chapter  1
28 Pages

Introduction: historical and contemporary perspectives on race, science and medicine

ByWaltraud Ernst

During the last two decades the study of race and ethnicity as an important

independent academic specialism has become well established within a range of

social science disciplines such as sociology, political sciences, anthropology, cultural

studies and geography.1 This ‘explosion of academic interest in the subject of

race’2 does, however, not suggest an agreement on the conceptualisations most

adequate to explain the category of race. On the contrary, among academics the

Traditionally most historians have been careful to distance themselves from the

moral and political implications of biological definitions of race; they have referred

to it as a given (albeit characteristic and problematic) preoccupation of certain

periods during the last two centuries. The interactions of particular colonial and

migrant communities were conceived of as mere manifestations of the frictions of

cultural contact. Racial attitudes and behaviours came to be viewed as but constitutive

elements of particular groups’ traditions and folklore, of the same order as ethnic

idiosyncrasies, national costumes, food preferences and other cultural practices.