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The Social Construction of Ethnic Identity and Rights – the case of Koreans in China
September 29,2016   By:chinahumanrights.org
The Social Construction of Ethnic Identity and Rights – the case of Koreans in China
 
Peter J. Peverelli, China Research Centre, Fac. of Economics & Business Administration, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
 
This paper intends to rethink the notions of ethnicity and human rights in the framework of social constructionist organization theory.
 
In 2007, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration describes their ‘rights to build political,economic, and social systems, and participate in economic and traditional activities’.It was adopted by a majority of 143 states in favour, 4 votes against (Australia,Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstentions (Azerbaijan,Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, RussianFederation, Samoa and Ukraine). According to Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, ‘The Declaration establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world's indigenous peoples.’ (OHCHR, 2016).
 
The first cue a constructionist will notice in the quoted statement is the definite article ‘the’ in the term ‘the world’s indigenous peoples’. Language plays an essential role in the way people make sense of the world. In English, the language selected for the document, the use of the definite article indicates that its authors believe that there is an objective reality in which the indigenous peoples of the world are clearly defined.The same applies to their rights, i.e. the rights that come with their being indigenous peoples.
 
This simple observation already gives us ample ammunition to pinpoint the flaws in such a perception. First of all, the construction of any concept automatically constructs its opposite. The construction of the notion of indigenous peoples, thus simultaneously creates the notion of non-indigenous peoples. So, what are those non-indigenous peoples and what are their rights? The Declaration fails to address those issues. This paper will try to fill that gap by redefining ethnicity and the notion of rights derived from ethnicity from a social constructionist perspective.
 
Although more relativist definitions of ‘ethnicity’ (Fearon e.a., 2000; Valdez, 2013) and ‘human rights’ (Donelly, 2011; Gregg, 2011; Zwart, 2012) do exist, positivist perceptions continue to be the mainstream, in academia and even more so in the political arena. In both contexts, people seem to be preoccupied with determining what ethnicity is and then fiercely defend the own position as the only truth. Every day the media are fraught with news of ethnicity-related conflicts, often of a violent nature, with people dying in defence of their ethnicity. Ethnicity is frequently mentioned as a factor playing a role in many of the less pleasant aspects of life:discriminatory legislation, unfair distribution of wealth, biased historiography in textbooks, and more. People put their feet down and do so more strongly, as the other side shows no sign of willingness to make concessions. Many academics involved in such conflicts tend to feel obliged to support the party of their preference with academic discourse. Academics and political activists thus become close allies, mutually reinforcing their position.
 
Ethnic strife is the order of the day in many parts of the world and measures by governments to deal with those issues are often criticised by opponents as violating the rights of the people involved. As ethnicity is not based on codified legislation, the rights people claim on the basis of their ethnicity is usually referred to as (part of) human rights. Human rights is another term with a heavy emotional loading and the combination of human rights and ethnicity forms an explosive cocktail.
 
If the academic world wants to play a more active role in breaking that vicious circle,it is imperative to put down the positivist thinking and adopt more relativist perspective. In this paper I intend to make a first step towards a relativist approach by redefining ethnicity and ethnic rights from a social constructionist point of view.
 
In the social constructionist perspective, people who see ethnicity as a cause for violent conflicts and those who accuse attempts to quell such conflicts by governments as violations of human rights are reifying ethnicity and human rights respectively. Their views are based on a fixed perception of these terms and anyone with a different view must therefore be wrong. The aforementioned UN declaration is an example of such reification. We can break open these reifications by proposing a model in which all definitions are regarded as, literally, equivalent, i.e. in which all definitions are right in their own social context.
 
The Social Integration (SI) model of social constructionist organization theory is an academic model that pairs high explanatory power of human behaviour with extreme simplicity. Moreover, it integrates the emergence of social structure with people’s making sense of the world, and can show how one and the same person can hold different views about the same topic in different social contexts.
 
This paper does not include an extensive review of the existing social constructionist literature on ethnicity or human rights. The core issue of this text is to explore how the SI model can contribute to academic and political discussions on ethnicity and human rights.
 
The structure of the paper is as follows. In the following theoretical section, I will first present a concise outline of the SI model. Then I will try to apply the model in on the ethnicity and human rights by analysing a number of real life cases. In the concluding section will try to formulate a number of propositions for further study.