Many political and philosophical approaches to the ontology of social categories stress their social and ethnic aspects. According to these socio-ethnic accounts what makes someone belong to a given category are the historical, social and cultural traits and relations she has in common with others like her. Thus, feminists who consider the sex/gender distinction central to understanding womanhood adopt an ethno-social stance towards gender in this sense (Lecuona 2016). Similar stances lay behind ontological theses like identifying the Mexican nationality with certain cultural practices, habits, signifiers, values, etc. shared by many, but not all, and certainly not only the people born or living in Mexico. Social constructivist theories are another paradigmatic example; for example, considering that what makes someone short, dirty or ignorant are standards of height, hygiene or knowledge that are not objective (like an average, for example) but depend on many social factors deeply interwoven with other social categories, like class, race and gender; thus how clean need a white American woman be in order to be clean is substantially different from how clean an African American man must be in order to fit the same category.
Among these ethno-social approaches, historical accounts have been recently criticised for relying on an overtly simplistic view of social causes and mechanisms. According to these criticisms, attempts to define what it is for someone to be, for example, of a certain race or nationality by appealing to a common history fail because they just move the question one level up, for they still need to explain what makes certain historical facts part of this common history and not others. Trying to define the Mexican identity by appealing to a historical process of mestizaje, for example, gives rise to the problem of trying to define what historical facts, process and effects are part of this so-called mestizaje and which are not; but this problem is not actually simpler than the original one, and it is not clear that we can solve it without appealing to some notion of Mexicanity. Thus, the proposed account fails to historically ground our national identity. Historical facts are just not sharp enough to serve as the kind of foundations that historicists accounts want for their social categories.
Other Etno-Social accounts face similar shortcomings: whatever ethno-social mechanisms they appeal to end up being much messier than espected. As a result, their attempts at providing an ontology well suited for a system of redistributive justice face a series of problems that challenge their political and theoretical soundness (probably the best known of which is commonly known as the “nonidentity problem”). For example, some Ethno-Social accounts aim to make constitutive of a habitable category at least some essential social injustices the members of such category have endured in such a way as to make them worthy of the benefits of some restorative redistribution of resources. For example, it has been argued that part of what makes someone Native-American is to be the kind of people who have and still endure the negative effects of European colonialism in America, and that this is part of what makes some forms of Affirmative action in their benefit just. However, filling the blanks of exactly how to link Native identity to colonization has proved to be an ellusive matter, precisely because the current life and situations of American natives are so embedded in the overall effects of colonialism. We want to recognise that practically every aspect of current native American identity has been shaped by colonialism, and we want to say that the overall effect of colonialism on current native Americans has been harmful, yet we do not want to reach the conclusion that being a native American or being born one is some kind of harm. This would mean that there would have to be something wrong in being Native American. But this certainly seems politically and metaphysically unsound. Instead, we want to say that harm has been acted upon Native Americans, not that being a Native American is a harm. We want to say that even though this identity is a direct result of colonialism, it is something that we can be proud of, even while enduring it. Yet, it is hard to reconcile all this political goals in a coherent way.