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Hitherto we have discussed the problems associated

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Hitherto we have discussed the problems associated with two competing(discrimination and culturalogical) theories which try to explain why racialor ethnic differences in wages and employment rates arise and persist. Thebasic assumption in both the theories is that individuals are recompensedaccording to their productivity, that is, the quality of their skills, the amountof their efforts and their contributions to the production process. While dis-crimination theories hold differences in labour market status between disad-vantaged minority groups and majority to result from differential treatmenton the basis of race or ethnicity, culturalist theories explain such differencesin terms of cultural differences or cultural distance. According to the firsttheory, unexplained wage and employment rate gaps measure discrimina-tion; according to the second theory, unexplained wage and employmentrate gaps measure unobserved differences in the human capital and cultureof workers. How can we assess this controversy?As Woodbury (1993:261)puts it, to consider such a controversy as empirical is optimistic, naïve, orsimply wrong:
12Controversies like this cannot be resolved by empirical evidence that hasmore than one possible interpretation. As long as evidence is ambiva-lent, different observers with different priors will be able to interpret thesame finding as favourable (or at least not unfavourable) to their view.14Moreover, I called attention to the fact that conventional economic theories(that is, both the discrimination theories and the cultural interpretation)have an essentialist and common-sense interpretation of race and ethnicity– a good example of Bourdieu’s (1991) warning that the construction of anyscientific object requires a break with ‘common sense’. Race and ethnicity inthese theories are assumed to be unchanging, concrete and objective, where-as, as Omi and Winant (1986:68) suggest, we must understand race/ethni-city as “an unstable and ‘decentred’ complex of social meanings constantlybeing transformed by political struggle”. Ethnicity is thus expressed, in amuch quoted sentence from Eriksen (1993:12), as “an aspect of a relations-hip not a property of a group”. In the next section I present an alternativeapproach to ethnicity, that is, a relational approach.In addition, as Loury (2002:101) puts it: “It is conventional in our discipli-ne [economics] to posit an atomized agent acting more or less independent-ly, seeking to make the best of opportunities at hand…this way of thinkingcan not adequately capture the way that racial inequality persist over time”.He (Loury 2002) goes on to argue that individuals are embedded in com-plex social networks. They occupy various positions within social space.They are members of families with different socio-economic backgrounds,they are categorized into distinct and hierarchical social classes, they areordered by different genders, they have different ethnical and racial etiquett-tes, and they are assigned to various regional identities. Our position in thesocial system principally determines our prospect of access to valuableresources in our personal and professional contacts. “Opportunity travelsalong the synapses of these social networks”, as Loury (2002:102) concludes.

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Term
Winter
Professor
Priest, Kerry Louise

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