Tuesday, January 24, 2006


The ABC has recently been running a documentary series about the idea of race, reporting to us with undeniable genetic proof that which any third year sociology student can tell us without breaking a sweat: the notion of race is just a myth. One of the great myths of modernity no doubt, but a myth nonetheless. Now I haven't watched any of this series myself but having spent a fair amount of time over the years toying with various claims of biological determinsim I got to thinking.

My concern is basically this. The temptation with proving the falsity of such a claim as racial differentiation is to then say something like, "hence cultural clashes that are based on claims about race (such as aparthied) can be seen to be based on nothing that is real". But what if the notion of race was not the cause of these cultural clashes but was instead the effect. There are no doubt people out there who would claim that cultural clashes, be they physically violent or otherwise, occur. They would happen if the people involved were thinking about racial differentiation or not. And it may have been in an effort to explain these clashes that the notion of race was first concieved. Hence proving race to be a myth does little for advancing our position as long as we remain unable to get along peacefully.

Now it is obvious that without the necessary historical analysis I am clearly debating about chickens and eggs here. But to engage in some specualtion, suppose it were true that race was the effect and not the cause of cultural clashes. Perhaps we can find no biological determinants of cultural clashes at all. Now my questions here are, are there any cultural determinants that can be said to cause such clashes and if so what are they? Could we then go on to use our knowledge of such determinants to find solutions and/or preventions to our problems? Or in attempting to find such determinants are we in danger of creating another boogeyman-myth like race? Should we in fact just accept such clashes as inevitable?


MH said...

This probably isn’t the way you were thinking of progressing, Peter, but can we start by laying down some foundations? Mainly, can you set out what you mean by ‘culture’ and ‘cultural determinant’? I’ve not got a sociological background, so my concept of culture is going to be different to yours, and I’d like to be sure that we’re talking the same talk.

My reason for asking is that I’ve understood it to be in the nature of cultures to invoke ‘us versus them’ partitioning. That is, ‘we are a culture though they are not part of our culture’. This line requires a justification, hence the division between 'Greek' and 'Barbarian' was based on the ability to speak classical Greek. I’ve taken race to be a similar means of partitioning. This seems to show that it is the very nature of cultures to create clashes with other cultures as part of their attempts to maintain the partition.

So, if my understanding is based on errors, then I’d like a better concept to start from.

Pete said...

No problem regarding the clarification MH. Ok so culture at the most basic level refers to human interaction. And cultural determinant refers to something from those interactions that has an effect. So in my initial post I'm talking about something that causes cultural clashes that is part of the sphere of human interactions. The idea of a biological determinant is something about our bodies that has an effect. You'll often hear this type of explanation used to explain gender specific behaviour (e.g. he beacme angry because of too much testosterone) or in this instance the idea of racial differences (i.e. physiological differences in people from different regions) has often been subscribed to to explain why people from different cultures don't get along.

OK so your second paragraph seems fairly sensible. It's where I'd expect a lot of us lefties to be on this issue. By saying that it is 'the nature of culture to invoke 'us versus them' partitioning', you seem to be advocating a cultural determination of culture clashes. So for you the idea of race is nothing but culturally determined and has no biological basis either. Sound fair?

MH said...

It does sound fair, which raises the question ‘what is wrong with the position?’ if it is unorthodox?

Pete said...

What's wrong with it? Well nothing if it is true. But it does lead us to certain other consequences which are worth considering. The problem here springs from the idea that it is, as you say, "the nature of cultures to invoke 'us versus them' partitioning". Are we to leave our description of these cultural determinants at that? To accept that this as an inevitable part of cultural interaction, to accept that no matter what we do cultural clashes will continue to occur? If so we can hardly criticize institutions like aparthied or events like the persecution of indiginous Australians by European settlers. After all these things will inevitably happen so who are we to point the finger of blame? We should instead just shrug our shoulders and turn our backs to such events.

Instead my suggestion at this point is to say that if we want to maintain our critical stance of such things while dismissing the idea of biological determinants, we should be going further in our descriptions of what the cultural determinants might be rather than just accepting such clashes as inevitable. This then is the idea that led me to ask the series of questions in my original post...I am seeking here some suggestions for a possible diagnosis of the causes of the problems.