Reading Response: Kathleen Conzen et al., “The Invention of Ethnicity…”

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Kathleen Neils Conzen et al, “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.”

In “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.,” Conzen and her colleagues are attempting to construct a new conceptual framework for understanding ethnicity that builds off of the earlier work of Werner Sollors. Sollors believes that ethnicity is a “collective fiction” that is essentially invented. Conzen and her colleagues agree with Sollors that ethnicity is constructed, but not that it is complete fiction. Rather, they see ethnicity as a product of “communal solidarities, cultural attributes, and historical memories” (Conzen, et al., 4-5).

In order to prove their point, the authors use three case studies to demonstrate support for their theory that ethnicity is constantly reconstructed. The authors successfully show that there is nothing primordial, in the sense that they are unchangeable, about ethnicities. They are malleable and new expressions of ethnicity, at least in the American context as presented by the authors, are consistently reconstructed in reaction to external pressures or events. In doing so, Conzen and her colleagues demonstrate that expressions of ethnicity in the United States, while sometimes assuming symbols from their homelands, are uniquely American.

The authors also show that immigrant ethnicities have consistently emulated each other or presented their best imagined attributes in order to become respected in society. An interesting problem in the article, though not necessarily with the authors’ work, is that ethnic posturing of supposed positive contributions to society seems to have less to do with the successful integration into American society than the acquisition of wealth and political power does. This becomes apparent when the authors note that the Italian community was able to reposition itself in society, by demanding the establishment of Columbus Day as a Federal holiday and pressuring media outlets to stop referring to Italians as gangsters, only after they had become financially and politically powerful in American society (Conzen, et al., 31).

One of the most important contributions of Conzen and her colleagues’ article is the fact that they present the whole history of American society as being engaged in this process of constant ethnic redefinition. They show that after the revolution against Britain, an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity was defined in order to maintain a functional society across States with different cultural and national backgrounds. This reinforces the authors’ point that ethnicity is built, fades and is rebuilt in order to meet peoples’ needs, not just by immigrants, but by the supposedly dominant cultural element in the country as well. There is no monolithic American culture that immigrants must emulate in order to become American. The authors show that ethnicities trade values and ideals and are constantly defining themselves and each other.

By complicated an overly simplistic narrative about ethnicities and assimilation into American society, the authors have opened the possibility for a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be an American. Viewing immigration and belonging in America through the lens of ethnic identities that are constantly being redefined clears away the mythology of a monolithic Anglo-Saxon super-ethnicity that immigrant ethnic groups must join. We are left with new questions, as well. Are there essential qualities or ideals that one must subscribe to in order to be American, or is what it means to be American a constantly shifting definition? Another avenue that could be explored using the concept of ethnicity presented by the authors is the fluidity, or lack thereof, of traveling between ethnic groups. This is touched on by the authors, but they focus their analysis on the behavior of ethnic groups as a whole, rather than the transition of a person from one group to another.

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