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Part 2: Ethnic Realism

As we saw in part 1, the members of an historical kind are alike because there have been natural forces at work producing similarities among the members. These forces are real, natural forces, and not socially constructed. Now, as applies to ethnic and cultural groups, Millikan writes: “Many kinds of interest to social scientists, such as ethnic, social, economic, and vocational groups are historical kinds” (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p 22). In saying that ethnic groups are historical kinds Millikan is pointing to forces similar to those in the biological example that are at work in producing similarities between the members of ethnic groups. The social sciences that study these kinds can persist in doing empirical research on these groups that result in justified yet fallible inductions concerning them because these real natural forces promote the possession of commonalities between members. If there were no such real forces there would be no possibility of the social sciences since there would be no forces promoting likeness among members resulting in social groups.

“If social groups were not real, there could be no gain in empirical studies concerning them, for example, studies of the attitudes of American doctors toward herbal medicines, and so forth. Doctors are an actual-world group, not a set of possible properties in a set of possible worlds. That is why their attitudes and practices can be studied empirically” (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p 22).

Just as a biological species is kept relatively stable across time by natural forces, there are similar forces are at work in keeping together the cultural, ethnic, civic, vocational, and social groups studied by social sciences. Although not genetically inherited, cultural and religious traits are copied between generations through traditions and education. Similar to the way genes are copied across generations, these behaviors and ideas (memes) are copied into new generations and will promote historical continuity. That the copying is facilitated by the electro-chemical human nervous system doesn’t affect the reality of the copying process or make it less real.

“Many kinds of interest to social scientists, such as ethnic, social, economic, and vocational groups are historical kinds. For example, school teachers, doctors, and fathers form historical kinds when these groups are studied as limited to particular historical cultural contexts. Members of these groups are likely to act similarly in certain ways and to have attitudes in common as a result of similar training handed down from person to person (reproduction or copying), as a result of custom (more copying), as a result either of natural human dispositions or social pressures to conform to role models (copying again) and/or as a result of legal practices” (On Clear and Confused Ideas, page 22).

Ethnic groups copy the form of annual celebrations with each iteration, and new members come to learn the traditional form so that they may then go on to perform it themselves and pass it on. Think of the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree which is repeated each year. There are certain recurring forms that are repeated each year when someone puts up a Christmas tree so that you pretty much know what to expect when you are going to see one. True, it is possible to violate the conventions in many ways, and styles evolve over time, but the reason the violations are surprising is that you know what to expect because of the replication of the conventions. Likewise, language conventions are passed on as new members come to learn the language. And traditional styles of dress are copied as new tokens of the style are manufactured. The reproduction of distinctive styles of architecture, artifacts, rites, musical styles, and ceremonies are further examples of ethnic and cultural practices that are copied among members.

I will discuss the second factor that contributes to the persistence of a genocide-susceptible kind in part 3.

If you want to skip straight to the nature of genocide go to part 6.