Variable Ethnicity; VERY LONG, few quotes, ANALYTICAL

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Thu, 15 Feb 1996 21:19:08 -0500

Someone--I was too quick on the delete key, sweethearts :-)--noted I was
not a Southeast Asianist, and that there people change ethnicity all the
time, see Leach Pol Sys Highland Burma, and Peter Kunstadter's work.

Never said I was a SeAist, Luv, but I am mildly familiar with Leach, and
at least with Kunstadter's Ethnic Group, Category, and Identity: Karen in
Northern Thailand.

As for changing identity, people change "ethnic" identity all the time. No
problem there, just note that the "new" identity is also based on
purported "facts of birth"; everything is negotiable in politics. I know a
respected folklorist who, with a change of emphasis, went from being
"regional folklorist" to being Texas Cherokee, and thus a whole new
occupational vista opened up.

Ethnic identity is different from other political identities, such as
Unionist, Democrat, etc.

Now I haven't read Leach in a while, and didn't fully comprehend his
argument then, and probably still don't now. However, I remember something
about people (or groups) changing their basic outlook, from egalitarian
(Ack! I said it, No I said it again. Ni, MPATHG) to stratified, but I
can't remember it that cycle was in years or generations. On looking at my
copy, I find no mention of ethnicity in the index, and at a major bookmark
at p 44, the comment "the sub-categories of Kachin, as I use the term, are
of three kinds, (a)linguistic, (b) territorial, (c) political."

As for Kunstadter, I have used his Ethnic Group, Category and Identity
article in my Pol. Anth classes, but mostly for his categorization as a
starting point for discussion.

According to Kunstadter:

By *ethnic group* I mean a set of individuals with similar
consciousness and mutual interests centered on some shared
understandings or common values. . . .
By *ethnic identification* I mean the process of assigning an an
individual (including oneself) to a group or category, and
thus implicity recognizing boundaries of community of interests and
predicting a set of behavioral traits appropriate to members of
the group or category
By *ethnic category* I mean a class of people or groups, based on real or
presumed cultural characteristics, with the implication that a
categorization is a more or less systematic application of some
kind of rules to the variety of known individuals or groups

The points for discussion are "similar consciouness and mutual interest"
(what distinguishes an ethnic group from other communities of interest,
such as trade unions); how much does "recognizing boundaries... and
predicting ... behavior" border on sterotyping; how "systematic" is the

Kunstadter goes on to note that "Leach ... demonstrated that ethnic groups
or ethnic categorizations are not necessarily synonymous with a culture or
social system," and that "as we study varieties of ethnicity in SEA, we
begin to understand that ethnicity, at least in part, depends on reference
to some other group...." That is, political identification is (1) not
necessarily an empirical statement of cultural difference; and (2) it IS
an us-them (political) situation; it takes two to ethnicize (see Cohen

I have also used Charles Keyes' somewhat earlier (? I don't have
Kunstadter citation handy--my photocopy does not have the book citation.)
1976 article "Towards a New Formulation of the Concept ofof the Concept of
Ethnic Group" (1976 Ethnicity). Keyes does note that the dictionary
definition of "ethnic group" is "a group of people of the same race or
nationality who share a common and distinctive culture." Like Kunstadter,
he notes that, as shown by Leach's material, "a people, socially defined
[Kunstadter's "ethnic group"?, "category"?], do not always share a
distinctive culture or language." Rather, following an apparent practice
of translating the Thai term, *chat* [Sanskrit *jati*] 'birth' to the
English "ethnic," Keyes notes that "The idea of shared descent,
abstracted from the web of kinship, is basic, I would insist, to the
concept of ethnic group."

Several points to consider. The classification of ethnicity can be
both, dare I use the words, "emic" and "etic." The perceptions of cultural
difference by the people themselves may be totally different from the
"objective" (note quotation marks) outside observer. [I have had
Comanche women insist to me that the small "tabs" at the bottom of the
side seam in women's dresses is a Comanche mark, and want me to do the
museum work to verify it. It's not that I can't do the work, I can't
verify it. Lots 'o folks seem to have had it.]

And there is ethnic manipulation. As a political phenomena--you should
think otherwise?--people manipulate the "facts" for their immediate
purposes. There are several dimensions to those manipulations: there are
the kinds of concentric identites that Boyd talked about in her "This
Indian is not and Indian" article: One is at the same time a Lumpwood,
Absaroke, Crow, 'Skin, Indian, Native American, and the choice of which
label to use is related to the social context. Being one does not deny any
of the others.

There are also the non-concentric identities: it is difficult to switch
back and forth from being Crow to being, say, Hispanic: in the modern
American political climate ethnicity is generally perceived of as
permanent, and based on the "facts of birth." The person who discovers
late(r) in life that their grandmother was a XXX, is a wannabe, [in
contrast to the "cultural" labels 'apple', 'oreo', etc. which designate
difference from the proper "ethnic" cultural values associated with birth
into a particular community]. [Nothing spectacular in my family; because
of the ways my family worked, growing up I spent more time with the
Kavanaghs than with the Whitneys. Moreover, because of the demographics, I
never "knew" (intellectually) until grown that there were Strauses
involved with the Whitneys and that it was possible that the Strauses were
Jewish. However, I can claim not only the Irish of the Kavanaghs, but the
Welsh (and or English) of the Whitneys, and the German (and or Jewish) of
the Strauses [not to mention the Melicks, Luddingtons, Bamforths, etc.; or
even the rumor that the Kavanaghs were "black Irish," descendants of the
Spanish Armada: Can I claim Hispanic?] But when asked on one of those
forms, "Ethnicity:", I say simply, American: that is who/what I am
not who my ancestors were.]

Then there is the kind of "retribalization" that Abner Cohen talked
about, which can also be called "ethnogenesis", the intentional creation
of a political group based on an emphasis on a "fact" of cultural

the process by which a group . . . involved in a struggle for
power and privilege with another [group] . . . manipulate[s]
some customs, values, myths, symbols, and ceremonials from their
cultural tradition in order to articulate a political organization,
which is used as a weapon in that struggle. [1969:2]

Nancy Gonzalez paralleled Cohen: ethnogenesis was the breaking down [of]
old loyalties, and merging old symbols from diverse cultural patterns into
a new and self-conscious ideological framework (1975:120); Sturtevant
(1971) called it the establishment of [self-conscious] group
distinctiveness. It is the use of invidious and chauvinistic Us-Them
comparisons as political ammunition.

While I like the term "ethnogenesis" (first used by the editor of a
Charleston SC, newspaper to celebrate the new Confederacy in 1861), I want
to emphasize that the possession of those traits, patterns, etc, which are
essential to the new organization are often "facts of birth". It doesn't
matter how well I play the blues (once, at a gig, a New Orleans born blues
singer reached over, put her hand on my knee and said, "Honey [semantic
analysis begin, end], you sure you ain't from N'orleans?"), that is,
although I may possess the outward and visible symbols of the cultural
traits, the inward and spiritual {i.e. genetic, ethnic} essence ain't
there. But when I am at Walters, Oklahoma, dancing with Comanches at
Homecoming as I have for most of the last 25 summers, I am Comanche. And
I do play the blues.

You figure it out.