The Celts: People or Construct? (Gen Ed 1081)





Who and what define an ethnic group?

Histories, Societies, Individuals icon with text

Catherine McKenna

We are exposed every day to terms referring to ethnic groups, and we tend to accept these terms uncritically, assuming that we know what they mean and to whom they refer. These labels help to shape our sense of ourselves, of others, and of ourselves in relation to others. Yet the ethnic identities associated with such terms are in fact ambiguous and malleable, constructed of a shifting array of elements, including genetics, shared history, language, religion, economy, political institutions, music, architecture, and foodways. Ethnic descriptors encode attributes, either positive or negative, with which people want to associate themselves or others. So, in order to understand the claims implicit in the use of an ethnic label, we need to evaluate the bases for assigning it and who allows a people the identity they claim for themselves.

This course takes as a case study the idea of the “Celt”, a term thrown around so freely that it sometimes seems to be as much a brand as an ethnonym. In our readings and a series of hands on exercises, we explore the ways in which the history, languages, material culture, and cultural mythology of Celtic peoples are used both to construct and to deconstruct Celtic identity. Then we examine the cultural and political forces that have motivated these constructions and deconstructions.

Studying what “Celt” has meant over the course of the past 2500 years, you will develop tools for analyzing the bases of ethnicity claimed by a people or attributed to them by others. And by examining the ways in which the name “Celt” has been both adopted as a badge of honor and assigned as a way of dismissing conquered peoples, you will better understand the ways in which ethnic labels manipulate attitudes toward the groups with which they are associated.

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