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Do cultural islands exist?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Dedicated to Marshall Sahlins

Social Anthropology
, no. 1, 1993

 Introductory remarks

This essay critically examines the island metaphors which have underlied anthropological theorising and research - metaphors which in the heyday of functionalism and cultural relativism produced strong images of isolated and self-sustaining societies, but which have today been dismissed as misleading and potentially harmful by many anthropologists. Drawing on empirical material from the literal island society of Mauritius, it is suggested that these criticisms must be well-founded since Mauritius, although isolated, has since its inception as a society been crucially dependent on the outside world - it is everything but isolated. A modified diffusionism, therefore, ought perhaps to be revived. It is further argued, still drawing on Mauritian material, that island metaphors may still be useful, but that they should now denote aspects of intersubjective meaning and the conscious erection of social and cultural boundaries, rather than "objective" properties of societies.

A transformation of the island metaphor along the lines suggested could be seen as an indicator of a more pervasive shift in the dominant anthropological mode of reasoning. This shift, which by now seems definite although a new "paradigm" has yet to appear, has changed the discipline's emphasis from positivist search for truth to less ambitious interpretations of ambiguous worlds; from structure to process, from causality to intersubjectivity, from stable social units to fluctuating systems of signification - and, in a certain sense, from explanation to understanding.

The island metaphor and the social world

The island is a powerful metaphor in everyday speech as well as in several academic disciplines. The idea of the island connotes isolation and uniqueness; within biology, for example, the island metaphor is used in descriptions of isolated gene pools, divergent evolutionary patterns and closed ecosystems. Indeed, an image of nearly totemic stature and significance in modern biogeography and evolutionary theory is that of a literal archipelago, namely the Galàpagos islands, which played a pivotal part in the development of Darwinism. In anthropology, too, island metaphors have had a strong attraction on the discipline's practitioners, and for similar reasons. Modern social anthropology was, we are well aware, founded on an island, namely Kiriwina in the Trobriand archipelago, which in many ways is to anthropology what the Galàpagos islands are to biology. However, as with the case of biology, islands and insularity are first and foremost strong metaphors - often implicit - of isolation and the boundedness of systems in anthropology. The classical social anthropological monograph would tend to depict a small-scale society, frequently a village, as a closed, self-sustaining social system. In so far as the local community described was compelled to have relations with the outside world, these relations would be depicted as extrasystemic links, as not really forming part of the relevant social unit. Similarly, cultures, in American cultural anthropological usage, have also generally been conceptualised as closed, self-sustaining systems of signification and interaction.

The idea of societies, or cultures, as being closed social and symbolic systems has been severely criticised in recent years. It has been stressed repeatedly that no society is entirely isolated, that cultural boundaries are not absolute, and that webs of communication and exchange tie societies together everywhere, no matter how isolated they may seem when viewed superficially. Nevertheless, the very ideas of societies, groups and cultures as entities which can meaningfully be isolated for analytical purposes, have not been discarded. Although ethnicity, for example, is now widely agreed to be constituted through social encounters and the symbolic contrasting between social groups, the notion of the ethnic group as a relatively fixed unit remains strong (cf. e.g. Barth, 1969). And although it has been pointed out that "cultures", or systems of signification and symbolisation if one prefers, are tied together in increasingly complex ways (see, for example, Wolf, 1982; Featherstone, 1990), the underlying metaphor for much anthropological work remains that of a culture as a distinct, relatively bounded system.

In some respects, we here seem to be approaching a parameter collapse (Ardener's, 1989, expression) in the social disciplines. The concepts of "cultures" and "societies" as our central units of investigation increasingly seem outdated as regulative ideas, since they indicate a stability and boundedness in social systems which is unwarranted (see, for example, Wallerstein, 1988; 1991). On the one hand, the current scepticism regarding these concepts can be traced to changes in the dominant way of thinking in academic milieux, which has in recent years tended towards attempts to conceptualise process and unpredictability instead of structure and regularity. (This development is, incidentally, as present in sociology and philosophy as it is in anthropology.) On the other hand, it may be argued that actual change in the social relations of the post-war world is the main cause of the imminent parameter collapse regarding the concepts of societies and cultures. The interrelationships between social systems, the argument goes - systems which may formerly have been fairly discrete - are nowadays simply so omnipresent and so important in the reproduction of any social system, that they should not be understated in any social study with a claim to intellectual honesty (see, for example, Hannerz, 1989; Appadurai, 1990).

