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identity, national identity and intergroup conflict:
significance of personal experiences
Ashmore, Jussim, Wilder (eds.): Social identity, intergroup conflict,
and conflict reduction, pp. 42-70. Oxford: Oxford University Press'.
There exists by now
an enormous literature on contemporary ethnicity and nationalism in its
various forms, whether as North American multiculturalism or indigenous
rights movements, as post-Soviet ethnonationalism in Central and Eastern
Europe, as urban minority dilemmas or Islamic revivalism in Western Europe,
as indigenista movements in Latin America, or as processes of political
fission and fusion in contemporary Africa. The analytical focus of this
chapter will be on the concept of identity. The naïve question to
be asked at the outset it: What is it about identity politics that makes
it such a formidable force in the contemporary world? Some important issues
will have to be omitted, notably the relationship between identity politics,
globalisation and reflexive modernity (e.g. Bauman 1993, Friedman 1994,
Giddens 1994). Instead, what is offered amounts to an anthropological
perspective on the relationship between personal identity and political
identity, using conflicts based on identity politics as empirical examples.
sets out to do three things: First, a brief overview of the standard social
anthropological perspective on the politics of identity is provided. Identity
politics should be taken to mean political ideology, organisation and
action which openly represents the interests of designated groups based
on "essential" characteristics such as ethnic origin or religion,
and whose legitimacy lies in the support of important segments of such
groups. Membership in such groups is generally ascribed, unlike membership
in other political groups (socialists, liberals, trade unions etc.). Then,
by way of examples from India, Fiji and Yugoslavia, parallels and differences
between some such conflicts are highlighted. The examples are chosen mainly
for their differences: What they have in common is, apart from their temporal
location to the 1990s, apparently only that they are based on ideologies
of culture and identity. The Yugoslav conflict has been extremely brutal
and tragic; the Fijian one has only involved a few casualties, but has
led to important constitutional changes; while the Indian conflict, although
occasionally bursting into violence, is largely contained within the framework
of institutional Indian politics. If it can persuasively be argued that
these conflicts have important features in common, it is likely that those
features will also be present in other settings where identity politics
has a major impact. The third and final part draws on classic political
anthropology in order to suggest some general features of the relationship
between personal identity and politics.
The last decades
of the 20th century saw a dramatic re-conceptualisation of core concepts,
including culture and society, within the social sciences. Until the 1960s,
the close overlap between culture and ethnicity or even culture and nationhood
was generally taken for granted in the scholarly community. During the
past thirty years, however, hardly a single serious contribution to the
field has failed to point out that there is no one-to-one relationship
between culture and ethnicity (the seminal text here is Barth 1969); that
cultural differences cut across ethnic boundaries, and that ethnic identity
is based on socially sanctioned notions of cultural differences,
not "real" ones. While ethnic identity should be taken to refer
to a notion of shared ancestry (a kind of fictive kinship), culture refers
to shared representations, norms and practices. One can have deep ethnic
differences without correspondingly important cultural differences (as
in the Bosnian example below); and one can have cultural variation without
ethnic boundaries (as, for example, between the English middle class and
the English working class).
debates in anthropology and neighbouring disciplines pull in the same
direction: away from notions of integrated societies or cultures towards
a vision of a more fragmented, paradoxical and ambiguous world. The currently
bustling academic industry around the notion of globalisation (see Featherstone
1990 for an early, influential contribution) represents an empirically
oriented take on these issues, focusing on the largely technology-driven
processes that contribute to increasing contact across boundaries and
diminished importance of space. This focus on unbounded processes rather
than isolated communities has contributed to a reconceptualisation of
the social which is radically opposed to that of classic Durkheimian sociology
and anthropology; where flux, movement and change become the rule and
not the exception in social life (Strathern 1991, Hannerz 1992, Lash and
in North America, the classic concept of culture has been used for what
it is worth in domestic identity politics, leading in some cases to controversial
policies of multiculturalism, where individuals have been endowed with
special rights in accordance with their ethnic origins. Critics might
point out that multiculturalism in some of its versions resembles apartheid;
and also, that by positing a simple one-to-one relationship between ethnic
origin and culture, it not only encouraged a "disuniting of America"
(Schlesinger 1992), but also contributed to reifying misleading notions
of culture seen as the commonalities of a bounded set of individuals,
like so many nationalisms writ small.
A further disruptive
tendency has been the so-called postcolonial movement in literary studies,
spilling into anthropology and other disciplines, which has raised the
question of who has the right to identify whom; a standard text in this
field of discourse is Edward Saids Orientalism (Said 1978),
although Frantz Fanon developed similar insights two decades earlier.
Said and others argued, briefly, that ethnocentrism was deeply embedded
in Western scholarship dealing with non-Western peoples. Postcolonial
critics also tend to call attention to the multiplicity of voices (an
academic cliché by the late 1990s) present in any society and the
general unwillingness of academic researchers to give all of them the
attention they deserve.
