Eduard Grebe questions whether race remains a useful analytical category for social research.
Race presents students of South African society with difficulties on at least two levels. At the political level, there is the legitimate expectation that social scientists help break down racial stereotypes and combat racism. At the analytical level there is the question of whether race is in fact a helpful category in social reflection.
Race, like any categorisation, operates in the tension between identity and difference. Any two individuals have characteristics that unite them and others that divide them, and placing them in two categories – for example, men and women – necessarily emphasises differences to the exclusion of similarities. But on the other hand, categorisation is an essential tool for thinking, without which we cannot make sense of the world around us. So the question facing social scientists is, does racial categorisation help us make sense of social phenomena or is it merely the lazy application of received classifications rooted in a history of racial exploitation and nationalist projects (old and new)?
Professor Nicoli Nattrass and I were faced with this question when we looked at beliefs about the origins of AIDS using data from a survey of young adults in Cape Town. We found apparently huge race (and gender) effects on a person’s likelihood of believing that AIDS results from active conspiracies (for example, that the disease was deliberately designed by scientists in a laboratory). Being African, and an African male in particular, was associated with a much greater degree of scepticism about the scientific explanation for the origins of AIDS, and credulity about conspiracy theories. This was true even when we controlled for all the (individual) psychosocial factors we expected it to be influenced by. In other words, in multivariate models that include things like employment status, income, whether or not a respondent suffers from psychological problems, level of religious association, etc., the unique predictive power of a race variable was still very high.
Race here is not simply a reflection of economic status, as we often assume, because those factors are controlled for in the models. But, clearly, skin pigmentation itself does not affect beliefs about AIDS. Race must be proxying for a range of unobserved (and non-obvious) social factors associated with it. Interestingly, the same study found that despite a greater
likelihood to have unprotected sex if you are a conspiracy believer, African respondents in general are more likely to use condoms than others.
What are we to make of these results? Does it validate race as an analytical category in social science, or does it merely point to the prejudices, assumptions and lack of imagination on the part of the researchers, both in analysis and in the original design of the survey?
Social researchers are faced with a difficult (and politicised) balancing act. Surely we should strive for a deeper understanding of the underlying factors driving differences in social outcomes. But in the absence of that understanding, our shorthand, simplified categories are still useful. Our results indicate that the dynamics driving conspiracy beliefs about AIDS are different in African men than in African women, and that Africans in general are more likely to hold these beliefs. These findings can inform targeted interventions aimed at ameliorating the disproportionate risk of becoming infected with HIV at which African men and their partners are placed by conspiracy theories about AIDS.
We should therefore resist attempts at suppressing or delegitimising analyses employing race, even when these are based on a real fear of reinforcing stereotypes. We must be willing to offend. At the same time, we should strive to make our own analyses obsolete by developing more sophisticated theories of the drivers of social outcomes – such as AIDS conspiracy beliefs and sexual behaviour – that do not rely on murky catch-all categories like race, but instead illuminate the real underlying social dynamics. Deepening our understanding of society is, after all, the task of social science. In South Africa this responsibility is especially great.
Eduard Grebe is a PhD candidate in the AIDS and Society Research Unit (ASRU) and the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town. The results of the study on ‘AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs and Unsafe Sex in Cape Town’ are available online here.