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Some Reflections on Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle

by Michael Rustin

Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, and a Trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation. 

This slim, beautifully-produced hardback volume contains the three Dubois Lectures that Stuart Hall delivered at Harvard University in 1994, but which were published in 2017 for the first time. There is an insightful Foreword to the volume by Henry Louis Gates Jr. who is the Director of the W.E.B. Dubois Research Institute at Harvard, and a substantial Introduction by Kobena Mercer, Professor of History of Art and Afro-American Studies at Yale University, who has long been associated with Stuart’s work.

In the bibliography to this book, 60 publications by Hall which bear on issues of race, ethnicity and diaspora are listed (1). Although questions of race, identity, ethnicity, and diaspora were central to Hall, intellectually and personally, as he makes clear in his Memoir, Familiar Stranger (2017) the larger part of his writings on these themes nevertheless came in the later years of his career. These lectures may be read as a project by Stuart Hall to find a holistic and integrative way of understanding questions of race and ethnicity which he explored in many different ways in his writings and interventions in cultural theory, the visual arts, and in British politics, for example in his response to events such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence (2).

The book comprises three sections, Race, Ethnicity and Nation. It engages, as a whole, with a deep paradox or contradiction. The paradox is that whilst “race” is in itself a concept without a significant reference in material reality, since the biological differences which constitute different “races” are wholly superficial, the social, psychological and political realities of “race” continue to function as organising properties of our world, in highly destructive ways. Indeed this has become increasingly the case with the rise of racialised “populisms” in the two decades since these lectures were given. The central question which these lectures address is how this situation, in which differences without substance have been and remain so substantial in their effects, comes to be as it is (3).

Hall’s explanation of this abiding situation is a complex one, and fully to understand his argument and its connections requires some careful study, and reference to other areas of his work.  There is a related paradox at the centre of what he says.  This is that the ideas of race, ethnicity and nation are culturally and historical constructions, but nevertheless function, as a Durkheimian sociologist might put it, as “social facts” with powerful causal effects.


The first chapter of the book is addressed to the concept of race. Hall notes, as many others have done, the complete discrediting in recent years of the view that there are any scientific or biological grounds for beliefs in the superiority or inferiority of “races’, even though such refutation does not seem to discourage new attempts to prove what is false. What concerns him is to explain how race has constituted such a powerful sign or marker of differences between human beings. At the centre of his argument is the idea of discourse, which draws on structuralist theories of signification and classification, and even more crucially on the post-structuralist perspectives of Foucault and Derrida. Here is Hall’s condensed formulation of his view:    

I...want to advance the scandalous argument that socially, historically and politically, race is a discourse; that it operates like a language, like a sliding signifier; that its signifiers reference not genetically established facts but the systems of meaning that have come to be fixed in the classifications of culture; and that those meanings have real effects not because of some truth of them that inheres in their scientific classification but because of the will to power and the regime of truth that are instituted in the shifting relations of discourse that such meanings establish with our concepts and ideas in the signifying field.” (p 45-6)

Foucault’s coupling of power and knowledge, such that power is instituted and enforced through systems of classification and meaning, is central to Hall’s argument. Race is in his view a “sliding signifier” because its connections and referents in the discourses in which it is placed are mobile. He notes, for example, that ideas of “essential” racial characteristics which have been most often employed to define and enforce the inferiority of subordinated groups, have sometimes also appeared in a reversed, mirrored guise to assert the positive attributes of black people. Some of Dubois’ writing retained, Hall argued, such an element of racial essentialism, though with an emancipatory purpose. Such ideas remain an obstinate presence in the discourses of race and ethnicity—the relevance of Derrida’s approach to signification is in demonstrating that racialized conceptions can remain potent even if they are present only “under erasure”, or in metonymic or metaphorical form. One of the main arguments of Hall and his co-authors’ Policing the Crisis” (1978 and 2013) was that the reported outbreak of “mugging” (street crimes attributed to black youths in the 1970s) was deployed as a racialized discourse, through a coded, metonymic association of racialized ideas. This then became an important component of the Thatcherite project to re-impose a conservative order.

