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many social scientists are reluctant to address the issue of biological difference given how easily this may be framed in racial and racist terms… [but] to continue to ignore the possibility that human bodies may differ in biologically significant ways among groups of people will not, however, make the issue of racism go away

How have anthropologists analysed race?

‘Race’ is an extremely contested concept. It is a loaded term packed with implications and like anthropology itself, has a colonial upbringing. ‘Race’ therefore works in a similar fashion to something like ‘culture’, as both are so complex yet so often used within the anthropological discipline. A term being used so widely yet so debatably has created conflict in the way ‘race’ is both analysed and how it is defined. 


This essay will first look at how ‘race’ has actually been conceptualised before revealing how it is consequentially analysed. This will explore how there is a desire in anthropology to both conceptualise and generalise, revealing how much concepts can be limited by language and the preconceived narratives conceptualising them in the first place. Conceptualisation will then be applied to the history of ‘race’ in anthropology and how it was born the study of the ‘other’, with ‘western’ narratives as the universal. This racial history in anthropology has established how ‘race’ is analysed today because of the caution that surrounds its analysis. There is a hesitance and difficulty today analysing ‘race’ out of fear of being ‘racist’ or furthering the racial divide. This finally demonstrates the need for reflexivity in anthropology, especially if ‘race’ is going to be analysed in the future. 


Before looking at how anthropologists have analysed ‘race’, it is crucial to first understand how anthropologists often conceptualise and perceive such concepts. There is a desire in anthropology to conceptualise and generalise social phenomenon, which has revealed how much concepts are limited by language and the preconceived narratives conceptualising them. The analysis of ‘race’ is therefore stemmed from this limitation of the entire concept.


Das writes about this idea of ‘concepts’ and considers them as abstract objects of thought that organise our experience. They use this argument to discuss how concepts are fundamentally limited by language and how “there is a basic requirement of descriptiveness that alone can give life to our concepts" (Das 2020, 306). This descriptiveness that brings life to concepts comes from the narrative describing that concept. This raises the question: who creates knowledge? Language and conceptualisation create a limiting way for terms such as ‘race’ to exist. It is essentially down to the anthropologists’ experience of explaining culture that changes the concepts and experiences of their interlocutors through the “aspiration towards generality” (Holbraad 2018, 9). There is a desire in disciplines like anthropology to normalise experiences into concrete concepts, which is something both Das and Holbraad recognise. This concretisation provides, “an insight that is lost in the process of thinking of normativity as meeting some kind of normative standards that are rule bound and tools for determining what might be included or excluded within a class” (Das 2020, 277). Normativity and lack of true objectivity are dangerous to the understanding of ideas as it frames concepts to exist according to the truth of the ethnographer or analyser, narrowing the experience to the narrative that has the ‘privilege’ of presenting it. 


Conceptualisation can therefore be applied to the history of ‘race’ in anthropology to show how anthropology was created as the discipline studying the ‘other’ through desires to generalise and create narratives for this ‘other’. This has created a space for analysing ‘race’ to be one where only the loudest voice is heard. This voice is the ‘westernised, white male’. Trouillot discuses the ‘savage slot’ and the politics of ‘otherness’, which is fundamental to anthropology’s colonial history. Trouillot argues, “as anchor of a claim to universal legitimacy, the geography of imagination inherent in the west since the sixteenth century imposes a frame within which to read world history… North Atlantic institutional forms became so pervasive that subjugated peoples everywhere found it impossible to formulate the terms of their liberation and to envision their futures outside of these forms.” (2003, 12). History placed non-European people as the ‘primitive other’, creating a narrative for how should exist. There was a prominent belief that these ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’ were peoples without history and their stories could only be told by the North Atlantic / ‘white’ perspective, as this was ‘universal’. Haraway references this idea by explaining how “history is a story Western culture buffs tell each other; science is a contestable text and a power field" (1988, 577), talking about feminist theory existing in a masculine world that created science, which inherently exists as both masculinised and ‘white’. This theory can apply to ‘race’ because it refers to the lack of different voices being heard in analysis of phenomenon and academia, linking to Abu-Loghard’s idea of ‘polyvocal’. “Despite a long history of self-conscious opposition to racism… the fundamental issues of domination keep being skirted” (Abu-Loghard 1991, 469), which describes the power relations in the lack of polyvocal anthropology. There is one prominent and vocal narrative with anything outside of this often being disregarded. 


