1 The aim of this article is to review the value of the interethnic relations perspective in a context marked both by a wide diffusion of the concept of race and research on racism and by renewed forms of racial and racist categorisations. The study was prompted by a number of questions concerning the theoretical relationship between the fields of ethnicity and race. The primary question related to the value of the interethnic relations perspective in light of the proliferation of studies on race and the consolidation of this field, which has been increasingly incorporated into different areas of sociology over the last two decades through a theoretical and empirical focus on the interconnection of social relations, on the one hand, and the adoption of postcolonial and intersectional approaches, on the other. In this rich and exciting theoretical context, researchers appear to have become less engaged with the question of ethnicity. The concept seems to have lost its heuristic power and to be facing some kind of reduced scientific credibility compared with race. This development has also been noted by other researchers such as Juteau (2015) and Bilge (2015). How can we explain this situation where ethnicity has been relegated to just the cultural or ideological dimension or indeed has sometimes completely vanished altogether while the race question, as is the case with other social relations, has continued to refer to economic and political dimensions?
2 One hypothesis is that the two concepts have been moving towards a kind of synonymy, as suggested by the adjective “ethno-racial”, which either deliberately fudges the two concepts or conflates ethnic and racial phenomena. The notion of race today, popularised by intersectional perspectives (I will come back to this), does in fact allow us to describe the extent of the effects of ethno-racial categorisation and discrimination. However, my focus here will be on its capacity to grasp the diversity of contexts and phenomena in which these social classifications shape social situations and relations. While racist hierarchisations are certainly active, forms of differentiation identified as ethnic provide significant elements of understanding concerning the social boundaries that separate individuals and groups and the relational dynamics that give meaning to their actions.
3 A second hypothesis is that there has been some kind of inversion of the theoretical relationship between the two concepts of ethnicity and race such that the research field now associated with the concept of race seems to have become a broad paradigm that can and indeed must include all situations involving references to origin, nationality, culture and sometimes even religion. To what extent have these developments in the 2000s and 2010s contributed to making social relations the counterpart of class- and sex/gender-related social relations? And why, in the course of these developments, do interethnic relations seem to have become gradually eclipsed?
4 This evolution raises a number of questions. Is there a risk that the well-worn scientific path of race, after that of gender, deprives us of an in-depth understanding of the complexity of interethnic relations? What does this retreat from or relative disinterest in the concept of ethnicity and beyond mean for the interethnic relations perspective? How can we interpret this evolution, and why does it seem important not to conflate the two concepts even though they belong to the same domain? A serious response to these questions would require an analysis of the social and scientific uses of the two notions, which would involve developing this vision more precisely and more fully to determine how the notions are used by researchers, journalists, experts and media intellectuals and also identifying the types of research and problematics in which they are mobilised as a major tool. The reflections I present here do not propose this kind of analysis. Instead, I examine the value of the interethnic relations perspective for research today, in particular with a view to understanding the renewed mechanisms of differentiation and hierarchisation, which do not all derive from race-based social relations.
5 The analysis was based on a corpus of approximately sixty texts (articles published in scientific journals and books) published over five decades between 1971 and 2021 (see References). The authors of the texts were all French-speaking (French, Belgian, Canadian) human and social sciences researchers (sociologists or anthropologists) who were specialists in this domain and selected for their contribution to the field. This was an exploratory study. It did not seek to quantify the uses of the conceptual tools mobilised, so the work carried out was not exhaustive. The aim was primarily to identify the practical uses of the two concepts as well as the theoretical reasonings and to understand their convergence or heterogeneity with a view to drawing up a valid semantic and theoretical landscape.
The Conceptual Relations between Ethnicity and Race
6 Concepts are tools that aid our thinking, but they are constructed and evolve within a specific historical, social and political context. While it is important to be aware of the contexts in which concepts emerge, this does not mean that we should forever retain a fixed definition. The exploratory approach proposed here does not seek to confine the concepts to their original sociohistorical spaces but to observe their scientific and political uses and circulation, including outside the academic sphere, because, as Fassin (2008) highlighted in relation to gender, “no conceptual tool is free of its political uses”.  This introductory statement aims to clarify the meaning of the approach and does not seek to crystallise any initial or historical definition of interethnic relations. It attempts to understand the evolution of the academic and political uses of these conceptual tools in order to better grasp the problematics that are currently driving francophone sociology on these issues.
Two Fields with Distinct Histories
7 The two notions of ethnicity and race do not share the same history. In North America, where this research field was first developed in the early 20th century, ethnic and racial questions initially referred to two distinct sets of phenomena. One set comprised the post-slavery racial phenomena, with numerous works on prejudice, racism and discrimination; the other was made up of phenomena relating to the major international migrations at the time, with studies on intergroup relations in the city setting, segregation and urban development, acculturation processes and the social and spatial mobilities of different groups. By bringing this multitude of empirical studies together, the present theoretical study enables a combined reflection on these two sets of phenomena.
8 In France, the fields of ethnicity and race did not exist as such until the early 1970s. Research was divided between an emerging sociology of immigration, on the one hand, and studies of racism and anti-Semitism, on the other, and it referenced distinct research fields and disciplines (Rudder, 1991; Bertheleu, 1997). The sociology of interethnic relations developed comparatively late in France in the wake of Bastide’s work (1931, 1970, 1971 and 1972), whose studies of the Brazilian context were influenced by North American sociology and anthropology, and also more notably in response to developments from the Chicago School (Cuche, 2008). This perspective was constructed at the intersection of sociology and anthropology at a time when the field of anthropology was undergoing significant change as a result of the decolonisation movements. The scientific term adopted in France for this approach was “ethnie” (ethnic group).  The field of interethnic relations was being structured in North America and elsewhere in Europe during this period. Studies published in the journal Ethnicity, for example, were little known or disseminated in France despite the creation (supported by Bastide) in 1966 of the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur les Relations Interethniques de Nice (CERIN). 
