Reading Les Back’s ‘New Ethnicities’ (1996)

First day back after a break but campus is still shut so I’ve had a reading day and made good on my intention to read Les Back’s New ethnicities (1996). In some ways it’s now a bit dated; the research that forms the basis of the book took place nearly twenty years ago and the young people described will almost all be in their thirties by now. But in other ways it is just as relevant now as it was when it came out. First the need to ‘steer a course’ between free-floating post-structuralist utopian models of identity and the on-the-ground reality of essentialising discourses is as real as ever, particularly if one believes that one impact (or indeed cause) of the terrorist attacks of the early 21st century has been the hardening of some of the latter. Second, the idea of ‘community’ as a discursive construct that in certain circumstances can be infused with an unspoken racism (particularly when community is perceived as a feature of a lost (white) ‘golden age’) is very important for us to bear in mind when we start thinking about how we and others have mobilized notions of ‘community’ in our research.

On the subject of communities, reading the book now, the “neighbourhood nationalism” Back identifies as a positive force in one of his sites, since it more or less transcends racial categories (‘The definition of who belonged in the national community was shrunk to the size of the neighbourhood. “Belonging” was thus determined by length of residence and commitment to the area’ (p. 240) i.e. not by ethnic background), seems worryingly to foreshadow the kind of thinking that in some very similar areas has mutated into the ‘postcode wars’ I’ve written about before. In this light I can’t help but find the parochialism Back welcomes as a prefiguring a form of post-racist community troubling.

However, Back’s research makes a strong case for ethnography as one of the few methods equipped to trace the semantic variations of these concepts, particularly since it is well placed to draw attention to the different contexts in which certain registers of language are used. Although as an ethnographer I would have appreciated more transparency about research methods; how much did the young people know/understand about his research? And whilst Back is present in the text in a reflexive manner, there are certain passages, for example documenting banter between groups of friends, where he makes himself invisible in a way I find mildly disingenuous (although I suspect this just reflects the ethnographic writing conventions of the time). And how did he make the leap from the mass of data to the conceptual framework he elaborates on the basis of this data? Not telling us doesn’t make for a weaker argument – but doing so might better enable his readers’ to reflect on their own research practice.

Heritage, interestingly, does not seem to play a big part in the ethnicities Back documents, except perhaps in two forms: the cultural memory of a ‘golden age’ of working-class life (in the construction of white ethnicities) and as music, seen as the primary site for the consumption and expression of new ethnicities. Has this changed in the intervening years, I wonder? Music is obviously there, strongly, in the background of our research but none of our participants see it, I think, as the primary vehicle for their identities, which are articulated across a much wider range of cultural practices (performance poetry, theatre, video, photography, dress, food, religious observance etc.)


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