Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Matter of Race

By Nasar Meer, Anoop Nayak and Raksha Pande

Ideas of race seem as salient today as they have ever been, even when we are not directly talking about issues of race. In our new themed section on The Matter of Race, and with contributions from Les Back, Paul Bagguley, Daniel Burdsey, Sarah Burton, Bridget Byrne, Yasmin Hussein and Maggie Tate, we show that because of the slippery fashion in which ideas of race have shifted, transmuted and pluralised, race continues to matter even if it is presented as non-race concern.  What we describe might be understood as a trend in new directions in racial formation.  As Paul Gilroy (2004: 111) accepted over a decade ago, ‘it is impossible to deny that we are living through a profound transformation in the way the idea of ‘race’ is understood and acted upon’. We can see this if we reflect for moment on how debates about the European Union and sovereignty proceed with a firm view of the ‘migrant’ in mind, or how debates about ‘British values’ quickly become entrenched in ethnic hierarchies, or indeed how race is more broadly translated into a mode of ‘resentment as 'a political idea'’ (Ware, 2008). Each of these moves a little beyond Atlantocentric (black-white) notions of race, something that is further illustrated in issue of Islamophobia, antisemitism and anti-Roma discourse.

In our themed section the papers by Daniel Burdsey, and Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussein respectively, take up this focus to span issues of representation and sport, and the ways in which ethnicities encounter crisis, diversity and re-composition in post-imperial settings. Burdsey focuses on a case study of England cricketer Moeen Ali in order to explore how race, religion and citizenship are configured in the sporting arena and made sense of in the wider popular press and national media. The implications are that we might ‘think differently about the relationship between sport, politics and the sporting hero, and to reconsider conventional analyses of agency, activism and the use of sport as a platform from which to “speak” in the public sphere’ (Burdsey, themed section).  Bagguley and Hussein meanwhile present an analysis of how people present and negotiate their ethnicity reflexively in relation to nation, citizenship and processes of racialization. Using qualitative interview study (N=140) on how different ethnic groups in West Yorkshire were affected the 7/7 London bombings, they show how these different forms of reflexivity – meta-reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, communicative reflexivity and fractured reflexivity – become operable amongst different ethnic groups. ‘The re-composition of ethnicised identity claims, and increased reflexivity of identity that this is demanding of people’, they maintain, ‘is seen to be rooted in the political and identity crises generated by Britain’s role in and response to the war on terror’. In their analysis these differentiated expressions are rooted in the specific politics and histories of migration and racialization in relation to dominant discourses of whiteness and the state.

In her contribution meanwhile, Bridget Byrne shows how campaigns around citizenship rights in Britain rely on the production of whiteness in a way that has profound implications for ideas of citizens and non-citizens in Britain, whilst also highlighting the need for a complex range of vocabularies to enable the analysis of different exclusions, not least through intersectional registers.  These different exclusions are, in her account, ‘clustered around these imaginations are notions of integration, language and love which rely on shared and interwoven assumptions about race, gender and religion as well as class and sexuality’ (Byrne, themed section).

These sets of argument may however encounter the charge that we are witnessing a ‘growing culture of racial equivalence’ (Song, 2014: 109).  In this view ‘the concept of racism has suffered from conceptual inflation, resulting in the declining utility of this important concept’ (ibid. 108).  While the recognition of racism’s plural character (and its many possible incarnations) is not unequivocally welcomed, it remains necessary if we are to capture the changing status of race concept over a longue durĂ©e, and grasp ‘what race does and what is done in the name of race’ (Murji and Solomos, 2-15: 276). 

The challenge for the discipline of Sociology is that race presents a paradox that sociologists constantly grapple with. Many tend to portray the term under erasure by presenting it in inverted commas so as to indicate that we are referring to a socially constructed category, based upon a problem­atic idea, instead of something that is self-evidently real in the world.  Even those who do not repeat this practice agree with the thrust of the argument. Perhaps the simplest way to frame this is to say that sociolo­gists tend to be interested in the dynamic and relational properties of race as both a his­torical idea and social category.  Yet is this insufficient?