Two related debates
defined the field for many years. First, there was the controversy over
primordialism and instrumentalism. Was ethnic identity "primordial",
that is profoundly rooted in and generative of collective
experiences; or did it arise as an ad hoc supplement to political strategies?
An early, powerful defense of the instrumentalist view was represented
in Abner Cohens work on urban ethnicity in Africa (1969, 1974),
showing the conscious manipulation of kinship and cultural symbols by
political entrepreneurs seeking political gain. This perspective is still
used with considerable success in studies of identity politics. Who, then,
were (or are) the primordialists? Clifford Geertz is often associated
with this view, arguing as he does along hermeneutic lines that cultural
systems are more or less self-sustaining and were thus not subject to
the wilful manipulation of individuals (Geertz 1973), a perspective he
retained when writing about nationhood in the Third World (Geertz 1967).
Typically, however, ethnicity studies were and are instrumentalist
in their basic orientation (Rex 1997).
The second debate,
usually framed as the opposition between constructivism and essentialism,
concerns the question whether ethnic or national communities are created
more or less consciously, or whether they grow organically, as it were,
out of pre-existing cultural communities. In nationalism studies, the
most highly profiled antagonists regarding this issue have been the late
Ernest Gellner (1983, 1997) and Anthony D. Smith. Smith (1986, 1991) has
developed an intermediate position in arguing the importance of pre-existing
ethnies for the development of nationalism while acknowledging
its essential modernity. Gellner, on the other hand, champions the view
that nations are entirely modern creations the progeny of industrialism
and the state which more or less fraudulently invent their past
to gain a semblance of antiquity and deep roots; his final statement on
the issue is reproduced in the posthumously published Nationalism
(Gellner 1997) under the heading "Do nations have navels?",
a pun on the Biblical enigma relating to Adams navel. Regarding
definitions, there are also important differences between theorists. While
Gellner holds nations to be ethnic groups who either control a state or
who have leaders who wish to do so, Anderson (1983) sees no necessary
link between the abstract "imagined community" of the nation
and particular ethnic groups; indeed, several of the main examples in
his famous book on "imagined communities", including The Philipphines
and Indonesia, are multiethnic countries. Yet others have distinguished
between ethnic nations and "civic" ones (Smith 1991). There
is nonetheless general agreement that nations are by definition linked
with states, whether they are based on a common ethnic identity or not.
at least, the recent shift towards the study of identities rather than
cultures has entailed an intense focus on conscious agency and reflexivity;
and for many anthropologists, essentialism and primordialism appear as
dated as pre-Darwinian biology. In addition, there seems to be good political
sense in discarding the old, static view of culture, which is being used
for many political purposes which are difficult to endorse by academics
committed to democratic values, ranging from the Balkan war to discrimination
against ethnic minorities in Western Europe. Further, this is an age when
the informants talk back. It could, perhaps, be said that a main purpose
of an earlier anthropology consisted in identifying other cultures. Representatives
of these so-called other cultures are now perfectly able to identify themselves,
which leaves the scholars either out of a job or with a new mission, that
is to identify their identifications; in other words, to study reflexive
Not so many years
ago, anthropology was still a discipline fueled by a programmatic love
of cultural variation for its own sake, and anthropologists involved in
advocacy tended to defend indigenous peoples or other minorities
traditional way of life against the onslaught of modernity. A main tendency
in recent years has, on the contrary, consisted in deconstructing instrumentalist
uses of notions of authenticity and tradition, and showing not only that
the internal variation within a group is much greater than one would expect,
but also that traditionalist ideologies are, paradoxically, direct results
of modernisation (e.g. Roosens 1989). This theoretical shift is a very
significant one. It offers a method for investigating strategic action,
the politics of symbols, and contemporary processes of identity politics
extremely well within a uniform comparative framework.
In other words:
Cracks in the edifice of mainstream social and cultural anthropology,
some of them directly inspired by events well beyond the confines of academia,
have led to a widespread reconceptualisation of society and culture. Reification
and essentialism have become central terms of denounciation; multiple
voices, situational identification and cultural flows are some of the
keywords delineating the current intellectual agenda. It has become difficult
if not impossible to talk of, say, Nuer culture, Hopi culture, Dutch culture
and so on, since such terms immediately invite critical questions of whose
Nuer culture, Hopi culture and so on, intimating that there is an infinite
number of versions of each culture, none of which is more "true"
than the others (Holland 1997). Ethnicity and nationalism, then, become
the political reifications or constructions of a particular authorised
version of a culture; freezing that which naturally flows, erecting artificial
boundaries where they did not exist before; trimming and shaping the past
to fit present needs, inventing traditions where no organic traditions
exist, or are adequate, to ensure a sense of continuity with the past.
A new kind of
political responsibility has entered academia in acute ways during the
last decades. Academic or semi-academic statements about nations, ethnic
groups or cultures may now 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
and so on. 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 leading theorists such as Barth (1969) and Gellner (1983),
criticising those who do not realise that culture is chimerical and fleeting,
and that reified culture is a dangerous tool. It is, thus, not only intellectually
correct, but also politically correct to reject all forms of essentialism.