9 The French research on racism at the time was theoretical (historical, philosophical) and reflected mainly on anti-Semitism. Sociologist Colette Guillaumin’s thesis on racist ideology  marked a departure from this norm. It was slow to receive recognition, notably due to a strong reticence surrounding the word “race” in France, whose use was censored at the time. Its theoretical contributions were nonetheless significant and were shared within a few restricted circles (Bertheleu and Rétif, 2020). Guillaumin argued that the word “ethnie” “represented an attempt to escape the imperialism of the meaning imposed by the word race”  (Guillaumin, 2002: 59), although, in her view, it failed in this respect. She was later to make the same argument for the notion of culture, stating that “the semantic universe around race” was renewed and clarified through the notions of “culture” or “difference”.  She saw the same hierarchising connotations repeated in these terms, which ultimately ensured the continuity and durability of racist ideology but this time with an added nationalist meaning. The two main points of note here are, one, the choice in France to explore race-based social relations through the naturalisation process and, two, the broad vision of race-based social relations proposed by Guillaumin, whose work was rediscovered and widely disseminated in the 2000s.
10 Guillaumin’s broad vision did not correspond to the viewpoint of Pierre-Jean Simon,  whose theoretical work was, by contrast, aimed at developing a sociology of interethnic relations in France. After working with the anthropologist Georges Condominas on colonial and racial questions in Southeast Asia, Simon turned his attention to interethnic relations closer to home. He drew on the work of Bastide and Georges Balandier as well as on the conceptual contributions of American sociologists.  In a lengthy article published in 1970, he set about laying the foundations of the field of interethnic relations in France. Along with a few colleagues, he created the journal Pluriel (later renamed Pluriel Débat and then Pluriel Recherches), which proposed to understand, from the same theoretical perspective, race relations, interethnic relations, the minority question, phenomena relating to immigration, regionalisms and the national question. Simon, like a number of other researchers specialising in these questions, considered racism and interethnic relations to be rooted in the same theoretical and conceptual framework and saw them as two facets of the sociology of interethnic relations. There was very little discussion of this viewpoint at the time. The challenge instead was to defend the legitimacy of focusing on this family of phenomena encompassing “interethnic relations and minorities”  as a sociological research object.
The Same Family of Phenomena
11 The sociology of interethnic relations therefore set itself the task of describing the relations that develop between the majority and the minority. The “ethnic group” notion underwent little scrutiny and was used asymmetrically, tending to designate only the minority. French researchers failed to take on board the (im)pertinence of Everett Hughes and Helen McGill Hughes’ (1952) provocative remark that “we are all ethnics!”, which was made in the Canadian context at a time when the developing research seemed to focus only on minorities. 
12 In France, the small circle of sociologists, anthropologists and historians examining these questions during this period was working to get rid of the overly substantialist concept of ethnicity in order to better espouse the field of “interethnic relations”, which comprised the social dynamics associated with majority-minority relations, the objective and subjective phenomena accompanying forms of ethnic hierarchisation and differentiation, questions of cultural or national belonging and the ethnicist and racist categorisations that migrants in France encountered in their everyday lives, whether they were recent arrivals or had been settled for a number of years.
13 In the 1980s and 1990s, the term “race” continued to be heavily censored, and although attitudes were gradually changing, it was still rarely used. The concept of ethnicity also struggled to gain scientific recognition, and the development of interethnic relations was hampered by both the “ideological stranglehold of the republican ideal”  (Juteau, 2015) and the heavy colonial legacy in which ethnology had been constructed. In this context and in an effort to define the concept of ethnicity, Pierre-Jean Simon explained in 1994 that its uses were still relatively new and very imprecise. He cited a number of uncertainties surrounding its definition and proposed new defining elements with a view to establishing it as “a rigorous analytical tool” with a precise and “universal”  meaning, in other words one that was freed from the North American context in which it had first appeared. Rejecting the use of the term “ethnicity” to mean the “humanity of others”,  he undertook to reframe it as a dynamic concept, stressing the importance of the objective (sociohistorical) and subjective (consciousness of belonging) dimensions of ethnicity and proposing to anchor it in culture, the human condition and contact situations between groups within social configurations that were always unique.
14 Rudder (1998) contributed to this work to define ethnicity notably by exploring the uses of the term “origin”. This term was very present in France around this time, both in everyday language and in the newspapers. She showed that, in a context in which the concepts of ethnicity and race were censored, the assignment of people to their supposed origin fed a homogenising and naturalised vision of social and cultural differentiation and had the effect of essentialising the identity of those who were routinely designated as being “of immigrant origin”  or considered throughout their lives to be so. She highlighted, as Guillaumin did, the plural and constantly renewed forms of naturalisation, a process that lies at the foundation of race-related social relations. Like Pierre-Jean Simon, she underlined the fact that race-related social relations were the product of sociohistorical relations closely associated with the history of modern capitalism, economic development, slave exploitation, colonisation and decolonisation. These unequal relationships have continued to develop with globalisation and have been transformed in a variety of sociohistorical contexts, accompanying renewed migratory phenomena and territorial annexation situations alike. For Guillaumin, however, race relations go further than ethnic relations insofar as race relations are based on a relationship of appropriation while ethnic relations refer “only” to a relationship of exploitation and oppression.
15 While French researchers were in contact with their Canadian counterparts during this period, they did not always manage to share their contributions. One notable case in point is Juteau’s (2015) early work in this area. In 1981, she explained how ethnicity, class and sex form three “interconnected”  and interwoven systems, and, in 1983, she shed light on the link between the production of ethnicity and the appropriation of women’s work and bodies, stressing their central role in the multiple domestic transmissions of ethnic boundaries from one generation to the next. She argued that the socialisation process was thus accomplished simultaneously within ethnic, gender and class relations.
