The persistence of racial and ethnic taxonomies: pragmatism and risk
CIES/ISCTE Center for Research and Studies in Sociology ISCTE Lisbon University Institute Lisboa, Portugal
Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies King's College London London, United Kingdom
Why does the widespread use of racial categories persist? How to explain their resilience? Even when essentialist definitions of race have long been scientifically and -- most often -- politically discredited, racial classifications are still commonplace in much scientific research and policy analysis - sometimes in the guise of ethnicity --, and in everyday private vocabularies.
The paper argues that there are at least three major factors that help explain the persistence and use of racial/ethnic categories:
(1) The institutionalization of racialized taxonomies systems in biomedicine especially epidemiology, demography, sociology (e.g., survey research), forensics, public administration -- with substantial variation and inconsistency in the different domains -- extends to professional associations, journals, funding agencies which operate "as if" the dimension(s) of race/ethnicity is real "naturalized." And the institutionalization is backed up by the authority of science, often through quantification and statistical analysis.
(2) Cognitive order and the reduction of complexity. Part of the "calculative rationality" in modern society works with racial/ethnic categories as "independent variables" in models for explaining behavioral patterns and deviance as well as disease patterns. Also, such categories are used as policy variables (to be deal with, managed), that is, they become "dependent variables" in legal, policy, and administrative systems.
(3) Related to the previous point (2) is the use of racial/ethic categories as flawed proxies or surrogates for what cannot be readily observed or measured, whether biological or genetic variation or complex psychological or sociological background variables.
In helping to establish and maintain cognitive and social orders, racial/ethnicity category systems -- like other systems such as age, weight, gender, educational level, etc -- address and reduce risks (whether such risks as exclusion, disease, deviant behavior). At the same time, the systems are risky themselves in that they reify and naturalize -- and help maintain -- racial categorization and provide stuff for pernicious mills to grind.