The current scholarly
orthodoxy on ethnicity and the politics of identity can be summed up as
ethnicity is widely believed to express cultural differences, there is
a variable and complex relationship between ethnicity and culture; and
there is certainly no one-to-one relationship between ethnic differences
and cultural ones.
is a property of a relationship between two or several groups, not a property
of a group; it exists between and not within groups.
is the enduring and systematic communication of cultural differences between
groups considering themselves to be distinct. It appears whenever cultural
differences are made relevant in social interaction, and it should thus
be studied at the level of social life, not at the level of symbolic culture.
thus relational, and also situational: The ethnic character of a social
encounter is contingent on the situation. It is not, in other words, inherent.
framing of ethnicity, which may appear simply as a set of methodological
guidelines, has firm, although usually untheorised, philosophical foundations
and is, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Eriksen 1998b), deeply embedded
in empiricist thought. I shall argue that this approach, notwithstanding
its strengths, is limited in overemphasising choice and strategy (instrumental
aspects) when analysing identity politics. As a result, the self is taken
for granted (A.P. Cohen 1994), and it is therefore not shown how it can
be possible to mobilise particular aspects of personal identity for antagonistic
identity politics. Yet, anthropology as a discipline is in a privileged
situation to study the dynamics of identity politics, precisely because
of its focus on the ongoing flow of social interaction.
Although an enormous
amount of anthropological research has been carried out on ethnicity and
nationalism since around 1970, surprisingly few studies have dealt with
violent conflicts and conflict resolution (see, however, Tambiah 1994,
Turton 1997). The dominant approaches to ethnicity have been instrumentalist
(with a focus on politics) or constructivist (with a focus on ideology),
and research questions have concentrated on the establishment and reproduction
of ethnically incorporated groups, not on the circumstances under which
ethnicity may become politically less important. While my examples (below)
and the ensuing discussion will indicate the fruitfulness of these approaches,
it is also necessary to point out the need for a phenomenological understanding
of social identity, which sees it as emerging from experiences, not as
a mere construct of ideology. In this, I follow scholars such as Cohen
(1994) and Jenkins (1996), who have called for an anthropology of identity
which does not concentrate exclusively on its political and ideological
aspects, but also strives to understand the self.
As noted by Holland
(1997), anthropologists are generally associated with a culturalist view
of the self, arguing its cultural specificity as against psychologists,
who have been more prone to a universalist view the self as something
proper not to particular cultures but to humanity, with universal characteristics
lurking below a thin veneer of culture. For the purposes of the present
argument, it is not necessary to take a stance on this controversy, partly
since it can be presupposed that modernity creates a particular kind of
selves with important shared characteristics everywhere (Giddens 1991),
but also because this chapter restricts its scope to the relationship
between personal experiences, ideology and political mobilisation. As
the examples will hopefully show, the similarities are more striking than
the differences here.
Culture and the
breakup of Yugoslavia
No other recent ethnic
conflict has been more intensely studied, discussed and moralised over
than the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. This was followed by three major
wars and a number of smaller skirmishes, and the situation in many parts
of ex-Yugoslavia remains unstable and tense. In Europe, the outbreak of
war in Yugoslavia has been interpreted by hundreds of commentators. In
the press, it was occasionally argued, along sociobiological or Hobbesian
lines, that humans are driven by aggressive instincts which emerge when
the social fabric falls apart, in this case organised as factions ultimately
based on kinship. Another view, popular in the European nationalist right,
implied that ethnic conflict was inevitable when different groups are
forcibly integrated into one state. Most scholars have, on the contrary,
tended to focus on the cultural logic of feuding in Balkan society, the
deep economic crisis underlying the conflict, or the rise of Serbian supremacy
during the 1980, looking for contradictions within Yugoslav society rather
than into human nature for an explanation of the conflict. A widespread
view nevertheless sees the cultural differences between the constituent
groups as a basic cause of the conflict (cf. the influential analysis
by Ignatieff, 1994, or Huntingtons controversial model, 1996).
a state that came into being twice: after the First World War and after
the Second World War. The first Yugoslav republic (191841) was for
all practical purposes the Serb monarchy writ large, and was riddled with
continuous internal tension. Croats and Slovenes reluctantly supported
King Alexanders regime, seeing it as a possible defense against
Italian, Austrian and Hungarian aggressors. It was a precarious state,
periodically dictatorial, which had been on the verge of collapse several
times before it fell apart as Germany invaded the country in 1941. While
Serbs generally resisted the Germans, Croats collaborated and saw the
German intervention as an opportunity to create their own state.
