Researching "Race" and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge And Power

By Yasmin Gunaratnam
Sage Publications 2003
ISBN 0 7619 7286 2

Every now and then a new book transcends established vocabulary, sets down a few radical steps in the initial pages, and then leads the reader to new, unploughed fields of reflection. "Researching Race" is one such work. Many of Gunaratnam’s assertions are darn-right stunning. Like this one: "For many white researchers, matching strategies can be used to avoid some of the analytic and emotional challenges of addressing highly complex and politicised power relations research." (p. 103)

As its title suggests, those who would write, examine and draw conclusions about our cross-cultural relations on this planet have pre-conceptions, methods, and even vocabulary which may hinder – to use a euphemism – their "objectivity." These are the very vocabularies, methods and pre-conceptions which Gunaratnam wants the reader to extricate him- herself from. Cynics, like me, may argue that this task is impossible without a thorough, life-grounding immersion in the culture, history and, most importantly, in the language of the cultures, histories and peoples that you want to draw any conclusions about. But beyond pointing out that this is a dangerously exclusive and isolationist perspective on cross-cultural relations, Gunaratnam builds a very conclusive case by using concrete examples set in every day, mainstream life.

First she sets the tone with some of the latest scientific expansions of our current analysis into race by citing perhaps most hotly debated authorities in the field: P. Gilroy, who wrote in 1998 about modern microbiological technology: "Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR/MRI) positron emission tomography (PET) and several other innovations in multidimensional body imaging have remade the relationship between the seeable and the unseen. By imaging the body in new ways, they impact upon [how] that embodied humanity is imagined and upon the status of bio-racial differences that vanish at these levels of resolution… Our questions should be this: where do these changes leave racial difference, particularly, where it cannot readily be correlated with simple genetic variations ?"

To juxtapose the modern age’s findings with our rather constricted, sometimes 19th century mind-blinds, Gunaratnam in one story, tells us of a woman from Uganda is stricken with AIDS and a British nurse is quoted in detail to explain her inability to communicate with the Ugandan patient. Gunaratnam goes to great lengths to let the nurse speak out, to show the reader her medical malaise which the author appropriately calls "dis-ease"- and how this malaise ultimately renders the nurse’s empathy seemingly almost impossible. Following the interview and the graphic confessions of the nurse, Gunaratnam also asks these questions: "How "real" is the race seen and felt in the construction of the distances between the Gill [the nurse] and the Ugandan woman in this English hospice ward ? Is this "simply" a failure of cross-cultural communication and care, or an inevitable result of an un-negotiable alterity, complicated by lanaguge differences and AIDS dimensia ?"

Every now and then the author does slip into what I would call highly-perched academese, and post-modernist gobbledigook, but for most pages, her examples are so firmly anchored, and her questions so threatening that the result is a veritable intellectual thriller. Here’s another sample which works well to extinguish cynicism: "These significant, yet margiginalised tensions (like between Gill and the patient) run across anti-racist political projects and activism, the academic study of "race" and ethnicity, and indicate a site for dialogue between academics and health care professionals." (p.192)

Gunaratnam is a research fellow at Open University in the United Kingdom and uses her previous work extensively throughout the book. However a brief examination of the 16-page, fine-print bibliography reveals several multi-disciplined authors from China, South-East Asia, Africa and Europe, lending a no uncertain veracity into the sources that uphold the 195-pages of this cumulative search into how – exactly - we continue to calculate the distances that remain between each other.

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