Ethnicity (Key Concepts)
Polity Press, Cambridge
This concise, thorough and well written tour through the world of ethnicity is a well needed addition to the Key Concepts series. Any student new to the field or indeed a seasoned graduate looking for a broad ranging introduction, will be very pleased to have this comprehensive guide to the increasingly confused literature in this area.
Steve Fenton is Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol and has been publishing in this field for three decades; his deep knowledge of the literature emerges in the approachable style of this book. Fenton manages to summarise the key aspects of his argument with concise writing that is at no point patronising, despite the complex ontological aspects of some of the material. To the new student of ethnicity, one of the most useful sections will be the well selected bibliography. Cited are seminal works alongside lesser known papers that will be of interest to a more experienced reader. This coupled with the easily searchable index makes for a good addition to any relevant module reading list.
Fenton begins by stating explicitly his central thesis for the book; that ethnicity should, by no means, be considered concrete by either the lay person or the professional sociologist. Rather 'we must look carefully at the material concepts of action, where action is ethnically 'aligned'' (pg. xi). Indeed it is an examination of contemporary societal elements that leads to a greater understanding of the conception of ethnicity, not an examination of any concrete group. It is this conceptual framework that provides the backdrop for Fenton to address the core areas of the field.
Starting with a detailed examination of the etymology and ontology of the term 'ethnicity' (and the related 'nation' and 'race') Fenton applies these concepts in a global setting with some interesting contemporary examples. Experienced readers of the literature will, I think, find the sections dealing with Japan, Brazil and Singapore particularly refreshing.
Fenton then goes on to outline the decline of so called 'race science' which has dominated large portions of the academic literature in the past, and moves on to the oft misunderstood debate around primordialism. Commonly mistaken as a way of theorising ethnicity, Fenton reminds us that this is simply not the case. Rather, primordialism was a way of distinguishing between civic and non-civic ties – something at the foundation of all social science. Though mistakenly applied to elements of ethnic group membership, it is argued that instead it should be utilised as a tool 'for exploration not definition' (pg. 87 emphasis added).
Chapter 5 has substantial changes in this revised second edition and suits the overall tone of the work, utilising arguments about the concrete reality of group formation (and maintenance) to explore competition theory. The next two Chapters substantiate Fenton's claims about searching material action for ethnically aligned behaviour, by exploring migration; economic inequality; state security and state politics. These sections are covered not in the depth that some may be used to reading, however the subjects are notoriously broad and the coverage reflects the 'Key Concepts' feel.
Lastly, and somewhat innovatively for an introductory work in this field, Fenton deals with the emerging phenomena in modern societies of the 'ethnic majority' and in turn the right wing nationalism that can accompany it. In conclusion, this book summarises the position that has been made largely explicit throughout – that there cannot be a simple 'theory of ethnicity' (pg. 187) but rather a sociological search for ethnic context. Whilst there is a definite message being delivered the main purpose of the book, to introduce the key areas of ethnicity research, is most certainly achieved.
University of Plymouth