Before the formation
of the second Yugoslav republic in 1945, both of the largest constituent
groups suffered large-scale massacres Serbs at the hands of Croatian
fascists (Ustasa) in 1941, while large numbers of Croats were killed by
Serbian communists (Partisans) in 1945. The new Yugoslav state (1945-91)
was a non-aligned socialist federation led by a pro-Serbian Croat, Josip
Broz Tito, until his death in 1980. Ethnicity was officially declared
a non-issue in socialist Yugoslavia. This official blindness stems from
the Marxist view that class is a more objective and more authentic vessel
of social identity than ethnicity or nationality, which was officially
seen as an expression of false consciousness. This does not, however,
imply that Yugoslav policies were particularly repressive regarding expressions
of cultural distinctiveness symbolising ethnic identity on the
contrary, in this area Yugoslavia was more liberal than many Western European
countries whose leadership feared separatism and social fission. Ethnic
identity was seen as politically irrelevant, and partly for this reason,
the use of various languages and the practice of different religions were
tolerated in civil society. It is true that the merging of Serbian and
Croatian into one language, Serbo-Croatian, in the 1950s signalled an
attempt at building a unitary Yugoslav identity, but the two languages
were so closely related that few, except Croat intellectuals reacting
against the relegation of specific Croat variants as "dialect",
seem to have taken offence (Schöpflin 1993). Albanian remained an
official language in Kosovo, as did Slovene in Slovenia.
There were nearly
twice as many Serbs as Croats in Yugoslavia, and twice as many Croats
as Slovenes or Muslims. Regarding the territorial dimension, Slovenes
were and are largely confined to the nearly mono-ethnic
republic of Slovenia. Both Croatia and Serbia had large minorities of
Serbs and Croats, respectively, as well as Gypsies, while Serbia also
included nearly a million Albanians (in Kosovo) as well as smaller numbers
of Hungarians and others. In Macedonia, most of the population were (and
are) Slav-speaking Macedonians, while the Montenegrins of Montenegro are
culturally close to the Serbs. Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most throroughly
mixed republic, with roughly equal numbers of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian
Muslims often living in mixed areas. As is well known, the conflicts of
the 1990s have modified this picture somewhat, creating large monoethnic
territories in formerly mixed areas.
ruling Communist party seems to have believed that a common Yugoslav identity
would eventually supersede the national identities based on ethnic membership,
ethnic identity remained strong in most parts of the country throughout
the postwar era. There were nevertheless important exceptions, particularly
in cities such as Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb, where many people increasingly
identified themselves primarily as Yugoslavs, and where mixed marriages
did, in other words, not disappear during the existence of Yugoslavia.
In some urban areas they were arguably weakened, but it could be
and has been argued that the non-ethnic character of Yugoslav politics
actually led to its strengthening as a vehicle for the political opposition
and made it possible for Serbs to gain control over the armed forces
and state bureaucracy: since political ethnicity officially did not exist
(only cultural ethnicity did), there were no institutionalised ways of
preventing one group from dominating the public sector.
The wars in ex-Yugoslavia
have bequeathed to the world the neologism ethnic cleansing. It
is nevertheless easy to show that the conflicts involving Serbs, Croats,
Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes and Albanians were never conflicts over the
right to assert ones ethnic or cultural identity, but were based
on competing claims to rights such as employment, welfare and political
influence. What needs to be explained is the fact that the conflicts over
these resources were framed in ethnic terms rather than being seen as,
say, regional, class-based, or even ideological.
questions are therefore: What is the stuff of ethnic identity in ex-Yugoslavia;
in which ways do the groups differ from one another, and why did group
allegiances turn out to be so strong? Bosnia-Herzegovina may be considered
as an example. There are three large ethnic groups inhabiting Bosnia;
Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The main difference between the groups is religion;
Serbs are Orthodox and Croats are Catholics. (Ironically, religious fervour
was not particularly widespread in pre-war Bosnia.) They all have common
origins: Slav immigration into Illyria from the north took place between
c. AD 400 and 700, and the cultural differences between Croats and Serbs
are perhaps comparable to those between Norwegians and Swedes. The "objective"
difference between Bosnian Christians and Bosnian Muslims, further, has
been compared to the difference between English Protestants and English
Catholics (Cornell & Hartmann 1998). Unlike the impression sometimes
given in Serbian and Croatian propaganda, Bosnian Muslims are not the
descendants of alien invaders, but of locally residing converts. Although
each group has its numerical stronghold, many Bosnian regions and villages
were mixed before the war. This implies, among other things, that they
went to school together, worked together and took part in various leisure
activities together. A Serbian villager in Bosnia had 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 turned out to be the central marker of collective
identity in the Bosnian conflict, the effective boundary was drawn not
between villagers and city-dwellers, but between religious categories.
between the groups may seem arbitrary. However, the large, "national"
groups are clearly embedded in smaller, local networks based on kinship
and informal interaction, as well as being culturally founded in religious
schisms, collective myths or memories of treason and resistance under
Ottoman rule, massacres, deception and humiliations. Although it is tempting
to argue that any so-called cultural trait can be exploited in the formation
of national or ethnic groups, it is obvious that not just anything will
do. Nothing comes out of nothing, and strong collective identities
such as the ones revealed during the war in Bosnia are always embedded
in personal experiences. In one of the most detailed accounts of ethnicity
at the village level in pre-war Bosnia, Bringa (1996) shows that although
cultural differences between the groups were perhaps negligible, and although
relations between Serbs, Muslims and Croats might be cordial at the local
level, there were nevertheless important social practices of affiliation
that created boundaries between them not in the cosmopolitan Sarajevo
middle class embraced by Western commentators, perhaps, but elsewhere.
