Re: Ethnicity and Totemism

Sat, 9 Mar 1996 23:31:33 -0600

In response to Comaroff's 5 propositions on ethnicity John McCreery

"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.)"

By which I understand him to suggest that Comaroff's first 2 propositions
amount to little more than formalistic truisms. This may in fact be a
fair criticism but I would offer in Comaroff's defence the argument that,
while anthropological conceptions of ethnicity (particularly since Barth)
have moved away from ahistorical and essentialized approaches, this is less
the case in much of the cross-disciplinary literature on ethnicity to which
Comaroff may be responding.

Somewhat tangentially, (but apropos recent discussions of 'evolution' on this
list) if we look at public discourse on the issue of ethnicity, it seems to
me that anthropologists have had as little success in communicating a
"sensible social analysis" of ethnicity as they have had with 'evolution'.
If this is the case, I would argue that the stakes are much higher with
regard to the former. How many times in the recent past has premptive action
in response to looming humanitarian catasrophes (Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda ...)
been delayed or avoided because the media portrayal of ethnic conflict has
been naturalized as an essential characteristic of the people concerned?

The core of Comaroff's argument really emerges in the third proposition
which is given below, along with John McCreery's comments:

3. "While totemism emerges with the establishment of
symetrical relations between structurally similar social
groupings - groupings which may or may not come to be
integrated into one political community - ethnicity has
its origins 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."

I agree that there are problems with Comaroff's approach here. Like
many so many formalist approaches it seems to work well with the classic
cases. For example in the case of Burundi cited by Comaroff, the
asymetrical incorporation of the Twa first by the Hutu, and later of
both groups with the Tutsi, definately involved a division of labour
where ethnic and class difference overlapped. The situation gets more
complicated however, in the case of the ethnic movements arising out of
the former Ottoman empire (which is my current area of interest). In the
latter case, there was certainly asymetric incorporation, but along
religious lines. The possibility for a pervasive politics of ethnicity
could not emerge until the combination of European instigation of ethnic
separatism at the periphery, and political collapse at the core finished
off the Ottoman empire.

The point is I guess, that 'asymetry' alone, is not enough. My feeling is
that it is less a problem of what is 'given' (asymetrical incorporation
is likely to be a given in any field of social relations) than of what is
'denied'. For example, given a field of asymetrical relations in the
Ottoman context, legitimated by religion, there was still considerable
scope for cultural expression and political mobility. Jews, Armenian
Christians, and Orthodox Greeks often occupied high-ranking and pivotal
postions in the Ottoman administration. When the emerging political classes
of the current century attempted to replace the unifying ideology of Islam
with one of Ethnic (Turkish, Arab) Nationalism, ethnic difference became, by
definition, a threat to the new order. The resultant aggressive denial of
cultural expression and practices has produced a politics of ethnic
mobilization much more rigid and essentialized in logic and in practice
than was previously the case.

A similar effect can be discerned as a result of efforts by colonial
officials to adopt the Tutsis as a ruling class and issue ethnic identity
cards to all Tutsis and Hutus. What was denied here, was the possibility of
movement between social classes as had previously occurred, which promoted
an increasingly rigid ethnic ideology on the part of both groups. These
identity cards were one of the principle means of determining who belonged
to which group when it came time for genocidal purging.

It seems to me that attempts to find a universal and definitive explanatory
model of ethnicity simply cannot do justice to the diversity of historical
and cultural experience. They are more likely to result in empty formalisms
which, as John McCreery points out, say as much, and therefore as little,
about ethnicity as it does about religion, jazz etc. My motivation in all of
this is try to take an analytical approach to understanding ethnic
identification in the refugee movements I am researching which reflects the
diversity, boundary-crossing, and lived experience of the people involved.

My approach so far has been to take ethnic identification (like religious
identification) and asymetirical social relations as a given in the social
field under consideration. What interests me is not so much to define the
nature of ethnicity but to understand when and how an explicit and pervasive
politics of ethnicity emerges, and how it is affected by forced migration.
In this context I would offer the following - tentative - propositions:

1) Asymetrical social relations alone are not enough to promote a
politics of ethnic identity. Ethnic boundaries must first be formalized
into the institutional structure of relations in any given social field.

2) Secondly, for a politics of ethnic identification to be sustained, it is
important that those institutions deny (or be perceived to deny) particular
forms of cultural expression and practice and/or deny the possibility of
movement across social boundaries. The element of perception is important
because it points to the importance of cultural and political activists
in creating the awareness of a lost or threatened cultural heritage.

I would appreciate any feedback or criticism which would help me adjust,
elaborate, or improve this approach.


! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~!
! However, there is still a great deal of satisfaction in !
! knowing that although the moon is smaller than the earth, !
! it is much further away! - Jackson Wolfe !
! !