A New Look at an Old Notion: Lawrence Hirchfeld Discusses Race in Society

A New Look at an Old Notion: Lawrence Hirchfeld Discusses Race in Society

Michigan Today
University of Michigan
June 1996

John Woodford

Talk of race is everywhere and incessant in America, the din of discourse emanating from all ranks and stations, all age groups, all creeds, all parts of the political spectrum and all manner of news and cultural media.

Is race real or is it imagined? If it’s real, is it real in a biological sense, a social sense, or both? If imaginary, how did the idea arise?

Lawrence A. Hirschfeld, U-M associate professor of anthropology and psychology, tackles all of these questions in a book published this spring by the MIT Press: Race in the Making: Cognition, Culture and the Child’s Construction of Human Kinds. The book emerged from Hirschfeld’s studies in the United States and Europe of children’s thinking about race. It will interest not only anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, historians, political scientists and social workers, but parents and teachers as well. Professor Hirschfeld discussed some of his conclusions with Michigan Today’s John Woodford.

MT: What is race?

LH: It is important to begin by talking about what race is not. Regardless of what our senses seem to tell us, race is not a biologically coherent story about human variation simply because the races we recognize and name are not biologically coherent populations. There is as much genetic variation within racial groups as there is between them. Now this does not mean that race is not real psychologically or sociologically. It is obvious that race is real in both these senses. People believe in races and they use this belief to organize important dimensions of social, economic, and political life. But this does not make race a real thing biologically

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