Intermarriage was rare, the close informal networks of friends tended
to be monoethnic, and the discrete groups maintained different, sometimes
conflicting 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 (Furnivall 1948); the public arenas were
shared, but the private ones were discrete.
One may choose
not to speak of such features of social reality and everyday life in terms
of "culture", but they are no more "invented" than
any other social fact. People do not choose their relatives, 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. People relate to them as reflexive agents,
but they do so within limitations that are not chosen. Such limitations
form the objective foundations of social identification. When analysts
such as Cornell and Hartmann (1998) argue that ethnic identities before
the war were weak, sometimes socially irrelevant, and in many cases ambiguous
(many had parents from different groups), they refer to particular segments
of society a main example is the Yugoslav basketball team
whose members were active participants in pan-Yugoslav contexts.
of ethnic boundaries in socialisation and the private sphere reveals a
main cause of the failure of Yugoslav social engineering in doing away
with ethnic identification. It does not explain the outbreak of war in
the early 1990s, but it indicates why the groups that emerged were so
strong, and why they were based on ethnicity (seen as fictive kinship)
instead of, say, class or region. Their foundation must be sought not
in the biology of kinship, as some might want to argue, but in the phenomenology
of social experience, the raw material of personal identity. This argument
will be elaborated further after an examination of two very different
examples of intergroup conflict in polyethnic societies.
The Fijian coup-detat
The Pacific island-state
of Fiji, located at the ethnographic crossroads between Melanesia and
Polynesia, is perhaps less heterogenous than Yugoslavia, but it is scarcely
less ethnically divided. Its population of about 800,000 is largely composed
of two ethnic categories: Fijians and Indians. The Fijians are indigenous,
largely Christian, speak a Polynesian language and make up slightly less
than half the population. The Indians are uprooted "overseas Indians"
whose ancestors were brought to Fiji during colonialism under the British
indentureship system described, probably a trifle too grimly, as "a
new system of slavery" by Tinker (1974). They are overwhelmingly
Hindus (with a Muslim minority), speak a locally modified dialect of Hindi,
and were slightly more numerous than the indigenous Fijians until the
political changes in the late 1980s leading to mass migration of Indo-Fijians.
The small minorities of Europeans and Chinese are politically insignificant,
but the economically powerful Europeans, representing the former colonial
régime, have in no small measure shaped the Fijian public sphere,
notably through establishing English as the national lingua franca.
brief history of democratic Fijian politics up to 1987 has been described
with the metaphors of balance and power-sharing (Premdas 1993, Kelly 1998).
While Indians in practice wielded disproportionate economic power, it
was tacitly agreed that Fijians should be politically paramount. However,
there were indications that the "equilibrium" model was under
severe stress in the early- to mid-1980s, and in the 1987 elections, a
coalition supported by most Indians and only a few Fijians won. Although
the new Prime Minister was a Fijian, many saw his government as a vehicle
for Indian communal politics. In May and September 1987, the military
seized power through two successive coups-detat, explicitly doing
so to protect "native" Fijian interests. In the period following
the coups, thousands of Indians emigrated.
The tension between
Fijians and Indians had been evident throughout Fijian history. Unlike
the situation in Yugoslavia and especially Bosnia, nobody would question
the view that there are deep cultural differences between Indians and
Fijians. Their languages, cultural traditions, religions and gender relations
differ markedly indeed, one of their recent ethnographers has poetically
described striking, and culturally potent, differences in body language
between Fijians and Indians (Williksen-Bakker 1991). There seems to be
little informal interaction between the groups, most rural areas are dominated
by one or the other, and intermarriage has always been nearly non-existent.
The effective separation of Fijians from Indians has always been much
deeper than that obtaining between the major groups (or "nationalities")
in rural Bosnia after the Second World War. Until 1987, policies of compromise
had nonetheless ensured political stability and had made Fiji a remarkably
liberal and relaxed society.
slogan "Fiji for Fijians" (which had originally been launched
before the 1977 elections), the writers of the new constitution, promulgated
in 1990, ensured continued indigenous Fijian dominance of the political
sphere, by according that group disproportionate representation in parliament,
ruling that only Fijians can become Prime Ministers, and giving Fijians
preferential treatment in other areas as well, such as religion. In addition,
Fijians are guaranteed control over most of the arable land, about 82
per cent of which has been communally owned by Fijian kin groups since
the beginning of colonialism in the 19th century.
