Re. Culture, Identity, Exile

Ben Rempel (brempel@CC.UMANITOBA.CA)
Fri, 16 Feb 1996 10:54:26 -0600

You're right Caroline about ethnicity being a slippery concept. Care to post
more re. Karen Blu's geneaology of ethnicity discourse and the 'Lumbee

Since my current research forces me to take some approach to
'ethnic theory', I have been trying to avoid the 'define your terms' method
and approach ethnicity as an instrumental (and therefore political)
expression of culture. My understanding is that this was Barth's contribution
(among others) to this problem - that the interesting question is not what
ethnicity 'is' but what it 'does'.

I don't know if this is what you had in mind John, about a fusion approach
to ethnicity. If I can take your cheap suit analogy to refer to what others
have called an 'affective' ethnic identity, I think this ties in with the
kind of ethnicity that policies such as official multiculturalism in Canada
try to produce. That is, a politically neutered ethnicity oriented towards
ritual performance that reinforces the Canadian myth of a 'cultural mosaic'
rather than that nasty melting pot you keep tossing people into down south.
As for hybridity, from an anthropological perspective I would argue that this
is, as far as we can tell, the ethnographic reality in most situatioms -
authenticity and cultural purity being the myths put to use in the social
field of identity politics.

I guess this ties in with Thomas Brunton's comment about 'invented' or
'folk history'. Your example Thomas, of ethnic identity aligning Scottish
crofters with the clan chieftains who exploited them, ties in with research I am
currently doing on the Kurdish nationalist movement. Many Kurds feel that
one of the problems with their ethnationalist struggle has been the
failure to address the issue of exploitation by their own land-owning
elite. Where Kurdish resistance forces have engaged this elite, as in
southeastern Turkey currently, an ethnic identity which theoretically
unites all Kurds has been complicated (often with bloody consequences)
by class antagonisms. The Turks had a policy until quite recently of
insisting that there were no Kurds in Turkey, just Mountain Turks. Those
Kurds who wanted access to the institutions of power (some became Prime
Ministers) had to forget their 'Kurdishness' and become 'Turks'.

Which ties in I guess with Kate Kagillogly's example
of Irish Americans who managed to negotiate their 'quasi'-racial status
for an ethnic identity that enfranchised them in the American mainstream.
Obviously there is a significant difference in what was a possible instru-
mental move for Irish Americans but was less so for those who are now
asking to be called African Americans. I guess an advantage of Practice
Theory, which Thomas Brunton mentions he is drifting into (careful, it
can be habitus-forming), is that it encourages us to focus less on
defining ethnicity or culture in absolute terms, and concentrate on when
and how such distinctions become important, and the dynamics of power in
a given social field makes some boundary crossings achievable and others