Monitoring Ethnic Monitoring


By: Sharon Walker

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Both Hacking and Omi and Winant employ the notion of ‘making up people’. Their discussions are different in that Hacking leads us through philosophical reflections on what it means to be an individual (or the possibilities available to be) in a world where social change is in the business of creating new categories of people, for example, for official government statistics. Omi and Winant particularly apply the notion to their discussion of racial classification and state formation in the United States. The idea of ‘making up people’ resonates with questions of how people are represented in a culture at any given moment; how they come to be, to be understood, their possibilities to be, and how — if at all — their category of ‘be-ing’ enables them to be controlled. Scrutinising not only ‘how things are represented’ but also the “machineries” and regimes of representation in a culture’ at any given time (p.444) includes questions on the constitutive and formative effects of representation in social and political life

An interest in government policy, and in my particular instance UK education policy, leads to an interest in the ‘people categories’ employed as an integral part of policy formation, implementation and evaluation, in other words the representation of people in the workings of policy. Bacchi describes ‘people categories’ as an example of policy categories or concepts that play a central role in how people are governed as well as how they come to understand themselves in relation to others. It is worth reminding ourselves that the people categories we create are not value-neutral. Neither are they ‘true’ across historical periods or geographical locations. This might seem like a self-evident observation, but it is worth re-stating, as many people categories used in government policy, such as ‘youth’, ‘single-mother’, ‘homosexual’, ‘black and minority ethnic’ and ‘failing pupils’ can pass as banal and unnoticed given our familiarity with their use. Instead, Bacchi reminds us of the need to interrogate these categories, remembering that they function to produce particular meanings and affects.

As Bonnett and Carrington point out, the collection, proliferation, and dissemination of ethnic data in education is justified as an essential tool in achieving racial equality and institutional inclusion. Indeed, the collection of ethnic data, can be seen as an acknowledgment of ethnic inequalities in societies and therefore as having egalitarian and redistributive goals. Furthermore, it might also be that the representation of categories of people is ‘natural’, since human beings categorise the world as a means of functioning within it. As a result, the categorisation of elements in the natural world such as flora and fauna, and ultimately of humans in social worlds, is an expression of the fundamental workings of our minds. Such a view would conclude that categorisation is essential or natural to how we live and survive in the world.

However, the prolific circulation of ethnic categories and meanings is not insignificant. In the UK context, and no doubt in other parts of the world, where we are saturated by media, our awareness of ethnic categories is frequently stimulated. For instance, in education, discussions of ethnic groups being failed by the system, and failing to gain access to and thrive in higher education are just a few examples. Often, as is also the case in official reporting (for instance, statistical summaries produced by the Office for Students) the performance, participation, attainment etc. of ethnic groups are compared.

What is important here, is the need to problematise the notion of ethnicity as a means of destabilising any blind faith in the ‘realities’ they create. I am of course not the first to suggest this. For instance, some observers have raised questions about the concepts or ideas embedded within our understandings of ethnicity. They suggest that the language of ethnicity is just another means by which people are categorised and labelled based on notions of race. Omi and Winant identify the emergence of the concept of ethnicity in the context of the United States in the early 1900s as an attempt to account for ‘whites of a different colour’ (p.21) emigrating from various parts of Europe. Those far from being considered as white, that is, black and brown people, were outside of the concept of ethnicity in this case. It is perhaps for this reason that Omi and Winant describe ethnicity theory as an ‘approach to race that affords primacy to cultural variables’ (p.21), a primacy which leaves ‘non-whites’ at the bottom of the pile.

Goldberg adds to these reflections in his discussion of racial governmentality. Whilst U.S. census forms, one subject of his discussion, contain ethnic categories in the name of the ‘practical and the given’ (p.30), he argues that racial categorisation is weaved, through bureaucratic practices, into the social fabric. People are brought into existence by ‘naming’ and by being evaluated; they are made visible. Goldberg argues that through these processes, power is operationalised as it opens pathways for control and domination. Therefore, whether ‘created’ intentionally or inadvertently, the visibility of people herded under the category of a homogenous ‘group’ heightens the possibility of them being seen. As Hacking asks, at the more pessimistic end of the question scale, ‘Is ‘making up people’ [or naming] intimately linked to control? (p.226)

These observations alone, should cause us to be alert to the need for the continual monitoring of ethnic monitoring. What do these categories achieve beyond their use as tools in government measurement mechanisms and in the growing avalanche of statistics? Brubaker et al. argue that forms of state categorisation, including ethnic (or racial) categories, can result in atrocious consequences as it attaches enduring identities to specific persons or groups. The significance of such categorisations in Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa and the Rwandan Genocide are given as examples. These enduring identities are reminiscent of the accumulated palimpsest of meanings referred to by Hall, Evans & Nixon in relation to ethnographic objects. It is easy to imagine categories accumulating layers of meaning over time connecting them with historical meanings associated with groups of people and being re-articulated or added to in new ways. There may be breaks in meaning but also echoes of past meanings with the emergence of new categories.

These atrocities may seem a far cry from the meanings that circulate about ethnic groups in UK education systems. They do, however, point to the ‘power’ of ethnic classification which produce and reproduce meanings about individuals and groups which conceivably drip in to the social and political imagination. As mentioned earlier, egalitarian and redistributive goals may well rub shoulders with an ‘authoritarian aspect of social surveillance and control’. Undoubtedly, this latter point cannot be ignored when we consider the historical links between ethnic monitoring in UK education and immigration control. We only need to look to the last half of the twentieth century to see the UK Government, in the wake of the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, (introduced by the Conservative Government of the day to control the immigration of Commonwealth passport holders, with the exception of those holding UK passports) gathering and using ethnic data to demonstrate their control over the ‘problem’ of non-white immigration. Related was the collection of data on ‘immigrant children’ by the then Department of Education and Science, to inform the bussing policy whereby black and brown children were bussed around the country as a means of sharing them out among schools; a concentration of black and brown children was seen as having a ‘destabilising effect on schools’.

In conclusion I am not suggesting that, in our current day, we ‘do away’ with ethnic data in education, since, as touched on earlier, there are many, including those from minority backgrounds who find good justification for their use as a means of redressing inequalities. However, it does suggest that relations of domination follow closely behind, or, indeed, are the impetus for the naming and representation of specific categories. Therefore, we need to constantly question, challenge and monitor their use.

Sharon Walker is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on race and educational policy in the UK, and in particular the widening participation policy agenda in higher education. She also researches issues relevant to race and racism in international development. Sharon tweets@cheriepolo

The title of this article is borrowed from Bonnett, A. & Carrington, B. (2000). Fitting into Categories or Falling Between Them? Rethinking ethnic classification, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21:4,487–500

This blog is reposted from a special collection published by The Sociological Review.