culminating in the military coups can, at one level of analysis, be seen
as a clear case of group competition. Indians have done better economically
than Fijians. Ironically, this may partly be explained through the British
colonial policy of indirect rule relating to Fijians, who were allowed
to retain important traditional institutions, such as chieftainship and
the rudiments of a caste system, making them in consequence unprepared
to compete with Europeans and Indians in a capitalist economy later. The
Indians, by contrast, had shed important aspects of their traditional
social organisation in the process of migration, and were accustomed to
economic individualism through the indentureship system whereby they were
made to work on the European-owned plantations.
growth rate among Indians has been higher than among Fijians (just as
the Muslims in Bosnia were more prolific than the other groups), and there
was generally a growing sentiment among Fijian leaders that they were
becoming a minority in the land of their ancestors. The inegalitarian
measures introduced by the military regime, discriminating between categories
of citizens on ethnic grounds, were condemned by the international community,
but less strongly than one might have expected in a different setting.
What is remarkable about the Fijian case is the nativist quality of the
supremacist rhetoric; how they brought "sons-of-the-soil" arguments
to bear on a national legislation creating in effect a two-tier society
where non-Fijians were in effect relegated to the status of second-class
citizens. They argued that their culture, like that of Maoris in New Zealand
and Aborigines in Australia, was threatened with marginalisation from
outside forces. In contrast, nobody in countries like Mauritius, Trinidad
& Tobago and Guyana which are in many ways similar to Fiji,
but lack substantial indigenous populations would have been able
to invoke arguments of cultural authenticity and preservation of traditional
cultures in a bid to introduce differential treatment for different ethnic
groups (see Eriksen 1992, 1998a for details on Trinidad and Mauritius).
It may well be
asked whether contemporary Fijians, being Methodists and proficient English-speakers,
are any less culturally uprooted than, say, Trinidadians of African descent
or, for that matter, Fijians of Indian descent. The question of cultural
authenticity is outside the scope of this chapter; let me now make a few
more pertinent points relating to this example.
Fiji had developed
an informal formula for interethnic accomodation where the largest ethnic
groups divided societal sectors between them. In addition there were
and still are, at least to some extent developing fields of shared
meaning and cross-cutting alignments, such as the common use of English
as a national language and a shared educational system. Nevertheless the
segregation between the groups in both social and cultural domains is
more striking to the outside observer than tendencies towards assimilation.
Conflict avoidance would thus have to rely chiefly on group compromise
rather than the development of a hybridised, shared identity an
option that has occasionally been proposed by politicians and intellectuals
in other insular, postcolonial plantation societies such as Mauritius
and Trinidad. Finally, due to historical circumstances and cultural differences,
Indians and Fijians have participated in different ways and have succeeded
to varying degrees in the modern sectors of politics and the economy.
It could indeed be argued that processes of modernisation in Fiji, far
from reducing cultural differences, have deepened them, at least at the
socially operational level. Unlike in Bosnia, it is possible to refer
to differences in local organisation, cosmology and traditional economical
practices when accounting for the ethnic conflict in Fiji, which is nevertheless
much less violent than the Bosnian one. This is a reminder, against cultural
determinists à la Huntington (1996), of the relative unimportance
of cultural differences for ethnic conflict and it also indicates
one of the main strengths of the constructivist/instrumentalist perspective
on identity politics: Cultural differences do not in themselves lead to
intergroup conflict, but are invoked strategically to mobilise support.
At the same time, it must also be conceded that the differences in life-worlds
and personal identities in Fiji, like in Bosnia, explain why the political
cleavages were given an ethnic expression. The differences were already
there before they were exploited for particular political ends.
an apparent anomaly in contemporary Indian society
My third and final
example again differs from the two previous ones in significant ways.
India is a tough case for any scholar trying to develop a general theory
of ethnicity or nationalism, and with few exceptions, it does not figure
in general introductory texts on the field. India is hardly a state based
on cultural similarity or even equality in the Western sense; it is a
country with deeply embedded hierarchies and a very considerable degree
of internal cultural variation. Its population of nearly a billion is
divided by language, religion, caste and culture, and it has often been
argued that India is culturally more complex than continents such as sub-Saharan
Africa or Europe. Although eighty per cent of the population are Hindus
in one meaning of the word or another, India also has the second largest
Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia) and more Christians than
all the Scandinavian countries put together. Since independence (and partition)
in 1947, India has been defined in Gandhian/Nehruvian terms as a secular,
federal country using English and Hindi as national languages, but with
another dozen or so of official regional languages.
