chapter  1
9 Pages

Accounting for ethnic and racial diversity: the challenge of enumeration

ByPatrick Simon, Victor Piché

Collecting ethnic and racial data is a contentious issue in a large number of countries around the world. The answer to the question ‘Should we count?’ involves two dimensions: an ethical issue and a pragmatic policy-making one. For decades, ethnic and racial classifications have been conceived and used to segregate, build hierarchies and nurture racial and ethnic stratifications and inequalities. The rationale behind collecting ethnic and racial data has dramatically changed; the purpose and meanings of data have shifted, even when the data look the same (Hacking 2005). Societies where such data have been collected for decades no longer have to justify their processes; those who do not have this tradition are facing the challenge of explaining to the general public the rationale behind such statistics. Does distinguishing and characterizing populations according to their ethnic origins constitute a risk of stigmatization or is it, on the contrary, an asset for measuring and explaining discrimination and for demanding more inclusive policies? The use of ethnic categories is not without problems, and a growing

literature discusses the issue of the social and political significance of such categories (Aspinall 2007). Socially constructed, culturally shaped, biologically determined, and genetically designed: the definitions of race and ethnicity as concepts and categories are far from being stable and shared among scientists, policy makers, public opinion and statisticians (Wimmer 2008; Brady and Kaplan 2009; Morning 2011). The linkages between political framings and the statistical categories that support them can be observed in every society (Nobles 2000). Population statistics not only aim at producing knowledge of demographic dynamics, they provide a benchmark for policies and contribute to the (re)production of national identity (Alonso and Starr 1987; Anderson 1991; Desrosie`res 1993). Official (and scientific) statistical categorizations both reflect and affect the structural divisions of societies, as well as mainstream social representations. As conventions, they offer arbitrary definitions of the social objects they are intended to describe, but these definitions ensue from

historical, social and political processes of negotiation between public authorities and social forces. In this respect, censuses are a strategic place in which views on race and ethnicity are confronted by official statistics (Omi 1997). In this sense, censuses do more than reflect social realities; they also participate in the construction of these realities (Kertzer and Arel 2002). The dissemination of ethnic and racial categories in public debate,

policies, scientific research and statistics has sometimes been understood as one of the consequences of American imperialism. As Bourdieu and Wacquant suggest in their criticism of the hegemony of the conceptual toolkit of ‘race’, forged, they say, in the US: ‘the recent as well as unexpected discovery of the ‘‘globalization of race’’ results, not from a sudden convergence of forms of ethnoracial domination in the various countries, but from the quasi-universalization of the US folk-concept of ‘‘race’’ as a result of the worldwide export of US scholarly categories’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999, p. 48). This argument had already been developed by Wacquant in his paper entitled ‘For an analytic of racial discrimination’, published in 1997. The key issue, as pointed to by some of the very critical responses to Bourdieu and Wacquant’s essay published later on,2 is whether the expansion of ethnic and racial studies in the social science arena in most countries of the world is a pure artefact determined by the domination of the US academic field and institutions over the rest of the world, or whether it reflects the rise of similar social realities in multicultural countries.3