16 As the 1990s progressed, the concept of ethnicity was appropriated and invested with a heuristic capacity that was unprecedented in France. The field of interethnic relations expanded (more so than the notion of ethnicity itself) with the dissemination of a book written by Fredrick Barth and colleagues in 1969, which was translated into French in 1995 by Poutignat and Streiff-Fénart. Underlining the value of the interactional approach, it proposed a particularly fluid and dynamic vision of interethnic relations, which sometimes had the effect of moving the reader away from the fixist power of categorisations, particularly racist ones. A socio-anthropological perspective  closely linking social, urban and ethnic questions also developed during this period. Interethnic relations were mobilised to understand everyday social relations (Rinaudo, 1999; Poiret, 1997), the associational and community life of minority groups (Martiniello, 1992; Bertheleu, 1997), labour relations (Billion, 1999) and social and economic relations in urban areas (Rudder and Guillon, 1987; Raulin, 2000). Reflections inspired by the Goffmanian approach focused, for example, on the staging of ethnicity in the public space, in particular in shops (Raulin, 2000). In the United States around this time, Mary Waters (1990) and Richard Alba (1990) were proposing a new vision of ethnicity that clearly contrasted with the phenomenon of racism. This ethnicity was synonymous with individual, optional, chosen and symbolic ethnic identity and was disconnected from social classifications and therefore from interethnic relations such as they are being discussed here.
17 In France, the unprecedented development of field surveys led to the sharing and refinement of conceptual and theoretical tools. This allowed researchers to identify, for example, the importance of ethnic dynamics and boundaries, forms of cross-communalism between majorities and minorities, phenomena where common types of categorisation “encourage” the renewal of the cultural practices of minorities, and the reconfiguration of minoritisation, of forms of otherness and of feelings of belonging in urbanisation, territorialisation and deterritorialisation of ethnic mobilisations contexts (Cunin, 2006). This myriad of studies showed that ethnic boundaries resulted not just from social categorisation but also from the continually renewed efforts of the groups in question to affirm their existence in a singular configuration, to differentiate themselves culturally and to construct themselves as a group or community with their own values. Race-related social relations, considered as a specific system of naturalised relations between groups whose relationship is dominated by an asymmetry of positions, were therefore considered to be part of this broad family of phenomena, which included a whole repertoire of markers that were naturalised to varying degrees. As Rudder (1991) pointed out, race relations were conceived as a specific form of ethnic relations: “The attribution of ‘racial’ differences in intergroup relations is one of the hardened, radicalised modalities of interethnic relations”. 
From Theoretical Kinship to Inversion
18 Today, however, it is clear there has been a kind of inversion of reasoning and consequently an inversion of the relationship between the two concepts. Interethnic relations, far from being perceived as a general term designating the research field as a whole, seems to have become just one facet of the vast research field now covered by the generic concept of race. What has happened in the last twenty years to bring about such a dramatic change?
19 As we have seen, the theoretical kinship demonstrated above did not imply either a synonymity or a confusion of ethnic and race relations but rather that these social differentiation and hierarchisation processes should be studied in depth and developed in order to give an account of the diversity of their manifestations. This recent evolution therefore raises a number of questions concerning the nature of the social processes at work. Are the boundaries erected between the groups in question seen and experienced as immutable? Has the social relation been historically constructed in terms of a rejection of otherness (xenophobia or active ethnocentrism) or indeed in terms of heterogeneity (through naturalised difference)? Is difference perceived as relative or radical, historical/cultural or natural? Palomares (2008: 45) articulated this point very clearly in her article on the common uses of ethnic classifications in the associational life of women of Malian origin: “Social actors in a minority situation are not, however, passive when it comes to any pre-established and all-powerful dominant classifications that might be imposed on them. As products of history, ethnic classifications are altered and undone in the daily relations between groups, whether these are conflictual or convivial […]. These ethnic classifications reference assumed cultural practices just as much as they transform actual cultural practices. Challenging and negotiating racialisation do not pertain to exactly the same issues”.  Are these issues now being confused or inverted? From the interethnic relations perspective, the questions posed above seem to lose their topicality when the entire field of study comes under the heading of “race”.
20 To understand what appears to have been an inversion here, we need to take into account the following factors and research areas: the development of research on discrimination and the postcolonial gaze, the desire to avoid the trap of culturalism, the momentum created by the intersectional perspective and the increased porosity of scientific and activist knowledge.
Understanding Discrimination in the Postcolonial Context
21 In the late 1990s, the research on discrimination gained new momentum. With public action entering the arena and providing funding for research on these issues, there was a gradual increase in the number of studies being conducted throughout the 2000s. Following the signing of the EU’s Race Equality Directive, France was forced to catch up on its study of racial discrimination, which it referred to using various euphemisms, the most popular being “discrimination based on origin”.  Combatting discrimination was becoming an interministerial project and was surfacing at regional level on local authorities’ agendas in the form of urban development programmes and specific local plans. As a result, the problem was often reformulated. For example, the “fight against discrimination” was frequently presented as the “promotion of diversity” (Doytcheva, 2011) or in the form of “programmes to promote equality” carried out by departments responsible for “citizenship”.  Although the term “race” was carefully avoided by government and local authority representatives, the issue of discriminatory barriers was nonetheless a growing political concern. It was also becoming a key question for researchers working with immigrant populations, who would be encouraged to conduct studies in this area. In addition to a string of reports on these issues,  the publication of numerous qualitative and quantitative studies and other research of varying scope therefore helped to consolidate this new problematic. The proliferation of studies on discrimination triggered a reflection on the social structures that produce inequalities and on institutional discriminatory barriers. This reflection challenged the integration paradigm that, until then, had placed the responsibility for the difficulties experienced by newcomers on themselves (Simon, 2004 and 2008).