Since the early
1980s but particularly forcefully during the 1990s a formerly
marginal political movement has steadily increased its influence in India,
culminating in its victories in the successive General Elections of 1998
and 1999. This is the movement often referred to as hindutva, meaning
roughly "Hindu-ness", which rallies behind slogans to the effect
that India should be redefined as a Hindu country. The hindutva movement,
led by an organisation called the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)
began modestly in the interwar years, and its more recent parliamentary
wing, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, "The Indian Peoples
Party") is now in power not only federally, in New Delhi, but in
several of the states as well.
of hindutva is strongly reminiscent of European ethnic nationalism. It
invokes ancient myths of bitter defeats and noble sacrifices, re-framing
them to fit a contemporary political scene. It quotes liberally from nineteenth-century
poets and sacred texts, and it re-defines history to make the past conform
to a re-defined present. It advocates a return to the roots, condemns
Westernisation and its adverse moral effects on the young, praises the
family as the key institution of society and seeks to promote the vision
of India as a hindu rashtra a Hindu nation. While the late
Rajiv Gandhi allowed himself to be photographed wearing a Lacoste shirt
and khaki shorts, BJP leaders always wear traditional Indian clothes.
The main enemy image is nevertheless not the West but Islam, which is
depicted as a martial and cruel religion alien to the subcontinent, and
Indian Muslims (the descendants of converts, like Bosnian Muslims) are
represented partly as traitors to Hinduism, partly as foreign invaders.
The demolition of a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya in December
1992, the ensuing riots in several Indian cities and the call for the
rebuilding of a Hindu temple allegedly destroyed by a Mughal ruler four
centuries ago, marked a climax of sorts in this respect (see van der Veer
1994 for details).
rise of this traditionalist movement is a result of several connected
processes of sociocultural change or modernisation. First, the very notion
of hindutva, Hindu-ness, is a modern one. Hinduism is not a "religion
of the Book". It is an uncentralised religion with scores of holy
scriptures, thousands of avatars (incarnations of divinities),
and very many ways of worshipping them. The idea of the Hindu identity
as an imagined community based on cultural similarity is alien to Hinduism
as such, which is a religion based on complementarity, difference and
hierarchy. Regarding political Hinduism, some Indian commentators actually
speak of a Semitization of Hinduism whereby it takes on structural
characteristics from the great religions of West Asia.
hindutva movement is explicitly modelled on European nationalism
some early hindutva ideologists were even warm admirers of Hitler
which has been, for a hundred and fifty years, an attempt to reconcile
change and continuity by talking of roots and traditions in a situation
of industrialisation and urbanisation. This is obvious in hindutva practice,
whereby issues regarding national anthems, dress and foreign foods are
given prominence, while profound social changes continue to affect everyday
life as before. There is a clear connection between the rise of the BJP
and the liberalisation of the Indian economy, the rise of a substantial
new middle class with a strong consumerist orientation, and the rapid
spread of new mass media including the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star
TV Network. While liberalisation of this kind stimulates consumerism (perceived
as Westernisation), it also indirectly boosts traditionalism since the
new patterns of consumption and the new media scene may indicate that
cherished traditions are under threat.
"contagious" influence from political Islam is obvious; hindutva
is the assertion of Hindu identity as opposed to Muslim identity
both in Pakistan and in India itself. Doubly ironically, hindutva has
double origins in European Romanticism and West Asian political Islam.
When its first ideologist, Dr. Veer Savarkar, wrote in the 1920s that
"Hindutva is not the same thing as Hinduism", he was therefore
right, but not for the reasons he believed. Savarkar saw hindutva as a
wide-ranging social movement emanating from Hindu faith and practices,
while a more historically correct account sees it as the result of cultural
diffusion from Europe and West Asia.
perhaps most importantly, the hindutva movement can be seen as a reaction
against a growing egalitarianism in Indian society. Already in the 1950s,
policies attempting to improve the conditions of the "Untouchables",
the lowest castes, were introduced, and during the 1990s, very radical
measures have been proposed to this effect and in some cases carried
out. About half of Indias population are now defined as being either
Dalits ("Untouchables"), tribals, low-caste people or
"OBCs" (Other Backward Classes), and in theory, all of 49.5
per cent of jobs in the public sectors should be reserved for these groups,
following the recommendations of the government-appointed Mandal commission.
Since the early 1990s, this principle has been enforced in many areas.
Naturally, many members of the "twice-born", upper castes feel
their inherited privileges eroding away, and hindutva is largely a movement
representing the interests of the disenchanted upper castes. It is largely
a reaction against the movement towards greater equality in Indian society.
Although hindutva seems to promote equality among Hindus, an implication
of its traditionalist Hinduism is the reinvigoration of the caste system,
which in effect benefits only the "twice-born" castes.
of hindutva must by necessity be a superficial one (see Hansen 1999 for
a full treatment). It must be remarked, however, that inter-religious
marriages (and, indeed, intercaste marriages) are rare outside certain
elite groups. Casual interaction between Hindus and Muslims is far from
unusual, but like in the Bosnian and Fijian cases, the intimate (family)
sphere as well as personal networks of close friends rarely cross religious
boundaries. Social classification in India is nonetheless complex, and
as will be indicated later, the Hindu/Muslim divide is only one of several
possible social dichotomies unlike in Bosnia and Fiji, where religious
or ethnic contrasts tend to be paramount.
have outlined three contemporary conflicts involving collective identity
as a political resource. The differences are obvious; the focus will therefore
be on the similarities for now.
