Social Construction Of Culture,
Race And Ethnicity
In our country there are a lot of problems faced by people which are associated with culture, race
and ethnicity. The following essay will sow how problematic it is to be mean in the name of culture
and also focus on how how culture, race and ethnicity are constructed. Being mean to someone in
the name of culture shows just how little knowledge people have about culture. The essays aim is to
try to change peoples corrupted views about culture, race and ethnicity.
The is no single definition for culture This is why many anthropologists have their own ideas about
culture. The are three main ideas of culture. Those ideas belong to Franz Boas, Clifford Geertz and
James Clifford. They are named the Boasian, Geertzian and Post-modern moments. Franz Boas is
the man who professionalised anthropology when he spoke of cultural relativism. A lot of cultural
problems South Africa has had was due to apartheid. Being colonised affected the country greatly.
Many anthropologist wonder where the country would be if not for apartheid. Since there is no
scientific proof for the existence of culture then it must also be a social construct.
Social constructs are ideas which are created by society and its history. So it is easy to see that race
is a social construct. This means race has been created by society. Race may be a social construct
but that does not mean that it is fake. It just means that scientifically there is no such thing as race.
This is because when scientists tried to classify humans into different races they were unable to find
a concordance. The are three periods which had a great influence on race. The 18 th
scientific classifications., the 19 th
and 20 th
centuries social Darwinism and the 20 th
Ethnicity is recognition with one’s ethnic group. An example of ethnic groups in South Africa
would be Zulu’s, Tswana’s and Pedi’s. People with a similar culture and characteristics usually find
themselves under the same group. Many ethnics groups are actually more similar than they are
different. Although many of them do not notice their similarities. People find themselves making
fun of others for a trait they share. Another thing people do not know about ethnicity is that it is a
These are some important concepts in the essay. Segregation is keeping people from different
cultures separate. Colonialism is the practice of gaining control over a weaker country.
Concordance, Darwinism is a theory of Darwin which speaks of natural selection which is basically
the survival of the fittest. Concordance means a consistency. Othering means judging someone
according to our unexamined norms and beliefs.
Culture is believed by many anthropologists to be learned behaviour. This definition was made
famous by Franz Boas. Culture is all the knowledge that we acquire from our environment and
throughout learning of our history. We humans incorporate this knowledge into our lives and
consider it culture. Boas said culture is always changing which means that our knowledge of what
culture is also forever changing.
Culture cannot be because of “the genius of a single people”(Boas, 1968:213). If culture is truly
“learned behaviour” then people must learn their culture from the wrong source. Since culture is
forever changing then the is still a chance for people to learn a better culture. People need to know
that no culture is better than the other, this was conceptualised by Franz Boas through “cultural
According to Clifford Geertz culture is symbolic. This leads me to believe that people have been
mislead and taught to believe in the wrong symbols of what culture is. If culture is public then
society has played a role in many people’s mean behaviour. People must be interpreting the
symbolic codes for culture in an incorrect manner. This is very problematic because then most
people are unable to interpret and find meaning to culture.
According to James Clifford culture seems to be determined by those with power. James Clifford
questions the existence of culture. According to James Clifford anthropologists are creating culture
instead of describing it. Meaning that those with power together with anthropologist are somewhat
creating culture. If culture did not exist would people still be mean to each other. Who can be
blamed for the existence of culture, race and ethnicity.
Apartheid had a huge influence on what people consider culture today. “The concept of
‘adaptation’, which in biology refers to the manner in which an organism becomes fitted to its
environment, was especially suited to the vocabulary of segregation”(Dubow, 1989:36). This
concept called ‘cultural adaptation’ was used to try to convince black people that segregation was
beneficial to them when it was not.
According to Dubow(1995) people were classified by skin colour, hair texture, bodily statue, head
shape and facial proportion. This was called “scientific racism”. They were not aware that
biological make up is not a sign of race. The reason why the is scientifically no race is because the
are no subspecies of human beings, all human beings can interbreed. Human beings also have no
concordance, while animals like fish and birds have a concordance. Race may not scientifically
exist but it is still very real in society. Race is not fake and it cannot be easily reconstructed.
Raymond Dart professionalised physical anthropology in South Africa. He found a lot of human
fossils. Bolk tried to prove through biology that “blacks were less foetalised and therefore inferior
to whites”(Dubow, 1995:50). His evidence proved nothing because when scientist in the 18 th
century tried to classify human beings into different races they were unsuccessful.
