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Rethinking the ‘everyday’ in ‘ethnicity and everyday life’

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Abstract

While ‘ethnicity and everyday life’ is a familiar collocation, sociologists concerned with racism and ethnicity have not engaged very much with the extensive body of social theory that takes the ‘everyday’ as its central problematic. In this essay, I consider some of the ways in which the sociology of the everyday might be of use to those concerned with investigating ethnicity and racism. For its part, however, the sociology of the everyday has tended to be remarkably blind to the role played by racism and racialization in the modern world. It is thus no less crucial to consider how the experiences of racialized groups might help us rethink influential accounts of the everyday. To this end, I provide a discussion of pioneering texts by C. L. R. James and W. E. B. du Bois, both of whom were driven by their reflections on racism and resistance to recognize the everyday not as an unremarked context, but as, precisely, a problematic one.
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Rethinking the ‘everyday’ in
‘ethnicity and everyday life’
Andrew Smith
Published online: 10 Dec 2014.
To cite this article: Andrew Smith (2015) Rethinking the ‘everyday’ in
‘ethnicity and everyday life’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38:7, 1137-1151, DOI:
10.1080/01419870.2014.987307
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2014.987307
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Rethinking the everyday in ethnicity and
everyday life
Andrew Smith
(Received 11 August 2014; accepted 30 October 2014)
While ethnicity and everyday life is a familiar collocation, sociologists concerned with
racism and ethnicity have not engaged very much with the extensive body of social theory
that takes the everyday as its central problematic. In this essay, I consider some of the
ways in which the sociology of the everyday might be of use to those concerned with
investigating ethnicity and racism. For its part, however, the sociology of the everyday has
tended to be remarkably blind to the role played by racism and racialization in the modern
world. It is thus no less crucial to consider how the experiences of racialized groups might
help us rethink influential accounts of the everyday. To this end, I provide a discussion of
pioneering texts by C. L. R. James and W. E. B. du Bois, both of whom were driven by
their reflections on racism and resistance to recognize the everyday not as an unremarked
context, but as, precisely, a problematic one.
Keywords: racism; ethnicity; everyday life; W. E. B. du Bois; C. L. R. James; Georg Simmel
Introduction
Within sociological discussion, the conjunction ethnicity and everyday life has
become, itself, everyday. Familiar and under-considered at once, it is consigned to
exactly the kind of pre-reflective obviousness that has been taken to be characteristic
of everyday phenomena more generally. Thus, there is, on the one hand, no shortage
of research studying the ways in which ethnic identities are claimed, ascribed or
resisted in everyday situations. Dan Swanton (2008) and John Clayton (2008), for
example, have explored the ways in which race is produced in and through the
everyday use of local spaces; Andreas Wimmers(2004) work has used network
analysis to examine the everyday praxis of group formation in diverse Swiss
neighbourhoods; and a whole range of studies have, for the most part, used
ethnographic approaches in order to consider how mundane activities such as
shopping (e.g. Everts 2010), cooking and eating (e.g. Highmore 2009), or simply
having fun (e.g. Werbner 2002, chapter 7) are implicated in the formation and
negotiation of ethnicity.
On the other hand, however, the everyday in ethnicities research tends to be taken
as describing a background of ordinary practices in a relatively straightforward or
self-explanatory sense. The everyday is a context: what is of interest is how ethnicity
happens there, so to speak. Consequently, sociologists concerned with racism and
ethnicity, even those concerned with those things in their banal manifestations, have
not engaged all that much with the extensive body of social theory that specifically
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Ethnic and Racial Studies,2015
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refused to take the everyday for granted, but took it rather as its central problematic,
as a problem worth reflecting upon because it had the potential to shed a different,
revealing light back onto the wider social world and the historical processes that
shape that world. As Henri Lefebvre (1987, 9), one of the key figures in this tradition
puts it: the possibility of decoding the modern world, that bloody riddle, according to
the everyday.
This essay therefore seeks to make a theoretical contribution in two directions. On
the one hand, I want to consider some of the ways in which the sociology of everyday
life might be of significance for sociologists engaged in research on ethnicity. But this
cannot be done without turning the question around because, for the most part, the
classical sociology of everyday life has been remarkably blind to the role played by
racism and processes of racialization in modernitys bloody riddle. It is therefore
crucial to consider how the experiences of racialized groups might help us rethink
influential accounts of the everyday, and to this end I turn back to texts by C. L. R.
James and W. E. B. du Bois, both of whom were driven by their reflections on racism
and resistance to recognize the everyday not as an unremarked context, but as,
precisely, a problematic one.
The Unruly?
From the perspective of one dominant strand in the theorizing of the everyday, the
concern with ethnicity and everyday life might well appear puzzling. Much of that
discussion, after all, has been motivated by the sense that the everyday is the realm of
what Harvie Ferguson (2009) calls unruly experience. Unruly here means neither
wildness nor rebellion, necessarily, because a great deal of our ordinary life is
obviously characterized by habit and routine. Unruly refers rather to the status of
experiences that are not immediately reconciled to, or structured by, the intellectual
regimes or the institutional practices that patrol and define much of our social life.
