Federal government – examples: Department of Health and Human Services, Department of State, Immigration and Naturalization Services, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Personnel Management, Social Security Administration
  • Foreign Service departments
  • Health and medicine
  • Immigration and refugee services
  • International relations
  • Journalism
  • Law – example: as a lawyer with specialized knowledge of underrepresented communities
  • Marketing – example: forecasting cultural responses to a particular product or service
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Politics
  • Public health
  • Public policy
  • Publishing
  • Radio and television
  • Research organizations
  • Social work
  • State and local government agencies

Potential Titles


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