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non-ethnic state for Africa?
integration, disintegration, difference and similarity in contemporary
Paper delivered at ASEN conference, London, 11 May 1996; later published
in a book edited by Paris Yeros.
The following discussion on social and political identification, with
particular reference to that vast continent conveniently summarised
under the label "sub-Saharan Africa", is partly epistemological,
partly analytic and partly plainly policy-oriented. I will set out
by outlining some standard social science models of nationhood and
ethnicity, then proceed to a discussion of social and political identification
and integration with reference to a few examples, before considering
a perspective which, in my view, has been neglected in too many scholarly
analyses of collective identity formations.
How does a sense of group membership develop, and under which circumstances
do groups behave as inverted refrigerators - emanating coldness outwards
for every degree of heat painstakingly generated inwards? What is
it about collective identification that makes it so susceptible to
being exploited by warlords and Machiavellan power brokers? And -
granted that ethnic group sentiment cannot be done away with by scholars
and politicians fuelled by Enlightenment sentiment - how can all the
energy invested into ethnic politics be harnessed for the progress
Such are some of the typical questions asked by academics studying
ethnicity and nationalism. Being one of those academics myself, I
should add that something important is often missing from our scholarly
diagnoses of contemporary ethnicity and nationalism: The main paradigm
represented by academics is not only at odds with, but to a large
extent incommensurable with, the experienced life-worlds of the people
we ostensibly study and, perhaps, carry out policy recommendations
about. It also, with a few exceptions, tends to caricature those life-worlds,
often creating contrasts between a (benign, liberal) cosmopolitan
attitude and a (totalitarian, irrational) localist or ethnicist attitude;
a kind of contrast which is less marked in ongoing social life than
in social science models, and which is both inaccurate and potentially
politically harmful. Let us keep this in mind as we move on to the
world of models, explanations and empirical examples. Towards the
end of the lecture, I shall return to the discrepancy.
|It is widely
held that the members of human groups have an "innate" propensity
to distinguish between insiders and outsiders, to delineate social
boundaries and to develop stereotypes about "the other"
in order to sustain and justify those boundaries. If this is indeed
the case, ethnicity can be conceived of as being nearly as universal
a characteristic of humanity as gender and age - unlike phenomena
like nationhood and nationalism, which have been so conceptualised
in the academic community as to concern the modern world only (Anderson
1991, Gellner 1983). Marx and Engels held, probably correctly, that
gender, age and the insider--outsider distinction were universal criteria
of social differentiation. If, on the other hand, ethnicity as we
conceptualise it can be shown to be a product of a particular kind
of society, it can of course not be regarded as an ahistorical and
universal phenomenon. I have argued elsewhere that this discussion
is a non sequitur (Eriksen 1995); today, I would instead like to draw
attention to the very process of collective identification, which
is currently represented as a negotiable commodity in most of the
world and which may just as well end in nihilism, individualism, postmodernism
and creolism as in vehement and stubborn identity politics with all
the conventional trappings of firm boundary-markers and negative stereotyping
of others - to denote some of the more extreme options.
By isolating "ethnicity" as a focus for research, one easily
loses everything else from sight. This is perhaps the cardinal sin
committed by many students of ethnicity; and although one should not
overestimate the importance of academic research, it can have very
noticeable effects on the outside world through its potential as a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Concepts can serve as both intellectual
tools of liberation and straitjackets. Their only claim to legitimacy
lies in their ability to help us conceptualise the outside world more
accurately; when they cease to do that job, they are ready for replacement
It has become a ritual exercise in social science theses and most
theoretically ambitious papers on ethnicity and nationalism to interrogate
the theories of nationalism developed by the late Ernest Gellner (1983),
Eric Hobsbawm (1992) and Anthony D. Smith (1986), respectively, concerning
whether nationalism and ethnicity are "old" or "new"
phenomena and to which extent they are "invented". While
everyone seems to agree that nationalism is a child of that fusion
between Enlightenment and Romanticism we are accustomed to label Modernity,
not everyone is convinced that it is this historically recent. For
didn't already the Vikings distinguish between Dane, Swede and Norwegian?
And didn't the ghostwriters of the Bible attribute a saying about
Jews and Greeks to Jesus Christ? And weren't the ancient Greeks pathologically
xenophobic? To this, Modernists would reply that although the collective
self--other distinction harks back to the mists of prehistory, the
peculiar reflexive character of the modern individual was missing
and besides, the nation-states places peculiar demands on its citizens
and an abstract solidarity from them.