22 The number of social science researchers in this area grew. They were more comfortable with this new perspective, which hunted down discrimination and highlighted inequalities, than with a sociology/anthropology that, often adopting an ethnographic approach, seemed happy to study the social worlds of “ethnics” and run the risk, in their eyes, of allowing the concept of ethnicity to exist. Still open to the dangers of essentialism and culturalism, the concept was shunned by sociology. The success of the neologism “ethnicisation” outside academia can be explained by this ambivalence towards ethnicity among experts and activists. Although the existence of these phenomena in France could no longer be denied, they were nevertheless denounced as being outside the norm, pathological (Bertheleu, 2007) and vectors of communitarian risks.
23 The public debate was focused mainly on the question of the categories required for a quantitative approach to discrimination and on the contentious issue of compiling “ethnic” statistics. Although the debate essentially followed the development of research seeking to show the extent of discrimination, the qualifier “ethnic” was nevertheless constantly present, serving to delegitimise the data characterised as such. This political and scientific momentum, which was exciting in some respects, had the indirect effect of shifting researchers’ attention away from detailed ethnographic descriptions and the micro-phenomena of asymmetry and reciprocity in interethnic relations and towards the developing research field of racial discrimination (however poorly named). The distinction that some researchers had sought to make between ethnism and racism (Simon, 1970) or between ethnic boundaries (Juteau, 2015) and racist social relations (Rudder et al., 2000) lost its relevance.
24 This boom in the study of discrimination coincided with the sudden emergence of research inspired by the postcolonial perspective, the majority of which was published over a relatively short period, namely the 2000s. While the newly created Cité Nationale d’Histoire de l’Immigration was working to build up a fund to enable it to speak up for a more inclusive society, human sciences researchers were discovering the subaltern and postcolonial studies perspective. Echoing the discrimination problematic, which shifted the sociological gaze from the minority to the majority, analyses were now looking at the French postcolonial case, with its colonial pasts that could not be consigned to the past, its uncharted memory conflicts and, in particular, its difficult relations with nationals from its former colonies (Bancel et al., 2005), which appear to have been at the root of the urban revolts. In a polemical political context that sometimes seeped into the research units, the focus was thus on “examining French society in light of postcolonial perspectives”  (Bancel et al., 2010) and understanding the contemporary effects of the colonial period in order to better rethink migration, discrimination and racism and to analyse public action on these issues.
25 The time had therefore come to (con)fuse ethnic and racial questions under the single banner of race, creating a new concept that encompassed all phenomena relating to ethnic and racial dynamics. To take just one example, the vast Global Race project funded by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche in 2016 specifically investigated the globalisation of the racial frame of reference and the “various theories and practices regarding the use of racial and ethnic categories”  and found that racism was fuelled by the circulation of cultural stereotypes. The development of this research on racism, in connection with the research carried out in the Americas, encouraged international comparisons and dynamised qualitative and quantitative studies in areas such as racism, discrimination, anti-discriminatory political programmes and “ethnic” statistics with an emphasis on the value of studying “racism without race”.  This lack of any explicit mention of race or any explicit belief in a biological system of races seems to have led to some confusion between the two fields of race and ethnicity, which, because the main focus was on discrimination, were seen as very similar in terms of the processes studied and their effects. The ethnic question did not entirely disappear from research, but it was transformed into a narrow research object that was more anthropological than sociological in nature and was swallowed up within the more general field of race. This shift in the research field towards discrimination also made the sharing of scientific literature easier, particularly in France, where the interethnic relations perspective had remained, in the eyes of some human sciences actors, either ambiguous or associated with illegitimate minority identities.
26 While the contributions of this research on discrimination and race-related social relations were obviously to be welcomed, their deployment seems to have been at the expense of the field of interethnic relations, such as it was previously defined, and points to a real inversion of the view of the relationship between the two concepts. This change wiped out all the conceptual and empirical work that had been started. It also led to a theoretical simplification and a tendency to understand social relations in a macro-social way that obscured the cultural subtleties of relational dynamics.
The Rise of the Intersectional Perspective
27 Another phenomenon that heavily influenced academic research from the 2000s onwards was the development between 2005 and 2010 of the intersectional perspective. It profoundly shook up and transformed the way ethnic and racial issues were viewed and led to a new wave of studies within the context of a proliferation of research and discourse on migration. Studies in these areas were influenced by the parallel development of postcolonial studies, which stressed the continuity between the colonial relationship and the postcolonial situations observed at the time in Europe (Lazarus, 2006; Smouts, 2007), and feminist studies, especially through the dissemination of Black Feminist Thought (Collins, 1990), whose founding texts defending the idea of a “matrix of domination” were translated into French by Elsa Dorlin in 2005. Structural racism and sexism were closely linked, providing an understanding of the interweaving of majority/minority relations as a whole within the same material and symbolic social order. The intersectional approach enjoyed great success in the human sciences, particularly in sociology, where the foundational question of social inequalities was experiencing a certain revival.
28 Juteau (2015) proposed some rather pioneering theoretical work on this subject in the francophone literature. She established a close link between ethnic relations and sex and class relations and thus developed a materialist feminist theorisation that is widely shared today in France as well as in Canada.  Her contributions have provided valuable tools for describing ethnic and racial social relations within sex and class relations, helping us to understand how they structure and actualise forms of hierarchisation and differentiation.
29 Although Pierre-Jean Simon had been calling for a sociology of social classifications that presupposed an interlinking of the different social relations since 1990 and Guillaumin (1994) had kick-started this reasoning in her reflection on naturalisation by drawing an analogy between race and sex, this theoretical work between class and sex was only concretely developed and implemented in France by materialist feminist sociologists and specialists in the field of work (Kergoat, 1978 and 2009). It was further developed subsequently through a theoretical and empirical interlinking of gender, class and race (Galerand and Kergoat, 2014; Hamel, 2018).
