Ethnicity and Race: Anthropology

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Ethnicity and Race: Anthropology

Ethnicity, as defined in the public domain, is "the cultural characteristics that connect a particular group or groups of people to each other" ( Twenty-first-century anthropologists, however, are likely to complicate simple notions of ethnicity, or they might refuse to accept a general definition of the concept without first demanding accounts of the particular formation of an ethnic identity in a unique place and time. Citizens of the United States, for example, are enculturated to associate ethnicity with a mapping of cultural or national origin to language, religious practices, styles of adornment, types of non (or un-) American foods, and oftentimes, physical looks. Anthropologists, however, are much more interested in ethnicity as a historically and politically situated set of identity practices, rather than as a state of natural or expected correspondence between physicality, behaviors, and attitudes. Such a nuanced view of ethnicity has not always been the norm in anthropology or in

Franz Boas, Ethnicity, and Contemporary Physical Anthropology: Continuing Tensions

Franz Boas (18581942), widely considered to be the father of American anthropology, spent much of his career arguing vigorously against racism and theories of the fixed physiological nature of ethnicity. Though fondly remembered by most anthropologists as a rigorous ethnographer and mentor to such famous names as Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston, he remains a contradictory and complicated figure for two disparate groups: Native Americans and physical anthropologists. First, for some Native American people, his participationalong with many of his museum curator and academic contemporariesin the looting and desecration of Native graves for the collection of "specimens" for comparative anatomical research has forever tarnished his reputation. Likewise, some of the research methods of the time, considered controversial both when they were practiced and into the twenty-first century, included a simple anthropometry, or the measurement and comparison of certain continuous human characteristics. Native Americans and other nonwhite people are often and rightly suspicious of such techniques, since anthropologists used them to substantiate racist hierarchies.

Boas, however, employing the same anthropometric methodology, stringently critiqued the assumed fixity of human cranial dimensions, arguing that even slight changes in developmental and environmental conditions could make the simple measurements meaningless for human classification. For example, a ratio of the length to the width of the skullthe cranial indexwas considered by early anthropologists to be a reliable measurement for distinguishing people of different ethnicities from each other, such as Hungarians, Poles, and European Jews. Boas disagreed.

Concerned about the rise of anti-immigrant prejudice in the United States, Boas, a German Jewish immigrant himself, secured funding from Congress in 1908 to undertake a massive cranial measurement study of immigrants in New York City, ostensibly to substantiate his views on human cranial plasticity and to prove the uselessness of the cranial index (see Boas). His conclusions, that the children of immigrants are different physically from their "ethnic" parents and therefore successfully integrating into American society, were embraced by sociocultural anthropologists (but not politicians, to Boas's dismay) as undeniable proof of the intergenerational flexibility of bodies. Cranial morphology was proven to neither be a direct function of ethnicity, culture, or language group. Anthropologists, then, could no longer pin ethnicity reliably and regularly to physical type, at least in the anthropological literature. Boas also argued, given his analysis, that anthropologists could not use cranial size and shape to link past skeletal populations with living human groups.

Boas's historical place among the physical anthropologists in the twenty-first century, though, especially given the methodological similarities between them, is growing even more complicated. Physical anthropologists, while no longer participating in the construction of racial taxonomies, often use detailed anthropometric techniques to track morphological changes and microevolution in human populations through time. Many physical anthropologists claim that new and detailed cranial metric techniques can distinguish different past groups from each other by culture or ethnicity, directly contradicting Boas's earlier findings. Some of these comparisons, ironically, are used to assign cultural labels to Native American skeletal remains for repatriation and reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, P.L. 101601).

In the early 2000s Boas's landmark study of cranial plasticity was the subject of a debate between two teams of physical anthropologists. Both teams reevaluated some of Boas's data using updated statistical methods. Sparks and Jantz conclude: "[O]ur analysis reveals high heritability and variation among the ethnic groups, which persists in the American environment" (p. 14637). Gravlee and his colleagues, however, contradicted the first team, affirming Boas's conclusions that statistically significant differences exist between U.S.-born children and their foreign-born parents.