At this point, enter Benedict Anderson, famously quoted for the title
of a book few seem to have read (Anderson 1991); with all due respect,
if they had, they would have realised that already on page 6, Anderson
notes that in a certain sense, all communities beyond the family are
imagined; in other words, to state that the nation is an "imagined
community" is pretty vacuous as a distinguishing mark. Rather
than focusing on ethnic identity as the paradigmatic prerequisite
for nationhood, as so many do, Anderson emphasises the impact of print
technology and a capitalist system of distribution in his explanation
of the development of imagined communities of an unprecedented scale,
involving, in shared commitment, solitarity and ritual communion,
very large numbers of people who will never meet.
Although Anderson notes the similarity between ethnicity and nationalism
as modes of belongingness, he does not explicitly relate nationalism
to ethnicity; he does not talk of the "ethnic origins of nations"
(Smith 1986). An historian of South-East Asia, Anderson writes extensively
about nationalist movements in the Philipphines and Indonesia; countries
which, if they are to be considered nations at all, definitely are
Nations are conceptualised and defined in crucially different ways
in different parts of the academic community. In the popular European
press, incidentally, nationalism has virtually become a synonym for
xenophobia. In my own discipline, social anthropology, nationalism
tends to be seen as identical with ethnic nationalism (cf. e.g. Banks
1996), whereas political scientists often regard it as a chiefly civic
kind of ideology, for example, what Habermas has spoken of, in the
German context, as Verfassungspatriotismus ("Constitutional
Patriotism"). The two "kinds" of nationalism, sometimes
described as "German" and "French" or even "East
European" and "West European" are not mutually exclusive
in practice. Even the civic British nation, if it exists as an imagined
community, has an easily identifiable dominant ethnic group, namely
the English; just as the WASPs can be seen, perhaps with slightly
greater difficulty, as the hegemonic ethnic group of the USA. This
does not, however, mean that nations are by default built around the
shared collective memories, territorial attachments, customs and values
of ethnic groups. I will shortly invoke an example which shows the
opposite. Besides, any sane discussion of nationhood in Africa must
find its point of departure in a model of nationhood which does not
equate national identity either with ethnic identity or with a subservient
ethnic identity. In the African context, bickering about ethnic diversity
as being somehow irreconcilable with nationhood, describing the African
states as being "unnatural", with "artificial boundaries"
etc., would lead us nowhere, and would also reveal a rather weak understanding
of actual European nations, which, as it has been pointed out repeatedly
since Walker Connor's seminal article on nationhood and ethnicity
(Connor 1974), are much less mono-ethnic than it has been customary
The issue at this stage concerns to what extent a sense of common
identity can be developed in the poly-ethnic African countries, and
which models of the nation can be reconciled with the facts on the
In order to discuss this question properly, it is necessary to dwell
a little on the problem of cultural integration and its relationship
to ethnicity and nationhood. Most theorists and commentators on nationalism
describe it as an ideology which promotes cultural homogeneity and
a subjective feeling of we-hood. The first clause is evidently true,
but it needs qualifying. How much do the citizens of a nation need
to have in common in order to be regarded as culturally homogeneous?
The answer cannot be of an either-or type, since shared culture is
a matter of degree. Smith (1995) and others have stressed that a shared
public culture is sufficient, but even if that much is conceded, there
are some very real difficulties associated with the delineation of
such a public culture. Even societies regarded as homogeneous, such
as mono-lingual countries, have greatly differentiated public spheres.
The social philosopher Jon Elster once suggested that a society might
be defined as a place where people stop at red traffic lights. This
will certainly not be sufficient as a general definition of a nation,
but it is difficult to tell exactly what is. This, obviously, is a
The second clause, regarding the subjective feeling of we-hood, is
no less difficult to define in an unambiguous way, if not only because
the compass and composition of the we-group shift situationally. In
general, there is a widespread tendency, also present among academics,
to conflate cultural similarity and subjectively defined nationhood.
One may have a lot of the latter without much of the former, as when
conservative Protestant fundamentalists in Western Norway and post-marxist
babyboomers in Eastern Norway take it for granted that they share
the same culture, despite their very considerable differences at the
level of objective culture. Conversely, the middle class of Milan
and the middle class of Lyon may have a lot in common culturally,
but not at the level of collective self-identity. The imagined community
does not have an existence unless it is being imagined actively by
its members. This does not mean that it is any more "imaginary"
than other communities, but that it can only exist at the intersubjective
level. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the "soft"
African states, which only rarely come into being as relevant aspects
of interpersonal life-worlds.
The common conflation of shared culture with shared ethnic identity
makes the task of crafting accurate concepts even more difficult.
Just as cultural similarity does not by itself lead to collective
identification, nor does ethnic similarity vouch for cultural similarity,
even if there is often a strong correlation. As it has been pointed
out many times, the most protracted and bitter ethnic conflicts are
often played out between ethnic groups who, at the level of culture,
are very similar, such as Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or Orthodox,
Catholics and Muslims in Bosnia.
