Theorizing Race and Ethnicity – Contemporary Paradigms and Perspectives

Knowles, Caroline. 2007. Theorizing Race and Ethnicity – Contemporary Paradigms and Perspectives. Sociology Working Papers, pp. 1-20. [Article]

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Contemporary theories of race and ethnicity1 sustain a dissonance between conceptualisation and empirical research, and between both of these things and political activism. This stems from a failure to conceptualise race and ethnicity concretely, materially, in ways connected with their resonance in people’s lives and the broader social and political circumstances in which they are set. In this chapter I explore how this situation arose and what may be done to advance beyond it. I argue that the current situation needs new, materially grounded, approaches to race theory. We should focus on the production of race through human agency and routine social contexts of different scales. As well as grappling with micro-contexts, new approaches to race should engage with its global production in migration. Migration is a major issue in all nation states where a range of mobile populations from asylum seekers to economic migrants have become a focus for heightened localisms and political debates about access and entitlement. Centring on race production - race-making - reconnects race theory with empirical research agendas and race politics in a definitive move away from abstractionism.
Although race and ethnicity are concepts, constellations of ideas and speculative connections, a materialist approach can engage with these things in specific spatial and temporal contexts, with the ways in which they matter politically and make matter in the lives through which they reverberate. It is important to bear this in mind in the overarching attempt that follows to place contemporary debates, paradigms and perspectives in historical contexts that acknowledge the specificities of circumstances and micro-versions of place, on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the dialogues, circulation of ideas and activists that bridge this gap. Theory does not always declare its location, and it is important to acknowledge specifics. Britain and America (and Canada) have distinctive (racialized and ethnicized) immigration processes. Settler societies like Canada and America forged nation states out of the material of migrant ethnicities and retreating colonial powers (like Britain) which sustained and remade the fabric of the nation in ways that were all about race. These three countries, and I am aware that this focus ignores other places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, had different relationships to empire, to slavery, to first nations and to domestic - as opposed to colonial - racial segregation and social compacts with the settled descendants of slavery. With a past mired in the racial politics of colonial governance and mid twentieth century migration’s contribution to the mongrel nation; Britain was in a different position than North America when it came to the politics of race. This chapter centres on British debates and developments, acknowledging interconnections with, and examples drawn from, America. These are helpful locations for developing new racial theories that have relevance elsewhere in multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial societies.

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Date Deposited:

06 Jun 2013 14:20

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 15:51


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