However this debate is resolved, most anthropologists still have Franz Boas to thank for his early critiques of the former assumption that race or ethnicity should correspond with language and culture. Furthermore, sociocultural anthropologists have little interest in quantifying morphological difference between people. Physical or biological anthropologists, however, are still struggling to define the meaning of some of the differences they find, especially when comparisons between different past skeletal populations have policy implications in the present.

social science. A central story of ethnicity in anthropology is its labored disentanglement from now discredited biological and evolutionary notions of "race," ideas that continue to contribute to the general public's conceptualization of the "ethnic" as a physically distinct type of person.

In the mid-nineteenth century the terms ethnic and racial first came into common use, employed by pre-and post-Darwinian scientists, and later anthropologists, to construct human racial and cultural taxonomies. As the social corollary of race, "ethnic" (ethnicity as a unique term does not emerge in the United States until the 1950s) initially served to reinscribe physical notions of racial, and in some cases national, identity onto groups of people often naively assumed to have a shared cultural, historical, or even evolutionary past.

Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, race, was the dominant concept for the scientific, social, and political classification of human groups in the Western world. Though scientific and popular ideas of what makes a race, who embodies race, and what being of a certain race means have changed drastically through time, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ushered in a very specific scientific classification of human beings, particularly the ordering of non-European and colonized peoples. Before the scientific community accepted the theory of evolution by natural selection in the nineteenth century, human races were thought to be the product of divine creation. Following the Adam and Eve story closely, monogenists believed in a single creation from which all people and consequently all races arose. Polygenists, though, believed that there was a separate creation for each major race. Furthermore, proponents of both of these pre-evolutionary models used continental labels for creating physical races as bounded groups. Anthropologists assumed that all Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Native Americans were naturally distinct from each othereven on the level of the speciesthrough differentiation over time (monogeny) or through natural, created difference (polygeny). Cultural-historical notions of identity as essentially unchanging and the delineation of fixed anatomical categories also served to determine a certain people's "racial type."

The adoption of an evolutionary framework for understanding human difference, however, did little to transform early anthropologists' fixed ideas of race and racial connections to ethnic identity. Instead, scientists quantified human variation through morphology, mostly using erroneous comparisons of skull size and shape. These practices became the basis for the development of methodology in physical (or biological) anthropology in the United States and Europe. Based on misinterpreted and even falsified anthropometric data, physical anthropologists wrongly assigned labels of either "less evolved" or "degenerated" to nonwhite peoples. Evolutionary ideas initially applied to global racial taxonomies were also used to classify people on other physical, behavioral, or cultural scales. Anthropologists also considered white women, European and European-American people of lower socioeconomic classes, convicted criminals, disabled people, and people who practiced homosexual or other seemingly scandalous sexual practices (such as adulterers and prostitutes) lower on natural scales of evolution and development. Similarly, nonwhite people were wrongly thought to be more naturally susceptible to various behavioral and cultural vices, damaging stereotypes that persist among racists and cultural isolationists in the United States in the early twenty-first century.

Likewise, until ethnicity's emergence in the 1960s and 1970s as a term describing more fluid social processes of identity formation, social scientists used ethnic to describe a natural or fixed category of person. In the United States, especially during the intense debate over Eastern European and Mediterranean immigration in the early portion of the twentieth century, an "ethnic" was a person of a marked, lower, category, opposed to a bourgeois white identity. Ethnics, in this context, became lower-class whites, Jews, and nonwhite, colonized, or indigenous peoples.

Ideas of ethnicity have, therefore, consistently been relational; that is, one's ethnic identity, either physical or cultural, is defined through both assumed similarities within a group and assumed differences between groups. Franz Boas's 1912 study of cranial plasticity in American immigrants, however, was the first and arguably most influential anthropometric contestation of the fixed physical nature of ethnicity and racial identity. Among some anthropologists, though, fear of the negative or racially degrading influence of a large ethnic presence in America was used to argue against Boas's conclusions, and for increasingly strict immigration policies and the establishment of eugenics programs across the nation.

Moreover, after the devastating results of such "Aryan" hysteria in Europe during World War II, greater anthropological use of the term ethnic group coincided with a general repudiation of biological determinism and racism within the social sciences as a whole, as well as with a particularly anthropological recognition of the emergence of anticolonial nationalism outside the First World. Specifically, anthropologists replaced tribe or tribalism with ethnic group, especially when describing African migrants to colonial urban centers. Still, all these early uses of the term ethnic in anthropology imply a bounded set of cultural traits, historical commonalities, or mental similarities between people of the same ethnic group, even if they later became delinked from physical or racial characteristics.

