orgtheory.net

deafness as an ethnicity

Andrew Sullivan raised a sociological issue today – is deafness an ethnicity? This question is raised by People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry, a book on deaf culture by Harlan Lane, Richard C. Pillard, and Ulf Hedberg.

Sounds like Lane et al are on the right track. There are some real signs that the deaf community is acquiring the features of an ethnic group. One is intermarriage – deaf people nearly always marry other deaf people. The endogamy rate is 90%, which is higher than many ethnic groups. They also have shared communication practices, such as ASL, and there is a strong preference for co-ethnics, as many deaf people prefer to socialize with other deaf people.

There is some evidence against the deafness as ethnicity hypothesis. For example, deafness is not a cultural trait transmitted automatically by families. Many deaf people are born to non-deaf people. Also, it is not clear to me that deaf parents would automatically socialize hearing children into deaf culture. I presume such children would easily learn ASL and other practices, but do they assume deaf as their main ethnic self-identification?

It gets murkier on some other levels. For example, ethnic groups tend to form residential clusters. Socializing with co-ethnics leads to co-residence. Aside from medical facilities and educational institutions, are there deaf neighborhoods? Also, ethnicity can often be a master status that gets wrapped into other issues. For example, there are Black and Korean churches. Are there deaf churches or deaf restaurants?

Perhaps the biggest qualifier is that deaf does not replace other traditional identities. Given a choice, would deaf be the identity be preferred over white identity? Would someone sign “I’m not White, I’m deaf?” I have no idea, but doing an experiment would be a great way to see the boundaries of deaf identity.

Bottom line: It’s fair to say that deaf culture is truly distinct and possesses many traits of an ethnic group such as high endogamy rates and distinct cultural practice. But it’s also true that it’s not always transmitted to offspring and it may not be the case that people replace regular ethnicity (white, black) with deaf in their self-description. Maybe it is a sui generis phenomena that combines features of ethnic and non-ethnic groups.

Written by fabiorojas

April 22, 2011 at 12:37 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

18 Responses

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  1. It seems to me that all the characteristics you associate with “ethnicity” are also aspects of social class. Social classes are endogamous, they have shared communication practices (like accents), class tends to be transmitted from parents to children, and classes tend to form residential clusters, where they have their own churches.

    A cognitive linguist should do a study of the senses of the word “ethnicity”. My impression is that it’s very often used as a euphemism for “race” or “nationality”.

    For example, on UK job applications, we’re asked to indicated our ethnicity on a standardised form, with two levels of options. First you have to say whether your ethnicity is “White; Mixed; Asian or Asian British; Black or Black British; and Chinese or other ethnic group”. Then you have finer distinctions: “Asian” is divided into “Indian; Pakistani; Bangladeshi” (nationalities) and “Black or Black British” is divided into “Caribbean” and “African” (regions). So judging by this classification, ethnicity is primarily about skin colour, and secondarily about nationality or region.

    Similarly, Americans have a curious phrase: “ethnic food”, which seems to mean “non-American food”, thus equating ethnicity with nationality.

    Perhaps Rogers Brubaker is on the right track in suggesting that we need a unified sociological analysis of race, ethnicity and nationalism. And why not class and physical disability as well?

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    Benjamin Geer

    April 22, 2011 at 9:37 am

  2. White is a race, not an ethnicity. Hence, the term “white ethnic”. Officially, in the U.S, the only ehtnicities are Hispanic and non-Hispanic, and about 50% of Hispanics also identify as white (the rest tend to choose “other”).

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    Wonks Anonymous

    April 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm

  3. Wonks Anonymous, have you ever heard of descriptive linguistics (as opposed to prescriptive linguistics)? If “ethnicity” is used in practice to mean “race”, then it does have that meaning, whether you like it or not.

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    Benjamin Geer

    April 22, 2011 at 3:39 pm

  4. My view is that ethnicity is something of a continuum along which subcultures arise. There are unambiguously class subcultures; there is unambiguously a deaf subculture. At what point a subculture separates out into an ethnicity could be understood as a matter of trying to insert a discontinuous boundary into a continuum. To the extent that a subculture is somewhat inter-generational and heritable, it is more ethnicity-like in its character. Deafness, like language difference, creates network boundaries that tend to foster subcultures and, thus, ethnicity.

    This more fluid way of thinking about ethnicity is something I’ve been playing with in other contexts.

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    olderwoman

    April 22, 2011 at 9:17 pm

  5. Ben Geer, in practice people tend to say “race/ethnicity”. And I have never heard of anyone say that “white” is an ethnicity. “Black” may sometimes be used as a person’s ethnicity in the U.S, because for most it cannot be further broken down into African ethnic group, and within America they have some shared culture/history. But an African immigrant would have their own separate ethnicity.

