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of a useful idiot,
Why culture should be brought back in
Newsletter (Uppsala University), October 2002
It is about time
we face it, whether we like it or not: The relativismuniversalism
tension in anthropological comparison is simply not going to go away.
During the past century it has been re-phrased, temporarily transcended,
noisily neglected and even ritually exorcised by recourse to the
primacy of the local, or the mental unity of humanity, or the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, or any other pretext one might think of.
But no sooner than it evaporates from academia, it re-emerges elsewhere,
often with a vengeance. In recent years for certain, the agenda of the
debate has been set not from within academia, but in the mass media and
in various political arenas.
situation twenty years ago. With a few exceptions, anthropologists were
then basically cultural relativists. A main academic debate concerned
the possibilities of reconciliation between relativism and Marxist evolutionism.
The non-Marxists did not share this anxiety, and could happily (and often
arrogantly) criticise development aid programmes for not taking cultural
specificities into account, spend their lunch hour discussing female circumcision
in the Horn of Africa (those who had completed their passage into anthropology
were naturally in favour of it) and, in their spare time, defend the right
to self-determination of cultural groups everywhere. What we said did
not really matter. On the few occasions when the itineraries of anthropologists
and others intersected, we were tolerated, but were not taken seriously.
This seems a
long time ago now. Gone is the intellectual insularity of the discipline,
and gone is the splendid isolation of social anthropology as well, as
a small subject professing access to arcane forms of secret knowledge.
As I write, it
occurs to me that I began my undergraduate studies in social anthropology
exactly twenty years ago. The ensuing two decades have seen the diversification
and growth of the discipline phenomenal in some places and
its increasing engagement with the outside world in at least two significant
ways. First, anthropologists now routinely work in complex modern societies,
and are thus directly confronted, as professionals, with the value systems
and predicaments characterising their own society. Secondly, many anthropologists
now have policy related jobs, with state administrations, NGOs and so
on. As a result, it is now impossible for the discipline (but perfectly
possible, and even often defensible, for many of its practitioners) not
to be engaged in questions concerning cultural rights and the relationship
between universal values and cultural specificity more generally.
seem to be worse equipped for taking on this task than ever. As Mikael
Kurkiala (2002) showed in a previous issue of the LBC Newsletter,
the current dominance of social constructivism and the fear of objectifying
differences seems to have created an anthropological discipline perfectly
able to make sophisticated statements about most issues except,
of course, everything to do with culture. In his cautious and ambivalent
article, Kurkiala traces the dominance of constructivism to the internal
development of the discipline, to wider intellectual trends and to political
realities. He is correct, I think, in identifying several sources for
the present situation, although the next question ought to be why constructivism
has become the main (in some places the only acceptable) approach now
and not, say, in the 1970s. To this I will return in a short while.
argument can be outlined as follows. Current sensibilities (both political
and academic) militate against any appeal to objectively existing entities.
Since everything is socially constructed, moreover, everything might have
been different (and probably ought to have been). Anybody claiming that
pre-discursive, pre-reflexive aspects of sociocultural reality cannot
just be wished away (partly because people are generally unaware of their
existence), is therefore likely to promote a thinly disguised racist,
sexist or ethnic supremacist argument. This, Kurkiala argues, has made
it politically and intellectually contentious to talk about ontological
differences between categories of people. Everything which is not
subject to choice (which at a closer examination turns out to be mere
consumer choice) is by default politically suspect in this discourse.
Although diversity is celebrated (in a Benetton fashion) difference
is obliterated and these are my words more often than not
associated with religious fanaticism or exclusivist nationalism. The conflation
of difference with inequality, moreover, makes this liberalist argument
palatable to the academic left, creating an unholy alliance between the
market forces and academic chic.
I have considerable
sympathy with Kurkialas argument (see Eriksen, 2000). Ethnic nationalism
and sexism are political evils. Cultural essentialism is a straitjacket.
Puritanist traditionalism does not help the Amazon Indians to defend their
rights. Yet there is a fundamental baby-and-bathwater problem here. If
all we are allowed to do is to study peoples reflexive constructions
of their culture, that means relinquishing the constitutive skills of
our craft: the methodical awareness of cultural schemata, internalised
values and social arrangements which are taken for granted and therefore
unknown to non-specialists, but which it is our task to unveil.