Everyday life, on this reckoning, has a peculiarly unbounded or disorderly quality.
It is precisely the everydays lack of conformity that makes it a problem. At the same
time, it is also this lack of conformity that, for a number of its most prominent theorists,
invests the everyday with a provisionally hopeful quality. For Maurice Blanchot
(1987), for example, the everyday was where we might yet encounter spontaneity or
pre-reflective experience a living in the moment’–freed from the tyranny of
abstract systems. Not dissimilarly, but more famously, Michel de Certeau ( 1984, xvii)
described the everyday as the realm of a practical making-do that was not resolved into
a discipline and that revealed the resilient creativity that flourishes at the very point
where practice ceases to have its own language. Even Henri Lefebvre (2002, 196),
whose account of the everyday is more sceptical of claims about its autonomy from the
wider organizing practices of social life, nevertheless used the term to describe a level
of social reality that was subject to, but always partially evaded, the accumulative
rationalities of modernity: it is in the everyday that possibilities are born.
Moreover, for a number of theorists, the unruliness of the everyday is taken to be
intimately associated with its diversity, with the heterogeneous nature of everyday
experiences and encounters. Ben Highmore (2001, chapter 6) points out that this is
part of what the original Mass Observations project sought to capture with its day
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surveys: the discontinuous and indiscriminate quality of ordinary doings, events and
beliefs. In part, Highmore notes, the project was motivated by an avant-gardist belief
that, by bringing to attention this simultaneity of difference within the everyday
(94), it might be possible to unsettle the taken-for-granted quality of daily life. This
interest in the potentially de-familiarizing power of the juxtapositions of the everyday
is prominent for many other theorists also. The great knots of Walter Benjamins
Arcades Project (1999) are in part, of course, an attempt to turn the flotsam generated
by modern life to radical effect. By disclosing the co-presence of unreconciled and
divergent histories amid the detritus of everyday life, Benjamin aimed to jolt his
reader out of any sense of modernity as a triumphant itinerary of progress. Not
dissimilarly, Lefebvre, particularly in his later writings, emphasized the potential of
the encounter with difference in everyday space and the possibilities for social
renewal that emerged from what he called everyday lifes time of unexpectedness
(Lefebvre 2007, 190).
In short, there is a prominent strand in the theorizing of the everyday that takes the
variety and immediacy of everyday experience as something not easily conformed to
modernitys dominant conceptual ordering, and which therefore seeks within the
everyday for the resources that might enable a critical questioning of that order. A
famous formulation of this is offered by Girard and de Certeau (1998, 256) when they
describe ordinary culture as a practical science of the singular, which takes in reverse
our thinking habits in which scientific rationality is knowledge of the general. A point
of unity in much of the theory of everyday life has been, in this regard, the desire to
allow the unruly quality of everyday experience to shake our confidence in the
seemingly clear-cut intellectual categories and stories by which we go about making
sense of things. The tenacious way in which ordinary culture refers knowledge back
to the singular instance and the concrete context, Girard and de Certeau conclude,
necessarily puts on trial our scientific practices and epistemologies.
What, then, are we to make of this? The focus on the unruliness of the everyday
would appear to make the collocation ethnicity and everyday life an unlikely one.
If we accept that racialized identities are precisely among the dominant epistemolo-
gical categories of the modern social world and that they operate, at least in part,
through a process of generalization (what Albert Memmi called the mark of the
plural 1965, 85) and if, moreover, we accept that they are often central to practices
intended to order and control those they designate, then on this account it would
appear to be a mistake to look for the active construction or perpetuation of ethnic
identities in everyday life. If everyday activity is governed by a practical science of
the singular, then it should be where racialized and ethnic identities come undone,
rather than being asserted, imposed or lived out. Yet there is, of course, plenty of
research showing the prevalence of forms of racism in what one can only call
everyday contexts and the ascription and, indeed, self-assertion of ethnic identities in
those same contexts (inter alia Essed 1991; Lewis 2003; Fields and Fields 2012). A
view of the everyday as the space of the unruly or un-conformed experience makes it
hard to account for the evident perpetuation of racism and racialization within that
space itself.
In response to this apparent disjuncture, I want to make three arguments. First, it
seems to me that, partial as it is, this focus on the unruliness of everyday life does
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help define a necessary concern for ethnicities research. While much crucial work in
this area gets done through the investigation of census and survey data, or through
qualitative work focused on particular communities, the sociology of everyday life is
salient because it teaches us to keep an eye on the ways in which generalized
categories of identity may be disrupted by ordinary relations and practices. And, in
this regard, studies of ethnicity in such contexts have indeed revealed the everyday
instability and renegotiation of ethnicity (Karner 2007) just as they have often
demonstrated that mundane practices and relationships can proceed in ways that are
neither attentive to, nor significantly ordered by, beliefs about race or ethnicity (e.g.
