Re: ethnicities

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Thu, 15 Aug 1996 10:48:39 -0500

On Wed, 14 Aug 1996, Phillip Guddemi wrote:

> Dear Anthro-L,
> I found myself reacting to the ethnicity thread, and particularly to
> Kavanaugh's posting, with a series of examples. We need to look at
> ethnicity over all of the data, including that of the historical record, and
> I think we overreact to the politics of the present if we make our
> revulsion, at journalistic uses of "tribalism" for example, the basis of our
> theoretical thinking.

<long snip>

> So what is my point? I think that I am getting tired of the emerging dogma
> (which I guess I don't entirely understand) that ethnicity is entirely to be
> understood as deriving from nationalism which in turn is mostly a modern
> invention of the nation-state.

I am not sure which of my postings you are commenting on, but I certainly
agree with your point. Just as I don't agree with Fried's insistence that
tribes only resulted from contact with states, neither do I agree that
ethnicity is "mostly an invention of the nation-state."

Now it may be true in part that "many of the categories and presumptions
of [nationalistic] discourse are so ingrained in our everyday language
that it is virtually impossible to shed them" (Calhoun), including the
*belief* that "the world as a whole divides into distinct 'societies',
each having its more or less autonomous culture, government, economy amnd
solidarity" (Tilly). That is, certainly there has been a Western belief
that the rest of the world lives in "tribes" (or "ethnic groups" or
whatever) and we have approached the rest in terms of tribes, thus
creating many of them. But that also does not mean that tribes (etc) did
not constitute themselves apart from a Western political context.

At the same time, I would caution that we be careful about what we call
'identity', 'ethnicity', 'nationalism', and 'political organization'.

For instance, there is a difference between an inclusive communitas
identity and an exclusive oppositional identity.

Then there are the conflicting uses of "ethnic" to mean both "culture"
(as in "ethnology") and, with "nationalism," as oppositional identity.

When we use "ethnic group" (or "ethnie" or "ethnos" or "tribe") for "unit
of distinctive culture," (as does Smith in his definition of "ethnie") and
then try to classify all peoples into exclusive 'ethnic groups' we get
into problems. How much is enough to be distinctive? And by whose
reckoning? That is one element that Fried objected to in his "Problem of
Tribe" essays, and what Berreman tried to address with his concept of

And once we have categorized the population into sets of distinctive
culture [if that is indeed possible], there is no reason why the sets so
defined should correspond to political organizations, either to meet
internally defined public goals, or oppositionally defined against others.
There can be multiple political organizations sharing the same culture
(and sometimes with different and conflicting political goals) as well as
political organizations which cross-cut cultural boundaries. Back in 1952
Lowie noted: "the term tribe may be used in a political sense ... provided
we remember that linguistic and political groups need not coincide." And
there is no reason why the political units so organized should be
permanent. Sahlins noted that "tribe" was a political structure that was
operationalized when in oppositional situations, and "a tribe will
automatically return to the state of disunity -- local autonomy --and
remain there when competition is in abeyance."

Note the implications. If we cannot define enduring and bounded "units of
culture" nor "society," what we are left with is the processual study of
socio-culture -- symbolic understandings about the world and how to get
things done in it, learned and shared in differential [not everyone shares
everything; sometimes I do things 'cause you have power], dynamic [things
change], and temporal [history is relevant] social settings. Being dynamic
and temporal, the relative salience of such things as oppositional
identity, and especially political organizations themselves, become tied
to contemporary conditions.