anti-babel – sanjay sharma

Encyclopaedia of Race and Ethnic Studies – Review

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Encyclopaedia of Race and Ethnic StudiesBook review of: Ellis Cashmore (ed), Encyclopaedia of Race and Ethnic Studies, London: Routledge, 2004

What are encyclopaedias good for?

In an age of information over-load, the implosion of meanings and forever sliding signifiers, has the imperious authority of such texts been undermined? Or conversely, precisely because of our amnesiac contemporary culture caught in a perpetual presentism – particularly in relation to failing to grasp the contortions of ‘race’ – is the role of such an encyclopaedia needed more than ever?

Cashmore’s legitimacy and scope of his expanded text is made explicitly clear in the introduction: the 4th Edition has now matured from a dictionary to a full-blown encyclopaedic status. The sheer size of the volume is impressive, and with a list over eighty international contributors, he has laudably edited an array of substantial entries which extend the boundaries of ‘race’ work towards an interdisciplinary agenda. Entries such as ‘Mike Tyson’, ‘Central Park Jogger’ and ‘Consumption’ are unlikely to appear in conventionally narrow sociological dictionaries of ‘race’ and ethnicity.

Cashmore ambitiously characterises his book as being

…designed as a reference for virtually everything related the studies of race and ethnicity…Anything or anyone that has, in some way, shaped or continues to shape the way we approach, examine, understand or think about issues of race and ethnicity should appear in the text…The book is intended to solve disagreements and maybe start some (p.xix-xx).

For a reviewer however, it is not difficult to take such a suspect universalizing claim to task. Why aren’t there submissions for ‘Edward Said’, ‘Eurocentrism’, or ‘Universalism’ for that matter? In relation to the late Said, while ‘Orientalism’ receives adequate attention, one would have expected a dedicated entry for the global public intellectual of our times. Moreover, entries for significant terms of ‘Diaspora’ and ‘Hybridity’ for example are both too brief, and in the latter case, too dense for the undergraduate reader, which would be the majority audience for this type of text. Nor is it helpful that the submission for ‘Post-Race’ conflates different theorizations of ethnicity and racialized subjectivity. Stuart Hall rightly has a dedicated two page discussion, yet the entry concludes by asserting that his ‘…politics of difference and unity through difference remain unclear’ (p.176). An alternative reading of Hall would suggest that he shares the post-structuralist understanding of the political as a site of antagonism which is impossible to simply resolve.

Neither does the book ‘solve many disagreements’, though it certainly starts (or continues) some. In an earlier dictionary edition of the text, the entry of ‘Intelligence’ alarmingly failed to categorically question the spurious links of intelligence with ‘race’. The current entry does a far better job, yet still misses the opportunity to emphatically discredit the very notion IQ itself, which would leave absolutely no room for such a concept to have any (racial) credulity. Unfortunately, a similar slippage occurs for the entry of ‘Stereotype’ and its relationship to ‘real’ group characteristics. An ambiguous example is offered, of an elderly lady walking late night past a group of working-class black men in Harlem, being statistically at more risk than if she was attending a church picnic. Her ‘…twitch of apprehension’ in this case would be ‘…a testimony to her common sense, not to her racism, though she may be racist’ (p.415). Perhaps the Editorial Team should have re-read the entry for ‘Racialization’ (and added one for ‘Common-sense’) before accepting such a dubious entry.

Unfortunately, the main Introduction to the encyclopaedia is the weakest aspect of the text. In attempting to capture the racial zeitgeist from a historically informed perspective, Cashmore presents a rather uneven introductory account in a bid to highlight a whole gamut of current issues such as ‘inclusion’, ‘institutional racism’, ‘globalization’, ‘difference’ and ‘multiculturalism’. Most problematically, in castigating a creeping multicultural relativism, the incongruity between ‘Western human rights’ and ‘Islamic culture’ is raised. The citing of the infamous Nigerian case of the sentencing of stoning against Amina Lawal Kurami for committing adultery, is ironically not an example which exposed the limits of cultural diversity as the Editor insists, but the continuing civilizing mission of Western (academic) liberalism. The predictable invocation of Islam as a monolithic patriarchal practice not only fails to interrogate the hegemony of West in its need to assert ‘transcendental standards’, but also occludes the multifarious post-colonial perspectives of Islamic feminists.

To set out and question the status of an encyclopaedia and discredit a few of its selected entries could be construed as an unproductive or even disingenuous exercise. Although, a reviewer is more likely to be compelled to do so if the Editor makes aggrandizing claims about the authority of his text. Nevertheless, to compile such an encyclopaedia is a huge undertaking, and the overall project is to be applauded, in spite of its inconsistencies. Many of the submissions skilfully navigate the connections and complexities of ‘race’, and offer nuanced discursive understandings. The encyclopaedia remains an invaluable resource for the undergraduate reader and other researchers with limited knowledge in this field of study.

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in Ethnic & Racial Studies (c) 2007 copyright Taylor & Francis; Ethnic & Racial Studies is available online at:

Written by sanjay sharma

7 Oct 07 at 9:38pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with , , ,

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