Everts 2010; Kramvig 2005). It is important, in this respect, that we are attentive, as
John Clayton (2009, 484) puts it, to the opportunities for conceptual disorder that
are present in everyday situations, as well as to the ways in which the sheer
substantive force of real-life encounters between people can destabilize presumptions
about categories of identity (see e.g. Byrne 2006).
At least as importantly, a concern with the everyday should have a monitory effect
for us, as researchers, as well. Rather than thinking of the everyday as the dirty straw
from which we spin conceptual gold, we need to think of how far that work of ours
relies on a settling or fixing-in-time of categories that may often be at odds with their
day-to-day instability, or which abstracts those categories out of the phenomenolo-
gical messiness and irresolution of ordinary relations and practices. In that regard, it
seems to me, we would be wise to accept de Certeau and Girards suggestion (1998,
251256) that we think of the everyday not simply as a context or fodder for
analysis, but also as a presence that puts on trial the purity of the concepts by which
we organize such analysis, and as a standing reminder of the extent to which that
purity is won by ridding itself of the disorderliness of what it purports to describe.
Racism and the theory of everyday life
Having said this, however, the disjuncture that I outlined above remains a real one.
What one might call the heroic tradition of everyday life studies has been much
criticized for its ability to construe any ordinary action, no matter how equivocal, as a
form of resistance. More pertinent in this context, however, is the tendency of that
tradition to celebrate the resilience and autonomy of ordinary cultural practices in a
fashion that seems to disregard questions of race and racism altogether. Pierre
Mayols brilliant ethnography of a working-class district in Lyons, for example, in the
second volume of The Practice of Everyday Life, describes the way in which daily life
in the neighbourhood is governed by an ethic of propriety, in which the proper thing
is to be present and involved, but unremarkable. Mayol describes how this mundane
surveillance comes to be routed through the body, making considerable demands on
individuals management of their public selves. Submission to this propriety is, he
argues, what licenses belonging in the space of the neighbourhood.
What Mayol (1998, 118) does not discuss, however, is how this presumed
transparency of everyday life, as he calls it, might obviously become complicit with
racism. He goes on to consider the ways in which, through gestures and forms of
subtle irony, those living in the neighbourhood confront the limits of freedom in the
relational game
(27) and find ways in which to disrupt the rigid monument of
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seemliness (33). But one step prior to this, prior to the disclosure of the ways in
which improvisation can disrupt the everyday order, that seemliness has already
been construed in a way that makes it perfectly conformable to the logic of racism.
Mayol offers no significant comment on this, but when he describes the extent to
which everyday life is governed by the demand of immediate legibility (18) on the
part of those it encloses, and when he describes the body as a record of signs of
recognition which manifests the effectiveness of its insertion in the neighbourhood
(22), one cannot help thinking of Frantz Fanons(1986, 116) response to racism as he
encountered it on the streets in France (including Lyons, of course): I slip into
corners, I remain silent, I strive for anonymity, for invisibility. Look, I will accept the
lot, as long as no one notices me! One might risk paraphrasing this as a plea on
Fanons part: let me no longer be subject to the racializing propriety of the everyday
encounter.
The appropriate response to this lack of attention in the canonical theory of
everyday life, it seems to me, is critical reconsideration, rather than wholesale
junking. In this respect, it is important to remember that the theory of everyday life
includes currents that associate the quotidian less with un-conformed or unruly
experience and more with ingrained routines, passivity and critical inattention: the
accomplice of, rather than the absconder from, modernitys ordering epistemologies.
My second argument, then, is that the canonical sociology of everyday life, despite
its frequent inattention to such questions, does contain resources that could be useful
in helping us make sense of the ways in which everyday life might be implicated in
processes of racialization.
A striking example here is the work of Georg Simmel, for whom the multifarious
and indiscriminate nature of everyday encounters, far from provoking critical
reflection, gave rise precisely to a dehumanizing vision. Urban life, in particular,
Simmel argued, inwardly shaped as it is by the processes and practices of the money
economy, and requiring as it does the psychological management of continuous
discontinuity, leads to a heightened intellectualism but also to a discounting of the
characterful individuality of people and things. Simmel, in common with other
theorists of the everyday, recognizes that practical, daily life often necessitates a focus
on the specific rather than the general (e.g. Simmel [1900] 1991, 135) . Nevertheless,
it is clear that for him the tendential thrust of modern society is away from this
concern with the quiddity of things and people in themselves, and towards the
dominance of reified abstractions (186) or what he called secondary symbols. The
extension of social relations mediated by money, in particular, leads to the utmost
reduction of the specific qualities and the one-sided character of all empirical forms
(221). While Simmel is overwhelmingly (and understandably) known in ethnicities
research for his essay on the stranger, his wider discussion on the effects of a money
economy on social relations offers a largely untapped theoretical resource for making
sense of the sociological conditions that might sustain racialization. The merciless
objectivity of money makes of everyday life a domain governed by an inner image
of reality (445) in which others appear not as qualitative individuals, but in the form
of abstractions.
Yet, to be clear, Simmel himself makes no such connection explicit. Although he
discusses in passing, in The Philosophy of Money, the extent to which the presumed
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racial characteristics of Jews have their historical roots in their positioning as the
bearers of a money economy (e.g. Simmel [1900] 1991, 225 ff), for the most part, his
thesis pays no particular attention to questions of race or racism. Much of his core
argument, for example, was anticipated in a famous dispatch on his experience
attending the Berlin Trade Exhibition in 1896. Here he reflects, powerfully, on how
the sheer heterogeneousness of the objects gathered in the exhibition, while appearing
at first glance to present an outward unity (Simmel [1896] 1991a, 120) ultimately
gives rise to a form of disenchantment. The money-mediated inter-exchangeability of
these objects renders the viewer indifferent to their qualitative distinctions so that
quantity how many and how much? becomes the only meaningful measure of what
is encountered. Hence, in the end, the self-aggrandizing accumulation of material
wealth in the exhibition has the bathetic effect of calling attention only to the shop-
window quality of things (122) under such conditions. And for Simmel, of course,
this shop-window quality clearly extends to our encounter with people as well as
with objects. Yet, he makes no mention of the presence, in the same exhibition, of
living exhibits from colonized societies, nor what their presence might suggest about
the ways in which such perceptual indifference might come to be affixed to particular
bodies. Simmel opens up the possibility of thinking through the ways in which our
everyday reliance on the inherently qualityless presence of money ([1896] 1991b,
18) could be implicated in the consolidation of ideas of racial difference as a specific
form of secondary symbol ([1900] 1991, 151), but his own account presumes race
as something existing prior to, not constituted through, the everyday.
It seems important to me to insist, then, that there are overlooked intellectual
resources in the sociology of everyday life that are of potential use for the
investigation of racism and ethnicity. But these resources are profoundly incomplete.
Therefore, my third argument is that if we are to think through the relation between
the everyday and racism, we need to pay attention to the work of theorists whose
concern to respond critically to the latter led them to reflect in important ways on the
former.
In moving in this direction, I am deliberately following the lead of feminist scholars
of the everyday, such as Rita Felski (1999/2000) and Dorothy E. Smith (1988).
Smiths powerful argument, in particular, emphasizes the necessity of taking the
everyday as a problematic, and for reasons very similar to those I discussed at the start
of this essay. She starts by recognizing the everyday as a domain that is construed as
being the unruly opposite of the bloodless, Archimedean point from which
institutional forms of knowledge production claim to proceed. By paying close
critical attention to the heavily gendered nature of this opposition the extent to
which the everyday is construed as the merely subjective realm of womens
experience Smith raises the question of how far one can really understand the
everyday without thinking through its implication in relations of social power.
Smith also argues, however, that it is precisely by reclaiming the perspective of the
everyday and learning to rethink the relations of knowledge production from the
standpoint of the overwhelmingly feminized labour that articulates between abstract,
general thinking and ordinary life that a critical perspective on those relations
themselves becomes possible. In a brilliant application of Hegel
s master-slave
parable, she argues that it is only from the perspective of this everyday labour that
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the gendering of the everyday is discernible and can be seen for what it is. She thus
emphasizes the extent to which a critical making-sense of social relations already
proceeds in the everyday, however much that understanding is concealed from expert
view by the definition of such space as somewhere in which only personal or
parochial things happen.
With this double lesson in mind, I move to consider two accounts that take the
everyday as a problematic in just the sense that Smith proposes, but which do so with
a particular focus on its entailment in processes of racialization. Both of the texts I
want to consider deserve, it seems to me, more recognition than they have received
hitherto as profound and pioneering theorizations of the everyday.
C. L. R. James and the battleground of everyday life
My first example is American Civilization, the sprawling, part-formed result of C. L.
R. Jamess (1993) decade-long effort to come to terms with mass culture as he
encountered it in America. Scott McLemee (1994, 226), one of Jamess most careful
readers, describes the book aptly as magnificent ruins. Yet, the ruination is the mark
of an achievement as much as a failure, emerging as it does from Jamess
characteristic concern to seek out the hidden relations in seemingly diverse histories,
practices and experiences. In this regard, the form of the text is, in part, an echo of the
very thing that it describes: for James, popular culture in America was just that, half-
built, both ruin and blueprint simultaneously. And it was only by seeing it as both of
these things at once that one could properly understand it.
James was no postmodernist avant la lettre and he maintains, in American
Civilization, a focus on the relations of production as a pivotal site of political
struggle. Nevertheless, informed by his reflections on the particular dynamics of
oppression faced by women and by black Americans, he had come to understand such
struggle in something like humanist terms: that is, as driven by a desire for freedom,
flourishing and the search for an individuality realized with, and not against, others.
And it is in this regard that everyday life emerges in American Civilization as being,
in its own right, a site of politics. James opens the study by emphasizing that he will
take the pursuit of happiness as his theme, both as a historical question and as he has
observed it in the actual lives of American people (James 1993, 30). Good to his
word, the book repeatedly focuses on the longings and frustrations that he found
conjoined in the most mundane contexts and practices: film-going, reading the comic
strips, the journey to work, and so on.
