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Caution against Categorical Analysis of Ethnicity and Race

Toward a Multi-faceted Understanding of Identity

This Guide aims to expand your understanding of the complexity of multiple, simultaneous processes of identity formation, including the overlapping of ethnic and national identities, racialized and gendered identities, class and generational identities, and so on.

The Problem of Essentialism

Ethnicity and race are among the key facets of identity for the immigrant respondents in this study--but they identify themselves in other ways as well. A simple categorical approach to ethnic and racial identity merely places respondents in a designated category (such as Italian, Chinese, Caribbean, Tamil) and prioritizes that aspect of identity above others. Such an approach hampers investigation of identification as a process.

Examining the Process of Identity Formation

As social researchers, we want to explore the social practices by which people are assigned and assign themselves to ethnic categories. We must remember that the categories themselves have no "essence" apart from the specific social practices involved in constructing and contesting them, designating how people relate to the categories and how the categories relate to each other. We must also examine how all levels of social life, from face to face interactions to large scale institutions, are organized on the basis of beliefs about who belongs to what social category.

Avoiding Racialization

Researchers run the risk of unconsciously replicating practices of racialization and contributing to racist divisions if we simply categorize rather than explicitly examine how processes of categorization work and their real social effects.

Qualitative Research as Anti-Racist

Qualitative research can contribute to an anti-racist worldview by demonstrating how categories of race and ethnicity are variable, contingent and constructed. Qualitative research can show, for example, that race and ethnicity are not always the primary basis for dividing people. The salience of race and ethnicity varies in different social contexts. So does the meaning of what it is to belong to a racial/ethnic category. Research can also reveal the many social factors that relate to the ongoing, shifting process of ethnic and racial identification.

The Value of Immigration Studies

The study of immigration is particularly valuable because through immigration people often undergo major transformations in their ethnic and racial identities. Qualitative research can make these processes more visible and open to critical analysis.

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