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Keywords:

  • Ethnic conflict;
  • Ethnicity and racism;
  • Structure and agency;
  • Identity politics;
  • Realism

The many critical approaches to an ‘ethnicity framework’ have fallen short of a very possible conclusion—that the language of ethnicity provides, for the most part, a poor paradigm with which to work. In the present paper we seek not only to re-state some key weaknesses of this paradigm but also to suggest that these weaknesses are more general in an over-ethnicised sociology. There are numerous critiques of particular models or elements of ethnicity thinking, including critiques of primordialist approaches (Fenton 2003), of multiculturalism (Barry 2000), and of the over-objectification of groups (Brubaker 2004; see also Jenkins 2008). The major critiques constitute a strong case against ‘thinking with ethnicity’; the broader weaknesses are more general in contemporary ‘identitarian’ sociology. From this position we turn to the question of offering an alternative approach in a sociology which emphasizes agency, and is grounded in an analysis of actors in material situations. This is allied to the concept of ideational resources, social categories and identities upon which actors draw, and a middle-range view of causality and tendency in social change. Ideas of ancestral belonging are among those ideational resources, and these ideas and assumptions are played out in a context of material and political change. The subject of study is not ethnicity, but power, resources, social relations and institutions (which may and may not be) informed by cultural identities and ideas of ancestry. The strategy of the paper will be first to re-state the deficiencies of ‘ethnicity thinking’ and second to offer an alternative framework for thinking about social action and social structure.