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    Wonks Anonymous

    April 22, 2011 at 9:53 pm

  6. Wonks Anonymous, did you read what I wrote above, and look at the British government’s “National standards for ethnic group” that I linked to? For the British government, “white” is indeed an ethnicity. Everyone who applies for a job in the UK fills out a form in which they have to indicate their ethnic group from among these categories, which were probably devised by sociologists. Note that this official standard doesn’t say “race”; it just says “ethnic group”.

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    Benjamin Geer

    April 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm

  7. The standardized form does not say White is an ethnic group. “For example, White British people are an ethnic group. […] White Irish people are an ethnic group; because they only comprise 1.3% of the population, they are a minority ethnic group at the national level.” Later on it says “What is your ethnic group? Choose ONE section from A to E, then tick the appropriate box to indicate your ethnic group”. White is section A, British and Irish are the ethnic groups you can tick (along with “Any other White background (please write in)”). Previously it says the ethnic groups are “grouped under five headings : White; Mixed; Asian or Asian British; Black or Black British; and Chinese or other ethnic group”. But those headings are not themselves referred to as ethnic group, and the “other ethnic group” bit just means an ethnic group which was not covered by any of the headings.

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    teageegeepea

    April 23, 2011 at 4:34 am

  8. On one of these forms, which I filled out recently when applying for a job, it says: “What is your ethnic group? Choose one section, then tick the appropriate box to indicate your cultural background.” To me this clearly means that “White”, etc., are considered ethnic groups, and the subcategories are considered “cultural backgrounds”.

    However you interpret these forms, it’s clear that the UK government considers skin colour to be the main factor in determining a person’s ethnic group. You can’t simply be “British”; you have to be “White British” or “Black British”. For another job application, I distinctly remember filling out a a form with helpful instructions that said, “Ethnic group is determined mainly by skin colour”, or something very close to that wording. (Unfortunately I didn’t keep a copy of that one.)

    It seems that the government is simply following common usage in the UK. Saeed (2007) notes: “the distinguishing criterion for belonging to a designated ‘ethnic minority’ group is normally skin colour.”

    Saeed, Amir. 2007. “Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media.” Sociology Compass 1 (2) (November 1): 443-462. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00039.x.

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    Benjamin Geer

    April 23, 2011 at 9:09 am

  9. Final recommended questions for the 2011 Census in England and Wales: Ethnic Group:

    Cognitive testing found that the term ‘ethnic group’ was frequently linked to a variety of factors that fitted with concepts that data users were interested in. These factors included: race, skin colour, lineage, religion, shared culture, heritage, language, beliefs and tradition, genetic make-up, heritage, background and geography. Example comments include: […]

    ‘Ethnic group…it’s to do with the colour of your skin.’

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    Benjamin Geer

    April 23, 2011 at 11:07 am

  10. There are deaf churches, incidentally. Link below leads to a directory in CA:

    http://web.me.com/fredore/Deafchurch/directory.html

    This is a very interesting observation.

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    Jacqui

    April 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm

  11. Additionally, what about Judaism as a common exception to the “ethinicity = skin color” rule? White Jews have been regarded as non-white by the general population, and even by the law, on many occasions historically. Jews who self-identify as secular, i.e. Jewish by ethnicity and culture rather than by religious choice, make up a large part of the Jewish population. I would argue that this group at least sets one example of ethnic identity that is divorced from skin color.

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    Jacqui

    April 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm

  12. Jacqui: Sure. But my suggestion above was that “ethnicity” is often used as a euphemism for “race” or “nation”. Until recently, Jews were considered a race. Skin colour is just one aspect of the concept of race. Also, Zionists still consider Jews to be a nation. And it’s worth keeping in mind that for 19th-century nationalist thought, “race” and “nation” were often synonymous.

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    Benjamin Geer

    April 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm

  13. IF I may be so bold as to note that many of the questions and issues raised in this thread are addressed my article Toward a Theory of Deaf Ethnos: Deafnicity ≈ D/deaf (Hómaemon • Homóglosson • Homóthreskon) that was published in Fall 2010 volume of Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education (Oxford University Journals). Lane et al incorrectly argue that my article is an empirical study of Deaf ethnicity. They do correctly indicate that my dissertation was an attempt to empirically verify Deaf ethnicity as a strategic and adaptive response to audism. That is — it involves a set of power relations.

