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Egenis · Events

Public lecture by Dr Staffan Müller-Wille, 'The concept of race'

Public event   15.11.2011






Dr Staffan Müller-Wille , Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Medical History and at Egenis, University of Exeter

Organised by

Egenis and the Centre for Medical History.


Room B106 Amory

University of Exeter, Streatham Campus

Time: 4.00-5.30pm.

Event details

The historiography of race is usually framed by two discontinuities: The invention of race by European naturalists and anthropologists, marked Carl Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735); and the demise of racial typologies after WWII in favour of population-based studies of human diversity. This historical framing serves a similar function as the quotation marks that almost invariably surround the term. “Race” is cast outside rational discourse as a residue of outdated essentialist and hierarchical thinking. I will throw doubt on this underlying assumption, not in order to legitimise racialism, but in order to understand better why race has been, and continues to be, such a politically explosive concept. The points I want to make are four:

1 (Colours): Race concepts never relied on the fiction that human diversity could exhaustively and unambiguously classified with reference to characters like skin colour. What early racial classifications provided was an abstract, universal grid with the help of which human diversity, and the place of Europeans within it, could be described in the first place.

2 (Numbers): Statistical studies of the distribution of racial traits in the nineteenth and twentieth century did not invariably lead to a reification of social and political differences. More often than not, they resulted in a subversion of received views of ethnic and national belonging – a process which may be called “fractionation”, in analogy to the chemical process whereby the constituents of complex chemical mixtures are separated.

3 (Lines): The overriding criterion for racial affiliation has always been genealogical descent. Race is not a static, but a historical concept, with plurality, miscegenation and conflict forming its essential ingredients. This is why racist thinking usually does not call for a return to nature, but for technologies of elimination and purification designed to counteract the spontaneity of nature.

4 (Values): The historicity of race concepts implies their political significance. Racial hierarchies tend to reflect geopolitical constellations in an often overt and palpable manner. In this, attention needs to be given not only to the function of race in legitimizing suppression, exploitation, and exclusion, but in underwriting demands for human rights of self-determination and freedom of expression as well.

Rethinking race along these lines – partly drawing on important work by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault – is especially important in the European context. Most European nation states have a history of conceiving of their populations, their territories, and their history, in terms of race. This history will remain poorly understood if one continues to see race as an objective, rather than a reflective category.

Further details