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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Rethinking Ethnicity
Richard Jenkins

(London: Sage, 1997)
194pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 0-8039-7677-1.
Pb.: 0-8039-7678-X 13.99.


This book is a wide-ranging theoretical treatise which draws upon sociological and anthropological thinking in an attempt to provide a general analytical framework for understanding ethnic, racial and national sentiment. It is to Richard Jenkins' considerable credit that in many respects he has succeeded in this difficult task, producing a book which will be useful not only as a teaching text but also as a marker for current academic thinking in the field.

There are, to my mind, two particularly attractive features of the book. The first is Jenkins' careful attempt to delineate ethnicity as an object of analytical attention without, as is often the case, hastily relegating it as epiphenomenal to some other set of 'real' underlying processes, while at the same time refusing to reify it as a sui generis phenomenon beyond the purview of critical analysis. The second is his use of illustrative material from three places - Denmark, Wales and, particularly, Northern Ireland - which helps to bridge the gap between the grand abstractions of much theoretical debate and more empirically grounded approaches.

Jenkins' primary intellectual debt is to Fredrik Barth, and in many ways his book aims to show how the intellectual programme Barth first set out in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries can, with judicious modification, continue to bear fruit. Barth's focus on the symbolic work that goes into creating ethnic boundaries is used to theorise the otherwise disparate ways in which particular kinds of ethnic, racial and national claims are mounted, together with their consequent implications for identity, group formation and conflict. In this respect, Jenkins offers some nuanced theoretical reflections on national identity, using both historical and contemporary material concerning the conflicts in Northern Ireland.

Having praised Jenkins for an adventurous approach to both theoretical and empirical matters, it is perhaps churlish to criticise him for not being adventurous enough. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the book has certain limitations. The ambitiously general approach necessarily cuts the specificity of particular situations into rather gentle curves, which might invite charges from the more empirically-minded that his examples are not detailed enough and from the more theoretically-minded that he sometimes skirts close to an essentialism of 'group identity' whose dangers he, more than most, sets out to avoid. While contemporary debates about social science epistemology are discussed in a refreshingly open-minded way, their more radical implications for the kind of claim Jenkins mounts to represent and explain ethnic conflict are arguably given insufficient attention. But none of this detracts from the solidity of Jenkins' achievment in producing a well written text which - drawing as it does upon his previous contributions to the field - has the aura of a well-worked out theoretical position.


Chris Smaje, University of Surrey



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