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Source: University of Canterbury

12 November 2019

Who we are, where we come from, who we love, who we hate, what we live for and what we would be willing to die for – our ethnicity underlies our identity and drives many of the conflicts and challenges in our world today, says University of Canterbury (UC) political sociologist Professor Steven Ratuva.

Scholars have struggled to agree on what exactly ethnicity is, mostly because it spans so many disciplines, he says. And if we can’t fully grasp ethnicity in all its complexity, how can we tackle the problems it seems to create?

The answer? Go big and bring all the disciplines together in one global project. Professor Ratuva was chosen to lead this colossal project, which was initiated by academic publishers Springer-Palgrave.

“They did a search of global experts on ethnicity and they found me,” he says.

That was mid-2017. Two years later, Professor Ratuva has edited the world’s most comprehensive, cutting-edge work on ethnicity. The Palgrave Handbook on Ethnicity is a three-volume, 102-chapter publication featuring the work of 100 leading scholars on ethnicity from 80 countries.

And it’s not just academic. “The book deals not only with theoretical issues of ethnicity, but it also deals with the real-life situations, experiences and reflections, and means of responding to issues,” Professor Ratuva says.

There are plenty of issues to consider. “Ethnicity is a global issue that is linked to almost every aspect of our lives including politics, security, development, identity, education, inequality, human rights and issues relating to far-right politics, racism, ethnic wars, religious conflict, terrorism, immigration, refugees and affirmative action, which are all linked either directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly to culture, ethnicity and identity.

“These are all part of our global, modern-day challenges for humanity and we must address them in innovative, creative and people-based ways to create a better world.”   

Professor Ratuva brought 20 years of experience in research across disciplines to the challenge of unpeeling the layers of ethnicity.

“My research is fundamentally interdisciplinary, combining areas of sociology and political science, history, post-colonial studies and development studies, focusing largely in the areas of ethnicity and conflict, the state, equity, affirmative action, nationalism, and a whole lot of issues to do with power, development, and the way in which social transformation at the global, regional and national level has shaped the world.”

Born in Fiji, Professor Ratuva’s academic career began at the University of the South Pacific studying science, but he soon moved to social science motivated by “empathy for those who are marginalised and for minorities and for those who deserve better in life, to be part of the global human family”. His PhD at the University of Sussex was in development studies.

The magnitude and global reach of the ethnicity handbook project made it a career highlight, he says, particularly at a time when ethnicity is intertwined with politics, inequality, identity, conflict, climate change and even science and technology.

“The most important part of the book for me is to see a diversity of views, experiences and intellectual traditions by scholars of different nationalities, ethnicity, political persuasions and intellectual positions engaging in a deep critical dialogue about ethnicity and humanity generally and how they can all transform the world for the better.

“Ethnicity is defined in various ways by these scholars, and they emphasise different aspects. While the broad definition deals with shared socio-cultural identity, how this comes about and how they are manifested is a matter of continuing debate,” he says.

“Identity is socially constructed by a group in a particular context at a particular time using social identifiers defined by the group or by others or both. Some argue that we have some primordial characteristics which define who we are and there are those who argue that what we are is a result of socialisation. As the world becomes more complex, we keep redefining the boundaries of our social group and even take up multiple identities. There are those who even argue that we live in a post-ethnicity world and proclaim that ethnicity is dead. So the debate continues.”       

Professor Ratuva is the Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at UC, a lecturer in UC’s anthropology and sociology department, and Chair of the International Political Science Association Research Committee on Security, Conflict and Democratisation. He recently completed a Marsden grant on regional security and this year secured over $588,000 of Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) funding to investigate Pacific community health over the next three years. He is the co-winner of the UC Research Medal winner for 2019.

Although the Palgrave Handbook on Ethnicity has just landed on his desk, Professor Ratuva is already onto his next project, which looks set to be another feat of interdisciplinary enquiry and scope.

“My next major project is called The End of Humanity. What it tries to do is to critique the way in which global neo-liberalism has redefined the notion of humanity; has redefined culture, educational institutions, political institutions, technology and science, and development, of course, and the way in which it has reshaped, if you like, the whole configuration of humanity as we know it.”

Professor Ratuva estimates it will take two or three years to complete, but adds that “a number of publishers are already lining up”.

The book will join many others, from Social Reconstruction, Affirmative Action and Development in South Africa (1999, University of the South Pacific Press) to Guns and roses: Comparative civil-military relations in the changing security environment (2019, Palgrave Macmillan) which Professor Ratuva co-edited.

MIL OSI