The Instrumentalist approach to ethnic and national identities: A review of D. Ronen’s ‘The Quest for Self-Determination’

D. Ronen’s scholarly work The Quest for Self-Determination further explicates the nature of ethnic and national identities.  In order to illustrate the complexities involved in ethnic and national identities, Ronen constructs a new conceptual framework which he calls “aggregations”.  According to this theory, political discourses relating to human communities refer to the latter from one of two perspectives.  The first is called “functional aggregates”, where defining aspects of identity such as language, religion, custom, skin color, etc “merely” serve the function of distinguishing one group from another.  Generally, this way of denoting one’s identity is used as a matter of convenience and without any political slant.  In ‘conscious aggregations’, on the other hand, the focus turns to away from the merely descriptive aspects of identity and plays up the differentiation quality among human communities.  A good thumb rule for making a distinction between the two categories is the question “Who are you?”.  If the answer is “I am I”, then what is manifest is the functional aggregate identity.  Whereas, if the answer is “I am English” or “I am Jewish” then the individual is emphasizing his conscious aggregate identity.

Although Ronen’s theory appears sound at first, it is less convincing when carefully scrutinized.  For example, some of the assumptions upon which the theory is based are impossible to disprove.  An essential element of modern scientific inquiry is the possibility of falsification, as famously asserted by twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper.  Ronen’s theory of defining human communities, by virtue of being beyond the realm of scientific evaluation, can only be regarded as a hypothesis.  This is a problem that confronts the entire discipline of sociology and psychology and the criticism directed at Ronen’s work is applicable more broadly as well.  In its entirety, this reading has illuminated new conceptual frameworks for studying ethnic conflicts and multiculturalism.

Work Cited:

Ronen (D), The Quest for Self-Determination, Yale U.P. 1979. Ch.3, Back to Basics”