Category Archives: Identity Politics

Smedley & Smedley- Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real

Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race

by Audrey Smedley & Brian D. Smedley

[ Smedley, Audrey & Brian D. Smedley. 2005. “Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race” in American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 1, 16–26]

Points & Quotes:

The very important main take away is in the title.

Here is a long quote that basically sums up most of the argument: “Categories of people that constitute social races bear little relationship to the reality of human biological diversity. From its inception, race was a folk idea, a culturally invented conception about human differences. It became an important mechanism for limiting and restricting access to privilege, power, and wealth. The ideology arose as a rationalization and justification for human slavery at a time when Western European societies were embracing philosophies promoting individual and human rights, liberty, democracy, justice, brotherhood, and equality. The idea of race distorts, exaggerates, and maximizes human differences; it is the most extreme form of difference that humans can assert about another human being or group, as one of its components is the belief that differences are permanent and cannot be overcome.” (22)

But here is the breakdown:

Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on Ethnicity, Culture, and Race

“The consensus among most scholars in fields such as evolutionary biology, anthropology, and other disciplines is that racial distinctions fail on all three counts— that is, they are not genetically discrete, are not reliably measured, and are not scientifically meaningful
race is a fairly recent construct, one that emerged well after population groups from different continents came into contact with one another.”(16)

“What is common to most anthropological conceptions of culture is the contention that culture is external, acquired, and transmissible to others. They do not treat culture as a part of the innate biological equipment of humans” (18)

“Ethnicity and culture are related phenomena and bear no intrinsic connection to human biological variations or race. Ethnicity refers to clusters of people who have common culture traits that they distinguish from those of other people.
…”ethnic groups and ethnicity are not fixed, bounded entities; they are open, flexible, and subject to change, and they are usually self- defined” (17)

“Ethnic differences also constitute an arena of diverse interests that can lead to conflict, […and] The most significant thing about interethnic conflict is that the vast majority of such conflicts have been, and still are, with neighboring groups—people who inhabit the same general environment and who virtually always share physical similarities, as, for example, the English and the Irish, Serbians and Croatians, Indians and Pakistanis, Armenians and Turks, Japanese and Koreans.” (18)

“Most human conflicts have not been racial, and there is no reason for antagonism to exist or persist simply because protagonists are identified as racially different.” (18)

Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, & (later) Muslim Empires “encompassed peoples whose skin colors, hair textures, and facial features were highly varied”
“History shows that Africans in Europe were assimilated into those societies wherever they were found, and no significant
social meanings were attached to their physical differences.” (18)

So, historically speaking,
physical characteristics should never be included in a definition of ethnic identity. It is inaccurate to associate physical features with any specific cultural identity.” (18)

Science, Ideology, & Race

Beginning in the 19th Century, scientific knowledge turns “race” into an ideology…

“From the 19th century on, races have been seen in science as subdivisions of the human species that differ from one another phenotypically, on the basis of ancestral geographic origins, or that differ in the frequency of certain genes” (19)

“The genetic conception of race appeared in the mid-20th century and remains today as a definition or working hypothesis for many scholars, […but] When geneticists appeared who emphasized the similarities among races (humans are 99.9% alike), the small amount of real genetic differences among them (0.01%), and the difficulties of recognizing the racial identity of individuals through their genes, doubts about the biological reality of race appeared” (19)

“Thus, in the 20th century two conceptions of race existed: one that focused on human biogenetic variation exclusively and was the province of science, and a popular one that dominated all thinking about human differences and fused together both physical features and behavior. This popular conception, essentially a cultural invention, was and still is the original meaning of race that scholars in many fields turned their attention to in the latter part of the 20th century and the early 21st century” (19)

Racialized Science and Public Policy

“From a policy perspective, although the term race is not useful as a biological construct, policymakers cannot avoid the fact that social race remains a significant predictor of which groups have greater access to societal goods and resources and which groups face barriers—both historically and in the contemporary context—to full inclusion. The fact of inequality renders race an important social policy concern.” (22)

“Whereas individual discrimination is often easier to identify, institutional discrimination—the uneven access by group membership to re- sources, status, and power that stems from facially neutral policies and practices of organizations and institutions—is harder to identify.” (22)

“Evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in health care is, with few exceptions, remarkably consistent across a range of health care services. […and] race continues to play an important role in determining how individuals are treated, where they live, their employment opportunities, the quality of their health care, and whether individuals can fully participate in the social, political, and economic mainstream of American life.” (23)

Continue reading Smedley & Smedley- Race as Biology Is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem Is Real

Said – Orientalism (Intro)


by Edward Said

[ Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism, Vintage Books, ]

Part I

Points & Quotes:

“By Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. …
[1] Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient—and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist—either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist …
[2] Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” …
[3] the third meaning of Orientalism, which is something more historically and materially defined than either of the other two. Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.(2-3)

without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question. How this happens is what this book tries to demonstrate. It also tries to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” (3)

Part II

“…as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.
Having said that, one must go on to state a number of reasonable qualifications:

  1. In the first place, it would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality. … There were—and are— cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West
  2. A second qualification is that ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.
  3. This brings us to a third qualification. One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away. ” (5-6 formatting added)

“In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.” (7)

Part III

Distinction between Pure and Political Knowledge

“I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact—and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. For if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second. And to be a European or an American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact. It meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer.” (11)

“Therefore, Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do). Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world.” (12)

Continue reading Said – Orientalism (Intro)

Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the “Fluffy Bunny” Sanction

by Angela Coco & Ian Woodward

[Coco, Angela, and Ian Woodward. 2007. “Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the ‘Fluffy Bunny’ Sanction.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (5): 479–504.]


  • Discussing “fluffy bunnies” is “a group boundary defining exercise based on moral judgments.”
    • It explores pagan ethics associated with the deployment of pagan artifacts and spiritual understandings.
    • Implicit in the discussion is a sense of a “them” who are seduced by media images and popular practices, or implicated in producing them, and a (serious, authentic) “us” who presumably distance ourselves from such things (480).
  • “In a consumer society one purchases objects—commodities such as Tarot cards, ritual tools, medieval dress—that enhance, edify, improve, and sustain self.
    • These objects then act as material boundary markers that suggest things people wish to cultivate about themselves and exclude polluting aesthetics/others” (482).


  • pagans are conscious of and practically engage in discussions about constructions of pagan identity and commodification of the craft which is exemplified in the notion of the “fluffy bunny” (499).
  • “A range of tensions emerges which we argue indicates the ways pagans in late-capitalist (or postmodern) society reflexively create meaning-structures around the production and consumption of goods and services that have become popularized as “pagan.” The nuanced features of these tensions reveal the conceptual distinctions and symbolic boundaries pagans create in establishing an “authentic” pagan identity” (483).
  • “The establishment of an “authentic” pagan identity is formed partly by one’s ability to discern the proper limits of commodification and consumerism in the pursuit of religious practice” (499).


  • Fluffy Bunnies defined:
    • “those people who gain a surface grasp of pagan practices but fail to incorporate pagan beliefs into their day-to-day life practices” (500).
    • “uninformed, immature, and lacking in their understanding of the forces of nature and consequently dangerous because they may misuse magic”—informant (500).
    • “a person who doesn’t know what they are talking about, or as was said not steadfast in there (sic) beliefs. I am sure that we have all met the 12 year old who is a high priestess and the leader of huge demonic armies and has alliances with the elves!!!!”—informant (500).
    •  “perhaps what bugs me most about these type (sic) is not so much the superficiality (which the ‘fashion-witch’ has in spades) but the hyposcrisy (sic) which often enables them todo harm whilst preaching love and light, and never once recognizing the results of their own actions”—informant (501).
    • “They refer to the superficial practitioner’s tendency to focus only on the light, happy side of life without balancing it with the dark and difficult aspects of experience” (501).



The commodification of the religious impulse finds its most overt expression in the New Age movement and its subculture neopaganism. This article examines discourses in the pagan community in an Australian state. Pagans, who have been characterized as individualist, eclectic, and diverse in their beliefs and practices, network through electronic mail discussion lists and chat forums as well as through local and national offline gatherings. We explore community building and boundary defining communications in these discourses. In particular, we examine interactions that reveal the mobilization of pagans’ concern with authenticity in the context of late-capitalism, consumer lifestyles, and media representations of the “craft.” Our analysis highlights a series of tensions in pagans’ representations of and engagement with consumer culture which are evident in everyday pagan discourse. These notions of in/authenticity are captured by invoking the “fluffy bunny” sanction.

Continue reading Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community


Identity — Special Section: Keywords

by Lauren Leve

[Leve, Lauren. 2011. “Identity.” Current Anthropology 52 (4): 513–35.]