The role of history is a related question in discussions on nationalism
and nationhood. To what extent do nations need a shared past as a
foundation for their present collective identity? Although it is difficult
to imagine a national ideology totally devoid of invocations of shared
memories, their importance varies, and some theorists assert that
the shared past is always a more or less arbitrary invention. In some
nations, the future seems to play a more important role in popular
national imagery than the past; Sweden and the USA are perhaps good
examples of this. Post-colonial African nation-states have also often
stressed ideas of progress and modernity rather than the mythical
past in official national symbolism.
Let me sum up this part of the discussion before moving on to the
main example. Some of the moot points in the discourse over nationalism
with immediate relevance to the discussion about African nationhood,
are the following:
(i) Whether or not ethnic groups are "modern" or not is
a contested issue. In the classic collection edited by Fredrik Barth
(1969), most of the contributions dealt with traditional societies.
For my purposes here, however, I shall accept that ethnic corporations
in Africa are recent developments associated with the rise of individualism,
capitalism and the state: Earlier corporations and collective identities,
although they might have carried a label later seen as ethnic, were
constructed according to a different logic.
(ii) The relationship between conceptualisations of ethnicity and
of nationalism is complicated. Some analysts see nations simply as
ethnic groups writ large, with leaderships of state-building ambitions;
others stress the civic, non-ethnic aspects of nations. Scarcely a
single state is ethnically homogeneous, and many do not even have
a dominant ethnic group. In the following, I shall see the African
nation as a supra-ethnic or poly-ethnic phenomenon, which may nevertheless
be appropriated by ethnic groups in a number of ways, including power
monopoly and secessionism.
(iii) The relationship between nationhood and culture has been insufficiently
explored. Although a theorist like Ernest Gellner has brazenly, and
probably correctly, stated that nationalism and successful nation-building
inevitably imply cultural homogenisation, the degree of cultural similarity
varies both inside and beyond the boundaries of the state in question.
(iv) Cultural similarity, ethnic incorporation and collective self-identity
are granted unequal weight in rivalling conceptualisations of nationhood.
In Eric Hobsbawm's work, for example, the collective self-identification
takes on a paramount importance, while A.D. Smith stresses the sharing
of customs and memories, frequently through an idiom of ethnicity.
(v) The role of historical continuity, whether real or imagined or
both, is also a difficult aspect of nationhood and one faced with
deep gravity by the African states, many of them manifestly lacking
a shared history.
the genre of biography, Virginia Woolf lets the protagonist of her
novel Orlando (1928) assume an enormous and seemingly unrealistic
variety of social roles and identities, right down to the point of
changing gender. Yet, the narrator says towards the end of the book,
she has written only a small fraction of the possible biographies
that could be written about Orlando; in other words, people have many
more facets than a single book might reveal.
The people of Mauritius, I think it would be fair to say, collectively
exploit a fair proportion of Orlando's vast role repertoire. Mauritius,
a multi-ethnic island-state in the south-western Indian Ocean, has
for historical reasons an ethnically very diverse population of about
one million, four major religions, a large but uncertain number of
languages, and no indigenous population (Eriksen 1988, Bowman 1990).
Widely considered an economic miracle in the 1990s, Mauritius is also
a stable multi-party democracy which has experienced several changes
of government since independence in 1968.
Arriving on the island to carry out fieldwork in early 1986, I half
expected to find a society where postmodern relativism was as deeply
ingrained as the faith in technological progress had been in Europe
in the 1950s; instead, I encountered a very wide range of perfectly
solid and confident personal identities, often based on qualitatively
different premises. The eclectic approach to identification which
can be observed in a society such as Mauritius is evident already
in the now obsolete colonial grid for dividing the population into
ethnic categories. The last of several such classificatory exercises,
abolished in 1982, divided the Mauritian population into four mutually
exclusive categories: Hindus, Muslims, Chinese and "General Population".
Two of them are religious categories, one refers to an ancestral country,
and the final one is residual and contains most but not all of Mauritius'
Catholics, with origins as diverse as France and Madagascar, and with
no collective sense of ethnic community. However, if a common myth
of origin is an important defining mark for an ethnic group, then
the island has at least eight ethnic groups, if one chooses to stress
the endogamy rule, the number may rise to around twenty, whereas if
ancestral language is to be invoked as a differentiating criterion,
fifteen ethnic groups might be counted. This ought to make it clear,
if there should be any doubt, that ethnicity is and remains a relational
and situational kind of social phenomenon. However, not just the ethnic
identities are important in Mauritius although they have justly or
unjustly formed the focus of most research on identification in the
island. Let me, by way of illustration, provide a list of the over-arching
identities I have recorded during fieldwork. By over-arching, I mean
identities which may in certain situations overrule all other identities
and appear as imperative in the sense that they induce action.
