Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics

By Kanchan Chandra | Go to book overview

3
Attributes and Categories
A New Conceptual Vocabulary for Thinking about
Ethnic Identity

KANCHAN CHANDRA

This chapter introduces a new conceptual vocabulary for thinking about ethnic identities as defined previously. The vocabulary is built on a conceptualization of the term “identity” simply as a category, and a distinction between categories and the attributes necessary for membership in them. The conceptualization of “identities” as “categories,” is not new. A number of influential works in the study of ethnic identities also employ a categorical approach to identity (see for instance Barth 1969, Tajfel 1981, Laitin 1998, Brubaker 2004). The principal innovation here is the introduction of a systematic distinction between categories and attributes. This distinction is the building block for the arguments about ethnic identity introduced in this book.

In previous work, the term “identity” has often been used interchangeably for an “attribute” that signifies membership in a category but does not constitute it (e.g., dark skin), the “category” itself (e.g., African American), an “attribute-dimension,” consisting of a “family” of attribute-values (e.g., the dimension of skin color, on which values might include “dark” and “light”), or a “category-dimension” consisting of a “family” of categories (e.g., the dimension of race in the United States, which has the categories of “Black,” “White,” and so on arrayed on it). This chapter shows why and how attributes and categories—and therefore attribute-dimensions and category-dimensions— are conceptually distinct, as well as the stakes attached to this distinction.

The reader will encounter many conceptual distinctions in this chapter in addition to this principal one. The value of these distinctions lies in the claims we are able to make, and the questions we are able to ask when we employ them. Blunt concepts for thinking about ethnic identities produce blunt questions and blunt answers. The more precise and complex concepts introduced here produce more precise and complex questions and more illuminating answers. These

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