“Identity” is a key term for anthropological analysis today. This paper explores the challenge posed by modernist Buddhists in Nepal who participated in identity politics while grounding their claims to identity-based rights in belonging to a religious community defined by the doctrine that there is no such thing as a “self” in the conventional sense. Examining the sharp proliferation of identity- based discourses and claims in post-1990 Nepal in light of broader structural transformations associated with the globalization of neoliberal governance strategies and against the rise of a popular vipassana meditation movement, I suggest that the rise of ethnoreligious politics in Nepal at that time reflects the presence of a global “identity machine”—an apparatus that establishes not only the categories of identity recognized and claimed in democratic states but also, indeed, their very ontological foundations in liberal conceptions of self, citizenship, and social relations. Nepali Buddhists who claim religious rights while also engaging in practices that challenge the very idea of identity are at once participating in the ideological and institutional conditions of neoliberal modernity and also reworking these in unexpected ways. This paradox calls on anthropologists to study the processes that produce and extend particular ways of seeing and organizing the world rather than inadvertently naturalizing them.


“as the space between culture (as a taken-for-granted order of symbols, institutions, structures, values, and/or beliefs) and identity (as a reflexive construct or experiential modality through which one knows oneself and claims recognition) has seemed to shrink, identity has become, in effect, a kind of metaculture: culture—to use the old Hegelian terminology—not just in itself but for itself” (513-14).

“This paper addresses these concerns by asking not about the history or meaning of any particular collective identity but about the epistemological status of identity as an object in the world and of scholarly analysis. I argue that the proliferation of identity-based claims and politics that is so visible around the world today cannot be understood apart from a powerful sociopolitical formation that I refer to as an“identity machine”—a transnational assemblage that is rapidly reorganizing ways of being and knowing oneself and others in liberal and neoliberal democracies” (514).

“My concern here, however, is not the well-known fact that governance may take place through identity but what is specifically neoliberal about the ways this is occurring today. Materialized in the heavily promoted values, discourses, and institutions associated with neoliberal democracy and development, the identity machine produces not only the classes and categories of social personhood that structure public recognition of social collectivities but, indeed, the very ontology of “identity” itself” (514).

“My proposal is that these events reflect the power of a particular global sociopolitical imaginary, concretized in a constellation of institutions, ideologies, frameworks, structures, technologies, forms of knowledge, ethics, and norms that act as a kind of “identity machine,” producing not only the categories of ethnological identity (“ethnicities,” “tribes,”“nations,” “cultures”) but also the very ontology of identity that underlies liberal and neoliberal democracy.”

“we live in a time in which “culture” has become a powerful form of political currency, a morally and legally compelling aspect of personal and collective being that can be deployed as the basis of political claims. Arjun Appadurai (1996) has even given this a name, “culturalism”: “the conscious mobilization of cultural differences in the service of a larger national or transnational politics” (15)” (517).

“I propose that the current profusion of identity talk and also the political compulsion for states to recognize citizens’ sub- and supernational identities are at once parts and products of this global assemblage,which works by extending a particular style of thought and social organization in which identity proliferates and identities proliferate and in order to do certain kinds of politics, you have to represent yourself in certain terms and make your claims in certain ways” (518).

Doing is inherently plural, collective, choral, communal. This does not mean that all doing is (or indeed should be) undertaken collectively. It means rather that it is difficult to conceive of a doing that does not have the doing of others as a precondition. I sit at the computer and write this, apparently a lonely and individual act, but my writing is part of a social process, a plaiting of my writing with the writing of others (those mentioned in footnotes and a million others), and also with the doing of those who designed the computer, assembled it, packed it, transported it, and those who installed the electricity in the house, and those who generated the electricity, those who produced the food that gives me the energy to write, and so on. … Our doings are so intertwined that it is impossible to say where one ends and another begins. (Holloway 2002:26)” (523).

Identity machine

  • “Social groups are assumed to be constituted not primarily by their relations with one another but first and foremost by their relation with their own history. This history—“culture” in its material form—is assumed to make them what they are in the same way that an individual is assumed to be constituted, as an individual, by his or her own memory. This history/culture/identity is conceptualizedas something that these groups can—indeed, should—own and control. To destroy that property is murder; to appropriate it is theft. These are the assumptions that structured the Theravada Buddhist demand for secularism “as a human right” and for official constitutional recognition as Buddhist—not Hindu—citizens (see Leve 2007b)” (525).
  • the “vision of subjective personhood that I have been discussing in this paper—an ontology that has been globalized as part of political and economic liberalization in the shape of democratic policies, institutions, and norms. When people represent them selves as identity groups, they cast themselves as the owners of their identities and histories. The process is mediated through what can only be called an emerging global, neoliberal bureaucracy, which has now come to include national bureaucracies (along with NGOs, transnational corporations, and bodies such as the UN, IMF, and WTO) as different levels within its own administrative structure” (525).