The metaphor of insularity, usually implicit in anthropological research and theory, can be used to summarise these fundamental issues. The problem to be addressed here can thus be stated as follows. In which sense can cultural phenomena and human societies meaningfully be said to be discrete, that is to say autonomous, bounded and thus distinctive from each other; and conversely, to what extent is the entire cultural production of humanity woven together in a seamless, continuous pattern of communication and exchange? The issue is of great importance to contemporary social anthropology, and it cannot be answered in a straightforward way. The question may nevertheless be fruitfully approached through a reflection over mechanisms of social and cultural isolation, that is what we may provisionally call cultural island phenomena.

Literal and metaphorical islands

I shall deal with islands in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. If regarded literally, the island, an area of land completely surrounded by water, is not necessarily more isolated in socio-cultural respects than other areas of land. It is perhaps true that small islands may display similar cultural characteristics in some socio-cultural respects, but I shall refrain from going into that here. Suffice it to say initially that a great deal of scholarly effort has in recent years been devoted to the task of demonstrating that seemingly isolated island societies have always - that is to say, before the coming of Columbus, Magellan, Captain Cook and their successors - migrated, and have always been involved in extensive networks of communication and exchange with their neighbours (see, for example, Sahlins, 1985; Wolf, 1982; Hviding, 1991). Their presumed isolation was an incorrect European assumption.

Seen as a metaphor for isolated sociocultural phenomena, the concept of the island summarises, I have already suggested, major, extremely complex issues in the comparative study of society and culture. A main problem consists in deciding in which ways societies change when in extensive contact with each other, and in which ways they do not change. Are, for example, the changes brought about by colonisation instances of plus ça change, c'est plus la même chose; superficial changes which do not affect the fundamental modes of thought, beliefs and forms of social organisation in the societies in question? Conversely, one may wish to ask where to draw the boundary between different societies in the contemporary world, which knows no absolute boundaries between societies. The dominant systems of communication and exchange in the modern world are global, and they are increasingly becoming universal and seemingly all-encompassing (cf. e.g. Robertson, 1987; Giddens, 1990). If one ventures to visit places which were until recently white spots on the map, such as upstream Sepik river communities in Papua New Guinea, one may be offered to buy frozen foods flown in from Australia in the local shop; in central Africa, which could be labelled dark Africa only a generation ago, the inhabitants may now follow World Cup soccer games on radio and TV; in remote Chinese villages, aspects of the Gulf crisis were discussed vividly on the basis of daily, international news reports, and so on. This emergence of a seemingly boundless world should provoke us to re-think our concepts of cultures and societies as being relatively closed, isolated entities. In a sense, the dominant paradigm in social anthropology still defines all societies as islands - as unique, virtually self-sustaining systems to be understood primarily in their own terms, according to their own, presumably unique cultural logic. This idea should be re-thought both because it was wrong from the beginning, and because the contemporary world very visibly cannot be unambiguously divided into discrete societies.

On the other hand, it remains obvious that worldwide cultural variation is strongly discontinuous. There seem, in other words, to be strong entropy-resistant mechanisms at work preventing the total dissolution of cultural and social boundaries. With reference to a literal island with which I am familiar, namely Mauritius, I shall discuss some aspects of this duality between similarities and differences within the human world. In discussing the insular metaphor with continuous reference to a literal island, it is my wish to follow Bateson's suggestion concerning the use of analogy, which he warmly recommends as a technique for combining "loose and strict thinking":

"[T]he first hunch from analogy is wild, and then, the moment I begin to work out the analogy, I am brought up against the rigid formulations which have been devised in the field from which I borrowed the analogy." (Bateson, 1972 [1940]:75)

In other words, if we are to try out analogies from islands in thinking about society, then we ought to investigate what literal islands are like.

Allow me, by way of a detour, first to remind the reader of two, officially abandoned analogies used to describe social and cultural change - which have nevertheless left their mark on our discipline - in order that the subsequent discussion can be related to a wider context.