Between the 19 th
and 20 th
century a pseudo scientific theory was created based on Darwen’s theory
of natural selection. Although this was an incorrect interpretation of Darwen’s theory. What they
were saying was that human beings were subject to the rules of natural selection. Many people used
the belief that they were superior to others to treat people in an unjust and cruel manner. Many
anthropologist believed this was just an abuse of Darwen’s theory.
Colonialism during the 20 th
century was the practice of superior nations used to take control over
weaker nations and occupy them. An example in South Africa would be apartheid. It caused the
different ethnic groups in the country to become divided. This could be the contributing factor
behind peoples meanness today.
Ethnicity is also a social construct because it is “subject to environmental constraints”. Society has
divided itself into groups by looking at history and similarities. Also people a born into different
ethnic groups. Ethnicity is a very important part of culture. This is because every ethnic group has it
own “diacritical markers and value orientation”(Dubow, 1995:13) which separates it from other
ethnic groups culture.
Ethnicity results in a lot of othering between members of society. This is because of uninformed
emotions about people from different ethnic groups. My friend is an otherer because he is judging
someone according to his own beliefs norms. This is wrong because if he knew this person maybe
he could find out that they actually have a lot in common. He is being mean to someone before even
getting to know them.
South Africa has many ethnic groups. All of these ethnic groups follow their own culture. They
believe that each of their cultures is completely different from the other. They are all mistaken
because most ethnic actually have a lot in common. This is why people should rather focus on what
they have in common with others instead of looking at differences and using them to be mean to
those inferior to them.
People who are mean are pulling a country which is trying to improve backwards. People from
different ethnic groups should be working together and striving for the country to become better.
Being ethnocentric at this age of time is something that South Africa does not need. Those who use
their power to treat others in a cruel and unjust manner do not belong in society. Power should be
used to help those in need.
Could peoples dubious ideas of culture truly be what they want for themselves and their futures.
Culture should be about bringing people together not being mean to others. It should bring people
together so they can learn about each other and develop one another. Every South African citizen
has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. This is a culture all should try to live by. A
culture which shows all people no matter where they are from dignity and respect.
Culture takes time to learn. This is why it is so difficult to adjust when you have just moved to a
place where there is a completely different culture. It takes time to get used to the people and to
how things work there. It is up to you if you want to learn a new culture or ignore it and keep your
own. The culture dubious culture people speak of should not exist in our society. Advice to those
people would be to learn a different idea of culture which shows respect for others. A culture which
is unjust and cruel should be forgotten.
Those who misuse power usually find themselves alone and hated by many.”It was ‘obviously far
easier’ to keep Africans under some form of discipline when they lived as ‘native community’ than
if they were scattered throughout the white population”(Dubow, 1989:24-25). This statement shows
that the apartheid government was trying to control black people not help them to improve.
“There is a substantial gray area between racism and culturalism”( Fredrickson, 1934:7). Racism
represents the ill feelings some people have for those of a different ethnic group to theirs. Apartheid
in South Africa was the only racist regime which survived the second world war. Apartheid tried to
create “race purity” through segregation they were an example of “scientific racism”. “Culturalism”
represent the belief that your culture is better than others due to biologically false reasons. Another
form of racism which exists is “cultural racism”.
It has been mentioned in the essay just how problematic peoples responses are to the situation of
culture, race and ethnicity. They completely underestimates a serious situation. Something being in
your culture is not a good enough reason for saying mean things about people you do not even
know. Many people speak of culture in a way which shows that they have a completely wrong
impression of what the word means. Race, culture and ethnicity are societies creation and they can
never be destroyed unless society wishes to do so. Will society ever be free from culture, race and
Asad, Talad. (1973).Anthropology and colonial encounters, pp. 10-19.
Dubow, Saul. 1989. The elaboration of segregationist ideology, Segregation and apartheid in SA,
Dubow, Saul. 1995. Scientific racism In modern South Africa, Cambridge University, pp. 20-65.
Fredrickson, 1934. Racism, Princeton University Press, pp. 1-13.
Wolf, Eric R. 1994. Perilous ideas, The University of Chicago Press Articles, 35(1), pp. 1-12.