How to conceptualise a postmodern unterstanding of identity in relation to "Race"

Essay, 2005

19 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of Contents


Definition of terms

Two Perspectives – Constructionism versus Essentialism

Race as a social construct

The Structure of Identity

Two Sorts of Racism

Characteristics of a postmodern Understanding of Identity in relation to “Race”

A contemporary example



The issue about “race” is still of great significance in today’s societies. Recent incidents like racist behaviour in football[1] show how deep racist tendencies are still embedded in people’s minds – in spite of consistent enlightenment. But these examples only show the peak of racist tendencies. Racial imagery in media and arts is central to the organisation of the modern world (Dyer 1997: 1), as we will also see in an example from the Guardian Student later on. Furthermore, the scientific “foundation” of theories of “race” continues to be a disputed question for biology as well as for the social sciences (Lang 2000: x).

This essay is about what the term “race” implies, about the coherence of “race” and identity and implements a postmodern approach to the understanding of identity. Before these terms are analyzed, defining them might be helpful. One thing should be beard in mind during the reading process: the abstractions of types of “race”, class, gender, and sexuality do not take individual difference into account (Zack 1998: 7). However, they have moral importance and take influence on how human beings treat one another.

Definition of terms


There are numerous, varying definitions of the term “postmodernism”. However, most of them agree upon some general terms and one central idea. According to these definitions, postmodernism is a broad intellectual trend or movement in culture, arts, architecture and way of thinking. It is

characterized by emphasis on the ideas of the de-centeredness of meaning, the value and autonomy of the local and the particular, the infinite possibilities of the human existence, and the coexistence, in a kind of collage or pastiche, of different cultures, perspectives, time periods, and ways of thinking. (Glossary of Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta’s World Literature Website[2] ).

Academics still discuss about what postmodernism means and whether it even exists or not. Proponents of this concept argue that this era is a discrete progression of “modernism”, because it inhibits new qualities. Postmodernism rejects certain features of Cartesian modern thought, such as universalizing tendencies of philosophy, and stresses the priority of the social to the indivual.[3] Postmodernists argue that individuals are merely constructs of social forces and neglect the existence of a unique transcendental, objective truth. Compared to modernism, postmodernism is characterized as less geometric, less functional, less austere, more playful, and more willing to include elements from diverse times and cultures.[4] The model is accompanied by certain theories about the determination of knowledge, such as Donna Harraway’s work about “situated knowledge” (Harraway 1990).

The emergence of these developments labelled as postmodernism also made new demands on sociology. The perspective of the absence of a single objective truth required new approaches to investigate social relationships (and the subject) and made up fundamentally new approaches. Many sociological works are based on the work of Derrida and Foucault. Foucault taught literature and invented a method to analyse historical texts for power structures and the discursive background of texts. The deconstructive approach is widely common in nowadays sociology. Among other authors, Baumann, Laclau, Giddens, Butler, Hekman, Said, Hall, Bhabha and Rattansi have contributed to this field of study.

Postmodernist writers challenge scientific discourses as elitist and advance a democratic perspective. The argument they are bringing forward is that science is linked to the production of knowledge, another discourse controlled by particular power structures. Particular people are excluded from this discourse. Foucault made various attempts to explain the structures of power, which work on a very abstract level and are almost impossible to recognize. Nevertheless, power exists in form of relationality in which the dominance of one is never complete (Prakash 1995: 93). Prakash (1995: 88) mentions the example of Subaltern Studies, a collective of historians writing from India, Britain and Australia, who read colonialist and nationalist archives against their grain. “The aim of such studies is not to unmask dominant discourses but to explore their fault-lines in order to provide different accounts […]” (Prakash 1995: 89).

The problem about postmodernist approaches is that they are often abstract and difficult to apply to processes in reality. However, they can be a powerful instrument in deconstructing and questioning traditions, points of views and habitual manners.


According to a definition of Dictionary[5], identity is:

1. the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity
2. the individual characteristics by which a thing or person is recognized or known
3. an operator that leaves unchanged the element on which it operates
4. exact sameness

As we can see, identity has different meanings, although most of them are related to each other. Also in other dictionaries, identity is often described as the state or quality of being identical, or the same (‘sameness’). In sociological terms, identity has to do with the attempt to make up a homogeneous, identical concept of the subject and its representation.

The labelling of a new movement as “postmodernism” is linked to changing qualities of what the individual’s identity is all about. While modern identity was more open and dynamic, and it had been argued that it is achieved or learned, postmodern identity is often described as uncertain and anxious, fluid and multiple. This is a consequence of changes in our lives in terms of community, workplace, nation, and globalisation (see Woodward 2000: 39, Rattansi 1995: 257).

You could argue that every attempt to make such broadening statements has to fail, because the processes going on in Western societies are too complex to summarize under a simple argument like that. Nevertheless, surveys reveal that many people in Western societies seem to feel more uncertain nowadays than former generations did.

Aapiah (1995: 105) defines identity as “a coalescence of mutually responsive (if sometimes conflicting) modes of conduct, habits of thought, and patterns of evaluation; in short, a coherent kind of human social psychology”, and claims that every human identity is constructed. Recent sociologists like Sherry Turkle (1995) describe identity as fragmented. She analyzed virtual identities created by users of the world wide web. And also Anselmi (2000: 46) argues that the individual’s sense of identity should be viewed as a dynamic entity that is capable of change: it is shaped by the responses of others to the individual. According to Zack (1998: 5), individual identities are the results of combinations of categories (“race”, class, gender, sexuality) in specific historical contexts. At this point I would like to mention the intersection of concepts of “race”, gender and sexuality. Certainly, the individual’s identity is not only about these qualities. Nevertheless, these concepts can help to analyze society’s realities. The dynamic entity theory for example, is derived from contemporary feminist perspective (Anselmi 2000: 46), but can be helpful when conveyed on the concept of “race”, too.


To begin with, there are no definitions of “race” that everyone would accept without qualification (Zack 1998: 3). Although some biologists doubt that there are important biological differences between “races” of human beings, it is often described as “people who are believed to belong to the same genetic stock” or a similar description[6]. Different classifications have been made throughout history, ranging from four different races (Zack 1998: 3) to 34 or even 63 (Blackburn 2000: 4). Nevertheless, the use of the term “race” is often controversial, because the division of human beings into multiple races is a matter of political and sociological implications[7]. The adjectives “black” and “white” for example, reify a spurious dichotomy, leading to preoccupation with physical distinctions that often are small to nonexistent (Blackburn 2000: 7). As Blackburn (2000: 3) puts it, biological notions of race deserve to be repudiated as typological, subjective and based on misconceptions about genetics, human variation, and human history: “Biologically, there is one race – the human race – in its modest variety and overwhelming commonality.” (Blackburn 2000: 19).


[1],1563,1361986,00.html (accessed 04/12/04)

[2] (accessed 22/11/04)

[3] Glossary of Philosophical Terms, University of Hong Kong (accessed 22/11/04)

[4] Conrad P. Kottak: Glossary of Anthropology (accessed 22/11/04)

[5] (accessed 22/11/04)

[6]; (accessed 23/11/04)

[7] (accessed 23/11/04)

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How to conceptualise a postmodern unterstanding of identity in relation to "Race"
University of Leicester  (Department of Sociology)
Identity and Society
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ISBN (Book)
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Race, Identity, Society, Postmodernism, Representation, Rassismus, Identität, Racism, Sociology
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Christoph Behrends (Author), 2005, How to conceptualise a postmodern unterstanding of identity in relation to "Race" , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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