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Race Ethnicity

‘Race’ has proven to be an elusive concept to define, and many social theorists link difficulties interpreting its meanings to the complex social and historical processes by which individuals and groups have been assigned to racial categories (Omi & Winant 1994; Feagin 2004; Graves 2004; Morning 2011). In other words, racial categories (or race) represent unstable social classifications that continually change as individuals and groups (re)create, contest, and transform them. Some scholars, then, considering the evolution of modern racial awareness, have argued that one can best understand race within ‘projects’ of racial formation (West 1982; Omi & Winant 1994). And sociologists Omi and Winant (1994) offer the most helpful definition of race for this entry: ‘race is a concept which signifies and symbols social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies’ (p. 55).

Such an accounting of race offers a robust framework through which to view race, not only as a matter of social structure but also as a matter of cultural representation. In the past, social scientists and evolutionary biologists sought to define race in rigid and bipolar ways; for them, race was either a biological essence or an ideological illusion, a pure sociological construct (Graves 2004; Morning 2011). Yet this reframing of the concept of race by looking at racial formation processes disrupts and challenges these understandings and highlights two crucial factors about racial meanings. First, on a macro-social level, dominant cultural groups (often) utilize race to organize and govern human bodies. Secondly, on a micro-social level, individuals and ethnic groups utilize racial (and ethnic) categories in everyday practices to construct personal and collective identity –to establish senses of self (who they are) and the groups to which they belong.

Recognizing that race is but one determinant in establishing group identity, sociologists began advancing ethnicity-based theories as well, seeking to account for other cultural elements racial groups use to foster collective identity such as language, religion, and customs (Patterson 1977; Glazer 1983). Yet some feel that even these ethnicity-based models of understanding race, while acknowledging ‘uniqueness,’ fail to capture the diversity within ethnic groups (Omi & Winant 1994). Speaking in ethnic terms, for example, ‘whites’ could be a designation that refers to Irish or Jewish whites, and ‘blacks’ can refer to Haitian or Jamaican persons of African descent.

Studies in religion and embodiment—or more specifically studies that show how religion influences the specific arrangements, government, and performances of bodies in social contexts—are central to understanding race and ethnicity in contemporary societies. Classical social scientific theorists have already deftly associated individual bodily expressions with the ‘culturally processed’ and ‘learned’ perceptions about how bodies should behave (Mauss 1936; Douglas 1970). And, since religious systems are also cultural systems (Geertz 1973), analyses that seek to interpret the meaning (symbolic) and nature of highly developed/ritual body actions of various racial/ethnic groups illumine how these groups solidify identity. They do so, specifically, by showing how racial/ethnic groups employ religion and religious rituals as cultural tools for forming identity. By focusing on religion and embodiment, then, analyses of race yield insights into the ways social structures define and/or constrain individual and group perceptions of race and ethnicity. Conversely, these analyses provide further understandings on how racialized bodies might sustain or counteract such understandings (Douglas 1970:72-76).

Works cited

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols. London: Routledge, 2003, orig. 1970.

Douglas’s text has been a classic text in studies on embodiment and religion for quite some time; in it, Douglas adroitly speculates that the physical body is a microcosm of the social body. She argues that if one can understand how the body works, we can understand how society works. Symbols, for Douglas, are grounded in the human body and are used to express social experience, and vice versa, the human body is ‘taught’ to individuals by society. ‘Natural symbols,’ then, are those symbols derived from the realities of the human body, for example, blood, breath, excrement. These symbols acquire social meaning as they are progressively applied to ideas, practices, rituals, institutions and societies. Notable for scholarship on religion and embodiment is how she explicitly examines how ritualistic expressions of the body/social relationship influence religion and politics.

Feagin, J. R. “Toward an Integrated Theory of Systematic Racism.” In M. Krysan, & A. Lewis, Eds. The Changing Terrain of race and Ethnicity. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 2004: 203-223.

Geertz, C. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. 1973.

Glazer, N. “Blacks and Ethnic Groups: The Difference and the Political Difference It Makes.” In Ethnic Dilemmas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Graves, J. The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Mauss, M. “Les Techniques du corps.” Journal de la Psychologie, 32. March-April, 1936.

In this essay, Mauss describes ‘techniques of the body’ as highly developed body actions that represent aspects of a given culture. These bodily actions include eating, washing, sitting, swimming, running, etc. These techniques are adapted to situations, and he uses as an example practices such as aboriginal squatting, which were cases where no seats are available. Techniques are thus a ‘craft’ as Mauss interprets them; that is, they are learned. The teaching of bodily methods is what embeds them as practices, and the teaching of these practices is embedded within cultures and traditions of indoctrination. As these indoctrinations become instantiated in society—when pupils become teachers—they are maintained by bodily practices and various techniques of bodies can be observed or analyzed as sites for knowledge about peoples and their cultures. Later theorists, such as Norbert Elias, Mary Douglas, and Pierre Bourdieu would further develop these ideas of Mauss (Elias and Bourdieu developed them further in notions of the habitus, or the non-discursive aspects of culture that bind people into groups, including unspoken habits and patterns of behavior as well as styles and skill in body techniques).

Morning, A. The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. Racial Formation in the United States, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Patterson, O. Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Response. New York: Stein & Day, 1977.

West, C. Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Louisville: KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1982.