30 Long marginalised but supported by quality journals and a host of researchers, the French sociological circles defending a feminist epistemology demonstrated their full analytical power during this period, underlining the cross-cutting nature of their approach. I will not go over here the theoretical debates on the intersection, interconnection, interweaving or consubstantiality of social relations. Nor will I discuss the theoretical choices that led to the use of the concept of sex-based relations rather than gender. It is enough just to note that these approaches, taken together, led to the sharing of a theory of the interconnection of oppressions (Collins, 1990; Bilge, 2010). They encouraged the adoption of the generic concept of race as a field that could dialogue both nationally and internationally with the better-established fields of class- and sex-based social relations.
31 Within the space of a decade, the French theoretical and empirical approaches to these questions were literally wiped out by the incoming African-American feminist epistemologies, despite the fact their reasoning was based on the specific racist configurations of the Americas. While the circulation of ideas and the fruitfulness of the new questions it gave rise to were again to be welcomed, this movement contributed to the neglect of ethnic issues in two ways. On the one hand, it implied that they would naturally disappear in accordance with the assimilationist paradigm that persisted in France through the political uses of the notion of integration (Lochak, 2006), which was based on the gradual acculturation of people from migrant backgrounds and the recently introduced requirement for adherence to the “values of the Republic” and notably to the principle of secularism.  This argument was as old as the research on ethnicity itself and was well known among specialists, who all noted, on the contrary, a revival of ethnic phenomena in the globalisation context. The feminisms that some would describe as ‘republican’ did indeed share this view, especially when the ethnic dimensions observed contradicted aspirations for gender equality. The fact is, the research adopting an intersectional perspective had tended to abandon interethnic relations in favour of race-based social relations.
32 On the other hand, this scholarly theorised interconnection of dominations was increasingly being seen by the public authorities as the only real issue to be explored. In the 2010s, government and local authority representatives adopted the term “multiple discriminations”,  which encouraged researchers to focus again on the question of the relations of domination and to position their work on the effects of these social relations in terms of inequality. How could the study of ethnic practices and boundaries therefore continue to be seen as important compared with the scientific and political efforts to combat racial inequalities?
The Dissociation from Culturalism
33 With this movement focusing on discrimination, on the one hand, and on the intersectional perspective, on the other, the cultural dimension of interethnic relations was significantly sidelined. Suspected of bias, especially when it remained silent on the economic and political dimensions of contact situations, the study of acculturation phenomena and intercultural relations, so popular in the 1980s and 1990s,  was abandoned. Culture was no longer an operational concept for deciphering the social world. This mistrust of culturalism was not new. The developments in the sociology of interethnic relations and racism had in fact been driven, as we have seen, by this mistrust of culturalism and its latent forms. Through its recurrent use and apparent simplicity, the notion had tended to limit reflection on the fluidity, plasticity and instability of cultural meanings and practices. Using culture to explain a behaviour or situation inevitably risked masking the complexity of trajectories and situations and the positionings of people within these situations. The approach became bogged down in what Bastenier (2004) called the “culturalist definition of culture”.  It has always been important to avoid culturalist explanations and to make a clear distinction between ethnicity and culture, even at the risk of identifying ethnicity (claims of belonging, assertion of a boundary, differentiations and cross-categorisations) in situations where the reference to “culture” seems to have disappeared (Poutignat and Streiff-Fénart, 1995). Sociologists fear being caught in the trap of culturalism, as they did in the past when, for example, they vehemently rejected the links sometimes suggested between racist ideology and the existence of cultural differences. In anthropology, the debate on this subject that is so central to the discipline has been particularly important. The deconstructions have been numerous and useful and have gone so far as to argue that “culture is the indispensable tool for the fabrication of otherness”  (Abu-Lughod, 2010: 427).
34 The interethnic relations perspective has duly noted all these debates. Today, the inversion of the relationship between race and ethnicity also contributes to making the field of interethnic relations “work”. Now more than ever, it is careful not to ignore the cultural dimension, which it anchors in the processes of hierarchisation and differentiation. This view allows researchers to link practices and representations, just as the founders of the field of Cultural Studies did by highlighting representations: “culture is important because it is a key dimension of the transformation or construction of reality. But this does not mean that culture by itself constructs reality” (Grossberg, 2003, back-translated from French). The value — which has been evaluated by French researchers each in their own way (see, for example, Certeau (1993) and Grignon and Passeron (1989)) — of the interethnic relations perspective is that it understands “ordinary” or “popular” cultures in their own right, without assuming in advance that they might be dwarfed or permeated by domination. On this basis, the notion of culture can be used within interethnic relations as a tool to actively interpret the social world that gives meaning to ordinary symbolic moments and practices. This does not prevent the description of less visible forms of resistance to the social order, such as cultural “bricolage” or “poaching”, which participate in the various modalities of social differentiation.
35 These reflections on the cultural dimension of ethnic relations deserve our full attention. They avoid the reductive vision of the concept of ethnicity that is sometimes encountered. By simply referencing questions of identity, the concept loses all its heuristic power, and rather than providing a theoretical perspective on the social world, ethnicity is merely seen as a variation of the notion of “ethnic group”, which is synonymous with ethnic identity and belonging.
Engagement and Porosity between Scientific and Activist Knowledge
36 This reflection on the place of culture in the interethnic relations perspective was challenged by an activist sociology that seemed to want to remove any culturalist reading. Sometimes described as ethnist, the culturalist reading was thought to impede the sociological understanding of postcolonial minorities, which were to be analysed instead through class-based social relations (Bouamama, 2017). This dissociation from culturalism was reinforced by the often activist developments around citizenship and anti-racism (Geisser, 1997; Bouamama and Tevanian, 2006). The cultural dimension, although dynamic and mobilised in the past, for example in studies conducted on the memory and heritage  of migrations, is today seen as an obstacle insofar as it risks undermining political reasoning and promoting an essentialist vision. Describing the forms of assignment and minorisation of those who are victims of racial and class inequalities leaves little room for the social, cultural, religious or economic dynamics that these social relations contribute to producing. Faced with the urgency of this struggle and widespread systemic discrimination, some researchers have opted for efficacy over a focus on the finer points and have therefore set aside the cultural dimension of interethnic relations.