Virdee (2012: 1144), for example, reminds us that sociol­ogy did not stand outside a racialised modernity that ‘endowed some Europeans with privilege along with the power to occupy the centre of world history, and shape it accord­ing to its own image’.  The objective of this complaint is not to devalue British sociology. On the contrary. it is to make the argument for sociology, for ‘self scrutiny rather than sheer defensiveness’ (McLennan, 2006: 97), to encourage ‘without guarantees’ (Hall, 1986) inquiry on the ways in which race and sociology are already deeply implicated.  Sociologies of race therefore require ‘being atten­tive to the specificities of the current situation but also historical linkages through time’ (Back, personal correspondence with authors). This means going beyond surface level reconstructions, and challenging sociologists to reflect on how their discipline is organ­ised across sociology departments, ‘just as sociologists have criticized other disciplines on these matters’ (Murji, 2007: 853). As Claire Alexander (2011) has put it:

I think that sociology has at best failed to engage these discourses and positions and at worse been complicit with them – within the academy, discussions of ‘race’ have largely fallen from the agenda, and there is very little work that deals with issues of racism explicitly.

Such an activity would include a ‘critique of sociology’s reformism and its neglect of the historical conditions in which sociological ideas about race and racism developed’ (Murji, 2007: 853). Each of these concerns has implications for the kinds of research and teaching programs sociology departments are currently promoting (and indeed ignor­ing).  In our themed section the interventions here from Sarah Burton, and Les Back and Maggie Tate respectively, are instructive. For Burton, a focus on the figure of the ‘white theory boy’, or ‘dead white man’ and his relationship to knowledge production, serves as a means to probe the pedagogy of social theory teaching in the UK.  In one classical social theory module, for example, she observes that of the 43 authors listed as ‘essential’ reading, 37 were white men and 6 were white women, and that ‘no authors of colour appeared on the ‘essential’ reading lists in this course’ (Burton, themed section). The trend in her account is generalizable and falls not only along lines of inclusion and exclusion into the ‘canon’, but in terms of thematic range, in as far as minority sociologists are restricted to what are deemed minority topics, rather than the story of sociology more broadly.  This inevitably reflects how the ‘privileging of white, male, Western, and middle-class identities are ingrained into the very fabric of sociology’s ontological foundations’ (ibid).  The task of rediscovering alternative histories in social theory is therefore ripe and persuasively developed in Back and Tate’s contribution, and which challenges us to consider what an account of race and the intellectual heralds for the wider sociological tradition.  They point in their paper to two overlapping issues. One maintains that the white sociological mainstream has historically ignored the contribution of black sociologists, and the other that the discussion of racism is demoted to a specialist sub-field.  Black sociologists by contrast, they argue, have long been attentive to a white sociology that has set the prevailing agenda. Through a detailed exposition of the writings of W.E.B Du Bois and Stuart Hall in particular, and their respective dialogues with figures like Max Weber and C Wright Mills, Back and Tate make an argument for reconstructing sociology at the levels both of analysis and of form – each of which changes the ways in which sociology can talk about racism. ‘What is at stake’, they maintain, ‘is the possibility of sociological reconstruction that produces an alternative understanding of what sociology can include, starting with augmented modes of telling and writing that attract a broader and more inclusive audience’ (Back and Tate, themed section).  Our themed section on the Matter of Race therefore brings together a set of original argument authored by scholars who try to explore some of the present and future oriented ways in which race matters, and help us to plot out new directions in racial formation.


Alexander C (2011) Sociology’s Jurisdiction: Sociology’s Identities and Futures for the Discipline. British Sociological Association address, 7 April

Gilroy, P. (2004) Between Camps. London: Routledge.

Hall S (1986) The problem of ideology – Marxism without guarantees. Journal of Communication Inquiry 10(2): 28–44.

McLennan G (2006) Sociological Cultural Studies. London: Palgrave.

Murji, K. and Solomos, J. (2o15) Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Cambridge: CUP.

Murji, K. (2007) ‘Sociological engagements: institutional racism and beyond’, Sociology, 41(5), 843-55.

Song, M. (2014) ‘Challenging a culture of racial equivalence’, British Journal of Sociology, 65 (1), 107-125

Virdee S (2012) Forward to the past: Race, the colour scale and Michael Banton. Ethnic and Racial Studies 35(7): 1143–50.

Ware, V. (2008) ‘Towards a Sociology of Resentment: A Debate on Class and Whiteness’, Sociological Research Online, 13 (5), <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/13/5/9.html> doi:10.5153/sro.1802



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