(i) Ethnic identity. Although criteria for ethnic differentiation
are not consistent with each other, there is always a close link between
ethnic identity and kinship. Politics, jobs and marriage are often,
but far from always, regulated through an ethnic idiom.
(ii) Class identity. Trade unions frequently cut across ethnic lines,
and two general strikes in independent Mauritius testify to their
occasional efficacy. Also, the sense of belonging to a certain class
rather than to an ethnic group is strong in parts of the urban middle
class, which often intermarries and tends to regard itself as cosmopolitan.
Shared professional identity, also not negligible under certain circumstances,
can also be included here.
(iii) Gender identity. There are several feminist organisations, which
have a certain impact on public debate and which explicitly try to
bridge gaps between Indo-Mauritian and Creole women. Of course, gender
identity is also highly relevant in a great number of everyday situations,
(iv) Age. Youth increasingly tend to share social idioms, networks
and activities irrespective of ethnic background, in addition to in
most cases going to multiethnic state schools.
(v) Religious identity. Although the correlation between religion
and ethnic identity is high, Chinese Catholics, Indo-Christians and
Muslim Creoles, among others, worship with members of ethnic groups
other than their own.
(vi) Local identity. Although the ethnic element is rarely entirely
absent from local politics in Mauritius, villages are often united
on single issues, and sometimes divided along non-ethnic lines (cf.
(vii) Political identity. Several political groups are explicitly
based on non-ethnic premises, although national politics in Mauritius
remains thoroughly ethnified.
(viii) Linguistic identity. Although most Mauritians speak a French-lexicon
Creole (Kreol) as their first language, other languages are also spoken
in the island. Notably, French-speakers, regardless of ethnic affiliation,
militate for the continued strong position of French in public life.
Some of them would be, for example, Tamils by ethnic origin.
(ix) Supra-ethnic national identity. Although this form of identification
is most evidently present in parts of the growing urban middle class,
among intellectuals, academics and the like, there have been historical
situations where very large numbers of Mauritians have visibly associated
themselves with the multi-ethnic nation rather than with their ethnic
group; for example, during and after the ritual following the death
of Mauritius' first Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, and
in connection with large international sports tournaments (Eriksen
1994). Significantly, during the controversy concerning whether Mauritius
should change its Commonwealth status to that of a Republic (which
happened on March 12, 1992), views did not diverge systematically
along ethnic lines.
Mauritius now seems to be in the process of developing a common set
of supra-ethnic, national myths and symbols which is invested with
meaning and relevance by the bulk of its population, although ethnic
identification still remains strong. Some of this mythical material
harks back to the mists of colonialism, but some of it relates to
the turmoil and social unrest in the years around Independence (Eriksen
1993b). It is impossible to state whether this symbolic framework
will in the long run prove too feeble and fragile to sustain a sense
of unity among its ethnic and non-ethnic groups and networks; it is
nonetheless clear that any viable Mauritian supra-ethnic nationalism
will have to reconcile itself not only with ethnicity, but also with
the emerging non-ethnic constituent parts of society. Ethnic, non-ethnic
and post-ethnic elements, in other words, coexist side by side in
a precarious, but nonetheless stable equilibrium.
Two complementary, and sometimes competing, models of the Mauritian
nation coexist, and each has its symbols and rituals. One of them
is commonly spoken of as le pluriculturalisme mauricien and sees the
nation as being made up by the very "cultural mosaic" that
it embodies, and locates nationhood to the interface between the constituent
ethnic or cultural groups and their mutual respect. The other model
lifts nationhood to a supra-ethnic level and depicts Mauritian nationhood
as the universal values and institutions that all Mauritians share;
the political, legislative and educational systems, the territory,
and recently, the successful export economy. To the extent that these
formal, or officially constructed, visions of nationalism are successful
at the informal or popular level (cf. Eriksen 1993a), they appeal
both to ethnic sentiment and to supra-ethnic nationhood; both to particularistic
yearning for community and historical embeddedness, and to the universalistic
ideals of the bureaucratic state. Although it is by no means unproblematic
to develop, and although it requires a great deal of compromise and
improvisation as one goes along, a combination of these two nationalisms
seems to solve many of the potential contradictions inherent in multi-ethnic
If this had been a conference on xenophobia and exclusion in Europe,
I would at this point have raised the question of what Europe can
learn from Mauritius. Here, it is more appropriate to ask what Africa
could learn from Mauritius (a question already asked by post-apartheid
policy makers in South Africa). The answer is simple. The model can
be learnt, quickly and freely. On the other hand, it is unlikely that
it can be implemented wholesale through the application of mere political
will, since several of the institutional and objective underpinnings
of the Mauritian model are missing in most African countries:
(i) The boundaries of the Mauritian nation are not questioned, and
no European Besserwisser or local identity politician can plausibly
argue that its borders are "artificial". There can be no
secessionism, no irredentism in such a small, isolated island, unlike
in many postcolonial African states, from Nigeria's Biafra war to
the successful Eritrean secession and the idea of an Afrikander Volkstaat.
