Ethnic dissension

Issue: 135

Shirin Hirsch

Prodromos Panayiotopoulos, Ethnicity, Migration and Enterprise (Palgrave, 2010), £58

Academia is constantly filled with new buzzwords. In the last decade, transnationalism has become a prominent new concept with numerous conferences and journals emerging that attempt to deal with this supposedly new phenomenon. In the wake of Seattle and the protests which marked the World Trade Organisation meetings, scholars began to turn their attention to ways of organising and networks of people framed beyond the nation state.

Panayiotopoulos’s book responds to this new “transnational theory” through a number of case studies exploring different migration experiences. He powerfully shows the weaknesses of the theory, arguing that the political-institutional framework is central to an understanding of how racial and ethnic groups are ranked for exclusion or inclusion in systems of immigration control. Ideas of “deterritorialisation”, which are central to transnational theory, stand at odds with the international refugee system, with increasingly strengthened border controls. According to Panayiotopoulos, the nation-state is central to analysing migration.

The book continues to trace the structural framework in which to understand patterns of migration. While much of refugee literature and broader studies of multiculturalism tend to focus on particular cities and neighbourhoods, Panayiotopoulos is keen to stress the importance of enterprise and the workplace on migrants. One study he references is illuminating here, focusing on a recent migrant group employed in London’s low-paid sectors. Researchers found that respondents conveyed the distinct sense that racism within the locality was not a major problem.

Their main concerns were about racist practices in the labour market with many stressing that they felt “excluded from professional and white collar jobs” despite holding relevant skills and qualifications. Responding to this exclusion, Panayiotopoulos focuses on specifically migrant enterprises. His work shows that far from taking jobs from native workers, immigrants are in fact creating large numbers of jobs in particular sectors and localities. Ethnic minority enterprises are a highly visible phenomenon in the transformation of many inner-city neighbourhoods and run-down suburbs.

Panayiotopoulos’s opening chapter is a defence of the conceptual use of the term “ethnicity”. He strives to show that while ethnicity is not a natural “primordial” category, it has real influence as an associated condition of class. Rather than ignoring the term altogether, he argues that in work there is a real “ethnicisation” of particular trades and occupations. For example, one in seven Pakistani men in Britain is a taxi driver.

However, there is little discussion over how these ethnic categories are used in a top-down manner to divide class solidarity. Eric Wolf notes that the allocation of workers to invented ethnic categories is doubly effective in this respect, first by ordering the groups and categories of labourers hierarchically with respect to one another and secondly by continually producing and recreating symbolically marked “cultural” distinctions among them.1 At times Panayiotopoulos stresses too much the cultural difference between ethnic groups as a real phenomenon shaping labour relations, rather than something created to divide people into different groups. Indeed, not only is the class system structured by race, but it is also fractured by conceptions of ethnicity.

Rather than a fixed and stable division, the relationship between race and ethnicity is messy and confusing and needed further discussion in this work. The exploration of Hispanic migrants in the US is a useful example. While Hispanic migrants are often categorised as one group, and the term “Hispanic” is used both as an ethnic and racial category, the class divisions are unavoidable, most noticeably between the success of the Cuban Hispanic community in Miami and the Mexican and Central American Hispanic grouping, which often serves as a reserve army of labour.

The term ethnicity also does not give adequate space for any wider migrant solidarity movements or resistance within “ethnic” enterprises. Panayiotopoulos notes the largest mobilisation in the history of the US in 2006, when more than 2 million immigrants and their supporters demonstrated against the anti-immigration bill, a proposal that would have criminalised all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the US. These demonstrations showed the power to change the very nature of migrant employment. In California the protest had the aspect of a state-wide general strike and in Los Angeles alone an estimated 1 million people marched under the banner “A Day Without Immigrants”. At the height of Bush’s state racism policies, the movement was able to defeat the anti-immigration bill.

More in-depth research on some of these compelling moments of resistance could perhaps have enriched the book and offered a potential way out of the ethnically divided workforce. However, the book remains a valuable resource that provides a wide-ranging overview of key debates surrounding migration
and enterprise.


1 ER Wolf, 1982, Europe and the Peoples Without History (University of California), p380.