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2.5: Ethnic Categories

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    As we noted in Section 1, the names and labels used to denote specific differences – including those relating to ethnicity – are always changing. For example, the term ‘mixed background’ was first introduced in the 2001 census; also, different categories were used in the Northern Ireland census. So ethnic identities say something about how society categorises people, not about unchanging facts ‘out there’. You may also have noticed that the categories in the list refer to different things: some are about skin colour, while others refer to national or geographical origins. Then again, the list does not include some categories that people might regard as ethnicities, or might have been regarded as ethnicities in the past. One example is Jewishness, which might have been included when anti-Semitism was perceived to be the main ‘racial’ issue in the UK.

    How useful is ‘ethnicity’ in understanding people’s experience of care services, and specifically their interactions and relationships within them? Several writers on ‘race’ and social policy have criticised the ways in which ethnicity has been used to account for people's needs, a process that the writer Avtar Brah terms ‘ethnicism’:

    Ethnicism, I would suggest, defines the experience of racialized groups primarily in ‘culturalist’ terms: that is, it posits ‘ethnic difference’ as the primary modality around which social life is constituted and experienced. Cultural needs are defined largely as independent of other social experiences centred around class, gender, racism or sexuality. This means that a group identified as culturally different is assumed to be internally homogeneous … -Brah, 1992, p. 129

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    Brah makes two important points here. One is that defining people in terms of their ethnicity reduces them to one aspect of their identity, and overlooks needs that may derive from other aspects. Secondly, the process tends to assume that all members of a particular ‘ethnic’ group have similar needs. Brah also suggests that explaining people’s experience in this way overlooks the experience of racism, a point that is also made by health researcher and writer Waqar Ahmad:

    A major issue in the racialization of health research is that it is assumed that the populations can be meaningfully divided into ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ groups, taking these as primary categories and using these categories for explanatory purposes. Stratification by class, income and so on is then seen as unimportant; issues of institutional and individual racism as determinants of health status or healthcare become peripheral at best. -Ahmad, 1993, p. 19, quoted in Kelleher, 1996, p. 72

    Elsewhere, Ahmad echoes Brah’s concern when he argues that too rigid a conception of ethnicity or culture ‘provides a description of people which emphasises their “cultural” difference and helps to obscure the similarities between broadly defined cultural groups and the diversity within a cultural group’ (Ahmad, 1996, p. 190).

    Does this mean that terms such as ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’ have no value in helping to account for people’s experience of using or working in care services? While acknowledging the reservations expressed by Brah and Ahmad, David Kelleher, a health researcher and medical sociologist, defends the use of these terms in some contexts, specifically referring to the experience of people of Bangladeshi origin in the UK:

    Being regarded as different may lead to people becoming more aware of their ethnicity and cultural identity. Recognising their difference and turning it into a source of strength is one reason why people may emphasise cultural differences in terms of what they eat and how they dress, and this may lead them to maintaining an allegiance to the religion of their group and to become even more aware of what it is to be a Muslim than are the people in Bangladesh. This is one of the paths which some young, second-generation Bangladeshi people are taking. So, while for some their religion has become the most important structure of relevance in their lives, for others a more important focus for their life may be being a student, or a businessman or a doctor. -Kelleher, 1996, p. 81

    So ethnic identity may assume greater or less importance in people’s lives depending on their experience of racism or other factors. Kelleher’s argument reinforces Hall’s suggestion, noted in Section 3, that identity, whether on the basis of ethnicity, gender or other factors, should be seen as a dynamic and active process of identification, rather than a reflection of some fixed or innate ‘character’. By seeing ethnic identity as, in some instances, a response to the experience of racism, Kelleher suggests that ethnic difference can be a product of ‘racialisation’, rather than its cause. Next we move on to discuss the ways in which fixed ideas of ethnic difference can be used to disadvantage and discriminate against some groups in the population.

    Key points

    1. The idea that the human population can be divided into separate ‘races’ with significant innate differences has been discredited, but elements of ‘racial’ thinking persist.
    2. ‘Ethnicity’ is used to refer to the shared origins, values and traditions of particular groups. Although ethnic identity can have a value for people in certain circumstances, a rigid idea of ethnicity can be used to define people as ‘other’ and to overlook diversity within groups and similarities between groups.

    This page titled 2.5: Ethnic Categories is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenLearn Diversity & Difference in Communication.

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