(ii) The Mauritian population has a high level of education and a
de facto high level of cultural integration, which makes a national
public sphere possible. The media infrastructure - radio, TV and to
some extent newspapers - reaches most households. As a result, the
political system is governed by a system of common denominators.
(iii) Mauritius is a country of such small scale that the gap between
elite and masses, or between centre and periphery, is much less than
in most African countries. Although many African countries, like Mauritius,
practice power sharing between major ethnic groups, there is comparatively
little social integration between elites and masses within each ethnic
group. Thus, power sharing at the ethnic group level is not tantamount
to national integration, if the state bureaucratic elite is more or
less cut off from ordinary people. Admittedly, nepotism remains a
well established practice in parts of the Mauritian public sector,
but unlike in several African countries, it cannot be said that the
state is run by kinship corporations.
I have mentioned unquestioned sovereignty, high levels of education
and cultural integration, and small scale as factors which may partly
account for the relative success of Mauritian nation-building. As
regards the second point, I might add that the dialect variations
in Mauritian Creole tend to follow regional and not ethnic lines,
and that although cultural differences based on ethnicity invariably
crop up during conversations and are sometimes observed as well, they
rarely interfere with the functioning of the shared institutions of
society. The message is, in a word, that if such shared institutions
work reasonably impartially and according to universalistic principles,
ethnic diversity is no obstacle to nation-building. Somalia could
in its tragic way provide the mirror-image of this argument: The Somalis
speak the same language, share the same culture and ethnic identity
in any reasonable meaning of the term, and yet their country has fallen
into pieces because of a lack of functioning shared institutions.
In this brief discussion of Mauritian nationhood, I have mentioned
ritual a few times. Rituals are crucial confirmers and producers of
collective identification in any society; they simultaneously create
a sense of identity and justify a power structure. When rituals fail
to engage people, as is the case with many state-sponsored Independence
Day celebrations in postcolonial societies all over the world, the
power structure they implicitly symbolise is not justified, therefore,
and people go elsewhere for their collective identification. In a
recent book on ritual in contemporary Africa (Comaroff & Comaroff
1993), symptomatically, none of the rituals analysed, with the possible
exception of Nigerian witchcraft accusations as mediated by the popular
press, seem to be credible candidates as nationally cohesive forces.
In creating communitas, to use Turner's (1969) celebrated term, among
the members of single ethnic groups, they contribute to strengthening
rather than weakening ethnic incorporation.
From the notion that ethnic identity is a threat to national cohesion
in multi-ethnic societies, it would follow that ethnic rituals are
dangerous centrifugal forces. The loyalty to the state would then
be inversely proportional to the degree of loyalty to the ethnic group.
This, indeed, is the view held by many politicians and theorists,
and not just in Africa. This is nevertheless a position which, through
overestimating the political dimension of ethnicity and underestimating
its dimension of identification, may paradoxically inspire a politicisation
of ethnicity. A suppressed kind of cultural practice may easily re-emerge
as a resentful political one. State intolerance towards ethnic rituals
does not usually lead to popular support for state rituals, but rather
to the creation of ethnic countercultures. This is one problem which
has been avoided in the dual Mauritian construal of the nation, where
cultural expressions of ethnicity are positively encouraged and not
seen as a threat to nationhood, but instead as complementary to it.
The paucity of rituals which are actually, and not merely officially,
cohesive at the national level in many African countries, is a symptom,
not a cause. The causes for the lack of national cohesion have to
be found elsewhere - in the usually oligarchic and often kleptocratic
political structure, in the widespread lack of lingua francas spoken
by the bulk of the population, and in labour markets which fail to
offer jobs to individuals who can no longer return to functioning
clans and who therefore remain suspended in limbo between a lost traditional
society and a mock modernity which reveals itself as little more than
a showroom. The question is why it is that divisive and conflictual
ethnicity emerges, or - as some would have it - re-emerges, in this
kind of situation. In order to fully understand this, it is necessary
to look more closely at the phenomenon of identification than I have
done so far.
|What is the
self; what does the word "I" mean, let alone the word "we"?
As A P Cohen has noted in an important recent book (Cohen 1994), mainstream
social science has tended to avoid the question, taking individual
agency for granted and regarding groups in society as "social
facts", even if they pay lip service to the fact that identification
is situational and relational: given appropriate structural conditions,
they need not be politicised. Further, social identity cannot be taken
for granted by the analyst, but must always be investigated empirically,
and it varies which identity is construed as "the most primordial"
- whether, say, gender, ethnicity, kinship or class is considered
a person's most crucial criterion of belongingness in a particular
society or a particular context. Therefore, an investigation of identification
must begin with the individual.
