Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ethnicity & Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives

The following is part of chapter one from Thomas Eriksen's book. To read the rest of the chapter and learn more about the book, visit the site.

1. What is ethnicity?

It takes at least two somethings to create a difference. (...) Clearly each alone is - for the mind and perception - a non-entity, a non-being. Not different from being, and not different from non-being. An unknowable, a Ding an sich, a sound from one hand clapping. Gregory Bateson (1979: 78)


Words like "ethnic groups", "ethnicity" and "ethnic conflict" have become quite common terms in the English language, and they keep cropping up in the press, in TV news, in political programmes and in casual conversations. The same can be said for "nation" and "nationalism", and many of us have to admit that the meaning of these terms frequently seems ambiguous and vague.

There has been a parallel development in the social sciences. During the 1980s and early 1990s, we have witnessed an explosion in the growth of scholarly publications on ethnicity and nationalism, particularly in the fields of political science, history, sociology and social anthropology.

In the case of social anthropology, ethnicity has been a main preoccupation since the late 1960s, and it remains a central focus for research in the 1990s. In this book, the importance of anthropological approaches to the study of ethnicity will be emphasised. Through its dependence on long-term fieldwork, anthropology has the advantage of generating first-hand knowledge of social life at the level of everyday interaction. To a great extent, this is the locus where ethnicity is created and re-created. Ethnicity emerges and is made relevant through ongoing social situations and encounters, and through people's ways of coping with the demands and challenges of life. From its vantage-point right at the centre of local life, social anthropology is in a unique position to investigate these processes. Anthropological approaches also enable us to explore the ways in which ethnic relations are being defined and perceived by people; how they talk and think about their own group as well as other groups, and how particular world-views are being maintained or contested. The significance of ethnic membership to people can best be investigated through that detailed on-the-ground research which is the hallmark of anthropology. Finally, social anthropology, being a comparative discipline, studies both differences and similarities between ethnic phenomena. It thereby provides a nuanced and complex vision of ethnicity in the contemporary world.

An important reason for the current academic interest in ethnicity and nationalism is the fact that such phenomena have become so visible in many societies that it has become impossible to ignore them. In the early twentieth century, many social theorists held that ethnicity and nationalism would decrease in importance and eventually vanish as a result of modernisation, industrialisation and individualism. This never came about. On the contrary, ethnicity and nationalism have grown in political importance in the world, particularly since the Second World War.

Thirty-five of the thirty-seven major armed conflicts in the world in 1991 were internal conflicts, and most of them - from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland - could plausibly be described as ethnic conflicts. In addition to violent ethnic movements, there are also many important non-violent ethnic movements, such as the Qu├ębecois independence movement in Canada. In many parts of the world, further, nation-building - the creation of political cohesion and national identity in former colonies - is high on the political agenda. Ethnic and national identities also become strongly pertinent following the continuous influx of labour migrants and refugees to Europe and North America, which has led to the establishment of new, permanent ethnic minorities in these areas. During the same period, indigenous populations such as Inuits ("Eskimos") and Sami ("Lapps") have organised themselves politically, and demand that their ethnic identities and territorial entitlements should be recognised by the State. Finally, the political turbulence in Europe has moved issues of ethnic and national identities to the forefront of political life. At one extreme of the continent, the erstwhile Soviet Union has split into over a dozen ethnically based states. With the disappearance of the strong Socialist state in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, issues of nationhood and minority problems are emerging with unprecedented force. On the other extreme of the continent, the situation seems to be the opposite, as the nation-states of Western Europe are moving towards a closer economic, political and possibly cultural integration. But here, too, national and ethnic identities have become important issues in recent years. Many people fear the loss of their national or ethnic identity as a result of a tight European integration, whereas others consider the possibilities for a pan-European identity to replace the ethnic and national ones. During the electoral campaign preceding the Danish referendum on European Union in June 1992, a main anti-EU slogan was: "I want a country to be European in". This slogan suggests that personal identities are intimately linked with political processes and that social identities, e.g. as Danes or Europeans, are not given once and for all, but are negotiated over. Both of these insights are crucial to the study of ethnicity.
This book will show how social anthropology can shed light on concrete issues of ethnicity; which questions social anthropologists ask in relation to ethnic phenomena, and how they proceed to answer them. In this way, the book will offer a set of conceptual tools which go far beyond the immediate interpretation of day-to-day politics in their applicability. Some of the questions which will be discussed are:

· How do ethnic groups remain distinctive under different social conditions?
· Under which circumstances does ethnicity become important?
· What is the relationship between ethnic identity and ethnic political organisation?
· Is nationalism always a form of ethnicity?
· What is the relationship between ethnicity and other types of identity, social classification and political organisation, such as class and gender?
· What happens to ethnic relations when societies are industrialised?
· In which ways can history be important in the creation of ethnicity?
· What is the relationship between ethnicity and culture?

This introductory chapter will present the main concepts to be used throughout the book. It also explores their ambiguities and in this way introduces some main theoretical issues.

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Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Ethnicity & Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press 1993 (second, expanded edition 2002). Available online: http://folk.uio.no/geirthe/Ethnicity.html

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