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asia info

| December 2015


Why do we categorise?

Just because we can…

- Nicholas Tarling

Nowadays we avoid talking of niggers – but accept ‘blacks’ – and, rightly, avoid using ‘race’. But we attach people

to their ‘ethnicity’ or their ‘culture’, stereotyping at grave risk to an understanding of their complex individuality,

even while purposing protection and support; risking, too, ignoring change. Perhaps, too, it risks the stability of the

complex society in which they live and with which they have a reciprocal relationship. Even, it may be, there is a risk

to the larger human society which globalisation has created, though we seem more or less ready to accept the dual

allegiances of diaspora and the implications of transmigration. Why do we engage in this categorisation? Sometimes,

it seems, just because we can.

Taking a census was part of making a state from

early times. The nineteenth-twentieth century

colonial state insisted on including ‘racial’ and

‘tribal’ affiliations. ‘There is no doubt’, a North

Borneo [Sabah] census report remarked in 1931,

‘that a good deal of confusion and doubt exists

not only in the minds of the enumerators but

of the natives themselves as to which [tribal]

subdivision they really belong in.’ The people

had identified themselves with the rivers

along which they lived and through which they

communicated with others. Now they had

to decide their identity on another basis, or

internalise one thrust upon them.

Census-takers remain obsessed with identity,

even, or especially, in the [post-modern] nation

state. In recent New Zealand censuses we have

been successively askedwithwhich ‘ethnic group’

we ‘identify’ or which ‘belong to’, and offered a

weird mix of possible answers. ‘[I]nformation on

the communities that make up our country’, the

Statistics Minister explained last year, was ‘key’ to

making New Zealand prosper. The census was a

‘fantastic tool’, declared Henry Chung, Associate

Professor of Marketing at Massey University. ‘The

reality is the needs and demands for goods

and services are very different for each ethnic

community.’ For example, moon-cakes were a

must-have product for the Chinese community

for the Moon Festival. The data would help the

Pak’n Save chain ‘identify the super-markets

where the demand for mooncakes would

be highest’. One would have thought the

supermarket buyer knew already.

In the 2000US census respondents were asked to

describe themselves as belonging to one or more

of 15 ‘racial’ identities’: if they refused, their racial

identity would be imputed by the Census Bureau.

I leave the ‘ethnicity’ answer on my New Zealand

census form blank, and I suppose something

similar happens. The fact is that, like others, I

‘identify’ with much and ‘belong to’ none.

The questions and the posited answers would

be ludicrous if they were not dangerous. David

Cannadine has pointed to the risks of what has

been termed ‘totalising’, ‘namely the habit of

describing and defining individuals by their

membership in one single group, deemed to be

more important andmore all-encompassing than

any other solidarity – and indeed than all others –

to which they might simultaneously belong’.

The other much-used or abused word is ‘culture’.

That, of course, has shifted its meaning over time.

Currently it is often used as a label of difference

alongside ‘identity’, rather paradoxical though that

may be. It carries overtones of the stereotyping

that arises fromthe alien or unfamiliar. ‘Howshould

we do business with people fromother “cultures”?’

a recent Asia Savvy conference held at NZAI was

asked. Of course, in foreign countries, they do

thingsdifferently,astheydid inthepast.Buthuman

beings are more complex than that suggests, and

they change in changing circumstances.

Remember that a census is organised on a

national basis and Asia Savvy was held at a New

Zealand university. The nation-state, created in

the 19th and 20th centuries, still calls for our

primary allegiance in return for its endeavour

to provide security and welfare or to make up

for its failure to do so. But remember, too, that

the nation-state is itself, in Benedict Anderson’s

famous formulation, an ‘imagined community’.

We may identify with it or belong to it, though

the New Zealand census did not encourage us

to say so. But it is an extraordinary ‘community’,

since most of its members are unknown to us.

We are identifying with people we have never

met, with whom we may have little else in

common, whose complexity ensures a diversity

of interests and objectives.

Identifying myself as a historian, I would like to

think I have not abandoned the wide prospect

that W.H. McNeill opened for the profession by

his advocacy of world history. ‘Humanity entire

possesses a commonality which historians

may hope to understand just as firmly as they

can comprehend what unites any lesser group.

Instead of enhancing conflicts, as parochial

historiography inevitably does, an intelligible

world history might be expected to diminish

the lethality of group encounters by cultivating

a sense of individual identification with the

triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a

whole.’ That is where globalisation should be

taking us.


1) Quoted in M. Clark Roff,

The Politics of Belonging

, Kuala

Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 207.


New Zealand Herald

, 20.8.14.

3) David Cannadine,

The Undivided Past

, Penguin, 2013, p. 152.

See inside for stories including:

p.2 The New Zealand Economy

in a Changing Asia-Pacific

p.4 Roundtable with Ambassador

Ong Keng Yong

p.5 NZAI Korean Studies Centre

Seminar Series

asia info

The New Zealand Asia Institute Bulletin

ISSN# 1179-9145

December 2015