| 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
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
1) Quoted in M. Clark Roff,
The Politics of Belonging
Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 207.
New Zealand Herald
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
The New Zealand Asia Institute Bulletin