Continue reading Leve—Identity

Taylor—The Politics of Recognition

The Politics of Recognition

by Charles Taylor

[Taylor, Charles. 1994. “The Politics of Recognition.” In Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, edited by Amy Gutmann, 25–73. Princeton University Press.]


  • “our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (25).
  • “Within these perspectives, misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need” (26, bold added).

How did we get here?:

  1. social hierarchies collapsed, and with them the traditional idea of honor
    • “For some to have honor in this sense, it is essential that not everyone have it” (27).
  2. honor is replaced by the notion of dignity, which everyone shares in equal measure
    • we are born with it and is totes compatible with Democratic society
  3. As Democracy leads to a more individualized society, dignity becomes understood more in terms of authenticity—being the individual identity that you really are
    • so this dignity is no longer God-given and moral, it is significant by itself
    • “Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, which is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity” (31).

dialogical self definition

  • (Enlightenment Philosopher) Herder says that our ‘way of being’ is inwardly generated—in other words, monological
  • However, Taylor argues that this process is actually dialogical in nature
    • this is because we are dependent on language to self-define
    • People do not acquire the languages needed for self-definition on their own. Rather, we are introduced to them through interaction with others who matter to us—what George Herbert Mead called “significant others” (32).
    • We “define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live” (33).
  • In this sense “the development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others” (34).
  • Recognition has become so important that “Its refusal can inflict damage on those who are denied it, … The projection of an inferior or demeaning image on another can actually distort and oppress, to the extent that the image is internalized” (36).

politics of universalism vs. politics of difference—the two forms of liberalism

  1. “With the move from honor to dignity has come a politics of universalism, emphasizing the equal dignity of all citizens, and the content of this politics has been the equalization of rights and entitlements” (37).
  2. “the development of the modern notion of identity, has given rise to a politics of difference. With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognize is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity. And this assimilation is the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity” (38).
  3. “The claim is that the supposedly neutral set of difference-blind principles of the politics of equal dignity is in fact a reflection of one hegemonic culture. As it turns out, then, only the minority or suppressed cultures are being forced to take alien form. Consequently, the supposedly fair and difference-blind society is not only inhuman (because suppressing identities) but also, in a subtle and unconscious way, itself highly discriminatory” (43).


  1. “all societies are becoming increasingly multicultural, while at the same time becoming more porous. Indeed, these two developments go together. Their porousness means that they are more open to multi-national migration; more of their members live the life of diaspora, whose center is elsewhere. In these circumstances, there is something awkward about replying simply, “This is how we do things here …
    • “The awkwardness arises from the fact that there are substantial numbers of people who are citizens and also belong to the culture that calls into question our philosophical boundaries. The challenge is to deal with their sense of marginalization without compromising our basic political principles” (63).
  2. There is now an explicit demand for recognition, including a change in the way we are taught the history of culture.
    • This is “essential not so much in the name of a broader culture for everyone as in order to give due recognition to the hitherto excluded. The background premise of these demands is that recognition forges identity, particularly in its Fanonist application: dominant groups tend to entrench their hegemony by inculcating an image of inferiority in the subjugated” (66).
  3. “As a presumption, the claim is that all human cultures that have animated whole societies over some considerable stretch of time have something important to say to all human beings … when I call this claim a “presumption,” I mean that it is a starting hypothesis with which we ought to approach the study of any other culture” (66-67).
    • [How is this not just straight up Boas?]
  4. According to Taylor—”What has to happen is what Gadamer has called a “fusion of horizons.” We learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of the formerly unfamiliar culture. The “fusion of horizons” operates through our developing new vocabularies of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts. So that if and when we ultimately find substantive support for our initial presumption, it is on the basis of an understanding of what constitutes worth that we couldn’t possibly have had at the beginning. We have reached the judgment partly through transforming our standards” (67).


“There must be something midway between the inauthentic and homogenizing demand for recognition of equal worth, on the one hand, and the self-immurement within ethnocentric standards, on the other. There are other cultures, and we have to live together more and more, both on a world scale and commingled in each individual society.

What there is is the presumption of equal worth I described above: a stance we take in embarking on the study of the other. Perhaps we don’t need to ask whether it’s something that others can demand from us as a right. We might simply ask whether this is the way we ought to approach others” (72).


“what the presumption requires of us is not peremptory and inauthentic judgments of equal value, but a willingness to be open to comparative cultural study of the kind that must displace our horizons in the resulting fusions. What it requires above all is an admission that we are very far away from that ultimate horizon from which the relative worth of different cultures might be evident. This would mean breaking with an illusion that still holds many “multiculturalists”—as well as their most bitter opponents—in its grip” (73). Continue reading Taylor—The Politics of Recognition