Population #ReadIn

“Racism” is such an unwieldy concept. Living in a world in which racism is one of the fundamental building blocks that shapes all our relationships, calling someone racist is somewhat akin to a fish accusing another fish of swimming in water. This is how I felt when I saw Democrats claiming that the election was won because of racism. If I were to make a list of racist things in American politics it would be just as likely to include welfare reform as the southern strategy, just as likely to include drones as border walls, and just as likely to include super-predators as a muslim registry.

I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There is a very important difference between a political party which relies on minority votes and one which tries to suppress them. There is an important difference between a party which engages in dog-whistle politics to win over swing voters and a party for which such voters are their electoral base. But that doesn’t get us away from the fact that – in American politics – we are always talking about relative racisms. Many of those supposedly racist voters voted for Obama in the last election, and many minority voters handed the election over to Trump in their state simply by staying home on election day.1 I don’t write this because I want to assign blame, but simply to illustrate how crude a tool “racism” is when trying to make sense of this all. So, if racism can’t help us, how do we talk about this phenomenon which is so central to contemporary politics?

It is not an easy riddle to solve, but one important part of the solution can be found in in the writings of Michel Foucault. Just a part of the solution, mind you, but for my own thinking on the matter it has been key. For that reason I was very happy when a bunch of anthropologists announced that they wanted to read read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in Society Must Be Defended as a means to think through “the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race” on inauguration day. This is because the concept of biopolitics is a very useful addition to the analytical toolkit we have for talking about the diverse phenomenon grouped under the term “racism.” As with any such analytical tools, the benefits of highlighting certain features necessarily obscure others, and there are entire books written to try to sort out exactly what is lost and what is gained by using these tools; however, today I would like to simply focus on one aspect of this lecture which has been particularly useful to me: Foucault’s use of the term “population.”

There is a widespread belief that racism is a natural feature of human society. Talk to many a non-anthropologist about racism for long enough and they will likely shrug their shoulders at some point and say something to the effect that “Well, ever since the dawn of humanity we have always thought that people in the next village didn’t bathe and slept with their daughters.” This naturalization of racism is pernicious because it depoliticized racism and makes it seem like a byproduct of human character rather than a deliberate strategy of rule. Foucault’s notion of a “population” does a lot of important work in correcting this precisely by focusing attention on how racism became a “positive” force in the construction of the modern state. Note that “positive” here is not meant to imply something good, but rather something that has the power to actively shape the world. If racism were simply a feature of humanity than the role of racism in politics could only be negative. That is to say, modernity would be characterized only by the progressive removal of racism from politics rather than by a constant search for new ways to institutionalize racism into the very fabric of our institutions. At the same time, however, it is precisely because there are aspects of the concept of “population” which are seen as serving the greater good that it is so successful a strategy for the perpetuation of racism.

Foucault puts it this way:

racism makes it possible to establish a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological-type relationship . . . The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer.

Thinking about populations involves a qualitative shift in the nature of state power, because it requires the state to “intervene at the level” of the kinds of general phenomenon that are indicated by “forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures” in order to “optimize a state of life” for the population as a whole. This is a new kind of thinking, obsessed not with the good of a select few, but the good of the “average.” Even if such thinking ultimately serves the interests of the few, it is crucial to understand that these interests are filtered through the ideology of the population as a whole and the importance of those few is interpreted in terms of the contribution to the greater good.

Foucault is concerned here with the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, but the ideas are just as usefully applied to the colonial encounter, or to the prison-industrial complex. In 1871 the British colonial government in India passed the Criminal Tribes Act which began the process of listing entire communities as “ born criminals ” subject to restrictions on their movement and eventually led to their internment in labor camps. With over two hundred different communities registered as so-called “Criminal Tribes” (now referred to as De-notified Tribes or DNTs) under this act, it doesn’t make sense to think of them as a “race,” but as I argued in an 2013 post on this blog, the logic of their oppression today is very similar to the kind of racial profiling African Americans are routinely subject to in the United States.

The concept of population also helps us discuss the concept of a “Muslim registry” without resorting to the concept of “racism.” As I said above, using a population highlights some aspects of a problem while obscuring others. Certainly there is a strong racist component to “flying while brown” that mustn’t be ignored. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Islam is a religion and not an ethnic group. Actually, considering the wide diversity of religious practices that go under the name of Islam, it might be even more accurate to refer to it in the plural, but the logic of the War on Terror has served to impose its own reality upon the world such that all that diversity is subsumed under the logic of a “population.” It is precisely because “Society Must Be Defended” that we have no-fly lists which have a disproportionate number of Muslim names on them, that we have surveillance of American Muslim communities, that we force Muslim immigrants to turn informers on their own communities in exchange for an expedited green card, that we routinely deny immigration benefits and citizenship to Muslims and those from Muslim-majority countries based on vague and baseless “national security indicators.” Oh, and did I mention that all of this was done under Obama?

The concept of racism is often used as a value judgement. As a way of diverting attention from our own complicity with the racist project of the modern state. The concept of a population helpfully puts the role of state projects front and center and lets us see clearly how deeply embedded we all are in this system. If we are going to fight the racism of a Trump administration we are going to have to get over our own sense of smug self-satisfaction and start asking some very hard questions. Foucault’s concept of population helps us start asking those questions, even if it doesn’t provide all of the answers.


  1. “As one study put it, “Non-voters tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality” more than voters , by about 17 percentage points. This includes whites as well as black and Latino non-voters.” ( source

3 thoughts on “Population #ReadIn

  1. Kerim, as I read what you have written here, I find myself nodding, Yes, Yes, Yes. Why, then, at the end do I feel disappointed.

