American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 395-408
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Reading the Re-Revival:
Competing Approaches in US Ethnic Studies
To judge from recent publications, scholarly interest in Euro-American ethnic groups is beginning to approach the levels of the ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s. The cause of this "re-revival" is hard to pin down. Perhaps it is the small but steady number of immigrants (15% of the total from 1991 to 1998) who continue to arrive from Europe; maybe it is the publication of memoirs and biographies recounting the ethnic roots of well-known Euro-American artists and intellectuals; possibly it is the rise of whiteness studies, which for the first time has brought the history of European immigration into the US conversation about race (although more than a few students of Euro-American groups have been slow to take note). However one accounts for this trend, its results are plain to see in the new interest in hitherto neglected groups and in new approaches to familiar groups. Yet, despite all the novel developments in the field, ethnic studies is stilldivided over the old question of whether the single-group or multigroup perspective is best. Some of the recent work on Euro-American cultures adopts a comparative approach to develop broad claims about white ethnicities, or even all ethnicities, but most of it continues the ethnic-studies tradition of focusing on a single group. In this essay, I consider the advantages and disadvantages of the comparative and single-group approaches through several recent books on Euro-Americans. After exploring what each of these approaches has to offer the other, I turn to a third ethnic-studies paradigm, one based on diaspora. I attribute the increasing popularity of the diasporic perspective to the fact that it combines many of the strengths, and few of the weaknesses, of the older approaches.
Since the 1970s, the call for more comparative scholarship has steadily sounded in US ethnic studies—this despite the regular appearance of works taking comparative approaches. The last [End Page 395] three decades have seen the appearance of community studies comparing ethnic groups in such cities as Chicago and Detroit, labor histories comparing the work experience of different ethnic groups, and literary and cultural analyses comparing the stories ethnic groups tell about themselves and their place in America. And still the call for comparison continues to be sounded by scholars such as Jon Gjerde: "Explicitly comparative scholarship either from the perspective of the diasporic groups or from the perspective of a place wherein ethnic groups interact ought to be an area of growth in research" (52). The ethnic comparativists prefer their approach to the single-group study for a number of reasons: comparisons can reveal the "extent to which a particular group has experienced acceptance or rejection, has prospered or failed to achieve upward mobility, or has exerted political and social influence commensurate or incommensurate with its size" (Archdeacon 123); they can free scholars from nationalist biases, such as a belief in American exceptionalism (Campbell 15-16); they can reveal what is specific and what is general in the immigration experience (Green 5). Yet, along with these strengths, the comparative approach to ethnic studies also has disadvantages that need to be confronted.
In Immigrant Minds, American Identities, literary historian Orm Øverland (whose earlier publications include the single-group study The Western Home: A Literary History of Norwegian America ) amply demonstrates the virtues of a comparativeapproach to the study of an array of turn-of-the...