As part of his rethinking of Marxism in this period, James ([1947] 1980, 79) had
come to reject the idea that it offered any theological certainty about the direction
and destination of history, proposing instead a dialectical method of inquiry focused
on a search for the affirmation that is contained in every negation, the future that is in
the present. It is in just this sense that James approaches ordinary life in America as
an unresolved domain. Thus, on the one hand, he was explicit about the
homogenizing effects of mass society and insisted on the extent to which day-to-
day life for ordinary Americans was subject to the unifying imperatives of a capitalist
economy: the whole social arrangement of life bears the stamp of this mechanization
(James 1993, 116). Yet, if this was a negation, it was necessarily a negation of
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something, and it was that smothered potentiality, revealed in and through the very
negativities of popular life itself (see Larsen 1996), of which James refused to lose
sight. In a letter to Constance Webb in 1944, he writes:
The average advanced worker accepts as legitimate certain human and social values
which make him as a human being infinitely superior to men of past ages the thoughts
of great philosophers, which they could only hold often as ideals, are now the common
property as a matter of every-day life of millions upon millions of ordinary people.
(James 1996, 192193 original emphasis)
He ends the American Civilization with a spellbinding passage, imagining such an
ordinary American’‘as he sits in the evening listening to his radio (James 1993,
272), heir to these historical promises of freedom, and alive in a world that makes
possible forms of social collaboration and a broadening of imaginative horizons
unthinkable in the past:
Speak to the poorest mother in the park, or to a sharecroppers wife in the depths of the
South. More often than not, through the radio and the newspaper, they are acquainted
with the latest theories on vitamins, child-care, etc. Man and woman have a passion to
master technical things, to know about them, to do, to tackle a concrete difficulty and
solve it. (James 1993, 273)
This then was the question that ran in high-tensile lines through Americas everyday:
whether such men and women could secure for themselves an existence that would
allow adequate expression of this passion to know, to do, to tackle and to solve. It was
this desire that James took to be the elemental sociological force (James 1993, 226)
expressed in popular dissatisfaction with the lived experience of American modernity
and in the struggle, imposed for the most part upon women, to make something
tolerable and interesting out of this formidable apparatus of mechanized routinized
living (219). Everyday life, then, is not to be characterized by its repetition or inertia,
but is rather, for James, a profoundly unstable space where the contradictions of
American civilization, the contradictions between a historical promise of freedom
(the blueprint) and lived experience (the ruin), were at their most volatile.
Crucially, James arrives at this account in no small part as a result of his effort to
understand the particular politics of racism and anti-racism as he found these in
America. It was during the first years of his time in America that James worked most
concertedly to develop what he came to call a dialectical understanding of race’–
an account that treated race and the politics of racism as things only worth
considering as they play out in particular contextual and relational ways, and which
dismissed what we would now call an essentializing view of these relations: People
who only see the black man in general being oppressed by the white man in general
do not understand anything (Socialist Appeal, December 1, 1939). His alternative
account explicitly puts the politics of blackness in motion, as it were: if we want to
understand the race question, like any other question, James insists, we must see it
from all sides and particularly see in what direction it is moving, what is likely to
happen tomorrow (Socialist Appeal, November 7, 1939).
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This implied, for James, a deliberate two-sidedness in any attempt to understand
the historical and political significance of black struggle. On the one hand, he argued
with increasing vehemence against the tendency to treat anti-racist struggle as merely
an episodic moment on the highway to a true class politics (James 1996 [1948],
138). In no small part it was this insistence on the historical specificity of the
experience of racism and of anti-racist struggle that led him to a redefinition of
Marxism around the concept of freedom or a search for happiness. Rather than
packing anti-racist politics back into a proprietorial box called socialism, James
allowed that politics to open up the question of what was postulated by the term
socialism in the first place. At the same time, however, James rejected just as
vehemently any attempt to treat the history of black struggle as self-contained or
organized around the defence of some real thing called blackness. Thus, when he
talks about seeing that struggle from all sides, or when he stresses the importance of
seeing it as something in motion, his point is partly about the need to situate it within
the wider history of popular struggle in America and beyond. Through the course of a
series of articles, produced with extraordinary rapidity in the first years of his period
in America, he explored the way in which resistance to slavery and segregation
intervened in pivotal confrontations in American history and helped push the outcome
of those events in more progressive directions. Hence, for James, the politics of
blackness in America had to be understood both in its own terms, shaped as it was by
a particular history and modality of oppression, but was at the same time an
inextricable part of wider histories of popular discontent, giving exemplary indication
of what a politics built from such discontent might attain.