Evolutionist and diffusionist theories of cultural change

At the beginning of this century, there were two dominant kinds of theories about social and cultural change in non-European societies, that is "primitive societies", namely diffusionism and evolutionism in all its varieties. The diffusionists held that societies changed because of influences from the outside; that is, the borrowing of alien cultural traits and subsequent reconfiguration of the local culture. This theory is closely related to David Hume's general theory about the emergence of new ideas. Hume held that so-called original, imaginative thought normally consisted in new combinations of old ideas (cf. A Treatise on Human Nature). The diffusionists, like Hume himself incidentally, were in their time criticised for not being able to account for the actual origins of what they called cultural traits. In addition, their explanations, notably those proposing the existence of common sources for different cultural phenomena, were - and still are - regarded as highly speculative. Radcliffe-Brown thus warned his contemporaries against the pitfalls of what he condescendingly spoke of as "conjectural history" (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952). The history of non-literate peoples, he maintained, could not be researched in a scientifically defensible way, and the comparative study of societies should therefore be synchronic only. This notion remains a forceful one in social anthropology, even if diffusionism lurks behind as an implicit premise for much anthropological comparison (see Holy, 1987; Kuper, 1988)). The evolutionists, on the other hand, held that it was in the "nature" of human society to develop along certain lines. Most evolutionist schools would even specify particular stages through which every human society would necessarily pass, although some, such as most marxisms (including that of Marx), would allow for local variations such as the "Asiatic mode of production". Evolutionist theories about society were in the years immediately preceding World War II increasingly being subjected to criticisms of ethnocentrism from both British structural-functionalists and American cultural relativists: they were charged with uncritically and unwittingly using their own society as a standard for human evolution, and thus ranking other societies and cultures from a vantage-point which was deeply ideological and which made no explanatory sense.

The evolutionists and diffusionists of early anthropology borrowed their central metaphors and concepts from nineteenth-century natural science. Some powerful diffusionist metaphors, presented as explanatory concepts, are osmosis and the second law of thermodynamics. The notion of long-range dispersal has also been implicitly borrowed from biogeography. The central metaphor of evolutionism was, of course, that of the evolution of species through natural selection. Society was fancied as a "natural species" deemed to evolve according to certain laws of nature. The explanations engendered by these, admittedly seductive analogies, were ultimately unsatisfactory. They left a mass of data unexplained, and today we may safely add that the conjectural histories of evolutionists and diffusionists led to the production of enormous amounts of intellectually stimulating, but scientifically useless theorising.

Today, we should note, some social anthropologists and sociologists are catching up with twentieth-century developments in the natural sciences, and they now tend to borrow their concepts and analogies from systems theory and chaos theory instead of Darwinism and Newtonian physics (for example, Morin, 1986). This move may eventually contribute to a solution to the problem of delineating the boundaries of societies, through a re-stating of the issue within new conceptual parametres. Nevertheless, and that is the point here; although evolutionism remains discredited, core ideas from diffusionism remain alive and well in central branches of the social disciplines. In discussing the concept of islands in relation to the comparative study of societies, I shall actually propose an updated version of diffusionism, which may be a useful model for understanding social and cultural change. For when all is said and done, we are all diffusionists in the end - lest we become ignorant believers in absolute insularity. The focus on single, presumably isolated societies as pieces in an enormous mosaic, championed by nationalists and classical social anthropologists for decades (cf. Handler, 1988), both groups perpetrators of the myth of cultural islands, has become tangibly obsolete. We have presently acquired new concepts for thought and research, and in addition, the world has metamorphosed into a much smaller place than it was during the late Victorian era.

Is Mauritius an island?

In the literal meaning of the word, Mauritius is doubtless an island. Mauritius, its origins volcanic and geologically recent, has an area of 1,850 square kilometres and is entirely surrounded by the south-western Indian Ocean. The African mainland is approximately 1,000 kilometres away; India is almost twice as far. Seen from the perspectives of biogeography and biological evolution, Mauritius is also famous, although not quite as famous as Madagascar or the Galàpagos islands, for displaying typical island characteristics. When it was discovered by Europeans in the 17th century, the biology of Mauritius was unique and provided several examples of divergent evolution. The flightless dodo was to become the most famous indigenous inhabitant of the island. However, the agency of man quickly intervened against the law of the evolution of species by natural selection. The defenceless dodo was exterminated in a matter of decades by hungry Dutch sailors, and within a century, little was left of the original Mauritian ecosystem. It had by and large been replaced by a manmade ecosystem. The sugar-cane, the Javanese deer and the rat were brought by the Dutch from their colonies in the East Indies. When, in 1715, the French took over the management of the island, sugar plantation on a large scale was introduced, and additionally, an ambitious plan intended to introduce as many new plant species as possible was implemented (Toussaint, 1977). Mauritius still contains endemic species of birds and insects, but most of its densely populated area bears pervasive and persuasive marks of human agency and planning, and is dominated by nonendemic species. When Charles Darwin visited Mauritius briefly in 1836, he was more concerned with his own disappointment at its slight degree of Anglicisation - it had, after all, been on English hands for over two decades - than to chart its biology (Hollingworth, 1965).

