Pruning talk of roots and hybrids

Rethinking Ethnicity
November 14, 1997

As the votes on Scottish and Welsh devolution, the elections in Serbia and the furore that greeted Norman Tebbit's remarks on multiculturalism at this autumn's Tory party conference all underline, questions of ethnicity, sectarianism and nationalism are central to many social and political debates of contemporary society. They are also a mainstay of undergraduate social sciences and humanities syllabuses, so this book should easily find a public. The content strays into the overlapping territories of geography, history, politics, social psychology and cultural studies but is rooted firmly in social anthropology. As Richard Jenkins recognises, "Being a growth area has encouraged a healthy diversity; the anthropological model of ethnicity is a relatively broad church which allows a wide range of phenomena under its roof."

There is a large body of existing literature on ethnicity which is diffuse and of varying quality. What, then, can the reader of Rethinking Ethnicity expect by way of original theoretical contribution? Not much, as the author himself admits: "I don't... lay claim to dramatic innovation". This is honest, unlike the "essential, ground-breaking, revelatory" boasts of most books, that are so often hollow.

The book is based on essays by Jenkins spanning 12 years. It aims to answer two main questions: how concepts of ethnicity and social identity impact on people's everyday lives; and how a new understanding of ethnicity might inform sociological analysis.

There are two main sections. The first outlines the development of the existing anthropological model of ethnicity, grappling with pluralism, power relations and ethnic identification. The second goes some way to illustrating the previous section, with applications taking in nationalism, violence, language, politics and "the cultural stuff". The work of anthropologist Fredrik Barth is the main muse. Along the way Jenkins reveals that he is something of a displaced person himself, of English/Welsh/Irish origins: a combination to confound all those "Englishman, Welshman, Irishman" gags.

The "arguments" section offers few surprises: Jenkins is relatively content with the central tenets of the social anthropological model he presents. The difference between race and ethnicity is revisited. However, one wonders whether all this is not simply sticking new, politically correct labels on to the same old jars.

Elsewhere, however, the book does differ from its competitors. Post-colonialism, an "old chestnut" of ethnicity studies, is not here a major preoccupation, perhaps because book's fieldwork locations are Northern Ireland, Wales and Denmark. One notes an end-of-empire rupture, with old-style "tribal" talk and a paradigm shift emphasising "ethnic groups". Jenkins's healthy distaste for post-modernism at least sets him apart from the reiterators of tired vegetable metaphors (hybridisation, roots and routes) who often dominate this patch.

The whole area of ethnicity is a complex landscape, at times resembling a minefield. Rethinking Ethnicity will help to shed some light on an area of critical importance.

Rupa Huq is a PhD student, University of East London.

Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations

Author - Richard Jenkins
ISBN - 0 8039 7677 1 and 0 8039 7678 X
Publisher - Sage
Price - £37.50 and £12.95
Pages - 200

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