It was in just this two-sided sense that James discussed racism and everyday life in
America. What he recognized, in one direction, was that the contradictions of
everyday life took particular shape for black Americans: the extent to which ordinary
experience itself was, as it were, written through by racism meant that for those
subject to it, the everyday was something known only in its absence. There could be
no merely mundane or everyday experience when a core part of the modality of
racism involved the potentially violent regulation of ordinary encounters, relations
and practices. In this respect, black Americans faced a condition that one might call
the unimaginable everyday, a condition that found its indicative echo for James, as
did so many things, in the eloquent silences of popular culture:
A comic strip which dealt realistically with the life a Negro family, living in various
parts of the United States, and travelling abroad, could easily wreck great chains of
newspapers if they dared to print it and could result in violence, bloodshed and riots in a
dozen cities. (James 1993, 158)
It is not too much to say, in this regard, that for James, the condition of
everydayness the possibility or impossibility of imagining oneself as part of a
merely mundane world was itself a part of the way in which racialization happened
in America.
Yet, James emphasized no less the critical insight that this experience made
possible. He repeatedly argued with comrades on the left that communities subject to
racism, far from being rendered dumb by the experience, understood with a greater
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sense of concrete immediacy what was at stake for everyone in the politics of
everyday American life:
The twisted bitterness of the Negro people is an index of the suppressed angers which
permeate the vast majority of the nation. In the passion of the church services and
singing of the very poor, in the responses to the great Negro bands in dance-halls and
sometimes in theatres in Negro districts, can be felt a passion, a tremendous elemental
social force, which many who note it, like to fancy is primitive, of the jungle. It is
nothing of the kind. It is modern Americanism, a profoundly social passion of frustration
and violence, characteristic of the nation as a whole. (James 1993, 209)
As this quote makes clear, James develops his argument not least as a counter to the
tendency of popular commentators and academics to interpret the tension evident in
black popular culture and church traditions as proof of the jungle nature of the Negro.
Jamess dialectical interpretation of the everyday politics of race in America is thus
partly a response to the familiar act of racecraft (Fields and Fields 2012) by which the
historical consequences of racism are converted back into a self-justifying claim about
apparently timeless racial difference. By deliberate contrast, James emphasizes the ways
in which the relations of racism and segregation led black communities to define and
defend specific forms of freedom in those spaces that were available to them, while also
insisting on the extent to which such struggles offered an exemplary instance of the
wider and unresolved struggle for popular freedom in America.
W. E. B. du Bois and everyday racism
My second example is W. E. B. du Bois ([1903] 1995) The Souls of Black Folk.Du
Bois classic text has, of course, been the subject of a vast body of secondary
consideration and so my interest here is to insist only on the usefulness of reading it
as a work of everyday life. I do not mean by this to refer only to what du Bois wrote
about. It is, of course, also a matter of how he wrote. The better part of a century
before many of the texts that are now considered classics of everyday life, du Bois
formal experimentation in Souls the diversity of registers and themes, the
conjunction of the personal and the historical, the shift from poetry to factual data
to polemic to vernacular had already broken a path to a way of speaking about the
daily lives and longings of black communities that turned its back on wholesale
argument covering millions (164), just as it also refused the conventional oppositions
between observer and observed, objective analysis and subjective experience.
Du Bois is absolutely explicit about his intentions in this regard and about the
necessity of this approach, making clear both in his title and Forethought, his concern
not simply to describe social structures or broad sociological patterns of inequality as
these affected black communities he had done both, of course, with assiduity in his
studies at Atlanta but to vivify the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand
Americans live and strive (du Bois [1903] 1995, 41). In one respect, of course, this
marked a break with conventional sociology on du Bois part. He explicitly contrasts
his concern to bear witness to the world of black experience with the off-hand
judgements of the car window sociologist (179) and with a positivistic sociology that
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went on gleefully counting bastards and prostitutes (50) as if the resultant data
contained its own explanation. Du Bois phenomenological turn in Souls, and his
concern with the meaningful worlds of everyday life, was clearly driven in no small
part by a growing awareness of the potential complicity between merely enumerative
sociology and the mark of the general upon which racist thinking relied.
At the same time, however, we should recognize that even in the writings he
produced while he was a professional social scientist, du Bois was reaching for a
practice that made use of rigorously gathered empirical evidence, revealing the depth
and extent of racialized inequality in America, while also giving expression to the
everyday suffering that underlay these figures. In his writings on The Black North in
1901, for example, he had argued that it was crucial to provide a picture of the Negro
from without (du Bois [1901] 1978, 150). At the same time, however, he went on to
argue that it was no less necessary to place ourselves within the Negro group and by
studying that inner life look with him upon the surrounding world (151). So, in a sense,
one might read Souls not so much as the point of du Bois divorce from sociology, as
the culmination of his search for a sociology sufficiently broad as to be able to describe,
in mutually informing ways, both social structure and lived experience.