Even in a botanical and zoological sense, then, Mauritius has been a part of a worldwide system of exchange brought about and monitored by conscious planning. The fact of human agency should therefore be borne in mind if we wish to compare cultural systems with ecosystems. The humans inhabiting Mauritius (and other islands) did not arrive haphazardly on pieces of driftwood or "natural rafts". They went there with a purpose in mind, either their own or someone else's.

The island metaphor may have some relevance for the biogeography of Mauritius prior to human settlement, if it is used as a metaphor for relative isolation. After human colonisation, however, Mauritius has not been an island in a biological sense, nor, I shall now argue, in most socio-cultural respects.

Mauritius is not an island

Let us now look at the social and cultural system of Mauritius with notions of presumed insular isolation in mind. As is the case with every human society, the Mauritian one is in an important sense not pristine. At certain points in time, its population arrived there from somewhere else. What is peculiar to Mauritius, compared to many other societies, is the recent arrival of humans as well as their diverse origins. All of the roughly one million Mauritians alive today descend from immigrants who arrived after 1715. Moreover, they came from three continents, some of them from very far away. The main ethnic categories of Mauritians today are Hindus of northern Indian descent, Muslims originating from the Indian subcontinent, Creoles of African descent, Tamils and Telegus from southern India, Chinese, and the descendants of French and British colons (see Eriksen, 1990; in press, for details of Mauritian ethnicity).

The factors shaping Mauritian society were never wholly indigenous. During French times, the island was designed to be a producer of sugar and a transit port for ships on their way from Africa to India and the Far East (Arno and Orian, 1986). The Britons, who took over the administration after the Napoleonic wars, saw Mauritius as a small cog in the great imperial machine, its chief task being that of producing sugar for Britons and for the world market. Since independence in 1968, Mauritians have re-designed the infrastructure of their society somewhat. They still rely heavily on sugar exports, but have diversified the economy considerably into tourism and manufacturing (Bowman, 1991).

The island remains extremely reliant on the outside world for trade. This dependence can also be seen as an extreme vulnerability. When oil prices rise, or when the U.S. government introduces new taxes on textile imports, the outcome can almost immediately be economic disaster for many Mauritians. If there is an economic recession in France, the tourist business suffers; if parts of Indonesia succeed in their bid for rapid industrialisation, the domestic textile industry will lose market shares. Many Mauritians go abroad for education, some go abroad for wives; their main literary languages, French, English and Hindi, are all foreign ones; the cinemas of Mauritius show Indian, European and North American films; and one could go on. Mauritius would simply not have existed as a society if it had not been peopled through conscious human design, which brought immigrants from other parts of the world. It would have been an entirely different place today, had it not remained tightly integrated into a global economic system.

Mauritius is peripheral economically and in many other respects, but it is no more insular in these regards than other peripheral areas. It could be retorted here, of course, that Mauritius is not a typical island; that its culture is in a sense "artificial" since its population consists of fairly recent immigrants. If we say so, however, then we must necessarily propose a clear distinction between artificial and non-artificial cultures. Modern culture, which is based on large-scale human planning and the reflexive monitoring of agency, would then appear as being more artificial than non-modern culture, which would then seem to evolve in a more "natural" way. However, one need only look at other island societies to see the spuriousness of such a distinction. The indigenous inhabitants of Madagascar, for example, are now known to have arrived from distant Polynesian islands in historical times; the Arawaks and Caribs encountered by Columbus in the Caribbean had arrived from the mainland a few centuries or less earlier; and native Polynesians and Melanesians alike may travel astonishing distances to trade goods which are often of a purely symbolic value (as has been so well documented by Malinowski, 1961 [1922], and his successors). One famous historical insular society was that founded by Norse settlers in Greenland in medieval times. This community was crucially dependent on trade with Europe, particularly Bergen, in order to survive. When European ships no longer arrived due to the hardships and recession following the Black Death in 1349-50, the community vanished. I will not venture to generalise from this single course of events, but the fact of contact with the outside world seems a universal feature of human societies.