Today, this deep-rootedness has repercussions in the analysis of anthropology. These repercussions include sensitivity when discussing ‘race’ out of fear of being ‘racist’, “particularly since World War II with its legacy of scientific racism… many social scientists are reluctant to address the issue of biological difference given how easily this may be framed in racial and racist terms… [but] to continue to ignore the possibility that human bodies may differ in biologically significant ways among groups of people will not, however, make the issue of racism go away" (Lock and Nguyen 2010, 2). Humans are different not because of essentialised differences in the human kind but because of interactions with physical environments and social relationships. History has on the other hand has made this difficult to contest. If however, social scientists pretend biological differences don't exist out of fear of being ‘racist', the issue still does not go away. By ignoring ‘race’, analysis may become more susceptible to the inevitable political and social inequalities in the wider social world. While it is difficult to know how to contest ‘race’, it has meant that its analysis comes with caution based on this racial history anthropology has inherited. There is a complicated relationship therefore between this caution and the familiar attachment to the western, imperial way of thinking due to how it is so strongly rooted in the discipline. This relationship is emphasised in Mahmood’s work on feminist theory in Cairo expressing how "the desire for freedom and liberation is a historically situated desire whose motivational force cannot be assumed a priori, but needs to be reconsidered in light of other desires, aspirations and capacities that inhere in a culturally and historically located subject" (2001, 223). Liberal ideologies as associated with the 'west' become dominant through history and therefore assume that anything outside of this is wrong and even abusive. The body, self and moral agency are examples of phenomenon that all exist differently in different cultural-political settings, however the 'progressive narrative' often takes charge of how these should exist. 


Abu-Loghard calls for anthropologists to consider the “desires, motivations, commitments and aspirations of the people of whom these practices are important” (2001, 225). The marginalised voices that have been silenced in analysis of ‘race’ exposes the fundamental need for reflexivity in anthropology. In this sense, it is important to question how ethnographers associate with another societies’ ‘truth’. This expression of another cultures truth is processed and shared by anthropologists, with prior motives, preconceptions and pre-existing social narratives. Boylston asks, "what it actually means 'take seriously' the realities of others?" (2017, 400), which he asks in response to the Zege people he studies and their belief in 'buda'; a spirit that 'eats' people. While Boylston himself does not believe in buda and does not therefore believe he can become sick from it, he questions the challenges in differing ideas of 'truth' across different people. What he concludes from this way of thinking is that the major importance lies in finding out how these truths became real for people rather than why. This is an important distinction to make in fieldwork, as it allows more space to discover actualities of human life and a space to be reflexive on how your own reality may unintentionally shape another. 'How' this targets the discovery of social life, when a question like 'why' raises doubts about it. 


This essay has discussed the deep-rooted challenges in the analysis of ‘race’. It first broke down the way that concepts are created to reveal the limitations in language and the narratives told through preconceptions. This was then applied to the history of ‘race’ in anthropology as a study of the ‘primitive other’ or ‘savage’ told through this western, ‘white’ narrative, demonstrating how anything outside of this ‘universal’ was left without a voice. By understanding how concepts come to exist through the limitations of language and by preconceived narratives, we can start to bring to life how a concept is therefore analysed. The repercussions of this today include race being analysed with such caution. There is an apprehension analysing ‘race’ with massive regard to anthropology’s colonial history. The exposure of the need for reflexivity in anthropology therefore becomes readily apparent for the future of analysing ‘race’. 



Works Cited 

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1990. “Can There Be A Feminist Ethnography?”. Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory


Boylston, Tom 2015 From sickness to history: evil spirits, memory and responsibility in an Ethiopian market village” in Africa.


Das, Veena. 2020. ” Concepts Criss-Crossing. Anthropology and Knowledge-Making. In Textures of the Ordinary. Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein. New York: Fordham University Press.


Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Volume 14, Number 3, pp. 575-599.

Holbraad et al. 2018 What Is Analysis? Between Theory, Ethnography, and Method. Pp. 1-30 In Social Analysis Volume 62: Issue 1 


Lock, M. and Nguyen, V-K. ‘Introduction’ in An Anthropology of Biomedicine. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell. 2010. 


Mahmood, Saba 2001 Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology, 6, no. 2 (2001):202-236.


Trouillot, Michel 2003 Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness. In Global Transformations. London. Palgrave MacMillan.

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