Jan. 20, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 8

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    Hall receives prestigious Goodwin book award

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    [jonathan hall] by jason smithAt the American Philological Association’s annual conference last month, Jonathan Hall, Assistant Professor in History and Classical Languages & Literatures, continued what is becoming a Chicago tradition in classical scholarship by accepting the 1999 Charles J. Goodwin Award for Merit.

    Joining rank with University luminaries Robert Kaster and Peter White, former and current Professors in Classical Languages & Literatures, who are previous Goodwin Award recipients, Hall received the honor for his book Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

    Perhaps the highest literary honor in the field, the Goodwin Award recognizes members of the American Philological Association whose published work has “greatly contributed to the advancement of classical scholarship.”

    Hall attributes the success of the book to the timeliness of its topic. “It’s very fortuitous that the book came out when it did,” he said. “I think I’ve simply managed to crest a recent wave of interest in ethnicity in the ancient world.”

    Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity addresses the ethnic communities of the ancient Hellenic world, a topic Hall began working on as a graduate student at Cambridge University. Troubled by the ease with which previous generations of classical historians remarked on the migrations of various ethnically constituted groups, such as the Dorians or the Ionians, Hall embarked on an archaeological study of roughly 600 ancient Greek burials, searching for physical evidence that would satisfy his curiosity.

    Hall said he submitted the material to just about every conceivable analytical device without conclusive results, which led him to reconsider how ethnicity operates and how modern archaeologists look for clues as to the ethnic identity of the groups they study. By re-examining the data and working to complement his archaeological research with linguistic and literary sources, Hall concluded that ethnicity in the ancient world had more to do with what a group of people said about themselves than with what it actually did.

    “Whether you were a slave or free was probably much more relevant most of the time, but at certain times, ethnicity did become important,” explained Hall. “Interestingly enough, the sort of language or discourse we find on ethnicity in ancient sources does match up with more modern anthropological definitions.”

    To help distinguish his method of looking at ethnicity from traditional archaeological practice, Hall has suggested that if the material record alone were to be accepted as conclusive proof of a community’s constitution as a distinct ethnic group, future generations of archaeologists might look at the material culture of our era and conclude that hippies or stockbrokers were ethnic collectives. “That would be absurd,” he said. “The obvious error in such a classification demonstrates the falsehood of aligning ethnicity too closely with one specific category of the cultural record.”

    In a more controversial claim, Hall wrote that for a concept like ethnicity to have meaning for scholars in any field, a universal or nearly universal formulation of its properties has to be established. As he sees it, ethnic groups are communities that possess an attachment to a specific homeland and act “as if” their members are related by kinship, making it a discursive rather than genetic or purely behavioral category.

    John Peradotto, professor of classics at SUNY Buffalo and the 1999 Goodwin Award selection committee chairman, explained that Hall’s project deserves recognition for addressing such a historically loaded question.

    Quoting the award citation, he said, “In modern times, the topic [of ethnicity] has receded from academic agendas after its abuse in 19th- and 20th-century racism, and many archaeologists have abandoned the diagnosis of any identity in material culture. Hall has achieved for this topic what similar research has done for gender studies, by moving beyond ancient and modern prejudices to examine the contexts and motivations that created assumed identities in the past,” Peradotto continued.

    Although much of the book is devoted to refuting the concept of ethnicity as an essential category of genetic heritage, Hall also is careful to acknowledge he does not intend to dismiss the reality of ethnic ties for subjects who feel bound by them. “I think there’s a danger that people might think that because I concentrate on the discursive quality of ethnic identity formation, I’m therefore saying ethnicity is not a real thing, that it’s just something that’s purely in people’s minds,” he cautioned. “But I think one of the important things I do stress in the book is that it still constitutes a social reality for the people within those groups. If you don’t understand that, you’re potentially exacerbating ethnic conflict.”

    Richard Saller, Dean of the Social Sciences Division and the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History, believes that by treating Greek ethnicities as discursive constructs, Hall will succeed in forcing classical historians to rethink the old problems. “He demonstrates the inadequacy of old ‘essentializing’ assumptions and brings his skills to bear on the problem of how the Greeks themselves thought about their ethnic divisions and loyalties,” said Saller.

    In addition to winning awards and collecting the high praise of his colleagues, Hall has earned the admiration of students in the College. “Aside from being a brilliant and now famous young scholar, Jonathan is also a terrific teacher,” said Christopher Faraone, Chairman and Professor of Classical Languages & Literatures. As a Resident Master of Burton-Judson Courts, Faraone said he often hears students talking about the faculty. “What I hear about him is what every chairman likes to hear—that he is an excellent lecturer, that he is very smart and that he is very demanding.”