Ethnicity and totemism <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 7 Mar 1996 00:18:39 +0900

Ben Rempel asks for comments on Comaroff's five
propositions in re ethnicity and totemism. The following are
first impressions. No claim is implied to any special expertise
in these areas. The quotes are reproduced because, given the
ponderousness of their language, they are, at least for me,

1. "Contrary to the tendency, in the Weberian tradition, to
view it as afunction of primordial ties, ethnicity always has its
genesis in specifichistorical forces, forces which are
simultaneously structural and cultural."

2. "Ethnicity, far from being a unitary "thing", describes both a
set of relations and a mode of consciousness; moreover, the
meaning and practicalsalience varies for different social
groupings according to their positionsin the social order. But
as a form of consciousness, it is one among many -totemism
being another - each of which is produced as particular
historicalstructures impinge themselves on human
experience and condition social action." (p. 306)

* To 1 and 2 I say, of course. One can substitute almost any
noun referring to a social phenomenon for "ethnicity" and
approve the same conclusion. Social phenomena should
never be taken for granted and always examined in relation to
the specific (historical, cultural, ecological, pick your favorite)
settings in which we find them. The sensible social analyst is
wary of sweeping generalizations. (Advertisers find them
useful as means of moving product; politicians as devices for
mobilizing support.)

3. "While totemism emerges with the establishment of
symetrical relations between structurally similar social
groupings - groupings which may or maynot come to be
integrated into one political community - ethnicity has
itsorigins in the asymetric incorporation of structurally
dissimilar groupings into a single political economy." (p.307)

*This is one of those generalizations whose form is sufficient
to signal a need for wariness. Vertical vs. horizontal
segmentation with the former assumed to be symmetrical and
the latter asymmetrical goes back at least to Durkheim, and is
likely, I suspect, to be much older. The theory of asymmetry
emerging from incorporation of dissimilar groupings evokes
(somewhat dimmly now; it's been a long time since I read the
stuff) classic explanations of the origins of Indian caste in
Aryan invasions of India.

4. "While ethnicity is the product of specific historical
processes, it tendsto take on the "natural" appearance of an
autonomous force, a "principle"capable of determining the
course of social life." (p. 313)

*Here is, for me, the interesting point. Ethnicity and totems
are both commonly taken to be primordial sources of identity
given in the nature of things. Precisely how this came to be
the case in any particular case is, indeed, worth looking into.
Were they, like ideology described by Hegel, produced by a
process that begins with doctrine and then proceeds through
belief to ritual (at which point they are taken for granted as
part of the nature of things)? Or is this, for whatever case is
being studied, still an altogether too intellectualist view of the

5. "Where it becomes an objectified "principle" in the
collective consciousness of a society, ethnicity may be perpetuated by
factors quitedifferent from those that caused its emergence, and may have
a direct andindependent impact on the context in which it arose."
(p. 313)

*Again, of course. Warnings to avoid confusing origins with
reasons for a system's continued existence are a commonplace
of evolutionary biology (about which, Stephen Gould, for
example, writes more charmingly), and also a staple of
functionalist critiques of unilinear evolutionist speculation,
e.g., Evans-Pritchard on Tylor and Frazer. Again, note that
replacing "ethnicity" in this statement with "religion," say, or
"ideology," "law," "marriage," "kite-flying" or "jazz" leaves it
equally plausible--and thus equally vacuous: a form in need of

John McCreery
March 6, 1996