Mauritius is therefore not a metaphorical island, if the term is to be reserved for relatively isolated systems. On the contrary, Mauritius - like virtually all inhabited literal islands - is constituted as a society on the basis of extensive contacts with the outside world.

Mauritius is an island

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are aspects of Mauritian society which display intriguing island characteristics, meaning aspects of isolation and endemic process. Although Mauritius is not an island in an economic or political sense, it contains several distinctive "cultural island phenomena" despite its relatively short history. For although there have always been extensive and crucially important contacts with the outside world, Mauritius remains, like every society worthy of the name, in many respects distinctive - and to this effect, Mauritius is an island.

First, there are the kind of cultural island phenomena so dearly loved by the old-fashioned diffusionists who tried to account for differences between otherwise related societies. These would be phenomena brought to the society through diffusion; phenomena which have been transformed or which have fallen into oblivion in their place of origin, but which thrive in their new habitat - or which have taken on a different significance in their new context. Comparative sociolinguistics has provided many good examples of such phenomena. For example, the Norwegian dialects which were until recently spoken in the North American Midwest resisted change long after the dialects of origin had been altered; and the Faroese and Icelandic languages are regarded by linguists as only slightly modified varieties of the Old Norse language once spoken all over Scandinavia. As regards Mauritius, a number of such odd "survivals" can be enumerated, both as regards language and other aspects of culture. The French spoken in Mauritius contains a number of lexical items deriving from eighteenth-century sailor's French (Corne and Baker, 1983); some of the varieties of Hinduism practised in Mauritius would be regarded as heterodox at best, or heretical at worst, in India itself; a peculiar "aristocratic" ethos exists among some Mauritians of French descent, who perceive society more or less in the same way as pre-revolutionary Frenchmen did, and so on. The resistance towards technological change among Franco-Mauritians managing sugar plantations could also plausibly be regarded as a survival from a pre-industrial era (Eriksen, 1986).

Many other "exotic" aspects of culture and society in Mauritius could be cited as documentation that it really is an island - remote from and out of touch with developments on the mainland. However, we may note that none of the phenomena cited have developed in total isolation; they were initially created through contact with the outside world. Insulation as an aspect of society must therefore always be a matter of degree. No society is entirely closed; no society is entirely open either, since it then ceases to be a society. A society must have boundaries in some regard in order to be a society. To this problem I shall return.

The "cultural island phenomena" which have now been mentioned are phenomena which most of the inhabitants ignore. Mauritians chat away cheerfully without the remotest idea that their lexicon contains terms deriving from eighteenth-century sailor's French; Franco-Mauritian aristocrats may denounce Rousseau and the French revolution without knowing how ridiculous they may seem to a contemporary European; low-caste Hindus may worship their gods in idiosyncratic ways without knowing that orthodox Indian Hindus would have been shocked and appalled, and so on. To Mauritians, it really makes no difference. As the Norwegian saying goes, "What you don't know won't harm you."

These cultural island phenomena are comparable to biological island phenomena. They have been brought about causally through objective mechanisms of isolation; notably, physical distance from the metropole and irregularity in contacts.

Mauritians and insularity

I shall now turn to a different kind of cultural island phenomenon, namely, those aspects of insularity which the agents acknowledge and/or create consciously. The most significant forms of isolation in Mauritius are in fact brought about because agents themselves are determined to form an island in one respect or other; that is to say, it is their conscious wish that they should be isolated. We may, of course, ask about their reasons for wanting this, or about the underlying causes for such a wish; I shall not emphasise this cluster of issues. My central concern is rather to try and distinguish between those island phenomena which are the results of historical contingencies and those which are brought about through, or at least mediated by, conscious agency. The latter seem sociologically more significant than the former.

