After a year of intense preparations the ZiF's current research group got off to a splendid start with its inaugural conference, which was held from October 8 to 11, 2008. The organizers of the research group-JunProf. Dr. Sebastian Thies (Latin American Studies and Media Studies, Bielefeld University), Prof. Dr. Josef Raab (American Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen), and Dr. Olaf Kaltmeier (Sociology, Bielefeld University)-had launched a call for papers that elicited an overwhelming response. Out of close to 100 paper proposals about half were chosen for presentation at the meeting-in addition to lectures by several keynote speakers. In the end, scholars from no less than 17 nations gathered to discuss constructions and uses of ethnic identity in North, Central, and South America today. The election campaign of Barack Obama, which was in full swing at the time of this conference, was just one of the factors underlining the topicality of this meeting and of the research group that it inaugurated.
The age of globalization has spawned a renewed focus on political and cultural negotiations in what one might call with Pierre Bourdieu the field of identity politics. This development manifests itself throughout the American hemisphere: new indigenous movements have contested post-colonial forms of political representation in Ecuador and Bolivia; the debates on ecological consequences of industrialization and on intellectual property rights have put indigenous groups from the Amazonian region on international agendas; large numbers of people have been mobilized for and against immigration reform in the U.S.; and the votes by members of so-called 'ethnic minorities' were especially coveted in the 2008 presidential election campaigns in the United States. In current academic discussions, concepts like multiculturalism, new ethnicities, creolization, hybridity, mestizaje, diasporas, and post-ethnicity articulate positionings vis ŗ vis these developments that are profoundly changing our understanding of 'ethnicity'. Demands for an 'un-raced' society, culture, and language are voiced by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and many others.
This renewed focus on ethnic identity in North America, Latin America, and many other parts of the world as well as the numerous challenges that the concept of ethnic identity is undergoing demonstrate the need for a comprehensive and interdisciplinary model of analysis that incorporates the complexity of identity constructions in the context of transnational integration. Different paths toward such a model of identity politics were presented at the conference. On the basis of positions articulated at the inaugural meeing the ZiF's current inter-American research group will continue to sharpen our understanding of key factors in the field of identity politics, of the changing semantics of ethnicity, as well as of the cultural practices of identity construction. Exploring in more depth some of the ideas presented at its inaugural conference, the research group will ask: How are identity-shaping strategies and discourses translated into everyday practices and how do social elites, political institutions, businesses, the media, and agents of civil society (public intellectuals, filmmakers, writers, artists, educators etc.) mediate between local, national, and transnational horizons of interaction? How do other factors of individual and group identity (like gender, social class, age, nationality) interact with markers of ethnic identity? How and why are constructions and uses of ethnicity changing in the Americas today?
In order to elucidate-in the context of inter-American transnationalism-the role of ethnicity in the field of identity politics, the inaugural conference focused on the following three areas: