Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Ethnic and Racial Consciousness (2nd edition)

Michael Banton
Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman
ISBN 0 582 29911 X
£12.99 (pb)
viii + 195 pp.

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This is the second edition of Michael Banton's popular text Racial Consciousness. The expanded title indicates the author's wider concern in this volume: there is a new chapter on the international scrutiny and supervision of government policies on discrimination, much new material on events in Rwanda, Burundi and former Yugoslavia, an update on post-apartheid South Africa and a comparative analysis of British, French and German views of nationality, immigration and asylum. Banton's use of these abundant international examples not only gives his book a refreshingly cosmopolitan sweep but allows him to explore further his distinctive arguments about the nature of ethnic and racial consciousness.

Central to these is Banton's insistence that ethnic and racial categories are social constructions. By this he means that they are ways of naming people, of placing them in particular sorts of relations to oneself. It follows from this that people's consciousness of their relations to others, their awareness of what is allegedly different about them, will vary according to circumstances. Ethnic and racial consciousness, then, refers to those ways of understanding human social relations that employ notions of ethnicity or race; ethnic and racial relations are those relations so understood.

Such an argument points to the shortcomings of using the 'practical languages of everyday life' to make sense of racial and ethnic relations. After all, he notes, no-one has ever seen another person's race, yet many people continue to use the term race as though it were an 'objective, scientific and culture free designation of differences of appearance'. Instead, Banton contends, it is necessary to look beyond popular consciousness to the social structures which give it form.

Using the wealth of comparative material noted earlier, he points to a number of factors that condition the circumstances under which groups are likely to understand themselves and their milieu in racial or ethnic terms. So, for example, racial consciousness is likely to be greatest in societies 'in which appearance is used as a basis for discontinuous social classification' and where groups differ in their power and access to material and cultural resources. Similarly ethnic consciousness commonly emerges in situations where groups sharing common attributes and interests, such as a religious belief, organize to influence the exercise of state power or to defend their shared interests. Ethnic and racial consciousness, then, is an emergent property of particular sorts of social relations.

This analysis produces some interesting insights, but it also raises some theoretical problems. Seeing racial and ethnic categories as relational subverts essentialist notions of both and suggests a proper re-direction of sociological attention towards social relations. The issue then becomes one of how inequalities of power might be connected to, or congruent with, various means of interpreting difference, physical or cultural. However, there is a serious difficulty with the notion that ethnicity is a community of shared meanings, namely that it elides the community with the meanings. This makes the argument circular. Take, for example, Banton's claim that 'collective action on an ethnic basis occurs most frequently when persons who share a common ethnic origin, and associated attributes and interests, organize to influence the exercise of state power...' (p. 65, my emphasis). Here it would appear that ethnic consciousness is a consequence of a 'shared ethnic origin', an objective state, in which case it cannot be thinking in ethnic terms which creates the sense of a shared ethnic origin. Yet, by (rightly) claiming that racial and ethnic categories are social constructions, Banton implies exactly this. One might also query the sense in which people can be said to share features of a common culture, since this seems to conflate claims about ideas with claims about social conformity. A common system of belief (Christianity, or Islam, for example) does not necessarily lead to a common 'culture' or lifestyle. Logical claims about beliefs need to be separated, analytically, from the ways in which social actors deploy their beliefs in pursuit of their social and political interests.

These reservations notwithstanding, Michael Banton has produced a worthy successor to his earlier volume. Its lively and engaging style and copious comparative examples should ensure its standing as a key text for those teaching about discrimination and ethnic conflict.

Bob Carter
Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Worcester College of HE

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997