Race in the 19th & 20th century

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Essay Question:

Examine how ideas about race were elaborated in the second half of 19th century and the early 20th century. Race is a historically and culturally specific notion, embedded in a constellation of economic, political, and cultural discourses and uniquely linked to specific relations of power and authority’ (Hirschfield, 1998, p.34). It has been argued that race was an Enlightenment project that resulted from the desire to classify (Cohen, 1974, p.207). Racial thinking certainly existed before this period, but the modern concept of race is a more recent one that has developed from the encounter of more Europeans with other peoples (MacDonald, 1973, p.241). There is some disagreement as to when the construction of race took its current form. First, it has been suggested that the descriptions of race in ancient literature demonstrate that it originates in xenophobic beliefs (Hirschfield, 1998, p.34). The system of natural classification that developed in the Eighteenth Century is also seen as an important contribution (Hannaford, 1996, p.188). However, almost all studies agree that a distinctive development of racial thinking began to take place in the Nineteenth Century (Hirschfield, 1998, p.35). The Nineteenth Century saw the search for the historical and biological origins of race (Hannaford, 1996, p.235). It went beyond the simply classification of race and towards a more significant delineation of race into one that embodies characteristics, personalities and even mental abilities. Several key developments were relevant to this progression. These will be examined as follows: first the importance of the development of biological categories and the influence of power will be examined. Secondly, the development of scientific dialogue of Darwinism and Eugenics will be discussed. Thirdly, an examination will be made of the influence of nationalism and imperialism. Finally, the notion to which the discourse became self-serving will be considered in that as the connection between cultural features and racial stereotypes became ingrained, there was recourse to the scientific argument to justify the features of power. The urge to divide the human race into broad categories similar to the animal kingdom seems to be a starting point for many of the theorists in the Nineteenth Century (James, 1981, p.19). Kant’s On the Different Human Races is characteristic of this view: he draws analogy to how the animal species are divided to demonstrate a division in the human race. ‘A natural division is based upon identifying lines of descent that divide according to our reproductive relations’ (Kant, 2000, p. 8). This description of racial characteristics holds a number of significant features of the developing views of race. It seeks to explain differences as accruing from environmental change (James, 1981, p.19). Despite attempting to read as a scientific study, it demonstrates some significant bias towards the North Europeans, describing those who live in the humid heat of a warm climate, which he states produces ‘a thick, turned up nose and thick fatty lips’ (Kant, 2000, p.17). The skin needs to be oily to avoid the absorption of the ‘foul, humid air’

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