Pamela Oliver’s McCarthy Lecture: The Ethnic Dimensions

A recent mobilizing ideas post showed Dr. Pamela Oliver receiving the McCarthy award.

Some of you may have noticed that she was standing in front of a Power Point presentation and, like me, you may have wondered about the content of the lecture.

Dr. Oliver has kindly provided a summary of the lecture, which I have posted below, and has provided a link to her presentation slides (all 138

The Ethnic Dimensions

“This talk is based on a paper that makes three central points:  1. The ethnic composition of a movement carrier always matters for its ability to mobilize and accomplish its goals. 2.  The dimensions of ethnicity must be theorized in order to tell us about movement dynamics.  3. These abstract dimensions always matter for all social movements and, further, they point to ways in which political or movement subcultures have an ethnic character.

In the first section of the paper I demonstrate how I have worked my way into these arguments by recapitulating my own thinking as it has developed around the problem of racial disparities in incarceration and the problem of backlash to repression. Sometimes the general public approves of repressing a movement, sometimes it generates backlash. I argue that the degree of backlash is in inverse relation to the extent to which the movement is integrated with the dominant majority of a society.  Much prior theorizing about repression has been stymied by failing to consider the “ethnic” dimension of repression.

The second section of the paper treats ethnicity as a dimension of social location, where I contrast the vertical hierarchical dimension of economic status or power with the horizontal dimension of network integration between the movement carrier and the rest of society. I distinguish between movements of disadvantaged majorities and movements of disadvantaged minorities, as well as both from movements carried by relatively advantaged members of society.  I use a lot of graphs to help carry my argument that the spatial and social segregation of people (which can be analyzed as network cliquing) tends to create correlations of interests and experiences. Further, movements around different kinds of interests vary greatly in where they are located in the network map of a society. This “horizontal dimension” of movements is about who is connected with whom.

It matters when these connections create both shared fate and the cliqued communication networks that shape discrete universes of discourse and distinct collective identities. It is correlated with, but different from, the vertical dimension of power and privilege.

The third section of the paper typologizes movements according to their ethnic composition (majority or minority or mixed) and discusses the typical forms of such movements and some of the issues or problem characteristic of each form. I stress that minority movements face different issues of mobilization than majority movements.  Cross-ethnic movements confront issues of cultural difference and hierarchies of privilege.

The fourth section of the paper re-engages the problem of theorizing ethnicity by examining its dimensions and the relations among them. First, I argue that ethnicity entails the interaction of the vertical dimensions of domination and the horizontal dimensions of segregation and cultural difference, and that these reinforce each other. Second, I take a superficial tour through “what is an ethnicity,” arguing that the key to ethnicity is intergenerational transmission. I briefly note that I am lumping race and ethnicity together although I am well prepared to discuss the difference between them, their interrelation, and why they tend to get lumped in practice. It is intergenerational transmission that creates the cultural and language differences that are correlated with superficial physical differences that become naturalized as markers of inherent group difference. Ethnic groups stay distinct only if they do not intermarry and produce mixed offspring. The paper notes that there are many different possible outcomes when ethnic groups come into contact with each other.  The vertical hierarchical and horizontal network dimensions of ethnicity affect whether how these processes play out.

The final section of the paper argues that these analytic dimensions are useful for understanding social groups that are not “ethnic” in the traditional understanding of the term. Class often has an ethnic dimension, as class is often heritable and classes often have cultural differences. Political subcultures may take on an ethnic character to the extent that they become intergenerational.

Thus we move from seeing ethnicity as one important dimension of social movements to a multi-dimensional space. A movement’s location in this space affects everything about it.”

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