Cultural entropy, that is the dissolution of internal cultural boundaries, is positively encouraged by the Mauritian state. Since its main project since independence in 1968 can be summarised as nation-building, there are many good reasons why cultural homogeneity should be regarded as an asset from the perspective of the Mauritian state, which is a nation-state (Eriksen, 1990). The state thus favours the development of a unitary educational system for all, a uniform labour market and a shared national language. Although many contemporary tendencies in Mauritian society have favoured the systematic removal of socio-cultural boundaries, the state has been forced to compromise on a number of issues. For one thing, there are now important legal provisions for various ethnic groups guaranteeing their cultural rights, embedded in educational policies and in the media. More significantly perhaps, ethnic boundaries are systematically and self-consciously being reproduced by the ethnics themselves, so to speak. The island is very densely populated (the average is 500/; blacks, Hindus and Muslims frequently live in the same neighbourhoods, they may be educated at the same schools, and may apply for the same jobs. Significantly, a growing majority of Mauritians speak the same vernacular, Kreol, which is a French-lexicon creole. In many other respects, the groups are approaching each other in terms of shared culture, due to the spread of uniform education, wage-work, nationalist ideology and international mass media, among other factors. Despite such objective changes, the flow of personnel between ethnic groups is nearly zero, the intermarriage rate is extremely low, and ethnically distinguishing symbols are fiercely protected and overcommunicated. Why, then, do these groups remain entropy-resistant as ethnic categories, or as "socio-cultural islands" if one prefers?

One could offer many different explanations for this resistance against social entropy, not all of them mutually exclusive. A simple sociobiological explanation would be that people guard their genetical pool against the pollution (or dilution) from genetically remote populations (cf. van den Berghe, 1981); a simple marxist explanation could be that ethnic tensions have been brought about by the hegemonic whites in a divide et impera strategy (Durand & Durand, 1978); a theorist of games might regard Mauritian ethnicity as an articulation of individual competition, and so on. While neither of these single-stranded explanations are entirely satisfactory, it remains a fact that cultural group isolation is promoted as an absolute value by most Mauritians. They have learnt to compromise, yet they take great pains to prevent compromise from turning into contamination. Each group remains an island, one might say, in respects crucial to the existential well-being of its members. Ideologies proclaiming that one's own group is morally superior and in important ways self-sufficient is important among the members of every ethnic category in Mauritius. On the other hand, there are clearly ongoing processes of change in processes of self-definition and self-recognition, in addition to the objective cultural changes taking place. As the internal integration of Mauritian society gains momentum, Muslims, Hindus and Creoles develop growing fields of shared meaning. If they were not able to do so, it would have been impossible to talk of a Mauritian society as something different from the formal trappings of the Mauritian nation-state.

So while Mauritius is an island and yet it isn't, as I have argued, we might also say that the ethnic groups of Mauritius are islands - and yet they aren't.

Insularity as a battle against isolation

Paradoxically perhaps, the concern to reproduce ethnic boundaries at home, the urge to remain ethnically pure and uncontaminated, is as typical of Mauritian society as the collective urge to become fully integrated into the global system of communication and exchange. Mauritians dearly want investments and tourists from anywhere in the world, and many of them wish to emigrate to some distant mainland. Romanticising and idealising notions of metropolitan societies are actually very typical characteristics of island societies (that is small and peripheral societies) all over the world, along with the related anxiety to keep up with the world.

The widespread self-awareness of its potential isolation, and the bid to overcome this, is characteristic of Mauritius and many other societies which are insular or remote either in a literal or a metaphorical sense. In this sense, insularity is relative. While, for example, Trinidadians look towards New York and Toronto for escape routes away from insularity and isolation, small-islanders from St. Vincent and Grenada may look towards the larger island of Trinidad in a similar way. There is doubtless a very strong resistance against various forms of social and cultural insularity in Mauritius and other island societies.

One will have noted that I have not distinguished carefully between the literal and the metaphorical meanings of islands and insularity in the preceding paragraph. Of course, the concept as such is a metaphorical one; it would be silly to pretend, for example, that Great Britain, Greenland and Easter Island had anything particular in common just because they were islands. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the fact of literal insularity has contributed to some forms of isolation in the Mauritian case. There is in this case a substantial overlap between the metaphorical and the literal use of the term. This should nevertheless be regarded as a coincidence. Relative insularity may be brought about by a variety of causes, and literal insularity may just as easily facilitate contact as isolation. As the linguist Peter Trudgill has remarked (1991), the most ancient Norwegian dialects are not to be found on islands off the coast, but in inland valleys.

Is the world an archipelago of cultures?

