Review of The Anthropology of Ethnicity: Beyond "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries

by Hans Vermeulen, Cora Govers
Book Reviewed
Book Title
The Anthropology of Ethnicity: Beyond "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries
Book Author
Hans Vermeulen, Cora Govers
Book Publisher
Spinhuis
Place of Publication
Year
1994
ISBN
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Ravindra K. Jain
Year
1996
Publication
Current Anthropology
Volume
37
Issue
4
Pages
722-723
Publisher
Language
English
License
Select License
URL
Updated
December 27th, 2012
Abstract
722 1 CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY 
 
"To start with the individual, and to stay with the indi- 
 
vidual to the bitter end, this is [its] chosen escape route 
 
to objectivity" (p. 11; cf. pp. 15-16). The sad "parable" 
 
here, it seems, is how efforts to work across disciplinary 
 
lines sometimes simply lead one into someone else's 
 
''Hotel Kwilu." 
 
Now (a necessary closing reflection, I think), Douglas 
 
does not wish a "Hotel Kwilu" on her readers. Reading 
 
her on the cultural theory of risk means also reading 
 
(for starters) Beck (1992) and Giddens (1991); each has a 
 
distinctive perspective beyond methodological individu- 
 
alism, and we should know them all. 
 
References Cited 
BECK,
 
ULRICH. 1992. Risk society: Towards a new modernity. Translated by Mark Ritter. London: Sage. DOUGLAS, 1966. Purity and danger: An analysis of con- 
 
MARY. 
 
cepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. . 1978. Cultural bias. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Occasional Paper 34. . 1986. Risk acceptability according to the social sciences. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 
 
DOUGLAS, AND AARON
 
MARY, WILDAVSKY. 1982. Risk and 
 
culture: An essay on the selection of technological and envi- 
 
ronmental dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
 
GIDDENS, 1991. Modernity and self-identity: Self 
 
ANTHONY. 
 
and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford Univer- sity Press. 
 
Beyond Ethnic Groups and Boundaries 
RAVINDRA K. JAIN 
 
Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of 
 
Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New 
 
Delhi 110067,India, 9 XI 95 
 
The Anthropology of Ethnicity: Beyond "Ethnic 
 
Groups and Boundaries." Edited by Hans Vermeulen 
 
and Cora Govers. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 1994. 
 
104 PP. The Anthropology of Ethnicity is a lightly edited but eminently readable collection of four long essays, in- cluding one by Fredrik Barth himself, first presented at a conference at Amsterdam in 1993 to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of the influential Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, edited by Barth, in 1969. Apart from Barth's own magisterial piece, the contributions are focused on issues of nationalism and state making (Katherine Verdery), boundaries of consciousness and consciousness of boundaries (Anthony Cohen), and the primordial nature of origins among migrants (Eugens Roosens)-all in relation to the anthropology of eth- nicity. The excellence and attraction of this collection lie in its conciseness and brevityj furthermore, it touches upon but stops short of allowing to intrude the concepts of ethnic identity and conflict as deployed in political science, sociology, and history. Barth's own overview serves as a retrospect and prospect on the theme of ethnicity in anthropology. I shall consider the three substantive, issue-oriented contributions in the light of that overview. 
 
Barth says (p. ~g), 
 
Our 1969 analyses gave limited attention to the ef- fects of state organization, focusing more on dis- persed ethnic competition for resources, and the life style commonalities and distinctions it generated. More recent literature has veered to the other ex- treme, as if assuming that all ethnic processes must be understood with reference to state structures of the very specific variant represented by late indus- trial democratic civil society. 
 
At first blush Verdery's chapter, "Ethnicity, National- ism, and State-making," would seem to belong to the second extreme indicated by Barth. However, while the main thrust of her essay is decidedly on the nation-state ceiling of ethnic identities and boundaries, she delin- eates the macro-context of ethnicity cautiously and in a graduated manner from what Barth would call a "mi- cro to median to macro" perspective. Her discourse cen- tres around three themes-"ethnicity as organizational type, as rooted in dichotomization rather than in some notion of culture, and as situational" (p. 35)-and tackles them in reverse order. She raises an interesting question about the situating of situationalism in ethnic ascription. Situationalism implies the possibility of a play between ascription and self-ascription which is a key aspect of manipulating identities. The potential for such a play is much reduced, according to Verdery, where modern nation-state formation has the greatest longevity and has proceeded the farthest. Consequently, in such situations-in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Latin America-identities will be less flexible than those in Southeast Asia or the Middle East. It is argued that since the bulk of anthropological investigations up to the time of writing by Barth and his colleagues had been confined to the "Third World" countries, situation- alism was seen as a universal characteristic of ethnic identity maintenance and manipulation. The experience of European countries, however, especially the current "Yugoslav" example, reveals the hardened face of ethnic identities. In general, the simultaneous maturation of the nation-state and of capitalist work organization has led to the essentializing of difference. While this concep- tualization is suggestive in highlighting the impact of centralizing nation-states in homogenizing ethnic iden- tities in old nations and, conversely, the pressure of civil society on the state, making for greater heterogeneity, in new nations, some doubts remain. Nearer home, the intransigent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is a case in point. Though it is a "new nation," the Tamil-Sinhalese identities in this island state brook no prevarication. Could it then be that it is the context of peaceful coexis- tence versus violent and conflictive relationships be- tween ethnic groups which situates situationalism? 
 
