race agnosticism: commentary on ann morning’s research
Earlier this week, Ann Morning of NYU sociology gave a talk at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society. Her talk summarized her work on the meaning of race in varying scientific and educational contexts. In other words, rather than study what people think about other races (attitudes), she studies what people think race is. This is the topic of her book, The Nature of Race.
What she finds is that educated people hold widely varying views of race. Scientists, textbook writers, and college students seem to have completely independent views of what constitutes race. That by itself is a key finding, and raises numerous other questions. Here, I’ll focus on one aspect of the talk. Morning finds that experts do not agree on what race is. And by experts, she means Ph.D. holding faculty in the biological and social sciences that study human variation (biology, sociology, and anthropology). This finding shouldn’t be too surprising given the controversy of the subject.
What is interesting is the epistemic implication. Most educated people, including sociologists, have rather rigid views. Race is *obviously* a social convention, or race is *obviously* a well defined population of people. Morning’s finding suggests a third alternative: race agnosticism. In other words, if experts in human biology, genetics, and cultural studies themselves can’t agree and these disagreements are random (e.g., biologists themselves disagree quite a bit), then maybe other people should just back off and admit they don’t know.
This is not a comfortable position since fights over the nature of human diversity are usually proxies for political fights. Admitting race agnosticism is an admission that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your entire side in the argument doesn’t know what it’s talking about. However, it should be natural for a committed sociologist. Social groups are messy and ill defined things. Statistical measures of clustering may suggest that the differences among people are clustered and nonrandom, but jumping from that observation to clearly defined groups is very hard in many cases. Even then, it doesn’t yield the racial categories that people use to construct their social worlds based on visual traits, social norms, and learned behaviors. In such a situation, “vulgar” constructionism and essentialism aren’t up to the task. When the world is that complicated and messy, a measure of epistemic humility is in order.