The short answer
to the above question why now is neo-liberalism as the hegemonic
global ideology. This ideology of free trade and free choice is so commonplace
and uncontested these days that it is rarely represented as an ideology
(but rather as common sense keep in mind Geertz
Common sense as a cultural system!). It has promoted an upbeat
vision of society as based on the free choices of consenting adults so
efficiently that the universities these days are not only run as profit-seeking
enterprises, but the dominant mode of thought in the very same universities
is perfectly compatible with neo-liberalism itself.
As one of the
unwitting accomplices (or useful idiots) of neo-liberalism for about a
decade (from around 1985), I should add that there were good reasons,
and even better arguments, for a social constructivist approach to cultural
identity at the time. Cultural romanticism had been unmasked as a product
of the Western middle class with spurious connections to the actual cultures
in question. Those cultures were rapidly changing and becoming part of
the modern world. Clever entrepreneurs were exploiting Romantic ideas
of wholeness and continuity with the past in order to pursue their personal
political or economic interests. The horrors of nationalist excesses
from ethnic cleansing to the insensitive exclusion of minorities
seemed to offer a choice between a battlefield and a marketplace.
Besides, our inherited ethnographic map of the world no longer matched
the territory, characterised as it was by creolisation, mobility, diversification
and the appearance of modern cultural production (and accompanying reflexivity)
in the most unexpected places. We were overripe for a new way of conceptualising
variations between life-worlds, many of us eager to throw off the shackles
of neo-Marxism, Durkheimianism, cultural romanticism or some other holist
orthodoxy. It was only after the revolt against the classic concept of
culture that many of us began to sense that something inalienable had
been given away, and that the anti-essentialist discourse had begun to
merge with neo-liberalism. Kurkiala describes the dilemma wonderfully
in his conclusion, when he says that the opposite of difference
need not be equality but may equally well be indifference.
Modernity is associated
with fragmentation, individuation, Gesellschaft and fast-moving
changes. If modernity is everywhere, it thus seems, then there can be
no hope for cultural communities based on a sense of sharing and continuity.
Yet we have never been modern. There is by now massive evidence
to the effect that in spite of the ubiquity of modernity, systematic cultural
differences continue to exist. Collective identities based on assumptions
of cultural similarity also exist. Moreover, there is a complicated relationship
between the two: sometimes there is a convincing fit between culture and
group für sich, but sometimes groups are neatly bounded while
the cultures they profess to represent are not.
should react against fraudulent attempts to delineate authentic
cultures and facile evolutionist rhetoric whereby other cultures
merely become poor imitations of ones own (cf. the current immigrant
debates in Western Europe). At the same time, we should point out that
cultures do exist and not just persons exerting choice, and that
they are morally equal until proven otherwise. If we are engaged in cultural
imperialism, we should say so. Human rights work, support for the Salman
Rushdies of the world and the protection of oppressed Muslim women in
Western societies are obviously forms of cultural imperialism, and should
be described as such. However, the only defensible form of cultural imperialism
is the enlightened one, which acknowledges the existence of deep differences.
After more than
a decade of varying applications of culture concepts from the questionable
(Samuel Huntington) to the horrible (Bosnia) we cannot relinquish
it, but we must be careful in distinguishing between cultural differences
and the political exploitation of assumed cultural differences. The late
Algerian author Rachid Mimouni phrased the problem accurately when, in
a trenchant criticism of political Islam, he argued that the problem of
politicised religion was that it took the religiosity out of religion.