There are various places in Souls where du Bois makes all of this explicitly clear,
but perhaps nowhere more so than towards the end of the chapter Of the Sons of
Master and Man, where he writes:
I have thus far sought to make clear the physical, economic, and political relations of the
Negroes and whites in the South But after all that has been said on these more tangible
matters of human contact, there still remains a part essential to a proper description of the
South which it is difficult to describe or fix in terms easily understood by strangers. It is,
in fine, the thousand and one little actions which go to make up life. In any community or
nation it is these little things which are most elusive to grasp and yet most essential to any
clear conception of the group life taken as a whole. (du Bois [1903] 1995, 203)
This, it seems to me, is as clear a manifesto for the importance of studying everyday
life as one could find, and it is driven precisely by du Bois sense that one could not
adequately understand racism in America unless one understood how racist practices
were threaded through mundane, daily existence. He goes on to make this clear by
providing a short, imagined account of the experience of a casual observer visiting
the South (du Bois [1903] 1995, 203), aware only of how the days slip lazily on, the
sun shines and believing that this little world seems as happy and contented as other
worlds he has visited (204). To this white visitor, the Negro problem appears
invisible, a far-fetched academic issue, unless it happens to be revealed in a sudden
whirl of passion which leaves him gasping at its bitter intensity or in the
disconcertion of a moment when he finds himself in some strange assembly, where
all faces are tinged brown or black, and where he has the vague, uncomfortable
feeling of the stranger (204). Only in such instances does this casual observer come
to understand the truth about the ordering of the relations around him:
He realizes at last that silently, resistlessly, the world about flows by him in two great
streams: they ripple on in the same sunshine, they approach and mingle their waters in
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seeming carelessness then they divide and flow wide apart. It is done quietly; no
mistakes are made, or if one occurs, the swift arm of the law and of public opinion
swings down for a moment. (du Bois [1903] 1995, 204)
This passage deserves careful consideration. At first glance, du Bois appears to be
doing nothing more than revealing the violence that might at any moment interrupt
ordinary life in the segregated South. Yet, on second glance the relationship he is
describing is rather more complicated, because it is just the seeming ordinariness of
the everyday the quietness, the routine, the taken-for-granted patterns that already
provide the alibi, as it were, to that violence. In this respect, it seems to me, du Bois
insistence on understanding and giving an account of the everyday is not just
motivated by the ethnographers concern for detail, or by the novelists concern for
vividness; his insistence on the importance of recognizing the minutiae of the
everyday –‘the thousand and one little actions that are essential to any clear
conception of the group life’–is born also of a sociological recognition that
everydayness is itself partly constitutive of the relations that he describes. For du
Bois, everyday experience is not just what both black and white are subsumed
within; it is a significant part of the means by which that distinction is itself made real.
Like James, of course, du Bois also argued that those subject to this situation could
not but develop a critical understanding of the complicity between ordinariness and
the violence of racism. The everyday life that du Bois describes could never be
merely habitual, nor characterized by the kind of absent-mindedness that various
theorists have tended to associate with the everyday. That dubious privilege belongs,
in his account, to the casual visitor or to the car window sociologist, not to the
person potentially subject to the swift arm of the law. For the latter, pre-reflective
action, living in the moment, is precisely what is precluded. In this regard, du Bois
clearly understood Souls not merely as an act of verstehen in the Weberian sense,
requiring an act of imaginative or empathetic projection outwards on the part of the
sociologist, but as something rather more, an account built out of the ongoing work of
self-reflection and self-understanding that racism forced upon those who were subject
to it: a sociology grounded in the ongoing labour of everyday sense-making and
critical awareness born of the double-ness he so famously discussed.
Conclusion
Both of the texts that I have considered here, of course, emerge from reflection on
particular historical situations. It would be a mistake to generalize from them
wholesale. Nevertheless, it seems to me that both contain vital lessons for anyone
concerned to research ethnicity and everyday life contemporarily. Both du Bois and
James came to approach the everyday as a problematic. To say this is to say more than
just that they sought to pay attention to the ways in which racism occurred in
mundane situations. They clearly were, of course, concerned with everyday racist
practices, and it is possible to make the case that it was this concern that helped
inform wider changes in their perspectives towards a more expansive understanding
of Marxism on Jamess part and of social science on that of du Bois. Yet, to describe
the everyday as a problematic means more than just adumbrating a particular context
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or field of inquiry, a particular background against which processes occur or
relationships are formed: Defining the everyday world as the locus of a sociological
problematic is not the same as making it an object of study (Smith 1988, 90).
In the texts that I have discussed, James and du Bois do indeed approach the
everyday as more than just an object of study. For one thing, both insisted on
the importance of building an account that worked from, or in solidarity with, the
struggles of men and women themselves to make sense of the unresolved tensions of
their daily existence. For the racialized communities that they described, these
tensions took a particular form, a rendering impossible of everydayness as such. It
was precisely because racism meant that black communities could not be reconciled
to the normativity implicit in conceptions of everyday American life that it was true to
say, as du Bois ([1926] 1986, 993) did, that: We who are dark can see America in a
way that white Americans cannot. Jamess discussion of the historical experiences of
black communities in America emphasizes the same point, although his inflection is
different, given that he understood these experiences as a particular aspect of a more
general and unresolved tension that ran through day-to-day life for most Americans.
