Race is one of the most complicated and interesting topics in the social sciences. In many ways, race is an artificial construct, since there is no single genetic marker differentiating one race from another and racial identities change and bend with cultural norms. On the other hand, even if race is an artificial construct, the fact that racial differentiation exists in a wide variety of cultures and has been one of the causes of some of the more significant historical social problems suggests that dismissing race as merely an artificial construct would be destructive. Regardless of whether there is a genetic, scientific basis for racial distinctions, human beings have demonstrated a determination to make racial differentiations. Therefore, understanding why people consistently choose to make these distinctions can be a crucial step in helping mitigate the negative impact of racism.
In the Woodward reading, she discusses racial identity within the context of individuals seeking to establish both individual and group identities. She examines how individuals relate to the larger social groups around them, and the interaction between the individual and the group. She approaches the idea of identity from a sociological perspective, with identity being a way to describe the way an individual relates to his or her broader social group. She also discusses identity from a psychological perspective, delving into Freudian notions of identity and how the individual forms an identity over the course of a one's lifetime. Woodward discusses the idea of identity in a modern context, and discusses how modern world events have challenged some traditional notions of identity, such as the changing meaning of what it is to be English in the United Kingdom now that smaller ethnic groups are beginning to assert independence, and how the American identity has changed in the wake of 9-11.
Woodward's focus on identity helps describe the purposes of identity. According to her, "Identity involves aligning ourselves with one group of people, saying that we are the same as them, as well as marking ourselves out as different from other groups of people. We can have a collective identity, at the local or even the global level, whether through culture, religion or politics, as well having an individual identity, as a mother, father or worker" (Woodward 2010, p.20). Race is part of identity. One of the interesting aspects of race that Woodward mentions is that, at least in Western societies, being white is the norm or the default. Therefore, while white people certainly have their race as part of their identities, they may not be fully aware of the impact of race on their identities. Instead, because they are in the majority, their race becomes an undefined part of their identities. This can be an important concept because the idea of self-identifying in terms of race can seem off-putting to members of majority groups, but that does not mean that their race is any less of their identity, simply that their racial identity reflects broader cultural norms and ideals.
She also discusses the idea of difference, particularly physical differences. She discusses the idea that some differences are not very important, such as the shade of one's hair. However, other differences, such as race and gender, signify seemingly greater differences. "Visible features are social, that is they have social implications and the meanings that are attached to them come from the societies in which we live. Some visible features matter more than others and may have social and economic consequences" (Woodward, 2010, p.23). She also mentions the importance of visual representation and how things can have symbolic meaning that serves as shorthand within the context of a culture, which can mean that something visual may or may not represent the actual truth.
Woodward also discusses the way that the Internet can obscure identities and help create relationships in a faux environment. She gives a specific example of a male psychiatrist who pretended to be a disabled female individual in an internet chat-room environment and describes how other members of the group felt betrayed by his deception. However, she also discusses positive ways that the internet can be used to help people in marginalized or fringe groups by introducing them to a broader community, which helps reduce the impact of marginalization. The internet is not the only technological advance that Woodward believes is impacting the face of society. She also believes that evolving reproductive techniques, which alter traditional kinship relationships, may change how individuals and society view identity. Woodward expands on this with a lengthy discussion of what she refers to as the cyborg, but she is not discussing the traditional human/machine hybrid cyborg of science fiction. Instead, her notion of the cyborg focuses on how technological and social advances can enable humans to move forward in society; she even uses this example to suggest technological advances that would assist breastfeeding mothers, while, at the same time, making formula that is healthier for infants, increasing the choices available to women (Woodward, 2010, p. 38).
Woodward also talks about how economics interacts with culture and with personal identity. In a capitalist society, there is an assumption that the buyer is free to make choices through purchases and that these choices will be reflective of the buyer's identity. However, Woodward challenges that assumption. Consumption and production both play important roles in shaping identities. However, consumers are constrained, not only by a lack of resources, but also by the way that corporations shape consumer preferences. This can be done through advertising but is more than just direct advertising. Woodward focuses on how culture has shaped the ideal of womanhood, so that women themselves perpetuate the ideal, which can be true even if women retain the independence to reject corporate-driven ideals (Woodward, 2010, p.42). The consumer culture suggests that people create their identities through their economic choices.
Woodward also discusses how one's place of origin plays a role in personal identity. There are multiple dimensions to where a person comes from: country, state, and then region, whether that be a city or a town. All of these factors influence job opportunities, educational opportunities, diversity, and the people one is likely to know. However, the place of origin also has significant racial implications, as non-white people are often asked where they come from in order to determine racial or ethnic origins, even though they may have grown up in Western country and identify themselves with that country. Where one comes from can really have a significant impact on an individual's abilities. "For example, political and legal rights and the right to receive health care and welfare benefits all depend on residence qualifications" (Woodward, 2010, p.46).
Eriksen takes a social anthropology approach to the concept of ethnicity. In fact, the social anthropology approach is critical to Eriksen's explanation of what he means by ethnicity.
Eriksen believes that "through its dependence on long-term fieldwork, anthropology has the advantage of generating first-hand knowledge of social life at the level of everyday interaction. To a great extent, this is the locus where ethnicity is created and re-created. Ethnicity emerges and is made relevant through social situations and encounters, and through people's ways of coping with the demands and challenges of life" (Eriksen, 1993, p.1).
Eriksen is interested in looking at the relationship between ethnicity and nationalism. Eriksen discusses the growing interest in nationalism among social scientists since World War II, which one assumes is due to a desire to avoid repeating the type of nationalism that led to the Holocaust. However, Eriksen also suggests that this attempt to understand the role that ethnicity plays in politics is important. According to him, "thirty-five of the thirty-seven major armed conflicts in the world in 1991 were internal conflicts, and most of them- from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland- could plausibly be described as ethnic conflicts. In addition to violent ethnic movements there are also many important non-violent ethnic movements, such as the Quebecois independence movement in Canada" (Eriken, 1993, p.2).
Eriksen points out that the concept of ethnicity is oftentimes confused with being a minority. However, ethnicity focuses on the majority as well as the minority. Ethnicity refers to "aspects of relationships between groups which consider themselves, and are regarded by others, as being culturally distinctive" (Eriksen, 1993, p.4). Ethnicity is also not synonymous with race, though ethnicity and race are frequently used interchangeably. Eriksen points out that race is a questionable concept because in-group variation is often greater than inter-group variation (Eriksen, 1993, p.4). However, he acknowledges that race is a cultural construct, even if there are no biological justifications for racial divisions. He points out that ethnic and racial discrimination both occur. He does acknowledge that race-based discrimination can be very difficult for the people experiencing the discrimination because having a different physical appearance can make assimilating into the dominant ethnic group more difficult.
One of the issues that Eriksen points out is that ethnicity is frequently linked to social class. He acknowledges that socioeconomic class…