Many practicing Hindus argue along the same lines against hindutva,
the doctrine of political Hinduism. In 20th century European history,
the expropriation of German cultural history by the Nazis, and on a smaller
scale, the expropriation of Viking symbolism by the Norwegian Quisling
regime, made it difficult subsequently to use the same universes of meaning
for other purposes. They had been contaminated.
weighs heavily on our shoulders these days; our academic or semi-academic
statements about nations, ethnic groups or cultures may immediately be
picked up, or assimilated more or less subconsciously, by ideologists
and politicians wishing to build their reputation on national chauvinism,
ethnic antagonism, enemy images. The liberal academic establishment thus
wags a warning finger at those who dare to talk of culture as the cause
of conflicts, shaking their heads sadly over those lost souls who have
not yet heeded the words of Saint Barth and Saint Gellner, who do not
realise that culture is chimerical and fleeting, and that reified culture
is a dangerous tool in the hands of non-specialists. It is, as Kurkiala
points out, not only intellectually correct, but also politically correct
to reject all forms of essentialism.
As a result,
we have too easily dismissed the question of the role of culture as a
determining factor in ethnicity in our eagerness to make ethnic groups
and relationships everywhere comparable, fitting the same analytic matrix.
The currently dominant framework for identity studies is limited in so
far as it rules out the possibility of a literal reading of the cultural
universes in question.
It is widely
assumed in the research community that ethnicity can be understood without
recourse to cultural differences between groups. Now, few scholars of
ethnicity deny that such differences may exist; indeed, Barth himself
notes, in his famous Introduction, that if the patterns of
behaviour on either side of the ethnic boundary become identical, the
boundary will probably cease to be effective. No, the point is rather
that cultural differences are not held to account for the creation and
maintenance of ethnic boundaries. Only those differences that are made
relevant contribute to defining an ethnic relationship, and in other respects,
the variation within each group may be greater than the variation between
groups. Just as nationhood may be legitimised by referring to a common
religion, language or territory, as the case may be, ethnic markers are
seen to be arbitrarily selected from a wide cultural repertoire. Clearly,
if one wants to emphasise cultural difference, one is unlikely to pick
out, as a symbol of ones collective identity, a trait that one shares
with ones neighbours. Internal variation is undercommunicated, and
conversely, differences vis-à-vis others is overcommunicated. This
important point has been used in accounts, for example, of the Bosnian
war, where a Serb villager could be said to have more in common, culturally
speaking, with a Muslim co-villager than with a Serb from Belgrade. This
would hold true of both dialect spoken and way of life in general. However,
since religion was singled out as the central identity marker, the effective
boundary was drawn not between villagers and city-dwellers, but between
religious groups. The boundary was thus arbitrary, it was argued; it served
to strengthen ideas of fictitious differences and drew on ethnic stereotypes
to do so. The people who responded to this kind of boundary-making in
so desperate ways were seen not as normatively directed human robots,
or as cultural dupes, but as the passive victims of ideology. (So much,
by the way, for the liberation of actors from the strictures of authoritarian
out of nothing. In one of the most detailed accounts of ethnicity in pre-war
Bosnia, Tone Bringa (1995) shows that although cultural differences between
the ethnic or religious groups were perhaps negligible, and although relations
between Serbs, Muslims and Croats could be cordial, there were nevertheless
important social boundary mechanisms between them, not in cosmopolitan
Sarajevo perhaps, but in the rural areas. Intermarriage was restricted,
the close informal networks of friends tended to be monoethnic, and the
discrete groups maintained different myths of origin. The intimate sphere,
in other words, seems to have been largely monoethnic and by this token,
Bosnia was a plural society in the classic sense; the public arenas were
shared, but the private ones were discrete. We may choose not to speak
of such features of social reality and everyday life in terms of culture,
but they are neither more nor less invented, or real, than anything else.
People do not choose their kin, they cannot choose to do away with their
childhood and everything they learnt at a tender age. These are aspects
of identity which are not chosen, which are incorporated and implicit.
Of course, we relate to them as reflexive agents, but we do so within
limitations that are not chosen. Such limitations form the objective foundations
of identification, on top of which situational selection and relational
identities can be played out.
