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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Ethnicity and Race
Stephen Cornell & Douglas Hartmann

(Thousand Oaks, CA.: Pine Forge Press, 1998)
282pp. Index. Bibl. Pb.: 22.00; ISBN 0-7619-8501-8.



This book is part of the 'Sociology for a New Century' collection, a series of textbooks for students which aims to take an international and historical focus on issues of both sociological and political importance. It is a very clearly written text which succeeds in this goal, and will be of undoubted use as a resource for courses in the sociology of race and ethnicity. Its authors possess a gift for illustrating complex theoretical ideas through the use of specific examples grounded in everyday events. Together with good coverage of notorious recent ethnic conflicts such as those witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the former Soviet Union - along with the treatment of more familiar places such as the USA and South Africa - this gives the book a topical and no nonsense feel which will appeal to students attempting to grapple with these difficult topics. Theoretical chapters at the start of the book attempt to interpolate between 'primordialism' and 'circumstantialism', an antinomy now so patently threadbare that even to organise a book around an attempt to transcend it is beginning to look somewhat dated. Nevertheless, the authors' constructivist position addresses interestingly the salience of specific socio-political and economic factors to the emergence of ethnic identity claims, while taking seriously the motive power of those claims as irreducible historical precipitates. The book concludes with a brief but well-specified discussion of recent debates about the implications of globalisation and 'multiethnicity' for more traditional sociological approaches to race, ethnicity and nationalism.

In their preface, the authors criticise the parochialism of US scholarship on ethnicity and state their intention to "bring in as much of the rest of the world as possible, and thereby...to enrich our understanding of ethnicity and race everywhere" (p.xvi). In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the book remains very much a USA-centred text. Although the authors are properly wary of traditional frameworks, the case material from the rest of the world is organised rather too systematically in terms of that country's distinctive preoccupation with collective ethnic assertion. More generally - and despite the many positive features mentioned above - I came away from the book feeling that it provided a disappointingly shallow theoretical grasp of its topic. This is perhaps less a reflection on the authors than upon a broader tendency in social science merely to substitute the claims advanced in ethnic ideologies of their own self-evidence for a belief in the self-evidence of analytical concepts like class, status and social capital, without appreciating the deep historical identities between the two. Nevertheless, there are currents in contemporary sociological theory and in adjunct disciplines such as anthropology and cultural studies which have a lot to say on these points and which the authors of this book barely broach. It is weakened by this omission.


Chris Smaje, University of Surrey



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