Until recently, anthropologists studied their communities as though they were islands. The idea of the global "mosaic of cultures" - still a common metaphor in travel literature - is now acknowledged to be untenable. "Cultures" are now widely held not to be fixed entities, nor are they perceived as "things" with clear boundaries - this is particularly evident in the contemporary world, marked by processes of globalisation of culture and the corresponding dissolution of physical boundaries. A hundred years ago, it would take weeks to travel from Europe to Mauritius; today, it takes twelve hours or less.

In this essay, I have occasionally depicted Mauritius as a single society and compared some of its features cursorily with other societies other places in the world. This entails seeing Mauritius as a whole as a cultural island, contrasting it with the mainland. In order to do this, we must always specify in which respects we choose to regard a given social phenomenon as an island, or as a relatively bounded society, culture or social system if one prefers. For, as I have also shown, internal social and cultural boundary mechanisms, be they of an ethnic or different nature, may also encourage us to regard specified sections of Mauritian society as islands in specified respects. The persistence of ethnicity and ethnic boundaries in respect to the low occurrence of intermarriage is possibly the most striking insular feature of Mauritian society. This feature has nothing to do with the fact of Mauritius being a literal island.

Isolation is always relative. Thus, Mauritians from different ethnic communities, when they meet in France or England, tend to relate to each other as Mauritians - not as Hindus, Creoles or Muslims. As a general rule, island identities depend on a contrast with the mainland. What is to be conceptualised as the mainland and what is to be regarded as the island, varies with the social context. In the domestic context, the mainland is frequently the entire, multi-ethnic Mauritian society. When one is abroad, the mainland is France, England or the whole world - and in these situations, Mauritius as such may be an insular focal point for self-identification.

Since isolation is always relative, a peninsular analogy would perhaps be more appropriate than the insular one. For although no cultural entity should be isolated absolutely even for analytical purposes, and that every human act and institution has been developed through communication with other human populations, it also remains a fact that societies remain to a greater or lesser extent isolated in important respects, lest they cease to be societies. The difference between isolated and non-isolated societies, although sometimes an important distinction, is always one of degree. There is nothing more natural about a human who has lived his entire life in central Borneo and who has known all of his fifty relevant others since he was a small child, than say, a Mauritian who has studied in France, worked in England, and now lives in a different town from that where he grew up. Both retain a sense of belonging, of identity, with people whom they perceive as being similar, and a sense of difference with those who are perceived as dissimilar. Moreover, the very notions of culture and society are relative and refer to abstractions of particular processes, not to "des choses" (Durkheim).

The world cannot be viewed in an unqualified way as an archipelago of cultures or societies. In certain contexts, the entire globe can be regarded as one's island; in other contexts, a dyadic pair, for example, may relevantly perceive itself as a social island. The general point is that self-identification is brought about through the creation of contrasts (insularity), which is nevertheless situationally variable. Since system boundaries of exclusion and inclusion are relative, and since humans are self-defining creatures (Geertz, 1973), it may be equally true to claim that a global culture exists as to claim that there are cultures encompassing only two persons. Insularity is a question of perspective.

Summary and concluding remarks

· Initially, it should be noted that the island metaphor in relation to societies or cultures is unfortunate from the outset, since it does not even work very well in the field from which it was taken. For in a literal sense, there is nothing peculiar to island societies as a category. Nor are islands necessarily more isolated biologically than other places.
· Used metaphorically about cultures or societies, the island concept is interesting as it highlights relative isolation. It is misleading, however, because all human societies are, to varying degrees, in crucial intercourse with other societies. In this sense, the diffusionists were correct in a general way, in emphasising that societies influence each other.
· Used metaphorically about aspects of cultures or societies, the island concept may initially seem a very potent one. The operational dimension could here be the boundary whereby differences are made socially relevant (Barth, 1969). It should be noted that conscious human agency contributes to defining in which respects a society is insular, and in which respects it is not. Unintentionally insular aspects of societies should be distinguished from those which are consciously wished, planned and monitored. Cultures or societies do not change according to laws of nature; the changes are at the very least mediated and interpreted by the intervention of consciousness and reflexivity. As Marx noted: A builder erecting a house, no matter how poorly qualified and sloppy he is, does something qualitatively different from a bee building a beehive: he has a model of the house inside his head before starting work on it. This does not, of course, imply that changes are always planned.

