Theme 2. Fabrications of alterity: racial issues and discrimination

The Urmis is widely recognised in France and abroad for its work on interethnic relations and the analysis of the fabric of alterity. In the previous five-year period, the laboratory emphasised a constructivist approach ‘which considers the ethnic and racial dimensions of collectivities and personal identifications as integrally relational and contextual social productions, and is interested in their relevance as categories of practice used in situations of conflict, control mechanisms and public policies, or strategies of identity affirmation’. Today, it is not a question of challenging this approach, which is part of a non-essentialist vision of society, but of enriching and complicating it based on current developments in theoretical thinking as well as on the new questions posed by the social dynamics we are studying. Beyond the field of “interethnic and racial relations”, we wish to confront these theoretical renewals with the multiple approaches, objects and disciplines of the URMIS on the questions of identification/alteration, inclusion/exclusion, domination/emancipation which are intimately linked to the study of discrimination and racialisation processes.

The constructivist movement has made a major contribution to the study of the notion of border by studying its territorial, social and symbolic recompositions. It aims to better understand how and why belonging, i.e. the different forms of relationship that individuals establish in relation to groups (ethnic-racial, social, religious, national, gendered, etc.) matter, are questioned or are the object of collective mobilisation in certain societies and in certain contexts, but not in others. The aim is to analyse why these categorisations, assigned or claimed, are associated with phenomena of exclusion and inequality, with political questions and debates, with lasting loyalties and strong feelings of identity, whereas in other cases they do not structure the distribution of resources (economic, cultural, symbolic), are not at the heart of political commitments and only represent secondary aspects of the definition of individual identities. Such an approach invites an analytical look at the historically contingent relationship between processes of categorisation, forms of social closure and the social construction of collective identities. In this perspective, it is also a question of valuing an emic approach that allows us to analyse the meanings, terms, issues and negotiations conducted by the individuals and groups we study. Thus, in addition to studies on categories, public policies, societal structures, etc., we articulate studies on the social thickness, reference systems, and social, cultural or political organisations of the ‘categorized’ individuals and groups. In other words, we articulate the study of ethnicities, race and interethnic relations with the study of the internal structuring of ethnicised or racialised groups.

However, the work of the URMIS is also part of the recent renewal of the major theoretical questions on racism and discrimination, which invite us to go beyond the sole constructivist epistemology and categorical interpretation. Indeed, in the United States as in France, a growing body of work (Balibar, 2005; Schaub, 2015; Goldberg, 2016; Doron, 2016) tends to diagnose an epistemic crisis of the notion of race which, for the social sciences, involves the very intelligibility of racism and discrimination. To what extent is our era marked by a new profusion of modalities of social production of race and its reconfiguration in social relations? At the turn of the post-war period and the rise of decolonisation, the human sciences carried out, in the words of Etienne Balibar, their “Copernican revolution” by moving “from an ‘objectivist’ to a ‘subjectivist’ point of view in the use of the concept of ‘race'”. They abandoned the study of ‘races’ for the study of racism, i.e. ‘the subjective belief in racial inequality’ or racism as an ideology. Are we now witnessing the end of this Copernican revolution? Is it a return to an essentialized conception of race in various forms? Or should we even speak of a new regime of historicity of the notion of race? A regime that, in societies that officially claim to be based on the principle of equality, would invite us to think about its renewed anchoring in bodies, territory, history, religion, genealogy, sex, gender, etc.?

The abundant literature studying the mutations and re-evaluations of racism on both a theoretical and socio-historical level, between a phenomenon of the past defined by its scientific disqualification and its contemporary remanence and plasticity, tends to show that there is no consensus on the genealogy of the notion. Moreover, the distinct and sometimes competing social uses to which it is put are as much a matter of analysing what race produces as a social construct in relations of domination as the ways in which it is constituted by actors as a category of analysis of the social and as a stake in the struggle – for example, in a logic of strategic essentialism. Finally, it is a question of questioning the recompositions of the persistent fabrications of alterity in societies where inherited hierarchies are paradoxically perceived as increasingly illegitimate. What are the drivers of these recompositions (legal-political, social, religious, emotional, etc.)? In such a context, what kind of subjective or collective relationships are established with the old hierarchies? How are the latter reconfigured or even overtaken?

Theoretically and empirically, research at the URMIS also questions the links between ethno-racial categorisations and other elements that may be central to the production of boundaries between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, such as language, appearance, religion, culture, class and/or gender. With regard to religion, work conducted at the Urmis shows in particular how Islam is today constructed, in France in particular, as a figure of multifaceted alterity in media discourses, public policies and ordinary social interactions within Western societies. The religious dimension has thus become central to the ethnicisation processes at work in these societies. The naturalization of culture and the expansion of ‘cultural racism’ are also central to this questioning. In the same sense, the relationship between race/ethnicity, class and gender needs to be questioned. While the intersectional perspective invites us to think about these connections, it is a challenge and opens up a field of questions rather than offering answers straight away. What exactly does the “intersection” or “articulation” of race, class and gender in social relations mean? Does it refer to a crossroads (Crenshaw, 1991), to differences that come together? What contexts make this or that category of alterity more central and salient than others?