The Politics of Race and Research

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Conference Proceeding

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The purpose of this essay is to analyze the implications of four methodological approaches for the study of race relations in US society: postpositivism, structuralism, hermeneutics and antifoundationalism. After detailing these four, we turn to the familiar case of an undergraduate student who wishes to better understand race relations on his/her campus. By detailing the implications of the student researcher's methodological choices in such a case, it will become clear how certain questions about race relations are permitted, for example, by postpositivism that are not permitted by antifoundationalism (and vice versa). At the same time, some forms of knowledge regarding race relations may be a central focus from a structuralist perspective but of only marginal interest for hermeneutics (and vice versa).

In the course of research the investigator represents an active agent, making a number of methodological choices that ultimately determine the types of questions one can ask and the forms of knowledge that can be generated. Thus an informed and intentional researcher is one who both (1) understands (and consciously wrestles with) the methodological choices available to him/her and who (2) interprets his/her findings within the limits of these choices. For those who study race in the US, these choices carry enormous consequences. They contribute to a highly contentious body of knowledge concerning the fundamental nature of race as a social category. Indeed, the true significance of race (declining or otherwise) is premised upon a long chain of seemingly innocuous methodological choices.


Presented at the Annual Meeting of American Sociological Association in San Francisco, California, August 17, 2004

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