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Looks and Living Kinds: Varieties of Racial Cognition in Bahia, Brazil

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Psychological research in the USA and elsewhere suggests that race is regarded as an underlying, inherited “essential” trait, like membership in a biological species. Yet Brazil has often been regarded as very different from the USA: as a country in which racial variation is seen as more continuous than categorical, more a matter of appearance than descent. This study tests alternative theories of racial cognition in Bahia, Brazil. Data include racial classification of drawings and photographs, judgments of similarity – dissimilarity between racial categories, ideas about expected and possible race of offspring from inter-racial unions, heritability of racial and non-racial traits, and conservation of race through changes in appearance. The research demonstrates consensus over time in appearance-based classification, yet race is also thought of as an “essential” trait. However, racial essences can be mixed, with a person containing the hereditary potential of multiple races, so that race in Bahia does not define clear-cut groups or discrete “living kinds.” If essentialism is the shared core of folk theories of race, there may be more variability and room for social construction in the categorization of mixed-race individuals.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Anthropology, 102 Stewart Building, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA;, Email:


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