Ethnicity, the unbeloved of the social sciences

There was a time when the term ‘ethnicity’ was practically absent from francophone social science textbooks, whilst the Anglo-Saxon academic world had made it one of its privileged concepts since the 1960s. How to define this concept, which is slowly but surely coming into favour in the eyes of researchers? How to explain that its use in media discourses is always linked with racist undertones? In his latest book, Penser l’ethnicité, (Thinking Ethnicity) Marco Martiniello takes stock of this both misunderstood and tarnished term.

cover-ethnicitéWhen did you last use the word ‘ethnicity’? A part from maybe to describe a type of cuisine or a musical style? In its generally accepted meaning this term is amongst those banished in the French language, being stuck with a hardly sparkling connotation. How much of media and political discourse refers to it to comment upon a massacre, a conflict or barbaric behaviour? Are not the groups termed ‘ethnic’ generally linked to a combat or a clash? The references to the conflicts between the Hutus and the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, between the Fur people and Arabs in Darfour, or between Serbs, Croats and Albanians during the war of Yugoslavia are only a few sad examples amongst others. This term is more often than not related to ‘the most despicable, degrading and retrogressive aspects of humanity,’ sums up Marco Martiniello, FNRS Research Director and the Director of CEDEM (the University of Liège’s Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies).

In the middle of the 1990s the researcher had already drawn this conclusion: both in everyday French language usage and in the francophone academic field, this concept was used only very timidly. The book he published in 1995, L’ethnicité dans les sciences sociales contemporaines (Ethnicity in Contemporary Social Sciences), was at the time one of the few books in French dedicated to this subject. ‘The term was rarely used or even rejected because it suggested colonial history, and had racist and paternalistic undertones,’ he explains.

Eighteen years later little or nothing has changed. The word remains seldomly employed in francophone social sciences and often proves to be tarnished in its everyday use. For this reason Marco Martiniello resolved to update his initial work. The timing was perfect: the first book being out of print, the researcher regained the rights to it and could thus get down to the task of writing Penser l’ethnicité. Identité, culture et relations sociales, which has just been published by the University of Liège Press.

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