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Accepted Paper:

Dangers, forms, and functions of essentialism  


Jonatan Kurzwelly (University of Goettingen)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper I will outline the trajectory of essentialist thinking in our discipline in order to expose it's dangers and oppose it's contemporary manifestations. I will also discuss the different forms and functions of essentialism and open the panel to further discussion.

Paper long abstract:

This paper will begin with an overview of essentialist thinking in our discipline. Eugen Fischer's biological anthropology in German South-West Africa and the development of his 'race science' influenced the genocidal ideology of Nazi Germany. Bronisław Malinowski's cultural relativism led him to argue in favour of racially segregated education in South Africa, indirectly influencing it's later implementation. These are only two famous examples of essentialist understanding of groups of people, from a biological and culturalist perspectives, which are representative of the academic colonial service our discipline provided. Essentialist thinking, despite it's fallacious logic, is far from extinct in modern social sciences, with scholars attributing different 'ontologies' or other forms of radical difference to groups of people, or attempting to defend 'strategic essentialism' in service of the oppressed. Through this brief historical overview I will expose the inherent dangers of essentialist thinking and oppose it's contemporary manifestations. In the second part of my presentation, with the aim of facilitating further discussion, I will briefly discuss different forms and functions of essentialism, drawing from both my own research and other examples presented in this panel.

Panel P168c
Contemporary Essentialisms