Figurations of Race and Ethnicity
Session 7.5
2004 NEMLA Meeting
Pittsburgh, PA
06 March

Kristie Dotson
University of Memphis

A Question of Method: Interpretation and Empirical Reliability in the Configuration of Race

Do not cite without permission of the author.

It is no secret that many argue that formations of modern concepts of race bear the remnant of scientific classifications of humans and constructions of natural history. Cornel West has argued that race as a product of natural history is “based on visible, especially physical, characteristics…[which] permit one to discern identity and difference, equality and inequality, beauty and ugliness among animals and human bodies,” ( Prophesy Deliverance . Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1982. Pg. 55). This understanding of the origin of biological/physical conceptions of race, which is widely held, takes into account what was debated concerning race in such fields as ethnology, 17 th and 18 th century biology, 18 th medicine, and other “scientific” studies. However, what is discussed less and less frequently is the method that led to the conclusions held by such theorists of the natural history of man like Johann Blumenbach, John Prichard, George Morton, and Josiah Nott. It is in viewing how portrayals of natural history were utilized in medical analyses, specifically in the debate over hybridity in the United States , that methods of analysis can be seen for the importance they play in the biological figurations of race.

In my paper, “A Question of Method: Interpretation and Empirical Reliability in the Configuration of Race,” I attempt to look at the role of scientific methodology in the hybridity debate of the 19 th century. However, my paper does not try to prove that scientific methods aided the production of race as biological, this seems to be a given in certain circles.1 Instead, I argue that certain “methods of analysis” utilized for the configuration of race aid constructions of race per se. Race, itself, be it biological, social, cultural, aesthetic, etc., is intimately connected with interpretations of human bodies.2 It is in the interpretation of bodies where the configuration of race, whether categorized by biology, culture, society, etc., becomes subject to empirical interpretation and evaluations. In other words, figurations of race are always already subject to “methods of analysis” that rely upon empirical data (whether the empirical data be physical, cultural, social, aesthetic, etc.). In my paper I argue that the configuration of race which followed from the American hybridity debate detailed race more as a “method” of analysis of human bodies than as a categorization of human bodies. Using the hybridity debates of the 1840s in the United States as an example, I maintain that one of the many discursive figurations of race is race as a “method” of analysis and not simply a method of categorization.


1 The Natural Academy of Sciences explains “Methods [scientific methods] include judgments scientists make about the interpretation or reliability of data.” (“Methods and Values in Science.” Published in The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future . Ed. by Sandra Harding. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. 341). Many have argued, successfully in my opinion, that the scientific method always already includes cultural values and biases. These values influence the conclusions of most, if not all, scientific work.

2 The human body, in my analysis, is a site of historical, social, and cultural understandings that are both projected onto the body and signified by the body.