People are loyal to ethnic, national or other imagined communities
not because they were born into them, but because such foci of loyalty
promise to offer something deemed meaningful, valuable or useful.
This kind of perspective is sometimes denounced as "utilitarian"
or "individualist", or even "reductionist". I
would like to argue that it is not. First, as I have argued with reference
to Mauritius, ethnic identification is but one of several identities
any individual engages in. It is made relevant under particular circumstances
which the individual may not exert much control over. Secondly, what
is deemed valuable is culturally determined; it is defined from within,
so to speak. This means that there may be, and indeed often are, discrepancies
between definitions of the good life, especially in societies where
cultural diversity is considerable. Thirdly, the "instance"
that finally perceives alternatives and chooses between them, is a
human being, an individual. Fourthly, it may be that say, kinship
and natal villages will always command nostalgia and warm sentiment,
but unless they are socially activated through some kind of resource
flow perceived as relevant by the actor, they remain at the level
of representations and do not emerge as social and political corporations.
It is within this kind of framework we may ask under which circumstances
classes and ethnic groups emerge, respectively.
In other words, individuals choose their allegiances, if not under
circumstances of their own choice. For them to invest symbolically,
politically or economically into a corporation or an imagined community,
it must offer something in return. Which collectivities are at any
point the most important both to individuals and to the functioning
of society, is therefore an empirical question. This is not utilitarianism;
it is tautology.
Now to the question of why specifically ethnic corporations emerge,
and why they tend to be poised against the state: Commenting on the
traumas of post-colonial Africa, Basil Davidson recently wrote: "The
jubilant crowds celebrating independence were not inspired by a 'national
consciousness' any more than were the Romanian peasants and their
coevals in the nation-states crystallized some decades earlier from
Europe's old internal empires. They were inspired by the hope of more
and better food and shelter" (Davidson 1992, p. 185). When this
failed to materialise, they oriented themselves to new - or old -
foci for social allegiance. For the great Pan-Africanists, the nation-state
may have been too small; for very many Africans, it was way too big,
unless they happened to live in a ministate such as Lesotho or Mauritius,
or if they they had the kind of Western education and middle-class
experiences which gave sense to the African nation-state as an imagined
community - or, again, if the state had something substantial to offer
by way of education, employment, security etc. For the vast majority
of Africans, a community of this scale did not tally with their personal
experiences, which were strictly local.
Generally, as every European sceptical of the Maastricht treaty would
agree, when a large-scale community fails to deliver the goods, structures
at the medium and low levels of scale emerge. Although these structures
have always been present in African countries, they become increasingly
invested with potential as the higher level (the state bureaucracy)
is weakened or simply severed from the majority of its citizens (who
thereby become citizens in name only). We should keep in mind that
a substantial part of what is conventionally described as African
ethnicity is simply kinship; in other words, the failed nations are
replaced by pre-existing structures, whose functioning has been transformed
by historical changes, and whose political importance is inversely
correlated with the strength and legitimacy of the state. That an
individual in, say, Congo should place his bets on his clan rather
than on the state, should be no surprise, as ethnographic studies
show (Ekholm Friedman 1993). In some parts of the world, notably North
Africa and the Middle East, political Islam plays the same part: it
stands for resentment to the corrupted and inefficient state and an
alternative path to authentic belongingness, prosperity and integrity.
In general, politicised countercultures are liable to take on an ethnic
character in societies where kinship is the most important local principle
of social organisation.
Corporate kinship, in Africa and elsewhere, ideally works as a segmentary
system. The segmentary model of identification, made famous by Evans-Pritchard
(1940), but familiar to a vast number of people including Jean-Marie
Le Pen, depicts each individual's modes of belonging as a set of concentric
circles where loyalty, in absolute terms, becomes weaker as one moves
outwards from the centre. It is illustrated in the famous formula
"It is I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins,
our cousins, my brother and I against our remote relatives, etc."
Each level of allegiance is activated when circumstances make it relevant.
The contraction of such a system of concentric circles indicates that
structures at a high level of scale are weakening and breaking down.
This seems to be happening in many African societies in the nineties,
where an increasing amount of capital - political, economic and symbolic
- seems to be flowing through the inner circles. The severing of links
between elites and masses is one important indication, which is serious
not just from the peasant's point of view, but also from a nation-building
perspective. As noted by Lonsdale (1996:9) in a recent discussion
of Kikuyu ethnicity and Kenyan nationhood, "the experience of
state power sems necessary to the growth of nationhood".
An alternative view of social identification could represent a person's
identities as a set of partly overlapping group allegiances. Such
multiple identities cannot be placed in concentric circles in orderly
ways; they can scarcely be represented graphically at all. They cut
across each other: every person has a shared identity with different
people at different times, according to the situation; one belongs
to a profession, a political interest group, a neighbourhood, a kin
group and so on. The most fundamental human form of identification
is arguably gender. In this kind of context, the status sets of individuals
are not clustered about multiplex relationships to a limited number
of people; they are diverse and flexible. The stiff and inflexible
concept of culture typical of 20th Century academia, incidentally,
has made it difficult to understand these complexities fully, since
it has been difficult to conceptualise group membership as a relative
and relational thing. As noted by Cohen (1994), group boundedness
has simply been taken for granted in virtually all anthropological
studies of culture and in all social science studies of ethnicity
- and, let me add, in modern identity politics worlwide. A simple
distinction between personal identity and group identity would nevertheless
be sufficient to show that boundaries are relational and that groups,
even if their existence is not necessarily negotiable, are situational
at least with regards to their relative importance.
The policy implications are obvious: Cross-cutting ties and conflicting
loyalties may contribute to reducing tension and conflict potential.
A world of many small differences is safer, all other things being
equal, than a world of a few major ones - such as the ones promoted
by ethnic nationalisms. Here it may be noted that even a theorist
sympathetic to nationalism such as Anthony D. Smith (1991; cf. Smith
1995), stresses the need for states to encourage multiple and conflicting
It would seem, then, that if it is correct that the focus of social
organisation in large parts of Africa is shifting from the grand,
abstract imagined community to more manageable, tangible ones, tension
may be reduced. I do not think so, for the simple reason that the
weakening of the state entails a weakening of that over-arching set
of rules governing intergroup relations; that is, the universalistic
structure, or common denominators, referred to in the Mauritian example.
The division of labour between the different levels of scale and principles
of organisation characteristic of Mauritian society, which is, incidentally,
necessary to any society worth more than a few traffic lights, is
skewed and incomplete in many African countries, where the highest
level of scale is, to varying degrees, disengaged from the other levels
(cf. Hydén 1983).
If a sweeping statement can be allowed, let me offer the following:
What is at stake for the majority of Africans is not primarily a vindication
of their "roots", popular culture and so on - in this, African
ethnicity is quite different from West European ethnicity. While meaning
and communitas may certainly be scarce, more urgent concerns would
in most cases be the satisfaction of basic needs as well as compelling
reasons for believing that one's personal ambitions will lead somewhere.
When the state institutions cease to deliver, kinship and, by extension,
ethnicity, is often the only alternative. It is chiefly in this context
that we must understand the emergence of modern, sometimes militant
African ethnicity as mass movements. The state would in this case
be a Trojan horse concealing not identity politics but kinship organisation.
I began this lecture as a comparison of different models of nationhood,
with explicit reference to the multi-ethnic, post-colonial states
of Sub-Saharan Africa. Obviously, most African states did not easily
fit the standard model of nations as culturally more or less homogeneous,
historically constituted entities. Neither, of course, did most European,
American and Asian states. The crisis in the African state, I have
subsequently argued, is no more a result of ethnic heterogeneity than
the breakup of Yugoslavia was caused by centuries old ethnic hatred
(see Bringa 1995 if in doubt). Ethnic homogeneity can contribute to
national cohesion, but as the contrasting examples of Mauritius and
Somalia show, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition.
I have argued that in so far as presumedly shared state-level institutions
- education, politics, labour market - do not function according to
more or less universalistic principles and are perceived as such by
the non-elite members of society, the state not only is illegitimate,
but it also fails to form a sustained focus of loyalty and identification
for the majority of its citizens. This may seem a banal insight, but
it is meant as an urge for us, the academic community specialising
in the study of other people's modes of identification, not to neglect
the study of the subjective level of experience.
|The social science
project is, like the African nation-building one, essentially an Enlightenment
one, but its subject-matter is largely constituted as a Romantic world
in the wide sense; one drawing on unifying metaphors rather than analytic
dissecting tools for its cognitive power. In this divergence lies
a great potential for misrepresentation and, as I think the African
post-independence experience shows, political futility and disruption.
Theorists of culture have in recent years developed a critical attitude
towards "native" appropriations of the concept of culture
for ideological purposes. The classic anthropological concept of culture,
originating in German romanticism (where Herder is the main reference)
and cultural relativism (from Franz Boas onwards), depicts the world
as an archipelago of more or less isolated cultures. Within this kind
of model, culture becomes reified; it becomes like a fixed object,
or a bounded vessel containing "a people". Against this
model, theorists have posited a view stressing the flow, ambiguity
and unbounded character of systems of meaning. One has tended to view
kin groups and ethnic corporations as mere constructions, which they
are in a certain sense, but not to their members, for whom they are
resources which channel security, hopes and dreams.
Native theories tend to be, in some way or other, essentialistic and
argue the objective, thinglike character of social and cultural identity.
Criticism from an academic point of view does not change this. It
may indeed seem that we, as theorists, represent perspectives which
may be analytically valid but which are politically hopeless, which
part of the post-independence African experience, whereby politicians
and theorists eagerly applied European models to their societies,
may show. It may of course be the case that the theory is avant-garde,
but there can be no doubt that there are profound and systematic differences
between the experiences and structures of relevance (Relevanzstrukturen,
Schütz and Luckmann 1979) theorists and "natives",
respectively, draw on in their constructions of identity. Academics
are by default "cosmopolitans", and it is no accident that
some of the most interesting writings on identity have been produced
by Jews, social "anomalies" in European societies. Extrapolating
from our own experiences of the world, we run the risk of generalising
from our own, highly specialised experiences. As a result, large parts
of the population we theorise about would feel alienated from the
theoretical models and question their validity, since their own experiences
and models of the world are radically different - not only from ours,
but also from our representations of theirs!
The academic, or cosmopolitan, mode of engaging with the world could
be described as detached, logical, disinterested and discursive. (It
is not irrelevant that the largest group of Internet users by far
are academics.) The academic discursive field is supra-spatial, or
disengaged from place. By contrast, local modes of engaging with the
world are experience-based, sensual, engaged and practical. These
world views are intrinsically connected with concrete places. They
are often stigmatised (by cosmopolitans) as fascist, racist, reactionary
and so on, after having been caricatured as much more solid and absolute
than they may actually be.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to state that both modes of engaging
with the world are practical, but derive from qualitatively different
kinds of practices, different embedded experiences and thus different
interests in a wide sense. The city-dweller walks on tarmac and lives
in a flat; the rural dweller walks on soil and lives in the family's
farm. (It is, in my colleague Eduardo Archetti's words [personal communication],
impossible to develop roots in an environment where one walks on tarmac
and not the earth itself.) The urban social network is based on the
public sphere of anonymous individuals, while the rural one is based
on kinship and neighbourhood. It is perfectly understandable that
different groups, with radically different experiences, do not develop
the same ways of relating to kinship, resources, belonging and identity.
It is therefore the source of some worry that recent criticisms of
ethnic and nationalist ideologies have not incorporated a sympathetic
understanding of such variations in our frequently one-sided dismissals
of "indigenous essentialisms". Blut und Boden may be a perfectly
appropriate metaphor for the collective interests of rurals, just
as human rights are more important to urban dwellers. Further, the
sheer force of argument is scarcely sufficient to make people change
their views on identity, belonging and loyalty. The rationale behind
subjective identification with a collective entity is simply, as I
have discussed at length, that it has something to offer which is
deemed valuable, meaningful or useful. Mauritians are not by birth
more civilized, more tolerant, more industrious or more democratic
than say, Togolese or Angolans, but for structural reasons they are
able to relate to identity options which make such virtues seem sensible
in two very different ways when ethnicity is considered. While ethnopoliticians
and their supporters bite the tails of others, scholars increasingly
tend to bite their own. They encounter risks of self-referential inconsistency,
circular argument and infinite regress, and ought to find no easy
consolation in the alternatives of stringent positivism and closed
objectivism. It remains indubitable that ethnic groups are created
from within - subjectively and intersubjectively - and also that a
mere examination of the objective conditions for their genesis does
not provide a full explanation for their existence. Many of us pay
lip service to rather fuzzy ideas of "interplay" between
objective and subjective, or historical and structural, factors; but
it is another matter altogether to demonstrate the complexity of ethnic
What is crucial at this point is that we academics become able, not
necessarily to sympathise with, but at least to understand what it
is that make people tick: in order to carry out an analysis of an
entire society, we must first be able to understand the subjective
experiences upon which people act.
A largely implicit theme in my lecture, announced at the beginning,
has been the contrast between social science models of ethnicity and
nationalism on the one hand, and ongoing group identification in actual
societies on the other hand. Social scientists, from political scientists
to anthropologists, have excelled in developing sophisticated formal
models of societal formations and cultural systems of classification,
while paying much less attention to modelling and understanding the
ongoing flow of social life, which relate to those societal formations
and draw on those systems of classification, but which cannot be reduced
to them, because persons and not systems act.
In many of our societies, including in this case both European and
African ones, it seems that the academic, political and economic élites
are moving in one direction and the rest of the population in another,
and simplistic academic models of the world do not exactly mitigate
this problem. An important task for analysts must therefore consist
in relaying an understanding of life-worlds not just the way they
are described by locals, but to come as close as possible to the way
in which they are experienced. Only then can we claim to have understood
African ethnicity, and only then should our policy recommendations
carry any weight.
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