Also, one would question the exclusion from Verdery's paradigm of the societies marked by waves of immigra- tion and historically built up as multicultural nations- the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and South Africa, for ex- ample-which are neither wholly "European" nor "Third World" but crucial for any discussion of eth- nicity in anthropology. Viewed from another angle, the countries of the Jewish, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese diasporas should be treated as paradigm cases for re- lating ethnicity to nation-state and nationalism but find no reflection in this essay. Migrant identity is, however, the main focus of the fourth essay, by Roosens, in this volume. 
 
The relationship between culture and ethnicity has been problematical, to say the least. Verdery reempha- sises that Barth and colleagues, converging with the in- sights of Edmund Leach on highland Burma, disowned the content and sharing-of-values aspect of culture and highlighted instead the boundary-marking function, di- chotomization into "us" and "them," and culture as the arena for contestation and dispute. And yet the question remains why ethnicity has for so long been understood by both scholars and ethnic activists in terms of shared culture. In answering this conundrum, Verdery cites au- thors such as Gellner and Benedict Anderson, who juxta- posed a shared culture with nationalism in the context of modern capitalism and state formation. In other words, for the myth of shared culture ethnicity became indispensable for the homogenizing process unleashed by the nation-state and capitalism. Barth (pp. 17-18), in contrast, does not jump to the reduction of sharing of culture to the myth of ethnicised nationalism and thus to a quick substitution of cultural content by a boundary: 
 
Thus the issue of cultural content versus boundary, as it was formulated, unintentionally served to mis- lead. Yes, it is a question of analysing boundary pro- cesses, not of enumerating the sum of content, as in an old-fashioned trait list. But locating the bases of such boundary processes is not a question of pacing the limits of a group and observing its markers and the shedding of members. As already shown in the case materials in Ethnic Groups. . . . central and cul- turally valued institutions and activities in an ethnic group may be deeply involved in its boundary main- tenance by setting internal processes of convergence into motion; and we need to pay special attention to the factors governing individuals' commitments to the kind of personhood implied by specific ethnic identities. 
 
Barth's clarification makes perfect sense also with the development since the eighties in which so-called Brit- ish social anthropology and American cultural anthropology have moved closer to each other, thus obviating a disjunction between the tropes "cultural content" and "the social organization of difference." 
 
The point made by Barth about individuals' commit- ments and personhood brings us to Cohen's discussion of "boundaries of consciousness" and not only the "con- 
 
Volume 37, Number 4, August-October 1996 1 723 
 
sciousness of boundaries" as in conventional studies of ethnicity. To simplify somewhat, the discernment of the boundaries of consciousness brings us face-to-face with the old chestnut concerning subjectivity and objec- tivity in anthropological analyses. Cohen is absolutely right in advocating a refined phenomenological redac- tion of "boundary" in social anthropology as distinct from the cognate geopolitical and historical notions of "border" and "frontier." This would necessarily fore- ground the individual consciousness in addition to whatever notion of collective consciousness the analyst might have. Cohen gives an excellent example of research on selfhood among the Japanese. Takie Lebra identifies three dimensions of the self of which the least valued is the social or "interactional." The highest order of selfhood, Lebra suggests, is the "boundless self," which amounts really to selflessness. In between these transcendental and low or social orders of selfhood Lebra locates the "inner self," kokoro, identified with the heart or chest (in contrast to the face and mouth, loci of the interactional self). It is morally superior to the social self precisely because of its resistance to social pres- sure-its absoluteness. Lebra's findings contrast starkly with those of Ohnuki-Tierney, who ignores the notion of kokoro and insists that the Japanese self, both at the level of the collectivity and at that of the individual, is constructed in a dialogic relation to the other-other individuals-in a given social context. Cohen comments that he distrusts the latter version of the Japanese self but gives no scientific grounds for his judgement. To me his silence on the matter recommends only one course to be pursued in the wholly laudable research on the boundaries of consciousness, namely, the use of literature, particularly fiction, as metaethnography poised at the intersection of subjectivity and objectivity. 
 
While all the essays in this slim volume are instruc- tive and stimulating for further anthropological research on ethnicity, a word needs to be said especially about the Leuven group's substantive and methodological con- tributions on migrant ethnicity in Belgium, reported by Roosens. In this essay the immigrants' self-ascription, the immigration society's perceptions, the generational divide, and the returnees' responses are set out on the basis of substantial empirical research. The overarching principle informing ethnic identity formation here is the genealogical metaphor and enduring concern with ori- gins. This harks back to Weber's classic statement about the salience of descent in ethnicity and what one might call the immanence of notions about social heredity in many South Asian societies. In this light, it seems no mere coincidence that communities of the South Asian diaspora the world over have never been the initiators of conflictive interethnic relations (even in Fiji), for, as Roosens remarks. "While defining oneself as a people in terms of boundaries is unavoidably divisive, feeling as one people or thinking or talking about oneself as a peo- ple in terms of origin need not be markedly opposi- tional" (p. 101).A desideratum in future research on eth- nicity is indeed the exploration of peaceful coexistence vs. conflict parameters in pluralist societies. 
 
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