    I offer two thoughts for your consideration. First, as new way of talking about racism you offer Foucault’s “biopolitics” and “population.” Each, I assume, has some specific meaning in Foucault’s usage but this is not spelled out. “Biopolitics” seems to imply a connection between biology and politics, but what that connection is remains obscure. Are we talking, as Foucault himself sometimes did, about politics embedded in bodily posture and habit in a way that seems natural? Or something else? To the uninitiated, this connection remains unclear.

    “Population” is a different problem. “Population” is a common word. We talk freely about the population of Taiwan or Staten Island or a population of butterflies. It works well as a neutral description of individuals inhabiting a certain geographical or social space who might be persuaded to regard themselves as a tribe or nation united by blood, soil, language, or religion, for example. But the mechanisms by which they are supposed to be persuaded remain unarticulated; I think, by way of contrast, of Benedict Anderson’s description of the use of print media to create the imaginary communities we now call nations.

    Leaving these terms as unexamined abstractions results in an argument whose overall shape resembles that of the Enlightenment, then Marxist, view of religion as a tool of state power used to compel obedience or an opiate of the people used to secure their passive acquiescence in whatever the rulers demand. What is omitted is the fact to which Geertz points us in “Religion as a Cultural System,” borrowing from Santayana, the proposition that people no more practice a universal Religion than we speak a universal Language. From this perspective, I am forced to ask if there is a universal Racism or a host of particular racisms in need of anthropological analysis. Then, I find myself wondering what it implies for anthropology that the anthropologists’ protest in this, the second decade of the twenty-first century, requires reading a French philosopher who died, perhaps an omen, in 1984.

  2. Kerim:

    Although racism may not be a natural aspect of human society. the pioneering research by cognitive psychologists such as Susan Gelman and cognitive anthropologists like Lawrence Hirschfeld demonstrates that humans ‘essentialize’ in regard to their perception and thinking about their own and different “racial” or ethnic groups. Essentialism is the cognitive tendency to treat members of certain categories or groups as though they have an underlying, invisible nature that governs the observable characteristics of their membership in that category. In ‘The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought,’ Gelman offers a wide variety of data based on extensive psychological experimentation that explain why such essentialist thinking is so pervasive in a child’s understanding of the natural and social world. In his book ‘Race in the Making’ (MIT press, 1996) through a comparative study of French and US children, Hirschfeld demonstrates how children easily essentialize different “races,” or what he refers to as ‘ethnoraces.’ Both Gelman and Hirschfeld hypothesize that there may be a specific cognitive domain or module in the human brain that predisposes individuals to essentialize human groups. Hirschfeld refers to a ‘humankind’ module that may exist in the brain that results in these essentialist conceptions of different human groupings. A racial or ethnic group is essentialized when members of the group (or outsiders of the group) assume that all group members share some internal property or ‘essence’ that is supposedly inherited and that creates the behavioral patterns typical of that group. As groups are essentialized, individuals make inferences about how the people in those groups think and behave. Many ethnographic descriptions refer to how ‘races,’ ‘ethnicities,’ or ‘nationalities’ become essentialized and naturalized.

    These cognitive studies help understand why Sam Huntington’s representations of whole civilizations as sharing a common culture that has resonated so widely throughout the world, along with popular expressions in the media and public political discourse about a “Muslim culture,” an “African American culture,” “Hispanic culture,” “Jewish culture,” “Hindu culture,” “American culture,” or “Western culture.’

    Anthropologists have long recognized the pervasive essentialization (both past and present) of different groupings within human populations. Since the days of Franz Boas, anthropologists have agreed that neither language nor culture is inherited through biological transmission or genetics. However, it appears that most humans nonetheless tend to reify and essentialize ethnic or national (or even ‘civilizational’) groups as having homogeneous cultures and modes of behavior. This is a serious methodological problem for the anthropologist and social scientist, but it appears to be a pervasive cognitive bias and default for most of humanity. These widespread, essentialist conceptions of human groups, “races,” “ethnicities,” or “civilizations” parallel the early anthropological Herderian and Benedictian configurational and simplified models of culture.

    By the way, Hirschfeld’s wife is the well-known anthropologist Ann Stoler whose nuanced Foucauldian perspective on postcolonialism has informed many of us. This cognitive research can be combined with good intensive ethnography and is an example of combining cognitive anthropology, ethnography, hermeneutics, and cultural transmission.

  3. Ray, the cognitive psychology you cite here treats essentialism in relation to human groups. The phenomenon itself comprehends, as you note, both “natural and social worlds.” There are references in George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things to earlier research shows children learning base terms for all sorts of things. Base terms are brief, common terms exemplified, for example, in children’s picture books. Consider “bird,” for instance. “Bird” is base term associated with images of wings, flight, eggs, and nests, the prototype from which the child will later begin to differentiate eagles, sparrows, etc., and to learn that some birds, penguins and ostriches, are flightless. Besides moving down from generic “bird” to specific birds, the child will also acquire more abstract concepts, e.g., animals that fly, which include bats and pterodactyls as well as birds.

    Why is it important to remember these things? Racism is not simply essentialism, but a peculiarly rigid and emotionally loaded way of stereotyping other human beings. Group boundaries are not given; they are, as Howard Becker learned from Everett Hughes (see Becker’s Tricks of the Trade), negotiated in ways that lead to agreement by insiders and outsiders that a distinct group exists. We know, too, thanks to Mary Douglas in Natural Symbols that the intensity with which groups insist on clear boundaries is a variable in human societies. Some groups are more open or closed than others. That is what makes the contemporary habit of focusing on “racist” words and treating their definitions as givens at which we should be offended politically naive as well as intellectually dubious. In our eagerness to condemn bits of language, we forget that “those” people, the ones who talk like, that may be potential allies and get off our high hobby horses to engage with them and seek common ground.

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