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Discuss the relationship between ethnicity and naturalism.

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Introduction

Discuss the relationship between ethnicity and naturalism. 'Naturalism', the attempt to explain social phenomena by reference to 'natural' causes, themselves seen as empirically self-evident, is a trend which assumes a wider significance in proportion to the prevailing level of pessimism in society about the human potential to transcend and dominate nature. 'Naturalism' underwent a qualitative transformation with Social Darwinism, a monist trend which appropriated the positivist rationality of nineteenth century scientific progress and gave it a political content in the service of anti-democratic reaction. To do this it had increasingly to abandon any 'scientific' logic to its advocacy of elitism, and instead promote a mystical assertion of the historical inevitability of inequality. This abandonment of any hard faith in the scientifically calculable basis for denying democratic rights to one portion of humanity came at a fairly early stage. Lukacs shows the parallel logic which on the one hand sought to prove that "Inequality is . . the natural condition, equality is unnatural and impossible"1, whilst on the other hand simultaneously recognising the futility of proving this scientifically. Thus, from Gumplowicz, who admitted in 1883 that with regards The Racial Struggle (the title of his famous book of the time) "everything is arbitrary, subjective appearance and opinion", through to Hitler, who said "I know very well . . that there is no such thing as a race in the scientific sense"2, there is little faith in the scientific justification for inequality. ...read more.

Middle

Somewhere in the middle are figures like Gellner and Hobsbawm, coming from different positions, but both alighting at the sphere of 'culture', always a fertile field from which to burrow into the mind of the 'masses'. Hobsbawm's essay is most revealing4. 'Ethnicity' is clearly a term he is uncomfortable with, and at every opportunity he seeks to qualify his support by adding the rejoinder, ". . whatever it may be". He is more certain however to state that it is not a political concept, and therefore, unlike nationalism which "belongs with political theory", ethnicity belongs "with sociology or social anthropology". At no point can he clearly state what makes an ethnic group, only that it defines itself against 'the other' - "how do men and women know that they belong to this community ? Because they can define the others who do not belong, who should not belong, who can never belong. In other words by xenophobia". This he concludes after having made the observation that he has found Eugene Roosen's book Creating Ethnicity "particularly helpful", and from which he approvingly quotes the following; "After all, nobody can change 'the past' from which one descends, and nobody can undo what one is" ! Then, to confuse matters further still, Hobsbawm adds the patronising addendum to Roosens fatalism, that, "Well, of course you can change, or at least invent a past - but they don't know it". This hall of mirrors, in which 'they', the 'ethnics', are trapped in a mythical past, expressing their group identity at the expense of 'the other', allows Hobsbawm to conclude that "xenophobia looks like becoming the mass ideology of the 20th century fin de si�cle". ...read more.

Conclusion

'Ethnicity', as operationalised by theorists such as Gellner and Hobsbawm, implies precisely this line of causality, which is why they embrace an anthropological perspective and reject 'politics'. 'Ethnicity' though is a profoundly political concept, that is applied to the poor and the marginalised, not the Peerage or the propertied elite, and implicitly contrasts the narrow, atavistic concerns of ethnicity to a broader, more modern liberalism of the major powers. As such it is very much a concept of the nineties, which on the one hand reflects the sense of disarray and drift across the globe, whilst on the other hand seeking to instil some order in an otherwise chaotic vista, by distinguishing between 'us' and 'them'. The quest for a credible mechanism by which inequality is excused will always be irrational, but this, in the absence of anything better, will not be a barrier to its articulation. sbowler@onetel.net.uk 1 Lukacs,G. 1980 The Destruction of Reason , quoting Ratzenhofer p.690. Lukacs says that "Gumplowicz was the typical trend-setting representative of Social Darwinism in the German speaking realm. He - and, even more markedly, his pupil Ratzenhofer - proceeded from the absolute identity of and lack of qualitative distinction between natural and social processes", p.687. 2 ibid., p.722 3 15th Edition, Vol.3, p980. 4 Hobsbawm,E. 1992 Ethnicity and nationalism in Europe today in Anthropology Today Vol. 8:1, pp.3-13 5 Gellner,E. 1993 What do we need now ? Social anthropology and its new global context in Times Literary Supplement July 16th, pp.3-4 2 ...read more.

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