Commodification of Race & Ethnicity Research Paper Starter

Commodification of Race & Ethnicity

Beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century, the economic systems of the United States and to some extent most Western societies transformed from modern industrial economies to post-modern, postindustrial economies based on the consumption rather than the production of goods. In such societies, people use commodities to shape their identities. Like other forms of identity, ethnicity and race are socially constructed with the use of commodities. Some people embrace a voluntary, convenient form of ethnic identity that is largely symbolic, while others — mainly people of color — have visible racial or ethnic markers that make their group membership a matter of ascription, not of choice. While people use commodities to express ethnic and racial identities, other relationships form between ethnicity and the commodity culture. Ethnicities become marketed through festivals, race-specific products, clothing and ethnic cuisines. The commodification of ethnic cultures has led people to question the authenticity of the ethnicities they "consume."

Keywords: Achieved Characteristic; Ascribed Characteristic; Assimilation; Cathedrals of Consumption; Ethnicity; Fetishism of Commodities; Invented Traditions; Melting Pot; Race; Symbolic Ethnicity


The study of the commodification of race and ethnicity brings together several fields of sociology. Sociologists use the term "ethnicity" to refer to a shared background, origins or culture. "Race" refers to a socially constructed category loosely based on ancestral background and appearance. Sociologists believe that racial categories are for the most part biologically meaningless, although they have great social significance. While these terms are used for different analytical reasons in sociology, a person's race and ethnicity may overlap and in mainstream culture the terms are often used interchangeably.

Commodity culture is also a concern of sociology. As Western economies have transformed from manufacturing-based productive economies to systems based more on service industries and information, consumption rather than production has become the major focus of social institutions. For example, families consume together rather than produce together, leisure time is spent consuming, commodities are treated almost as magical objects or fetishes, and people shape their identities through use of products. The study of the social construction of race and ethnicity and the development of commodity culture illuminates several contemporary trends: people use commodities to shape their own ethnic identities and to label and sometimes stereotype various others; commodities are developed and marketed to groups on the basis of their race and ethnicity, and ethnicity itself is treated as a product to be sold.

Identity Formation through Consumption

The economies of many post-industrial Western economies such as the United States are based on high levels of consumption. In a consumer society, people do not define themselves by their relationships to the means of production, but in relationship to the market — that is, people define themselves according to what they buy. While in traditional societies and even early modern societies, people are defined largely through their roles and relationships, in consumer societies, a heavier emphasis is placed on visual statements of identity, fashion, and identity construction through the use of commodities. Culture becomes "prefabricated and mass marketed" (Dunn, 2000, p. 117) and ethnic identity can be purchased in the same way as other commodities. This simultaneously has the positive effect of giving people more choice in their own identity construction and the negative effect of destroying traditional bonds and fragmenting society.


Sociologists point out that some personal characteristics are ascribed; they are given to people at birth, such as gender. Others are achieved; people "earn" them as they move through life. For example, age is ascribed and marital status is achieved. Race is generally an ascribed characteristic. Although a person may pass as someone of another race, more often racial sorting based on appearance assigns people to the racial group with which they identify. Ethnicity is also ascribed, but there is a sense in which it can be achieved. People who exhibit physical characteristics associated with their ethnicity have that ethnicity ascribed to them, but others must actively display their affiliations for people to correctly identify their ethnic identity. In this sense, ethnicity can be said to be achieved.

Symbolic Ethnicity

Gans (1979) said that many people experience their ethnicity not through participation in ethnic life (for example, living in an ethnic community or attending religious services with others of the same ethnicity) but by identifying through individual acts with an ethnic category. For many people (particularly those who are descended from white ethnic groups) ethnicity has become largely voluntary and unlikely to affect life chances or important decisions. To "feel ethnic," that is, to feel connected with older traditions and meanings associated with a particular ethnicity, people engage in activities of a more symbolic nature. Ethnicity becomes an attribute associated with personal identity rather than group identity. Gans noted that using consumer goods (especially food) and celebrating ethnic holidays were easy ways of practicing symbolic ethnicity. In contemporary society, there are few costs and many benefits to symbolic ethnicity; it can provide people with a sense of uniqueness and help them distinguish themselves from others and from mass culture. Conversely, it can give a sense of belonging and provide a sense of common identity. In consumer societies, because people use commodities to construct their identities, symbolic ethnicity becomes shaped by commodities (Bankston & Henry, 2000). Ethnicity becomes expressed through ethnic festivals, foods, clothing and music -all commodified forms — whereas in the past it was expressed through maintenance of traditional culture from religious practices to folkways, through endogamous marriage, ethnic voting blocks, and labor market niches.

A group's culture may be commodified because it is being assimilated into the broader culture, or conversely, commodification may signal a renewed interest in maintaining distinct aspects of an ethnic or racial subculture. Commodification may be imposed on a group from the outside, for example, Mattel created sari-clad versions of Barbie to increase their market share in India (Grewal, 2005). Or, people in a group may market their culture to outsiders as a means of preserving it and keeping it alive. There is no limit to how an ethnicity can be packaged and sold. Ethnic culture is sold through foods, drinks, toys, clothing, and music; often, ethnic stereotypes are part of the marketing. For example, in some Irish pubs, the product being marketed is an imaginary Irish identity and also "a particularly 'Irish' way of having a 'good time'" based on the old stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinkers (McGovern, 2002, p. 79). What these examples have in common is the extent to which ethnic identity becomes inseparable from commodities. "Significantly, many of the transactions by which ethnicity is made 'real' are economically grounded: festivals, restaurants, art galleries, clothing outlets, and musical venues" (Lu & Fine 1995).


Examples of Commodification

Ethnic festivals may center on agricultural products associated with a group, foodstuffs, religious holidays, or a variety of ethnic practices such as dancing, production of indigenous products (Navaho blanket weaving), historical reenactments, or other activities (Cajun alligator calling). Staging ethnic festivals serves as a means of creating a symbolic ethnic identity in consumer society. Ethnic festivals are designed to re-enchant the world. They offer a multitude of commodities that ostensibly provide an authentic representation of an ethnic culture, and offer these for sale as a means of participating in ethnic life or as a means of constructing an ethnic identity (Bankston & Henry 2000).

Sometimes ethnicity is commodified in an attempt to move products. For example, the producers of Guinness began cooperating with the O'Neill's Irish pub chain when they realized that many people ordered Guinness in specific social settings — Irish-themed restaurants and bars — but rarely outside of these settings. Guinness began to cooperate in efforts to expand the number of Irish pubs in Britain and worldwide as a marketing tool....

(The entire section is 3810 words.)