Hall insists that meanings, embedded in discourses, are an essential constitutive element of all human worlds. Without signification, there would be no human experience, practices, or institutions. The interpellation of the levels and mediations of culture into previously mechanistic models of social structure (not least those once influential within Marxism) was one of Hall’s crucial contributions to social theory, (4) together with the writings of his fellow-intellectuals of the early New Left, such as Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson (5).  Hall’s political writing in the 1980s grasped the role of ideology and political discourse in the conduct of class struggle by Thatcher and the New Right, and subsequently in constructing the hegemony of neoliberalism.

This focus on discourse has been criticised by some as excessively “culturalist”, as an anti-materialist form of idealism (6). One can imagine the ideas of race, ethnicity and nation as Hall sets them out in these lectures being characterised in this way. Such an interpretation would be false. Having proposed that the concept “race” and the classifications to which it gives rise should be understood as an element within one or more discursive regimes, Hall describes the historical origins and locations of two quite distinct “regimes of truth’ through which “race” has been most influentially defined in the West. The earlier of these was that of religion. The framing argument here was taken from Genesis Book 10, and its narrative of the division of humankind into distinct races.  The question here, which became important for example in the encounter of the early Spanish explorers and colonists with the indigenous peoples of South America, and which was debated before the Holy Roman Emperor in 1550 was, “Are these true men? Do they belong to the same species as us? Or are they born of another creation?”

But with the onset of the Enlightenment, and its philosophical idea of a universal humankind the framing question changed from, who is human at all to, what degrees, kinds and qualities of humanity exist, and what view should be taken of any perceived or ascribed differences between them?

The issue, Hall suggests, was how to rationalise and legitimise the domination by the European empires of the non-white peoples of the other continents, and in particular how to justify slavery. The discursive framings of “science” came to be one resource by which discriminatory and oppressive treatment of “other races” could be justified.  Discourses concerning the acquisition of culture and civilisation were others. The latter allowed for the theoretical possibility that inferior races and peoples could eventually be raised up to the “civilised” status of their white masters, while meanwhile justifying their indefinite subordination.

In other words, the discursive regimes which define and enforce categorisations of race are constitutive elements of systems of imperial domination. To understand the specific significance of race and racism in the culture and society of the West it is to the structures and systems of colonialism and slavery that we must look, for their systemic explanation.

How can we understand the strength and persistence of racism and its framing discourses, given that slavery, and even the European empires, lie for the most part in the past?  Hall offers two connected explanations of this. The first lies in the unavoidable visibility of racial differences, seen, one must add, from a “white” perspective. Racial differences, while superficial matters of appearance, are highly available as signifiers to which any manner of meaning can be attached, although they actually signify nothing of substance (6). The second lies in the chains of signification with which such visible characteristics have become deeply associated, over many human generations, in iterations of beliefs about racial differences. We see in the rise of nationalist populism, already clearly recognised by Hall in 1994, how resilient discursive regimes which characterise and seek to explain differences can be. Such ways of thinking and feeling become the ways in which those who feel threatened by change can reinforce their precarious social identities, through constructing and enacting antagonisms to others who are characterised by their differences from “ourselves”.


The title of the second lecture inThe Fateful Triangle draws attention to a tension or contradiction that lies at the centre of this book. In perhaps the most famous of his essays on race and ethnicity, New Ethnicities (1988) Hall had developed his argument against racial essentialisms of all kinds. Ethnicity, he wrote, was a matter of culture and identity, not of unalterable, given “natures”, whether of a biological or any other kind. Ethnic identifies were subject to continuing change, the outcomes of people’s choices of where and how to live. This was a matter both of places and times. The Caribbean, where Hall was born and grew up, was the location of many cultures, formed from the different patterns of settlement of each of the islands. Caribbean cultures were the outcomes of intermixtures or hybridisations of these different influences. One of the most engaging ways in which Hall described these differences was in the series of films he made for BBC television in 1991, Redemption Song. Differences of generation were also highly significant in the formation of ethnic identities. The first, second and third generations of immigrants or children of immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean, have necessarily had different experiences of life, and have responded to these through evolving their own distinct “identities”. The revelation in recent months of the appalling mistreatment of children of the “Windrush generation”, in the denial to them of their promised entitlements as British citizens, has brought home to everyone how painful this experience of migration has been for many people. The idea of “hybridity” which Hall expounded in "New Ethnicities” had the effect or implication of  subordinating “essentialist” ideas of race as an unchanging attribute to that of ethnicities which were the outcome of processes of often creative redefinitions of identity.    

