The Construction of Ethnicity and Race
In this essay, I will discuss the constructionist approach to ethnic and racial identities, and why it is necessary to adequately and comprehensively understand them.
The formation of ethnic and racial group identity is not a static process. As Cornell and Hartmann states, “there is nothing absolute about the process or the end product”1. The constructionist approach “focuses on the ways ethnic and racial identities are built, rebuilt, and sometimes dismantled over time”2, placing “interactions between circumstances and groups at the heart of these processes.”3
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According to Cornell and Hartmann, constructionism accepts and builds upon the central tenants of circumstantialism. In “A Constructionist Approach (2007)” the authors employ the concept of comprehensiveness to assess the role a racial or ethnical identity has in organizing the lives of individuals and of groups, relative to their situation. Cornell and Hartmann identify a racial or ethnical identity as comprehensive, or “thick”, and less comprehensive, or “thin”, depending on the degree to which a racial/ethnical identity organizes social life, and both individual and collective action.4 In “The Organization of Ethnicity (1977)”, Handelman similiarly discusses this concept in terms of what he describes as an identities “lateral” or “hierarchical” categorical membership.
Constructionalism addresses one of the flaws of the circumstantialist approach; namely, that group identity and interests are determined chiefly by external forces and conditions. Constructionism, on the other hand, returns agency to the racial and ethnical actors, and grants insight into the extent to which racial and ethnical identities are asserted or assigned at a given period of time.
Constructionalism also asserts that the construction of racial and ethnical identity involves the marking of boundaries and the assignment of meaning. Regardless of whether an...