Claude Lévi-Strauss's famous distinction between hot and cold cultures (Lévi-Strauss, 1962) seems to support the assumption that isolated, insular cultures exist. Hot cultures, according to Lévi-Strauss, change unceasingly and in a feverish manner. Cold cultures repeat themselves cyclically; they are in this sense as regular as clockwork. Although this assumption may have some commonsense appeal, and although it initially deepened our understanding of modernity, no distinction between hot and cold cultures is ultimately valid, even if we do not take into account the contemporary modernisation of the entire world. All "cultures" change and are in contact with other societies. We may speculate on the causes for contact and change, as many profound minds have indeed done. Could it have something to do with the incest taboo and the related quest for women from neighbouring societies? Could a Nietzschean will to power be a driving force behind travelling, warfare, trade and other techniques for approaching others? Is it population growth and scarcity of land, or scarcity of protein for that matter, which drives people towards culture contact? Is it merely a male form of compensation for not being able to give birth? Is change intentional, causal or arbitrary? - And one could go on.

Let us not try to answer any of these questions now. Although I have argued that "no man is an island entire of it self" (John Donne), and have indicated that no society is truly an island, I have also stressed that boundaries between societies or between groups within societies are frequently activated despite continuous pressures towards entropy. Traditionally, these boundaries have been related to topography, geography and technology, and they have also been regarded as "natural" boundaries. It seemed natural that literal island societies, for one thing, were isolated. I have challenged this idea from two perspectives.

First, island societies never really were isolated, nor were other seemingly isolated tribal societies. When Napoleon Chagnon met the Yanomamö of north-eastern Amazonia in the 1960s, after a long struggle through the jungle, they were growing non-endemic plantains and were using imported steel tools even in the most remote areas (Chagnon, 1983). The mosaic vision of the tribal world is definitely a fiction (cf. Fabian, 1983; Kuper, 1988).

Secondly, the contemporary world does not allow for isolation proper. This should not, however, lead us into believing that all cultural difference will eventually vanish. Although we become increasingly similar in some ways, new differences are continuously generated. What is perhaps new in our own time, the era of the universalisation of certain aspects of modernity, consists in the growing self-awareness of cultural identity and the conscious, reflexive maintenance of social boundaries. When asked, the Hindus of Mauritius may say that they prohibit marriage with Creoles because of a concern with their cultural identity, which they believe threatened if they were to allow intermarriage. Can we refuse to take such an answer at its face value? A second question as we wind up: What about our own societies? They remain insular in so far as they refuse to allow cultural minorities the same rights as the natives, and certainly to the extent that they do not open their borders for unlimited immigration.

Modern capitalism and modern means of communication - which transmit people as well as messages - defy boundaries and create uniformity as well as self-conscious difference where there were formerly unexplored and unknown differences. Contemporary cultural islands are, therefore, to an increasing extent thoroughly planned, their walls and moats carefully fashioned by humans who abhor the idea that humanity should be one down to the minutest detail. If it is possible that we can be us, someone else necessarily has to be them.

Commenting on the fact of ethnic animosities and so-called racism, Lévi-Strauss once said that in order to realise its creative potential, every human society must discover its proper equilibrium between isolation and contact with others. What is the proper point of equilibrium varies according to factors which are beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is probably not too bold to suggest that most of the world's aboriginal populations, to mention one example, would have fared better, had they been allowed to retain more of their insular characteristics.

The processes of globalisation - the spread of literacy, television, national armies, tax forms and so on - seem to prove the assumption, fundamental to social anthropology, of the mental unity of mankind. Our recent history has proven that anyone can "become modern". It is also interesting to note that the self-conscious, reflexive production of cultural islands has many similar features all over the world. The "artificial" islands are much more similar to each other than were the "natural" islands which they seek to replace. They are mediated by the interfaces of the market, the state and the seamless, global systems of communication. These systems are nevertheless manifested only through the permutations of an infinite number of local expressions, which are different in nontrivial ways. Some of these differences may seemingly be accounted for through recourse to explanations which reject the idea that human agency is important in the constitution of society; some of them are nevertheless demonstrably created by humans who insist on the right to retain, and worship, their sense of living in an island.


An earlier version of the article was delivered as a lecture at the interdisciplinary conference Islands: Their Biology and Culture, organised by the North Norwegian Academy for Science and the Arts, Melbu, Norway, 16-20 July, 1991. I am grateful to the participants at the conference, particularly Peter Trudgill and Edvard Hviding, for their comments and suggestions.


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©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1993