37 The paradigm of race, whose contours and whose effects on interethnic relations I am attempting to measure here, has also been a controversial issue in French academia and the public arena. This is one of the difficulties of my proposal, because the viewpoint I am developing in no way seeks to justify or support the fierce debates that have permeated social networks and the press concerning the alleged “racialisation” of science or of French society.  In contrast to this polemical and alarmist vision, the study of race-related social relations is in fact of interest to associations and activists of varying backgrounds, who rightly see in it a convergence of scientific and political engagements. The focus on discrimination and racism resonates more readily than the interethnic relations perspective in the activist domain through the denunciation of racism. Again, the reasoning has developed mainly in terms of inequality, oppression and domination, where the effects of racism have converged with those of sexism and capitalism (Bouamama, 2017; Bouteldja and Khiari, 2012).
38 This politicisation of the scientific debates has been consistent with a deeper trend in twenty-first-century sociology, namely an epistemology that valorises situated knowledge, that encourages the co-construction of the problematic with “those concerned”, that assumes and even claims a controlled porosity of scientific and “lay” knowledge through participatory research (Bonny, 2015; Bertheleu et al., 2018a) and that reflexively takes note of the political effect of all grounded research (Avanza and Laferté, 2005). The development of reflections on the relationship between science and society and on collaborative research has encouraged researchers to open up their laboratories (Hatzfeld, 2015; Le Marec, 2011) and listen to the questions and problematics posed by associations and activists (Simon and Bouteldja, 2015).
39 This porosity of knowledge, finally, has been encouraged by a broad appropriation of this paradigm of race by numerous disciplines and researchers, including philosophers, linguists and civilisationists, who do not have the same methodological constraints as sociology or anthropology. Race has thus become a cross-cutting concept (in the sense that it spans disciplines, gazes and perspectives), acting as if it has managed to bring these different discourses in line with the discourse on the struggle against domination. The effects of this porosity between the scientific and activist fields converge on elements that have already been highlighted, in other words a focus on inequalities and on the paradigm of domination.
Abandon Ethnic Questions or Reassert their Heuristic Power?
40 In the United States, the interethnic relations perspective has also been the target of much criticism. Omi and Winant (1986) argued that the field of ethnic relations offered a watered-down view of race relations. The sociologist Rogers Brubaker (2002) expressed concerns about what he called “groupism”, an approach that, because it remains centred on ethnic groups, does not always avoid the risk of substantialism. This dissociation from the interethnic relations perspective is in line with the perspectives of critical sociology, which, building on recent developments in decolonial thought, has reasoned in terms of white supremacy, imperialism, and so on.
Identifying the Majority Reasoning
41 It is therefore important not to conceive ethnicity as being simply the product of a domination-based social relation. It is not just a subjective reaction to categorisation. Believing that the majority, through its categorising activity, can be entirely at the origin of the ethnicity of the minority is in fact a typically majority reasoning (Juteau, 2015) or at least a typically “enlightened” majority reasoning. When this enlightened majority becomes aware it is a partner in an asymmetrical social relationship, it is blinded by an erroneous vision of domination and sees only its most visible forms, namely consent, injunction and coercion. It tends to ignore the way in which individuals subjectively experience and “put up with” domination and ends up implying that the minority exists only in and through the classifying gaze of the majority. Researchers can seem to share this vision when they seek to study ethnic belonging solely for what it says about the unequal social relation in question and for what it reveals about the place in the social structure that it confers on those who claim it.
42 Numerous studies have shown how alienating the categorisations in use are and how discriminatory the institutions of the majority can be. While these approaches point to an important facet of ethnic social relations, they reduce ethnicity to the equivalent of a stigma that, in the best-case scenarios, the victims manage to “turn around” in order to cultivate an essentially oppositional identity. Stripped therefore of all the symbolic/cultural productions that constitute it, ethnicity risks appearing as just the identitarian consequence of minorisation, discrimination and stigmatisation. This partial vision of the phenomenon tends not only to reduce ethnic social relations to the single ethnic categorisation observed in social interactions but to view ethnic belonging, when claimed by people in a minority situation, as a simple reaction to dominant categorisations.
43 If ethnicity continues to be thought of as a derivative of “ethnic group”, inspiring a primordialist and archaic conception of identity, then yes, it would be best to stop studying this field. If ethnicity is understood as a synonym for cultural identity and we continue to reason in terms of essentialised belonging, as a kind of social property of the group that the researcher creates merely by studying it, then yes, we should stop using the term “ethnicity” right away. If the term leads us into the empirical trap of observing relations between “pre-existing” groups with cultural or ethnic differences attached to them that are understood in a fixed way, then yes, we must separate ourselves from this dangerous concept as quickly as possible.
44 An exploration of the texts in this corpus led me instead to a different decision, however. The theoretical inversion of ethnicity and race, as we have seen, can be explained by many factors. What effects has it had? In this final section, I wish to re-emphasise the heuristic power of the interethnic relations perspective beyond just the racial and racist questions. I will reiterate the singularity of ethnic social relations by highlighting the importance of forms of engagement and of minority cultural, economic and political production and by underlining the complexity of ethnic boundaries and its close links with the process of communalism. Neglecting these different aspects appears to create a methodological trap where the asymmetry of the gaze reinforces the very domination being studied and denounced.
The Cultural, Economic and Political Dimensions of Ethnic Relations
45 With the inversion described above of the two concepts, there is the risk of a theoretical simplification where the social and cultural constructions of the minority are either ignored or constantly interpreted through the paradigm of domination. For example, cultural phenomena are given a reduced place or described by emphasising the asymmetry of power and the influence of the majority view. The intersectional perspective could encourage this miserabilist prism, which is similar to what Grignon and Passeron found in relation to popular cultures (1986). By contrast, when culture refers to the principles and judgements that guide and nurture individual actions (Douglas, 1999), cultural production can pertain to the majority as well as the minority. This has been highlighted, for example, by the work of Hall (2017), who, along with many others, has shown how the majority redoubles its semantic imagination to articulate the difference without revealing the hierarchy. Moreover, the majority often draws inspiration from the minority to reinvent its own culture and renew its practices and symbols (Raulin, 2000).
46 Placing more importance on the cultural dimension of relations presupposes identifying the asymmetrical uses of “culture” when describing the mobilisations and actions of majorities or minorities. This perspective proposes an actionalist or even an imaginative vision of culture and its dynamics. The Belgian sociologist Albert Bastenier oriented his work in this direction. He proposed to understand ethnicity from the point of view of action, that is through what it produces, leading to a focus on who uses ethnicity and to say or do what. The “power of ethnicity”  appears to vary greatly depending on the situation observed. For example, the ethnic issue and configuration would be different for the following three groups: professional social workers who see ethnicity as a potential for social collusion or even a professional asset with the populations they are required to help; artists who draw an important part of their sensitivity and inspiration from their ethnicity through memory, defending this vision with the public authorities; and a group of women attending a social centre who are seen primarily as “North African women” and who are demanding a form of recognition and spaces for exchange among themselves. Neither material conditions nor social properties automatically link people together. What really binds them together is the discovery of a shared issue or concern, which results in an individual or collective need for engagement. Ethnic boundaries are not at the root of engagement; they are the product of engagement. And what prompts people to become engaged are new challenges or problems in their lives that mean they no longer take their situation for granted. This presupposes spaces in which each person can progressively and along with others redefine their everyday experiences through the ethnic prism.
47 Ethnic relations are also often intrinsically economic and political. All economic and political modes of action, whether elaborate economic systems (Ma Mung, 2009; Raulin, 2000), social and cultural relations networks (Boissevain et al., 1990; Light, 2000), captive solidarities (Bertheleu and Billion, 1997), less visible forms of engagement (Hamidi, 2010; Safadi, 2021) or mobilisations during electoral campaigns, need to be studied from an ethnic relations perspective because they risk being invisibilised or simplified by an approach focused on race relations and their categorising effects.
48 When the research fails to describe these forms of engagement and these cultural, economic and political productions, it ultimately contributes to reinforcing the relationship of domination in two ways. On the one hand, by reducing ethnic social relations to a racist categorisation, it often considers minority productions to be invisible or interprets them as simply a reaction to the dominant categorisation. The gaze thus verges on a kind of methodological nationalism. On the other, by scientifically disregarding these important dimensions of the phenomena in question, it leaves the field wide open for many other discourses that are either informed by political practice (militantly anti-racist, decolonial, Afrofeminist, classist, etc. or alternatively racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist, etc.) or simply oriented by a professional mandate to analyse “sensitive” situations or to appraise or evaluate a social issue (social cohesion, violence, etc.). The singularity and complexity of the ethnic relationship then risks disappearing completely, sacrificed on the altar of efficacious thinking. It is not easy, in fact, to link up an unequal distribution of economic and political power, a social boundary constructed by cultural practices on both sides and the famous belief in a common ancestry.
49 Underpinned by social, economic and political relationships, the interethnic relations perspective mobilises the symbolic and cultural register in order to face the future. Its supporters and promoters (for example, artists, intellectuals, shopkeepers and associations, all convinced of the cohesive or subversive power of ethnicity) demonstrate contemporary concerns by promoting new forms of sociability and solidarity and by creating collectives around symbolic goods that matter to the group members and that encourage them to join forces, work together and assert themselves.
To Conclude: Ethnic Boundaries, Markers, Communalism
50 While the study of ethnic boundaries reveals relations of domination, the uncovering of inequalities is not the only benefit of this perspective. Indeed, it has been amply demonstrated (Moallem, 1989; Juteau, 2015) that when ethnic boundaries are the object of strong and lasting investment (cultural, economic, political or symbolic), they generate social groups whose members believe and maintain the idea of their common origin. Ethnic boundaries are always constructed “externally” and “internally”, from both sides, thus referencing a two-way social relationship. When a researcher is prompted to speak of a race relation in a situation, they introduce an idea that goes beyond the boundary, because race conjures up the idea of a definitive closure between groups and an impassable barrier  and precludes any possibility either of passing from one group to another or of cultural negotiations, let alone hybridisation or crossbreeding in the Gilroy (1993) sense. The so-called “racialised” person seems to be cast into an ahistorical category composed of hereditary traits that cannot be changed by time. It is a closed, stable and irreversible category, guaranteed by the explicit reference to nature. By contrast, the notion of ethnic boundaries introduces the dynamics of communalism on both sides, that is majority and minority communalisms, which are linked within the same social order. Through this communalism process, the belief in a common ancestry, real or supposed, is maintained, developed and transmitted.
51 The racist social relation does not, however, prevent ethnic productions from “working on” intergroup relations. For example, some people work to “ethnicise their colour”,  as Haitians do in the American context of New York (Morin, 1993). Both Guillaumin and Juteau found a close link between the social relation and branding, showing that the brand was chosen after and not before the social relation. This logic can also be applied to the ethnic relation. In the case of ethnic relations, however, the choice of brand is not arbitrary but rather emerges during the crystallisation of ethnic boundaries. Therefore, the very existence of the ethnic group, when this is the case, is never a single and simple production of this social relation, however historical it may be.
52 Is there a danger that the study of interethnic relations, because it appears to be of little value today in the fight against racism and discrimination, is gradually being abandoned, particularly by sociologists? This is what I have sought to understand through this unique journey through five decades of research on these questions.