A one-sided emphasis
on the manipulation of symbols, the situational selection of identity
and the fleeting and indefinite character of culture seems to suggest
that nothing really endures, that the social world is continuously re-created,
and that constructivist analytical approaches may tell the whole story
about human identification. This kind of view, which is rarely far away
in contemporary studies of ethnicity and nationalism, or for that matter
in currently fashionable social philosophy, would not just be methodologically
individualist, but also, it seems to me, a rather strong expression of
voluntarism. Such a view would, to the social scientist, imply that he
or she would have to unlearn everything he or she has learnt about socialisation,
the transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next,
the power of norms, the unconscious importance of religion and language
for identity and a sense of community. For how are societies integrated,
if not through culture, which must not be seen merely as a socially constructed
common heritage but rather as a shared system of communication?
What I am saying
is, in effect, that culture has, paradoxically, been bracketed
for methodological and political reasons in contemporary studies
of cultural identification, and I will now suggest how it can be brought
back in. In a unipolar post-11 September world, we cannot afford not to.
That which is
In his introduction
to The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm (1983) distinguishes
between invented traditions and non-invented ones, which have a "real"
continuity. Against this dichotomy it has been pointed out that all traditions
are in a certain sense invented. That is true, but in another sense it
is meaningful to distinguish between those traditions that have been consciously
invented for political, usually nation- or empire-building, purposes and
those which have arisen under other circumstances. Similarly, it makes
sense to distinguish between those aspects of culture which are self-consciously
worn as identity labels the tulips of the Netherlands, the tribal
dances of Kenya, the steelbands of Trinidad and those aspects which
are quietly reproduced without forming part of self-identity. By singlemindedly
focusing on the loud and conspicuous expressions of culture in interethnic
contexts, researchers have not only been able to conclude that culture
largely exists as a political tool, but by implication, the implicit and
incorporated taken-for-granted aspects of culture become neglected.
When we talk
of history in late 1990s academic discourse, it is often referred to in
the David Lowenthal sense of his celebrated The Past is a Foreign Country
(Lowenthal 1985) where he, on the basis of a mass of examples of the commercialisation
of cultural history, shows that history is often not the product of the
past, but of the present; in other words, history as myth, as legitimation,
as a particular, ideologically charged reconstruction of the past. However,
as every schoolboy knows, history is not merely historiography, but it
is also a sedimented past which works in frequently unacknowledged ways,
shaping minds and social circumstances over a longue durée and
thereby creating very different conditions for thought and action in different
social environments. It is certainly illuminating to study how history
is being used; but it is also a great intellectual challenge, which may
shed important light on the present, to investigate the effects of history
that is not being used for a particular legitimating purpose. What is
called for, in other words, is a reorientation back to the study of implicit,
non-reflexive, doxic foundations for thought and action; historical depth
and cultural sensitivity, that which is beyond strategy and self-consciousness.
Let me illustrate this point with an example from my own ethnographic
work in Mauritius.
polyethnic island-state in the south-western Indian Ocean, has been described
as a veritable laboratory for social studies, encompassing four world
religions and a bewildering number of languages on a smallish, isolated
oceanic island between Africa and India. The main ethnic groups are recognised
as Hindus, Tamils and Muslims, all of them of Indian origin, Creoles of
African, Malagasy and mixed origin, Franco-Mauritians of French descent
and Chinese, as well as a number of smaller groups based on finer distinctions,
which pop in and out of existence depending on the context. Cultural stereotypes
are invoked locally to justify the continued existence of ethnic boundaries.
To anybody who has done fieldwork in Mauritius, it is easy to argue
and it can be analytically important to show that the actual cultural
variations in Mauritius do not follow the same lines as ethnic variations
do. Linguistic variation is much less than one might expect, and the vast
majority of the population speaks Kreol, a French-lexicon Creole. Dialects
vary not so much along ethnic lines as along regional lines, a point which
has also been made with respect to dialects of Serbo-Croatian in Bosnia.
Moreover, religious differences are also less conspicious than one would
expect. On the village level, religious notions and practices are similar
although villagers may belong to Hinduism and Catholicism, religions which
are in theory very different. And one might go on to show that neither
diet, household structure, leisure activities or representations of politics
vary systematically along ethnic lines. In many respects, differences
pertaining to social class and the ruralurban divide are more profound
than ethnic differences, so that an urban middle-class Creole would have
more in common with an urban middle-class Hindu than with a rural working-class
Yet ethnic boundaries
remain relatively solid in most of the Mauritian population, although
there has been a growth in the occurrence of intermarriage in recent years.