Cultural Fundamentalism and Instrumental Ethnicities

Disengaging race and ethnicity from biology, though, does not automatically imply equality under the law or in all aspects of political, economic, and social life. As theorists rejected race biology in the mid-twentieth century, a new "cultural fundamentalism" emerged in many places in the world. Anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena eloquently describes this shift: "The academic repudiation of biological notions of race was significant for anthropology, as it meant the emergence of the concept of 'ethnic groups' to explain human differences it implied the reification of culture, which thus potentially prolonged the naturalization of sociohistorical differences earlier contained in the European notion of biological race" (p. 28). In the twentieth century, ethnicities were just as stable and unchanging whether they were formed out of biology or culture.

As well, the initial glosses of ethnic described above were also etic in nature. That is, most ideas of ethnicity in anthropology before the late twentieth century served as theoretical or methodological techniques of classification from outside the group being classified. Anthropologists and other social scientists were not alone, though, in reifying or naturalizing ethnic groups and ethnicity. From approximately the end of World War II to the 1970s, "ethnics," nonwhite and other marginalized or oppressed people across the world fought for and won greater sovereignty, more influential voices on regional or national political stages, and generally more civil and political rights to self-representation.

Archaeologies of Ethnicity

Traditional archaeologists, whose field developed in the same racialized and colonial context as the rest of anthropology, were typically concerned with tracking the material remains of contemporary groups into the past. This cultural historical approach and the search for ethnicity in the archaeological record often led archaeologists to uncritically project modern and national identities into the past. Prominent examples include French claims to Roman and Gallic identities, Nazi projections of past "Aryan" peoples onto much of Northern and Western Europe, and general European continental claims to the material heritage of ancient Greece and classical Egypt (see Jones).

New approaches to identity in archaeology, though, are leading to more accurate and complex reconstructions of past peoples. Moreover, archaeologies of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity are encouraging researchers to include different and historically marginalized voices, such as African resistance to slavery in Kenya and African-American cultural expressions in the colonial archaeology of the United States. Researchers in these areas generally resist drawing simplistic conclusions between desires to trace "ethnic origins" in the past for mobilization and political use in the present.

This new agency, though patently different in different areas of the world, empowered previously colonized or oppressed people to create and affirm ethnic identities for use in varied political spheres. These uses, though, often included the drawing of fixed boundaries around ethnicities or cultures and the exclusion of individuals who were not perceived to be ethnic enough. For example, most federally recognized Native American nations or tribes use blood quantum, or the proportion of "Indian blood" within a person calculated by the percent within their parents or grandparents, to determine who makes the official membership rolls. Widespread implementation of blood quantum rules have effectively excluded Indian people of African descent from official membership in communities they and their families have lived in for centuries (see Brooks).

Ethnicity and Difference

In early-twenty-first-century sociocultural anthropology, ethnicity is envisioned as a complicated, fluid, politically charged, perhaps even ephemeral quality or qualities of individual or group identity that map differently to various social categories depending on people's particular histories. The formation or maintenance of an ethnicity, then, is not a necessary by-product of predictable biological, cultural, or social forces. Anthropological thinking on ethnicity is also informed by newer theories of race as a political category, differently expressed and marked within particular political and cultural struggles.

Anthropologists are also adapting frameworks from fields theorists in cultural studies, who focus on difference not to the exclusion of others, but toward the multiplication of meanings and the highlighting of marginal identities. As Stuart Hall cautions: "We are all ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are. But this is also a recognition that this is not an ethnicity which is doomed to survive only by marginalizing, dispossessing, displacing, and forgetting other ethnicities" (p. 447).

Further, acceptance of the social construction of race in the humanities and social sciences, and lately by progressives in the U.S. public at large, has spurred anthropologists to more widely publicize disciplinary views on race and ethnicity as both educational and policy recommendations. In particular the American Anthropological Association's "Statement on Race" deconstructs the dangers of relying on fixed notions of identity in social and cultural research and interactions, saying that "racial myths bear no relationship to the reality of human capabilities or behavior." Likewise, myths of ahistorical, unchanging ethnicities are also falling by the wayside in anthropological thought.

See also Anthropology ; Other, The, European Views of ; Race and Racism .


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Ann M. Kakaliouras