Translated from French (“aucun outil conceptuel n’est affranchi de ses usages politiques”).
Ethnies was also the name of a French journal, founded in 1971, that set out to explore interethnic relations. The journal presents itself as the “first French-language journal on interethnic relations” (translated from French: “première revue de langue française sur les rapports inter-ethniques”). In the second issue, an article by sociologist Lucien Bernot (1972) examined the relationship between ‘them’ and “us” and called for the development of a dynamic approach to interethnic relations.
This centre was created in pursuance of a decree from France’s education ministry, which proposed to “develop research and teaching in the field of interethnic relations” (Journal Officiel of 24/02/1966, translated from French: “développer les recherches et les enseignements dans le domaine des relations interethniques”). It was located in the Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines at the Université de Nice. In 1970, CERIN became the Institut d’Études et de Recherches Interethniques et Interculturelles (IDERIC). When IDERIC was dissolved in 1992, sociologists from the team contributed to creating a CNRS research unit called Migrations et Société. See the IDERIC collection at the Saint-Jean-d’Angély university library in Nice (https://bu.univ-cotedazur.fr/fr/rechercher-et-trouver/collections-remarquables/fonds-ideric).
Guillaumin’s work at the time attracted the interest and support of Bastide, who suggested that she publish her thesis with a new publishing house associated with CERIN.
Translated from French (“a représenté une tentative d’échapper à l’impérialisme du sens qu’imposait le mot race”).
Translated from French (“l’univers sémantique autour de la race”, “culture”, “différence”).
Guillaumin and Simon met through their mutual friendship with Bastide and were on good terms during the 1970s and 1980s. However, their theoretical orientations were to diverge, initially solely on ethnic questions but then more radically when Guillaumin decided to focus her work on sex-based social relations.
In particular, Everett V. Stonequist, Oliver C. Cox, William E. B. Du Bois and Franklin Frazier.
Translated from French (“les relations interethniques et les minorités”).
By contrast, the Canadian sociologist Danielle Juteau demonstrated that she had most definitely taken this message on board when she developed a conception of ethnicity as an attribute that characterises both majority and minority groups, thus implying that the ethnicity of majorities must also be named. Since the appellation “Québécois” refers to all the inhabitants of Quebec, without distinction, she used the term “Québécois of French-Canadian ethnicity” (translated from French: “Québécois d’ethnicité canadienne-française”) to designate those who formerly identified as French Canadians. She revisited this subject recently in a book coordinated by Meintel (2018).
Translated from French (“verrou idéologique de l’idéal républicain”).
Translated from French (“un outil rigoureux d’analyse”, “universelle”).
Translated from French (“humanité des autres”).
Translated from French (“d’origine immigrée”).
Translated from French (“interconnectés”).
This perspective was encouraged at the Université de Rennes by Pierre-Jean Simon and Ida Simon-Barouh, in Paris by Denys Cuche, Anne Raulin and Gérard Althabe, in Poitiers by Marie-Antoinette Hily and in Nice by Jocelyne Streiff-Fénart.
Translated from French (“L’attribution de différences ‘raciales’ dans les relations entre groupes est l’une des modalités durcie et radicalisée des relations interethniques”).
Translated from French (“Les acteurs sociaux en situation minoritaire ne sont pas pour autant passifs face à des classements dominants préétablis et tout puissants qui s’imposeraient à eux : produits de l’histoire, les classements ethniques se refont et se défont dans les relations quotidiennes entre les groupes, qu’elles soient conflictuelles ou conviviales […]. Ces classements ethniques font référence à des pratiques culturelles supposées tout autant qu’ils transforment les pratiques culturelles réelles. Contester ou composer avec la racisation ne relève pas exactement des mêmes enjeux”).
Translated from French (“discriminations selon l’origine”).
Translated from French (“lutte contre les discriminations”, “promotion de la diversité”, “programmes de promotion de l’égalité”, “citoyenneté”).
Various reports appeared during this period, including those of Méhaignerie and Sabeg (2004), Bébéar (2004) and Versini (2014). The Cour des Comptes also published a major critical review of thirty years of integration policy in France (Cour des Comptes, 2004), and the Conseil d’Analyse Économique released a report on urban segregation and social integration (Fitoussi et al., 2004). The Haut Conseil à l’Intégration’s report appeared in 2005.
Translated from French (“examiner la société française à l’épreuve des perspectives postcoloniales”).
Translated from French (“les différentes théories et stratégies pratiques à l’égard de la référence à la race et à l’ethnicité”). For more information on this project, see: https://global-race.site.ined.fr/en/
Translated from French (“le racisme sans race”).
This school of thought is particularly well represented today in publications such as the journal Nouvelles questions féministes.
Translated from French (“valeurs de la République”). These values, including first and foremost the principle of secularism, have been the subject of numerous training courses provided throughout France since 2019 and funded by the state (the Commissariat Général à l’Égalité des Territoires). They are aimed at all professionals working with foreign or newly arrived “publics”.
Translated from French (“discriminations multiples”).
As indicated by the Association pour la Recherche Interculturelle’s focus on international developments during this period.
Translated from French (“définition culturaliste de la culture”).
Translated from French (“la culture est l’outil indispensable de la fabrication de l’altérité”).
See the work of Piero Galloro, Naïma Yahi and Ahmed Boubeker.
To take just one example (although there are undoubtedly many more), see the article in Le Point of September 2020 entitled L’inquiétante campagne de racialisation de la science (the disturbing campaign to racialise science). This was a position that was subsequently taken up repeatedly.
Translated from French (“pouvoirs de l’ethnicité”).
We know, however, that these representations, which maintain racial naturalisation and the associated idea of group closure, have never prevented the development of “passing” strategies between racial groups.
Translated from French (“ethniciser leur couleur”).