Tag Archives: Political science

THE ETHNIC PHENOMENON – Pierre L. Van den Berghe (1981)

The Ethnic Phenomenon

This is a tricky book to review, as it has such a thorny subject: race and ethnicity. It’s also a fairly old text, first published in 1981. Social sciences certainly gained more data since, yet dismissing this book as outdated would be a huge fallacy.

On top of its subject & age, Pierre L. Van den Berghe takes a sociobiological approach – possibly prompting fears of social Darwinism and the likes. That fear is unwarranted, as The Ethnic Phenomenon is a clear and loud refutation of any attempt at instigating hierarchies or other forms of power based on race and ethnicity.

To make it even more messy, Van den Berghe admittedly writes in a Marxist tradition, but not without offering critique on orthodox Marxism. More importantly – this needs to be stressed – Marxist thought is not the core of this book at all, and is hardly used to support his main arguments – if at all.

Still, The Ethnic Phenomenon is – given the nature of the overall subject – clearly a political book too, and it could not have been otherwise. It speaks for Van den Berghe that he is upfront about his ideological framework. His arguments & reasoning is always clearly spelled out to the reader, who can judge the merit of his thinking case by case. It would be outright stupid to dismiss the entire book just because it is writing by a leftist social scientist – I can imagine people of any political leaning agreeing to lots of what he says, as he generally makes a strong, nuanced case.

Just to get it out of the way: Van den Berghe is unambiguous about the fact that ‘race’ as a workable biological category, or a category to use for social attributions, simply does not exist. Nevertheless, there “is no denying the reality of genetic differences in frequencies (not absolutes) of alleles between human groups.” If you get worked up because of facts like that, this book is not for you.

Before I get to the actual discussion of its 301 pages, let me first say this: The Ethnic Phenomenon is a truly first-rate piece of scholarship, setting the paradigm for the thinking about this topic. It is thorough, honest and courageous, attempting to bring some clarity in a highly emotional debate. This is not an ethics treatise, but a scientific study, including 24 pages of bibliography and a 10-page index.

At the same time, the book wants “to exorcise ethnicity by trying to understand it”. This is an important book, a landmark, absolutely mandatory for everybody that seriously studies the history and the contemporary effects of colonialism, racism, nationalism and ethnicity.

First I’ll try to give the gist of Van den Berghe’s thinking. Afterwards I’ll zoom in on some tidbits I found interesting, and I’ll end with a few critical notes.

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WHAT KIND OF CREATURES ARE WE? – Noam Chomsky (2016)

What kind of creatures are weI’m always puzzled when I read statements like Howard Gardner’s “Noam Chomsky is arguably the most influential thinker of our time”, or the Observer’s “[Chomsky is t]he world’s greatest public intellectual”. He may indeed be the “most prominent critic of imperialism”, as the Guardian put it. But if you look at the real world effect Chomsky has, his influence seems meager and pathetic: the Western world is still heavily involved in warfare in the Middle East, and the inequality gap has been widening since the 1980s, and still very much is – both within the Western world, as globally.

Chomsky’s powerful critique of the current crises our world faces is even published by a mainstream company as Penguin Books (like the excellent 2013 Power Systems, or 2011’s Making The Future), yet not a lot seems to change for the better.

There’s a very big rift between what some intellectuals and activists think and read, and their ability to influence policy. The existence of a ‘real’ democracy worthy of that name is an illusion, as The New York Times recently reported – a fact that Chomsky also points out in What Kind of Creatures Are We?, using different data from a different study. Nicholas Kristof wrote the following on January 22nd, 2016:

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University found that in policy-making, views of ordinary citizens essentially don’t matter. They examined 1,779 policy issues and found that attitudes of wealthy people and of business groups mattered a great deal to the final outcome — but that preferences of average citizens were almost irrelevant.  (www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/…)

But I digress…

What Kind of Creatures Are We? is marketed by Columbia University Press as a kind of summary of Chomsky’s work, spanning over half a century. Chomsky first gained worldwide respect as a linguist, publishing groundbreaking work on the innateness of language and universal grammar, but has been a scholar and a vocal critic of imperialism and capitalism from the onset too. I know of no other thinker with such a broad and erudite knowledge.

This book is divided in 4 parts: What is language?, What can we understand?, What is the common good? and The mysteries of nature: How deeply hidden? It has 127 pages of actual text, and – indicative of Chomsky’s wide-ranging research – 15 pages of reference notes, plus an index of 20 pages. Although the third part deals with politics – there is little new to be found here for the reader familiar with the political Chomsky, with a slight emphasis on John Dewey this time – the book is mainly an epistemological work, tracing its origins to the advent of modern science. Newton, Hume and Locke are featured a lot. Really, a lot. There are 39 references to Newton in the index. That’s roughly one mention on every third page.

I found the first 3 parts very interesting, and at times even thought-provoking. I don’t claim to have understood everything, let alone to be able to formulate critique on what Chomsky wrote. It is not light, easy reading, although I must say most is indeed written in “clear, precise and nontechnical language”, as promised on the dust jacket. The latter half of part 4 was a bit too much for me, as I had reached my saturation point, and things became a bit too dense.  Continue reading