The Sociology of Ethnicity

Malesevic, Sinisa
Sage Publications, London

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Cover of book Is 'ethnicity' a dirty word? The word has changed its meaning over the years to describe pagan, non-Jewish, non-Christian, minority or non-white groups. It is intertwined with the concepts of race and cultural diversity. In the modern world, however, the term is most often used to mean inferior or second-class citizens. In his thought provoking and well-researched book, The Sociology of Ethnicity, the author Sinisa Malesevic attempts to trace the evolving definition of ethnicity, from the Greco-Roman classical age to the contemporary political arena of ethnic cleansing and terrorist attacks. The author however, deplores the attempts to categorize or classify in legal and political terms certain groups of people into ethnic minorities. This reviewer has a lot of sympathy with this concept. After all, as the author points out in the introductory chapter, ethnicity only has meaning in its relationship with the non-ethnic, and to encase ethnicity in a rigid definition would assume that it had ceased to evolve as a sociological concept.

In nine separate and self contained chapters, the author critically analyses leading sociological theories of ethnic relations: classical sociological theory, neo-Marxism, functionalism, symbolic interactionism, sociobiological theory, rational choice theory, elite theory, neo-Weberianism, and anti-foundationalism. In the concluding chapter, the various theories are compared and contrasted in the very real context of the Rwandan ethnic crisis of 1994 and shows that each theory in its own way manages to provide an interpretation of the complex ethnic situation. This is where the book ceases to be a mere theoretical exercise and finds new meaning in contemporary society. Although the book recognises that no magic bullet or master plan exists that can explain every ethnic relation in every socio-political situation, a combination of neo-Weberian and elitist theories is strongly recommended as a sociological strategy to devise sociological explanations and policy recommendations.

The book is a reflection of the author's interpretation of the various sociological theories in the context of ethnicity. This is in some ways both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength inasmuch as it expresses strong and individual views on the relative merits and demerits of each theory. But this may also be perceived as a limitation as it does not allow the reader to make an informed judgement for himself at the end. One further suggestion: it would have enhanced the book greatly, if real life examples like the Rwandan genocide had been used throughout the book to illustrate the various theories.

The book is aimed at advanced undergraduate and post graduate students of sociology and is therefore pitched at a level where readers are assumed to be conversant with the various sociological theories. Nevertheless, I, who has only a passing interest in sociology, found the book interesting, comprehensive and well worth reading. I have no doubt that this book will go a long way in helping students of sociology to understand and explain ethnic relations in this changing society of globalisation.

Sohinee Bhattacharya
University of Aberdeen