The idea of ‘race’ is a problematic concept in various academic fields. In the discipline of Anthropology, the definition of this term carries much controversy. The concept of race that many people hold is in a sense, a social construct that changes amongst different cultures, one could look at different cultures to see racial definition as a cultural phenomenon in action (Kottak, 2000:139). King supports this idea that races are not established by a set of natural forces, rather they are products of human perception, “Both what constitutes a race and how one recognises a racial difference are culturally determined” (1981:156). Cashmore provides a brief definition of race as “a group of persons connected by common origin” (1988:235). However, Cashmore goes on to argue that the terminology of race has been used to reflect changes in the understanding of physical and cultural differences (1988:235). Cornell and Hartman argue the characteristics that constitute a definition for the concept of race are complex. The authors claim that race can be categorised in social and physical terms. Race is a “human group defined by itself or others as distinct by virtue of perceived common physical characteristics that are held to be inherent… a group of human beings socially defined on the basis of physical characteristics” (1988:24). The concept of race and the meanings associated with the term have continuously changed and evolved throughout history. Many negative connotations have been associated with the word race and these are evident as one reflects on the historical origins of the term.
Commonly the term race is closely connected to the notion of ‘racism.’ Racism is a specific form of prejudice which focuses on physical variations between people. It describes the ideological belief that a person, or groups of people can be classified into ‘races’ which can be ranked in terms of superiority and inferiority (Spoonley, 1988:4). Giddens defines racism as “the attribution of characteristics of superiority or inferiority to a population sharing certain physically inherited characteristics” (1997:584). This supports the idea that racism is a manner of prejudice or animosity against people who have different physical characteristics. It is in virtue of circumstances such as these that Anthropologists find it necessary to make a distinction between the concepts of race and ethnicity.
In contrast to the idea of race, Ethnicity refers to ethnic affiliation, or the “cultural practices and outlooks of a given community of people that set them apart from others” (Giddens, 1997:210). Members of a particular ethnic group see themselves as culturally distinct from other groups of people in a society or culture. There are different characteristics which serve as a way of distinguishing ethnic groups apart from others, which may include language, history or ancestry (Giddens, 1997:210).
Ethnicity is essentially an identity that reflects the cultural experiences and feelings of a particular group. According to Spoonley (1993), an ethnic group can be recognised if they incorporate common characteristics such as a real or supposed common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, a distinctive shared culture, a collective name, a sense of solidarity and an association with a specific territory. Isaacs supports the idea of ethnic affiliation by referring to ethnic identity as ‘basic group identity.’ This, he wrote, “consists of the ready-made set of endowments and identifications that every individual shares with others from the moment of birth by the chance of the family into which he is born at that given time in that given place” (1975:38). Exemplified by the previous theorists, Ethnicity can be understood then as a group of people united by shared experiences, beliefs and values. Similar to the notion of Race, Ethnicity can be problematic also. As a result of enculturation, some people lose or assimilate their ethnicity.
Such circumstances can be illustrated when examining New Zealand society. Early European settlers to New Zealand inhabited the land of Maori and thus Maori witnessed a new culture develop in Aotearoa. The European culture was embraced by the Maori and hence too, was the Maori culture by the European as a result of colonisation. This shows how cultures can merge and how others can learn the behaviours of another culture within their own. The concept of ethnicity acknowledges that individuals may have a primary culture that is distinctive to a particular ethnic group, but does not exclude the possibility that individuals within that group have the capacity to learn cultural behaviours of other groups.
The notion of Culture is regarded by Anthropologists as the most central concept within the discipline. Culture is one of the most distinctive properties of human social interaction. The idea of culture refers to the ways of life of members of a society or groups within a society, which incorporates similar sets of beliefs, values and practices which define that group’s identity. It can include such things as the way people dress, patterns of work, kinship and marriage customs and religious ceremonies (Giddens, 1997:18).
The concept of ethnicity plays a crucial role in understanding the construct of culture. As Erikson attempts to explain, “… ethnicity is frequently most important in contexts where groups are culturally close…” (1995:250). It can be concluded that culture is essentially a subjective and objective expression of a person or group which represents the encompassing aspects of a peoples lives.
As illustrated, the use of the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ is varied. The two terms are often misconstrued as if they have identical meaning. The term ‘race’ is based on the thought of biological and physical differences. According to Robb, “the concept of ‘race’ included any… groups of people which held them to display inherent, heritable, persistent or predictive characteristics, and which thus had a biological or quasi-biological basis” (1995:1). In the study of race, particularly during the late part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, groups of people were classified on the basis of different phenotypical characteristics determined by physical attributes such as skin pigmentation, cranial capacity and hair type or colour (Miles, 1993:59). Hannaford (1996) refutes the idea that race is a biological concept, “We assume that the racial and ethnic diversity we see all around us has always existed as a historical, social, and biological fact that needs no further interrogation” (p3). He argues that race is not a “biological transmission of innate qualities” (1996:3). Diamond supports the argument presented by Hannaford, Diamond deconstructs the concept of race and contends that “from a biological standpoint, the concept of race based on skin colour is scientifically useless…it is a cultural category, not a biological one” (1994:124).
Distinguished from the concept of race, ethnicity is a culturally derived term. Deng defined ethnicity as an “embodiment of values, institutions, and patterns of behaviour, a composite whole representing a people’s historic experience, aspirations, and worldview” (1997:28). Aside from social constructs, ethnicity is innately more central to human experience and identity than race.
In the New Zealand context, issues of race and ethnicity dominate the political and social arena. Politically, the discourse of ethnic relations between Pakeha and Maori is of particular interest to Anthropologists. The political voting scheme differs according to a persons ethnic identity in New Zealand. If a person is of Maori ethnicity, one has the option to cast a vote for a preferred Maori politician to represent them (Butcher, 2003:37). Pakeha are not entitled to enrol under this same voting scheme. A New Zealander can claim ethnic identity to Maori, so long as they can provide proof of Maori descent, however distant that may be. This type of practice emulates the importance of distinguishing between race and ethnicity. Particular people who are enrolled as a Maori voter may have no physically identifiable characteristics of a ‘typical’ Maori person, yet they have ethnic identity the Maori ‘race’ (Butcher, 2003:37). This signifies the problems associated with the concept of race, as race does not counter common cultural values or identity as ethnicity does. Rather, race is concerned with the physical attributes of a person.
Anthropologists have discredited race as a focal biological concept, however race has remained as an important social concept because of historical patterns of interpersonal and institutional discrimination associated with racism. Anthropologists now recognise that ‘race’ is exclusively a socially constructed categorisation, which specifies rules for identification of a given group. Many theorists reject to use of the term race except in inverted commas to distance the word from its historical and biological connotations. It is evident amongst most Anthropologists and associated literature that it is preferable to refer to ethnicity rather than race (Giddens, 1997:212). This essay has explored the importance of distinguishing between these two terms successfully, by maintaining that ethnicity refers to the cultural values and norms of a particular group which are distinct from others. The most profound conclusion on the concept of race is the argument that the term is not a biologically innate fixture. Despite the discredited nature of the concept of ‘race’, the idea stills “exerts a powerful influence in everyday language and ideology”. (Jary & Jary, 2000: pp503-4) This disputes the assumption that racial divisions reflect fundamental genetic differences.