Referential Ambiguity in the Calculus of Brazilian Racial Identity

Referential Ambiguity in the Calculus of Brazilian Racial Identity

Southwestern Journal of Anthropology
Volume 26, Number 1 (Spring, 1970)
pages 1-14

Marvin Harris (1927-2001)

Categorizations elicited from 100 Brazilian informants through the use of a standardized deck of facial drawings suggests that the cognitive domain of racial identity in Brazil is characterized by a high degree of referential ambiguity. The Brazilian calculus of racial identity departs from the model of other cognitive domains in which a finite shared code, complementary distribution, and intersubjectivity are assumed. Structurally adaptive consequences adhere to the maximization of noise and ambiguity as well as to the maximization of shared cognitive order.

THE COMPARATIVE STUDY OF RACE RELATIONS in Brazil and the United States has brought to light important differences in culturally controlled systems of “racial” identity. Many observers have pointed out the partial subordination of “racial” to class identity in Brazil exemplified in the tendency for individuals of approximately equal socio-economic rank to be categorized by similar “racial” terms regardless of phenotypic contrasts, and by the adage, “money whitens” (Pierson 1942, 1955; Wagley 1952; Harris 1956; Azevedo 1955). Other aspects of the Brazilian calculus of “racial” identity lead to categorizations that are inconceivable in the cognitive frame of the descent rule which underlies the bifurcation of the United States population into “whites” and “negroes” (now, more politely, “blacks”). Experimental evidence indicates that phenotypically heterogeneous full siblings are identified by heterogeneous “racial” terms. Children of racially heterogeneous Brazilian marriages are not subject to the effects of hypodescent; where the phenotypes are sharply contrastive, full siblings may be assigned to contrastive categories (Harris and Kottak 1963). It has also long been observed that the inventory of terms which defines the Brazilian domain of “racial” types exceeds the number of terms in the analogous domain used by whites in the United States (and probably by blacks as well).

The suggestion has been made that the most distinctive attribute of the Brazilian “racial” calculus is its uncertain, indeterminate, and ambiguous output. Subordination of race to class, absence of descent rule, and terminological efflorescence all contribute to this result (Harris 1964a, 1964b). Several different indications of the absence of a common shared calculus should be noted: ego lacks a single socio-centric racial identity; the repertory of racial terms varies widely from one person to another (holding region and community constant); the referential meaning of a given term varies widely (i.e., the occasions in which one term rather than another will be used); and the abstract meaning of a given term (i.e., its elicited contrasts with respect to other terms) also varies over a broad range even within a single community.

Clarification of the nature of the ambiguity in the Brazilian “racial” calculus awaits the development of cross-culturally valid methods of cognitive analysis. In this essay I report on a preliminary attempt to employ a test instrument to elicit the Brazilian lexicon of “racial” categories and to provide a measure of referential ambiguity and consensus with respect to the elicited terms…

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