What The Fateful Triangle shows however is how difficult it is for such shifts of meaning and discourse to be established, in ways which transform commonsense beliefs about race. Hall’s New Ethnicities paper was an advocacy of the benefits and virtues of differences and of freedom of choice of identities, if these could be recognised and accepted. The Fateful Triangle, and of course the period of ideological and political reaction which has followed its publication, tells us about the resilience of the never-fully-repressed categories of race, and their propensity to return with renewed force, and with new antagonistic objects, in times of social crisis and anxiety.   

Ethnicity and Difference in Global Times, Hall’s second Du Bois lecture, traces the rise of the concept of ethnicity to the greater salience it has acquired in recent decades. This has several dimensions. One is the disillusionment of post-Caribbean migrants to Britain. They had come with the expectations of full recognition as British subjects which had been nurtured by their colonisers, who had propagated, in schools and elsewhere, a myth of Britain as the “home country” (7). In the face of harsh experience, and of racism, the expectation of full assimilation was displaced by a belief in the virtues of “multi-culturalism”, in which ethnic differences of a cultural kind could be celebrated. This was supposed to be within the framework of a commitment to equality before the law, even though police and judicial practices, and ongoing discrimination, made this far from a day-to-day reality. This model of ethnic coexistence was challenged by the rise of white racism, made semi-respectable by the pronouncements of the senior Conservative politician Enoch Powell (8), and by the emergence of an  anti-racist movement which sought to construct a unifying ”black” identity in opposition to this. This movement vigorously asserted claims for equal treatment, against what it perceived as a social order pervaded by “institutional racism".

In this context, ethnicity had become no less a “sliding signifier” than race, since ethnic identities are also capable of being defined in different ways. From the perspective of a shared experience of discrimination and hostility, and of having been similarly subjected in previous generations to British colonial rule, the identifier “black” was invoked in a way intended to include migrants of Caribbean, African and Asian descent. The issue was their common experience of oppression and the demand for it to be resisted. But the differences of origin and culture within migrant communities in Britain, in particular between those from Asia and those from the Caribbean and Africa, meant that not everyone readily embraced this definition of themselves.  A more specific definition of “black identity” was asserted, which connected Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean and black British people as an “imagined community”, whose origins, through slavery, lay in Africa, to which some kind of actual or symbolic return has been imagined. Rastafarianism represented this kind of ethnic identification, with Bob Marley’s music as one of its most resonant expressions.   

As Hall writes:

As a way of understanding that what is at issue in the return of ethnicity today is the production of identities and identifications, rather than the uncovering of essences given in nature, one might equally recall how the idea of “Africa”—not a country actually located on any map but a country of the mind—alone enabled young children of Caribbean migrants, the second generation, to survive life in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. It was cultural forms such as the music technology of the recording studio, the sound system, and the vinyl disc, as much as the metaphorical languages of Rastafarianism, that allowed them not just to survive, but also to acquire the sense of self-pride, the symbolic connectedness, and their own way of styling their bodies that characterized their new way of being, or rather “becoming”—black in the post-war history of multi-cultural Britain.” (p 122-3)

This second lecture concludes with reflections on the effects of globalisation on the construction of ethnic, religious and other social identities. Drawing on the writing of David Harvey (1991) and Anthony Giddens (1990) Hall describes the disruptions of the lived ideas of space and time which globalisation brings about, such that peoples all over the world, both in  western metropolises or poor third-world villages become exposed to the same cultures, adopting similar life-styles, and consuming the same commodities. The result is “that identity is increasingly homeless, so to speak” (9). Hall however rejects a widely held view of this process as one of relentless homogenisation, as the mere flattening out of distinctive cultures and identities. He holds on the contrary that many kinds of differentiation become possible in this complex environment. These can draw on existing resources of culture, memory and tradition to fashion new identities (10). In a rather hopeful conclusion to the second chapter of this book, similar in spirit to what he had a few years earlier written about the “new ethnicities” and their creative possibilities, Hall writes:

“I want to hold on to the contradictory tension by which, through a particular and distinctive form of marking cultural differences, historically marginalized and oppressed peoples also exploit the global proliferation of difference to produce themselves as new subjects...“ (p 124)

He quotes with approval Doreen Massey’s “concept of place as meeting-place, the location of the intersection of particular bundles of activity-spaces, of connections and interrelations, of influences and movements.” (Massey 1995, p 58-59).