    To argue that the set of power relations of Deaf communities with non-Deaf communities are class based is not accurate. Nor is it an issue of race as Deaf ethnicity crosses racial lines. Nationality? Lane et al’s model is based on Smith’s concept of ethnie or the ethnic origins of nations. I use ethnos to navigate that problem. Sexuality — now that is something I am writing about now so I have to pass on answering that today :)

    IF you read my article on Deaf ethnos, do understand that early part of my article was written for an audience primarily in Deaf Studies, not familiar with the developments in theories of ethnicity. My only regret with that article is that Madison Grant was cited without noting his extreme eugenic stance. This is being corrected in the expanded book version of the article.

    by the way – to my knowledge there are just three Deaf sociologists with Ph.D. I am the only Deaf sociologist who focused on race and ethnicity in doctoral studies. There is one other who specialized in social movements. There is one from Sweden who is in his 80s I think, To my knowledge there are no other Deaf with Ph.D. in sociology though that may have changed in the last 5 years. Hopefully it has.

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    Richard Clark Eckert

    May 29, 2011 at 5:22 am

  14. Richard: Thank you for writing in. I look forward to reading your article.

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    fabiorojas

    May 29, 2011 at 5:26 am

  15. Sorry – one more minor detail — Martineau, the mother of sociology was Deaf. Her reception in Deaf communities across America was somewhat mixed, in part due to her use of an ear trumpet. Another interesting read that is free on kindle is Harry Best 1914 sociological interpretation of Deaf communities. He calls them clannish.

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    Richard Clark Eckert

    May 29, 2011 at 5:27 am

  16. Will someone write, “I am White, not Deaf”? Well some might, but that do a significant number write that? I suggest re-phrasing the idea to see which is given more salience. There is no need to deny whiteness. Dively did did a very small samplek of Native Americans who are Deaf to find out where they anchored their identity. They pretty much claimed Deaf first. But the sample was not large enough to make many inferences out of it. Nagel (1996) in American Indian Ethnic Renewal every early mentions the idea of people have a portfolio of identities. This is a spin off of Gans (1979) concept of situational identities. This is covered in my article as well. Now as a Native (Ojibwe) and as Deaf, a great deal depends on who I am around. Being around Deaf Natives that sign is very different than being around Whites who sign or Natives who do not sign. There is no need to hide one in order for the other to be exhibitted. It really is situational. What is “it”? The expression and understanding of taken for granted aspects of the cultures. My apologies for hammering everyone with a buncch of posts, but I just discovered this blog yesterday and the concept of Deaf ethnicity is my are of research for the last 15 or so years so be patient with my arrogance :)

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    Richard Clark Eckert

    May 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm

  17. See if i can do better on my grammar this time:) WARNING – long post.

    Disability? Certainly there are many deaf who identify themselves as disabled. However, that identity has a long history that requires a great deal of caution. Although we can find laws that discriminate against Deaf owning property in ancient times, we also find laws warning against cursing Deaf. And then there is the heirship of the kings that in some cultures prohibitted Deaf from becoming king. Justinean codes had a complex classificatory schema of different types of Deaf and which one were eligible for Roman citizenship, who could vote, etc.

    Fast forward to 1880 and Sir Francis Galton eugenics. He constructs what amounts to a dog whistle to test who should be bred out of the human race. The inventor Alexander Graham Bell argues that Deaf people associating with and marrying other Deaf is violating the laws of natural selection. He works to close down Deaf schools, prohibit the use of sign language and from his actions gets drafted by eugneics freaks like Jordan and Davenport (who were later buddies with Mengele). The writings of Alexander Graham Bell, Jordan, and Davenport (who headed the US eugenics record office) all influnced the Nazi Hoilocaust (read Edwin Black’s writings on that connection). Bell actually became honorary president of the Second International Eugenics Congress. The point is that the eugenics movement is what constructed the idea of deafness as a disability. It was part of their racial purification project.

    Fast forward again to more contemporary times. Deaf people who see themselves as part of a ethno-linguistic community seldom see themselves as disabled. They see social structures as doing the disabling and embrace a concept of Deafhood as a counter hegemonic narrative. Deafhood is also viewed as praxis. Now the medical model of deafness or the pathological and disabling view benefits somebody. Who? The triad of medicine, government, and commerce makes up an auditory industrial complex (I think Eberwin first used that term but I might be off on the spelling).

    In any case I am not disabled by medical circumstance or a physical trait of deafness carried in the genes of my mother. Those whose jobs depend upon labeling and classifying me as disabled need me to be disabled. Industries need me to be disabled so they can promote products that offer a false promise (sometimes a miracle) of assimilation and upward mobility. Government agencies need me disabled so that my access to language does not get covered under a constitutional right of freedom of speech. Instead they pass laws to protect my disability rights. It amounts to a mask of benevolence (see Lane’s 1992 book by same title).

    Forgive my rambling – I have waited 15 years for this discussion to arise outside of Deaf Studies.

    Like

    Richard Clark Eckert

    May 29, 2011 at 3:32 pm


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