The point, in any case, is that both writers sought to develop an account that
would think from the already de-familiarized understanding of the everyday that
emerged from the experiences of those subject to racism in America. It was this
recognition that, importantly, places both du Bois and James at odds with accounts of
the everyday that take it to be a site, only, of ideological defeat or conformity. Of
course, the everyday could be implicated in such conformity, just as du Bois
describes the way in which the seeming ordinariness of daily life in the segregated
South provides the warrant for the casual visitors out-of-hand dismissal of the
Negro problem. But it could also be something more than this, and both James and
du Bois moved to treat the everyday world as that in which questions originate
(Smith 1988, 91) questions of the everyday from within the everyday, and which
included a concern to understand the social organization and determinations of that
world itself.
If James and du Bois thus came to take the everyday as a problematic, this was
because it was already such from the standpoint of racialized communities in
America. And in this regard, a crucial second lesson from both James and du Bois is
the need to recognize that the everyday is not only where ethnicity happens; it is also
part of how ethnicity or racialization happens. The everyday is not merely a scene for
investigation because the ascription of everydayness itself plays a constitutive role in
the making or sustaining of the boundaries of presumed or perceived difference. It is
clearly true that we should not lose sight of the ways in which the unruly nature of
ordinary encounters and experiences may upset the assertion of differences; but nor
should we lose sight of what is involved when that very unruliness is reconverted into
a demarcation or a form of rule.
Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Matt Dawson, Satnam Virdee, Bridget Byrne, Lindsey Garrett and Bethan
Harries for support and advice in relation to this paper.
Ethnic and Racial Studies 1149
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Funding
This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/
K002198/1].
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ANDREW SMITH is Reader in Sociology at the University of Glasgow, ESRC
Research Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).
ADDRESS: Adam Smith Building, University of Glasgow, G12 8RT, Glasgow, UK.
Email: Andrew.Smith.2@glasgow.ac.uk
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There are few things in the world that are as fascinating as people’s experience of the everyday, in part because so much about everyday existence would be considered surprising or even scandalous if it were not so common. Michael Billig’s (1995) landmark study of “banal nationalism” transformed the study of nationalism by exposing a myriad of ways that nationalism is a pervasively unnoticed facet of everyday life in the West, in turn spawning a broad literature devoted to uncovering the hidden reproduction of the nation through architecture, advertising, bank notes, maps, mass media, textbooks, and unwaved flags (to name a few). Building on Billig’s work, the approach that has come to be known today as “everyday nationalism” draws from the same intellectual well but focuses on the ways that people actively reproduce or challenge the nation through ordinary daily practices (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008). By centering analysis on agents and social practices rather than social structures, everyday nationalism bore the potential to again transform the way that nationalism is studied and to make in-depth qualitative research useful for broader comparison and generalization (Goode and Stroup 2015). This special issue represents an attempt to move the field of study closer to this goal by drawing together contributions that address the methods, scope, and applications of everyday nationalism as an approach. It grew out of a research workshop on “Everyday Nationalism in World Politics” which was held at the annual conference of the British International Studies Association in Bath, England, in 2018. The goal of the workshop was to recognize the increasing thematic scope and diversity of research on everyday nationalism—in the case of the workshop, including work on citizenship and migration, peace and conflict, authoritarianism and legitimacy, and religion and belonging—while starting to tease out sets of methodological best practices. In moving from workshop to special issue, contributors were asked specifically to address one of these thematic areas, to situate the place of everyday nationalism within their respective disciplines, and to address the methods used in observing, coding, or analyzing everyday nationalist practices. The contributions to this special issue bring to light core methodological concerns, create opportunities to build bridges with other disciplines, explore the diversity of everyday nationalism, and creatively exploit the tension between banal and everyday nationalism. Individually, the contributions to this special issue help to move everyday nationalism out of its disciplinary and methodological silos and advance it towards a broader, comparative relevance. As a collection, they shed light on the need to unpack the meaning and usage of “the everyday” if we are to resolve the ongoing confusion between banal nationalism and everyday nationalism. In the concluding section of this introductory essay, I argue for treating the everyday as an ensemble of characteristics concerning the nature of agents, the context in which agency is exercised, and the scale of observations and measurement. Doing so not only enables a clearer demarcation of banal nationalism and everyday nationalism as approaches but facilitates their broader comparison with more episodic, contentious forms of nationalisms, as well as the official nationalisms promoted by states and regime actors. Consequently, we come closer to conceptualizing how everyday nationalism as an approach might contribute to our understanding of the topics that are the traditional focus of studies of nationalism such as ethnic mobilization, ethnic conflict, or nation-building. Moreover, such comparisons lay the groundwork for our understanding of the intersection of nationalism with new and ongoing global challenges such as pandemic or climate crisis.
... Still, power continues to grant privilege and impose disadvantage, and make the negotiation of minority identities difficult. Indeed everyday encounter can reinscribe racism (Smith, 2015). In Europe, there is some resistance to non-Christian and non-White diversity, extending from mild popular anxiety about jobs, welfare, heritage and way of life to a 'more visceral politics of antipathy and hate' (Amin, 2013, p. 2) that stigmatises and labels some as threats. ...
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