That in itself is significant, but it is not the point I want to make
here. What I would like to call attention to, is rather the striking differences
in social mobility between the largest ethnic groups, the Hindus and the
Creoles. Since the mid-1980s, Mauritius has gone through a dramatic period
of economic change, moving from a monoculture dependent on sugar exports
to a diversified economy where manufacturing and tourism have attained
growing importance. New job opportunities and a rapid economic growth
rate have led to a general increase in the material standard of living.
However, in this fast process of change, it has become increasingly clear
that the Creoles are being left collectively behind. Their unemployment
rate is still fairly high, their level of education is comparatively low,
and few enterprises are led and run by Creoles. In my very first academic
paper, Creole culture and social change (Eriksen, 1986), I
tried to explain this by referring to cultural values and features of
social organisation, and I shall repeat the argument briefly now. The
Hindus have a social organisation based on patrilineal kinship and, to
a lesser extent, caste. They form corporate groups, many still practice
arranged marriage and are endogamous, and expectations of kinship loyalty
are strong. Their everyday morality revolves around notions of frugality,
prudence, planning and responsibility for ones dependents. The Creoles,
on the contrary, have a social organisation based on the fragile nuclear
family. They have no corporate groups, no collective marriage strategies,
and shallow genealogies. Among Creoles, individualism and a certain
joie de vivre tend to be strong values. An individual Creole who is
professionally successful, is rarely expected to aid his relatives in
finding good careers; indeed, in some cases, upwardly mobile Creoles change
ethnic membership and start identifying themselves as gens de couleur,
Coloureds. In Creole communities, the distrust of formal organisation
and hierarchy are strong. This ethic may be traced back to the era of
slavery, where the conjugal bond was loose or non-existent, and where
individual freedom must have been valued extremely highly. It could also
be argued that Creole values are indebted to those of their ancient slavemasters;
the values of aristocratic France. Whatever the case may be, the Creoles
in general, quite contrary to the Hindus, lack cultural values and organisational
resources enabling them to take collective advantage of industrialisation.
This means that
in order to understand what is locally spoken of as the malaise Créole,
it is not sufficient to look at ethnicity as politics and as the self-conscious
communication of cultural difference. Cultural differences exist and may
become relevant even when they are not consciously "made relevant".
The values and way of life associated with the Creoles are counterproductive
in political and economic careers; yet, they are demonstrably so deeply
embedded in personal experiences and life-worlds that they cannot be accounted
for merely by referring to stereotypes and reflexive identity politics.
As Worsley pointed
out years ago, one cannot simply exchange ones ethnic identity for
another; life is not a self-service cafeteria (Worsley 1984). In addition,
one cannot easily trade ones childhood experiences and personal
network for others; one doesnt choose ones cultural universe.
Culture is to some extent chosen and constructed, but it is also to a
great extent implicit, it has an element of fate, or destiny. This is
an acutely relevant point to make in a world where arranged marriages
are seen as an evil patriarchal plot, where all cultural significance
is taken away from female circumcision, and where the USA displays a growing
blindness to anything smacking of non-US life-worlds. Anthropology can
and should offer a recipe for disentangling these issues. If we are going
to be cultural imperialists, and we probably have no other option, then
at least we should be enlightened and respectful ones. To arrive there,
we need to understand culture as something which can neither be exchanged
in the marketplace, nor reduced to its political face.
Barth, Fredrik (1969)
Introduction, in F. Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Oslo:
Scandinavian University Press.
Bringa, Tone (1995)
Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: Identity and Community in a Central Bosnian
Village. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Eriksen, Thomas
Hylland (1986) Creole Culture and Social Change. Journal of Mauritian
and culture: A second look, in Herman Roodenburg and Regina Bendix, eds.,
Managing Ethnicity. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.
Hobsbawm, Eric (1983)
Introduction, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention
of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(2002) Business as usual? Critical remarks on the trivialization of difference
and diversity. LBC Newsletter, 2.
(1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Worsley, Peter (1984)
The Three Worlds. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.