Racial Theories

Michael Banton

Cambridge University Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999 http://dannyreviews.com/
In Racial Theories Michael Banton presents a broad historical and typological overview of academic theories of race (he doesn't cover popular conceptions). He also touches on topics such as ethnicity and discrimination, and suggests his own ideas. The overall result is perhaps a little unfocused: the typological classification scheme seems artificial in places and some odd topics receive detailed attention (presumably reflecting Banton's own special interests). But anyone interested in the subject will find plenty in Racial Theories.

Banton begins with some general terminological issues, such as differences between folk and analytical terms and alternatives to "race". In "Race as Lineage" he then covers early modern concepts of race, based on the creation stories in Genesis and then on the work of naturalists such as Linnaeus and the German naturphilosophie school. Cuvier's confusion of lineage and variety provides a bridge to "Race as Type", where Banton sketches the theories of writers such as Morton and Nott in the United States, Gobineau in France, Smith and Knox in Britain, and Vogt in Germany.

Darwinian population thinking and the rejection of essentialism took some time to influence racial theories. "Race as Subspecies" describes early applications in the theories of Beddoe and Sumner, Park's social ecology, and some general issues with reductionist explanations. It was not till the modern evolutionary synthesis brought a more sophisticated understanding of human genetic variation that the need for a biological concept of race disappeared entirely.

Under the rubric "Race as Status", Banton lumps together a range of material: race relations in the southern United States in the first half of the century, comparative studies from Brazil and Hawaii, Dollard's Freudian theory, caste and class connections, "micro" or bottom-up approaches, and connections with theories of discrimination and concepts of ethnicity. In "Race as Class", Marxist theorist Cox takes centre stage, along with Bonacich's adaptations of his approach for black-white relations in South Africa. Also included here is an attack on the folk concept of race in social science and on postmodern "social rhetoric".

The final chapter presents Banton's own ideas on how to build a "bottom up" theory of race. He argues that race should be considered a social construct within broader theories of group and category construction: socialisation, individual choice, political mobilisation, ethnicity, and nationalism. And he suggests that race will eventually be replaced as a social concept in the same kind of way it was made redundant as a biological one.

February 1999

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Related reviews:
- Michael Banton - Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion
- more anthropology
- more history of ideas
- more sociology
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T Racial Theories
%A Banton, Michael
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, 2nd edition, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521629454
%P x,253pp