Nations and Diasporas

The final chapter of the book examines these two crucial locations of ethnic and racial identities. Referring to the work of the sociologist, Ernest Gellner (2008), Hall discusses the emergence of nations and nationalism as modernity’s major constructors and containers of identity, in the project to align states with the cultural identities of their subjects. He notes that the idea of “nation” has at some moments also been a significant point of orientation and mobilisation for black radicals, such as W.E. Dubois after whom these lectures were named, sometimes being attached as a utopian imaginary  to the actual  nations of  Liberia and Ethiopia. He discusses the idea of diaspora, which is a central concept in his understanding of Caribbean identities. These are doubly, even multiply diasporic, following the enforced migrations of slavery, and recent migrations from the Caribbean to Europe and North America, which were driven in a different way by colonial exploitation and poverty.  The idea of diaspora, like other crucial concepts discussed in this book, has also been subject to imaginary constructions, for example in different extrapolations from the Biblical narrative of Exodus and its promise of redemption (Walzer 1985).    

Hall distinguishes between identity and identification to develop his view that identities are the outcomes of imaginative choices and actions, both individual and social, and are not the “essences” they are often claimed to be. Identities are constructed from the resources of real memories and experiences, but they necessarily depend on their re-working in the minds and indeed fantasies of each new generation of living people.  The idea that identification is an active and creative process supported Hall’s belief that differences of ethnicity and culture could flower and be enjoyed in modern societies, in a spirit of “conviviality”, in Paul Gilroy’s (2004) term. The Fatal Triangle concludes with an expression of this hope.

Towards the end of this chapter, Hall takes prescient note of what have become, in the decades since these lectures were given in 1994, extremely alarming responses to the effects of globalisation. He notes that the other negative side of the proliferation of differences “are the moves being made to roll back this multi-culturalising the diversifying tide.” He describes many instances of this reaction. These include the “Little Englandism” of the anti-European movement, the development of racist politics in “Fortress Europe”, attempts to re-impose an essentialist “English” identity through the school curriculum, the rise of religious fundamentalism across the globe, and the “barbarism of ethnic cleansing” for example in the former Yugoslavia. Following the collapse of state socialism we see the emergence of “ethnic nationalisms (which) try to produce a purified “folk” that will replace the dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities of central and eastern Europe.”  (p155.)  Hall took up a position which was characteristically opposed both to the idea of globalisation as a universal, homogenous good, and to the new essentialisms—religious, ethnic, nationalist -  that were then emerging in response to it.

One hardly needs to point out that the regressive movements Hall refers to in his lectures have grown in their force and toxicity in the decades since he wrote. He observed, at this relatively early date (14 years before Obama became President of the USA) a good deal of their negative potential, and he can hardly be blamed for not anticipating all that they would become at the present time.

One might ask what resources Hall’s analysis provides us with for understanding our present situation, he no longer being with us to undertake this crucial task. I mentioned earlier that he held the discursive regimes which define and enforce categorisations of race, ethnicity and nation to be constitutive elements of larger social systems. In the case of European and American racism, these were systems of white racial and colonial domination, extended over the world. Other empires have defined their own others and inferiors, the “uncivilised” against which “civilisations” choose to define themselves. Discursive regimes are thus one crucial “level”—the regulatory apparatuses—through which such systems of domination define and control the lives of those subjected to them.     

In order to understand what has gone so badly wrong we need to attend to the larger systemic crisis which we are now living through, and its causes. Hall was impatient with mechanistic kinds of Marxist explanation, and sought always to recognize the complexity and historical specificity of each social formation.  He would recognise, however, that the “contradictions”, as one used to call them, of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, need to be understood. (Hall, Massey, Rustin 2013). He understood also that empires in their decline can be as destructive, perhaps even more destructive, in their behaviours as they were at the height of their powers. Hall would surely have recognised that the issues he set out in these fine lectures need to be addressed in these larger systemic terms, if the hopes had of a world of creative differences and diversity are to have any chance of being realised.

Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Edited by Kobena Mercer; foreword by Henry Louis Gates. Harvard University Press, 2017


Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle was published by Harvard University Press in 2017.

1. A selection of Hall’s writings on race and ethnicity, edited Ruth Wilson Gilmore & Paul Gilroy, will soon be published by Duke University Press in the series devoted to his work.

2. See S. Hall (1999) “From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence”. History Workshop Journal, 48, pp. 187-197.

3. “Race is both an empty category and one of the most destructive and powerful forms of social categorisation” How is this paradox to be explained and how are its negative consequences for human lives to be resisted?”  was another formulation of this question (Rustin 1991 p 57). 

4. A selection of Hall’s writings related to Marx and Marxism, edited by Gregor McLennan, will be published by Duke University Press.   

5. See the critiques by Williams (1973) and Hall (1977) of the base-superstructure metaphor in Marxist theory, and the central argument of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. (1964)

[1] Hall’s concept of “authoritarian populism”, central to his analysis of Thatcherism, was criticised in these terms, as giving excessive weight to ideology.  See Jessop et al. (1984) and Hall’s (1985) reply. 

6. Psychoanalysis contributes an understanding of how the unconscious drives and dimensions of racial attributions give them such force and persistence. Hall in Lacanian terms to the importance of Fanon’s (1952) Black Skin White Masks in this regard. See Rustin (1991 and 2012) for a Kleinian psychoanalytical perspective.

7. Hall (2017) describes his experience of such an upbringing. 

8. Powell’s inflammatory speeches mobilised considerable anti-immigrant and racist feeling, reflected in increasingly restrictive immigration laws. They did however lead to his dismissal from the Conservative government by Edward Heath in 1968.  Hostility to immigration, although with a broader ethnic focus, has been the most powerful mobilising force in the campaign to leave the European Union.

9. Zigmunt Bauman (2000)’s idea of “liquid modernity”, expounded in several books, is relevant to this argument.  

10. He refers to Alberto Melucci’s (1989) ‘s idea of a new symbolic “tribalism”, often linked to localities.



Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity. 

Fanon, F. (1952) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Gellner, E. (2008) Nations and Nationalism. 2nd ed Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London: Routledge. 

Hall, S. (1977) “Rethinking the ‘base and superstructure’ metaphor”, in J. Bloomfield (et al.). Class, Hegemony and Party. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Hall, S. (1985) “Authoritarian Populism: A Reply to Jessop et al.”  New Left Review I/151, May-June.  

Hall, S. (1988) “New Ethnicities”, in K. Mercer (ed.) Black Film/British Cinema, London:  BFI/ICA Documents, p 7, 27-31.

Hall, S., (with C. Critcher, T. Jefferson, J. Clarke and B., Roberts).  (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis: ‘Mugging”, the State and Law and Order. London Macmillan.

Hall, S. Massey, D. and Rustin, M.J. (2015). After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 

Hall, S. (2017) Familiar Stranger: a Life Between Two Islands. London: Duke University Press.

Harvey, D. (1991) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. London: Blackwell.

Jessop, B., Bonnett, K.  Bromley, S. and Ling, T. (1984)  “Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism.”  New Left Review I/147, September-October. 

Massey, D. (1995) “The Conceptualisation of Place” in D. Massey and P. Jess (eds.) A Place in the World: Places, Cultures and Globalisation.   Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Melucci, A. (1989). Nomads of the Present: Socal Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. London: Hutchinson Radius. 

Rustin, M.J.  (1991) “Psychoanalysis, Racism and Anti-Racism’, in The Good Society and the Inner World. London: Verso.

Rustin, M.J. (2012) ‘Race Ethnicity, Nationality’, G. Gabbard, B. Litowitz, and P. Williams (ed.) Textbook of Psychoanalysis (2nd edition) New York: American Psychoanalytic Publishing p 495-506.    

Thompson, E.P. (1963) The Making of the English Working Class. London: Victor Gollancz.

Walzer, M. (1985) Exodus and Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Williams, R.  (1973) “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’. New Left Review 1/82, November-December.