Definitions invite particular perspectives
on the world
The Politics of Definition
Consider how the following definitions and terms involve questions of
power, value and ideology
1. Mr, Mrs, Miss (Ms.) defines women in terms of their marital status, but
not men (hence Ms.) The convention of women being identified by the
last name of their father or husband.
2. “Enhanced interrogation,” “enemy combatants,” “war on terror,” “axis of
evil”
3. “Far East, Middle East, Near East” (defining regions wrt proximity to
Britain)
4. MEDICINE: The re/definition and medicalization of illness: “male
pattern baldness” (going bald) “social anxiety disorder” (shyness) “ED,
or erectile dysfunction” (formerly impotence) “halitosis (bad breath)
5. PSYCHOLOGY: APA redefines homosexuality in 1972 (before 1972 it is
listed as a mental illness); the many shifting re/definitions of conditions,
from hysteria to depression to sexual identity (trans-gender, transexual,
bisexual, etc.)
The Politics of Definition
6. RACE: the one drop rule; Negro, Black, African American; miscegenation laws.
In South Africa the Japanese are defined as white, as Japan = key trading
partner. Others are black or colored (Asian). In Brazil, definitions of race are
particularly varied. In the U.S., “Caucasian” has been redefined many times –
sometimes includes people from India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and the
Mediterranean countries, and at other times (esp. wrt immigration) not.
Consider Germany – citizenship is largely defined in terms of racial/ethnic and
national “descent” rather than place (unlike in the U.S., the children of
foreigners assume their parents' nationality.) In most countries, racial definitions
shift frequently, shaped by ideology, power, economics and history. Consider the terms Maori and Pakeha in NZ.
7. SOCIAL ISSUES: drugs and alcoholism as moral failings vs. addictions.
8. LEGAL DEFINITIONS: the recent supreme court case ruling on the free speech
rights of corporations; defining rape within marriage as a crime (for a long time it
wasn’t in many countries)
9. How should we re/define marriage (debates about gay marriage). Is marriage
primarily to be defined as religious, as about procreation, stability and other
social goods, a love relationship, etc.
APA conference 1972
Gay psychologist wears a mask at the American Psychological Association
conference in 1972. He is on a panel arguing that APA definitions of
homosexuality as a mental illness should be abolished
Definition of Caucasian: 1932
The Races of Men, Smallwood et al. 1952, p. 264 (cited by Morning, 2008
• In the United States, the term ‘Caucasian’ has been
mainly used to describe a group commonly called White
Americans, as defined by the government and Census
Bureau.[22] Between 1917 and 1965, immigration to the
US was restricted by a national origins quota. The
Supreme Court in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
(1923) decided that Asian Indians – unlike Europeans
and Middle Easterners – were Caucasian, but were not
white, because most laypeople did not consider them to
be white people. This was important for determining
whether they could become naturalized citizens, then
limited to free whites. The court and government
changed its opinion in 1946. In 1965 major changes
were made to immigration law, lifting earlier restrictions
on immigrants from Asia.[23] (Wikipedia)
Definition of Caucasian: 1932
• “In the United States, the term Caucasian has been
mainly used to describe a group commonly called White
Americans, as defined by the government and Census
Bureau.[22] Between 1917 and 1965, immigration to the
US was restricted by a national origins quota. The
Supreme Court in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
(1923) decided that Asian Indians – unlike Europeans
and Middle Easterners – were Caucasian, but were not
white, because most laypeople did not consider them to
be white people. This was important for determining
whether they could become naturalized citizens, then
limited to free whites. The court and government
changed its opinion in 1946. In 1965 major changes
were made to immigration law, lifting earlier restrictions
on immigrants from Asia.[23]” (Wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_race
The Races of Men, Smallwood et al. 1952, p. 264 (cited by Morning, 2008
Five Major Human Races” (Oram et al. 1976, p. 614)
• “There is no more biological reason to speak of
the Indians, Whites, and Blacks as distinct races
than there is to speak of red-haired, brownhaired, and gray-haired people as distinct races.
This is not to say that races are not “real.” They
are all too real, but understanding how races are
formed and perpetuated in societies is a matter
of looking into social history, not biology.”
“Two Anthropologists Reflect on Race & Racism What is Race? An
Anthropological View.” By Thomas Bilosi and Marc Feldesman,
DIVERSITY Vol.2 1992.
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The Politics of Definition