Racial ideology and the production of knowledge about health

Racial ideology and the production of knowledge about health

darkmatter: in the ruins of imperial culture
ISSN 2041-3254
Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] (2012-07-02)

Hamish L. Robertson
University of New South Wales

Joanne F. Travaglia, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Health Services Research
University of New South Wales


Racial terminology and its associated assumptions pervade the discourses of health policy, practice and research. The language utilised within and across these discourses emerge from both historical and current ideologies and approaches to the understanding and management of difference. As a result the language used reflects the inconsistencies ‘held’ within and between these ideologies. ‘Traditional’ racial or ethnic categories are juxtaposed with ‘mixed’ and hyphenated categories (such as ‘race/ethnicity’), which in turn have been at least partially deconstruction and problematised by post-colonial and critical race theorists. The concept of ‘race’ is mixed, moulded and blended as clinicians and researchers search for ways to describe human diversity.

In this article, we examine and unpack the conflation of contested and competing concepts of race with arguments from a critical perspective. We begin by briefly considering the origins of the concept of ‘race’. We then consider how ‘race’ is utilised in three areas of practice: research into and commentary on differential patterns of morbidity and mortality across population groups; the examination on the impact of social inequalities on specific groups and populations; and more recently, and most highly debated, explorations of the genomic links to prevalence of diseases.

Health, as well as other social systems (including education, economics and the law) utilise racial language to produce their own particular versions of injustices, at least in part by representing such language as ‘natural’ products of the ‘neutral’ findings of science. Through various examples, we show how these knowledge production processes not only create and legitimise such language, but adapt to utilise emerging science to support the perpetuation of these ideological positions over time. Just as in feminist critiques of gender the link between the presumed bio-genetic specificity and formal rigidity of ‘race’ and racialised inequality can be exposed as a discourse adaptively constructed through a centuries long politics of social categories, and the privileging of unproblematised medical narratives

…Race is a polysemic concept with a long and contested history. The term ‘race’ is dynamic and adaptable because it is not the core concept of racialised knowledge and thinking, that is to say ‘race’ has no causal properties. The concept and associated taxonomic devices, including categorisations of race, have no dynamic or processual power. The focus on ‘race’ misses both the production of knowledge about racialised things (entities, dynamics) and the locus of power in racial debates and theories. It is the active process of racism and racialisation that produce racist circumstances, situations, knowledge and beliefs. Racial categories are rather, abstract nouns that act as part of the linguistic architecture of racist knowledge by creating a set of artificial boundaries for knowledge and beliefs that are both fluid and contentious. The ‘new’ discourses of population ‘mixing’ are a reflection of these false population categories and their presumed borders, since both consensual and non-consensual assimilation/integration are a permanent feature of human history…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , ,