Re: foundations of the nations

John H. Stevens, Jr. (jhs14@CORNELL.EDU)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 17:09:15 -0400

On Tues 13 August TK wrote:

>Hi John
>So I went out and found Calhoun's 1993 Annual Rev. Soc article, and
>Smith's 1986 book, Ethnic Origins of Nations.

Wow!! I've been scrubbing doors all day (community service to pay for a
speeding ticket). Now *that's* an inquiring mind! :-)

>Smith's discussion of 'ethnies' parallels many of the 1960s discussions of
>"tribe" which lead to Fried's "The Problem [Notion] of Tribe." For Smith,
>'ethnies' exhibit collective history, a myth of descent, shared history,
>distinctive shared culture, territory, and most of all a "sense of
>solidarity". He does not imply a primordiality to 'ethnies', putting their
>origins in the bronze age [Fried put the origin of Tribes in the
>neolithic]. Rather they are, as you say, 'symbolic capital'.

Basically. I think Smith has taken a step that many other poli sci folks
have yet to make regarding what makes identity tick. In much of the
international relations stuff I've had to read this summer, collective
groups such as states, nations, etc., as fairly unproblematic, and lots of
folks get their ire up when someone intimates that they are problematic
(like Timothy Mitchell's 1991 article on the State as an "effect" of power,
rather than its origin). A similar lack of questioning assumptions is
reflected in much of the literature on nationalism, such as John
Plamenatz's attempt to discern "good" from "bad nationalisms, where the
good ones were European encompassing forms and the bad ones were third
world/Oriental forms.

>But that is
>also what Abner Cohen said in 1969 under 'retribalization':
> the process by which a group ... involved in a struggle for power
> and privilege with another [group] manipulates some customs,
> values, myths, symbols, and ceremonials from their cultural
> tradition in order to articulate a political organization, which
> is then used as a weapon in that struggle
>Others have called it ethnogenesis.
>I suppose my problem is that the usual focus on 'ethnies', ethnic groups,
>and 'nations', often takes those characteristics as givens rather than as
>processual variables.

Exactly!! I really tried to work against the given-ness of nations and
ethnicity in my recent Mohawk paper, which was an attempt to deal with the
clash of multiple nationalisms (Canadian, Quebecois, Six Nations, and
Mohawk) that took place during the Oka Crisis (or Rebellion, depending on
who you talk to) of 1990. Even within the Mohawk "ethnic group" there were
struggles over just what the Mohawk nation was, what it meant to be a
nation, and who got to be a representative of that nation. You also saw
such contests in the response by the governments and citizenry of Canada
and Quebec. What resulted were conflicts over legitimacy, authority, and
territory as a number of constituencies (that sometimes overlapped) tried
to establish the primacy of their claims. This resulted in lots of
contradictions, like DIAND (the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs)
buying the land that was at the heart of the dispute for the Mohawks even
as the Army was setting up a razorwire cage around the protestors and
assuming full control of the situation.

This, to me, is the real stuff of nationalism that most theorists cannot
fit into their theories. This is the sort of stuff we need to examine,
analyze, and understand.


Best regards,

John H. Stevens, Jr.,
Graduate Student
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University

snail: c/o Dept. Of Anthropology, 265 McGraw Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853
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