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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Racial Theories (second Edition)
Michael Banton

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
253pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 40.00/US$59.95; ISBN 0-521-62075-9. Pb.: 14.95/US$19.95; ISBN 0-521-62945-4.



This is the second edition of a major book, which first appeared in 1987, by one of the pioneer social scientists working in the field of ethnic and racial studies from the 1950s. It is essentially a historiography of racial theories put forward by intellectuals and academics, especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses upon the relationship between black and white people, particularly in Europe and its imperial possessions and in the United States. The author certainly does look at work about other ethnic relationships, particularly in the final chapter, but there are some significant omissions. For instance, Banton virtually ignores Jews and antisemitism, which is surprising in view of their centrality in European history. This points to the weakness of this book for historians, although this statement should be qualified in view of the fact that it deals quite effectively with some of the major nineteenth century racial theorists. Nevertheless, the book is written by a social scientist and will prove of most use to people working in sociology and political studies.

Banton's approach in his seven chapters is basically chronological. It may have been better if he had given them titles to indicate this. Instead, what he does is to give them headinqs such as 'Race Type' (Chapter 3), 'Race as Status' (5) and 'Race as Social Construct' (7) . The problem with this approach is that, because Banton essentially takes a chronological approach, some of the theories described within each chapter have little to do with the title.

Despite the above criticisms Banton's book remains perhaps the best historiography of racial and ethnic relations. Although he has avoided the Jews, the book is thorough and students can gain much from it, especially if they are working on black/white relationships. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way in which Banton demonstrates how scholarly opinion has moved away from accepting racial difference as real before the late nineteenth century, as he demonstrates in his second and third chapters ('Race as Lineage' and 'Race as Type' respectively), to demonstrating the way in which most social and political scientists in Britain and America during the nineteenth and twentieth century have Reconstructed race, especially those carrying out local empirical studies. However, this was not the case in Nazi Germany (which Banton ignores) where the state controlled all research for the purpose of justifying it murderous racial policies.


Panikos Panayi,
De Montfort University




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