have three important sociological features in common.
is in all three cases competition over scarce resources. As Horowitz
(1985) and many others writing about group conflict in contemporary societies
have shown, such conflicts invariably involve perceptions of scarcity
and struggles to retain or attain hegemony or equality. Successful mobilisation
on the basis of collective identities presupposes a widespread belief
that resources are unequally distributed along group lines. "Resources"
should be interpreted in the widest sense possible, and could in principle
be taken to mean economic wealth or political power, recognition or symbolic
power although what is usually at stake are either economic or
political resources. This feature is easy to identify in all three examples
described above: Fijians and Indians compete over relative political and
economic power; the constituent groups of Bosnia compete over political
power and/or sovereignty; hindutva is an attempt to defend the political
and economic interests of "Hindus" in secular India.
actualises differences and triggers conflict. With the integration
of formerly discrete groups into shared economic and political systems,
inequalities are made visible, as comparison between the groups becomes
possible. In a certain sense, ethnicity can be described as the process
of making cultural differences comparable, and to that extent, it is a
modern phenomenon. The Fijian example, where the increasing integration
of Fijians into the modern sphere made it apparent that Indians were doing
better economically, illustrates this point. In India, the rise of the
Dalit movement struggling for recognition and equal rights on behalf of
"Untouchable" groups is an expression of the modern value of
equality, and the counterreaction from the Hindu right is an attempt to
stop egalitarianism from spreading, as well as reflecting almost
with the accuracy of a mirror-image symbolic competition with Muslims
within and (especially) outside India. The Bosnian example, admittedly,
seems less straightforward, as socialist Yugoslavia was in many ways no
less modern than its successor countries (some would indeed argue that
at least at the level of ideology, it was infinitely more modern than
them). What is clear, and which also holds true for other East and Central
European countries, is that the sudden introduction of liberal political
rights and a capitalist economy around 1990 core characteristics
of non-socialist modernisation created new dimension of comparison
between individuals and new arenas of competition.
groups are largely self-recruiting. Intermarriage is rare in all three
cases (excepting urban Yugoslavia). Although biological self-reproduction
is by no means necessary for a strong collective identity to come about,
it should be kept in mind that kinship remains an important organising
principle for most societies in the world, and a lot of what passes for
ethnicity at the local level is really kinship. Kinship has an important
social dimension in addition to its symbolic side which is highlighted
in ideologies of fictive or metaphoric kinship. Symbolic boundaries are
never effective unless underpinned by social organisation.
are also several important ideological similarities.
First, at the
level of ideology, cultural similarity overrules social equality.
Ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia, political Hinduism in India and the
"sons-of-the-soil" rhetoric of Fiji all depict the in-group
as homogeneous, as people "of the same kind". Internal differences
are undercommunicated, and moreover, in the wider political context, equality
values are discarded for ostensible cultural reasons. (Although it could
be argued that hindutva is a Trojan horse concealing upper-caste interests
with all-Hindu rhetoric, the point is that it stresses the commonalities
of all Hindus irrespective of caste or language.)
of past suffering and injustice are invoked. Serbs bemoan the defeat
at the hands of the Turks in Kosovo in 1389; Hindu leaders have taken
great pains to depict Mughal (Muslim) rule in India from the 1500s as
bloody and authoritarian, and indigenous Fijian leaders compare their
plight to that of other indigenous peoples that have suffered foreign
invations. Violence targeting the descendants of the invaders can therefore
be framed as legitimate revenge. Even hindutva leaders, who claim to represent
eighty per cent of Indias population, complain that Hinduism is
under siege and needs to defend itself with all means available.
political symbolism and rhetoric evokes personal experiences. This
is perhaps the most important ideological feature of identity politics
in general. Using myths, cultural symbols and kinship terminology in addressing
their supporters, promoters of identity politics try to downplay the difference
between personal experiences and group history. In this way, it becomes
perfectly sensible for a Serb to talk about the legendary battle of Kosovo
in the first person ("We lost in 1389"), and the logic
of revenge is extended to include metaphorical kin, in many cases millions
of people. The intimate experiences associated with locality and family
are thereby projected onto a national screen. This general feature of
social integration has been noted by Handelman (1990), analysing national
rituals, and much earlier in Turners (1967) studies of ritual among
the Ndembu of Zambia. In showing that rituals both have an instrumental
and an emotional (or sensory) dimension one socially integrating,
the other metaphorical and personally meaningful Turner actually
made a point crucial to the present analysis, namely that loyalty to a
larger collectivity (such as a tribe or a nation) is contingent on its
imagery being personally meaningful.
are contrasted with invaders. Although this ideological feature is
by no means universal in identity politics, it tends to be invoked whenever
possible, and in the process, historical facts are frequently stretched.
In Fiji, the Fijian population although genetically a Polynesian/Melanesian
mix has a strong case here, although it is less obvious that Indo-Fijians
can be immigrants to a country in which they were born, and therefore
legitimately deprived of equal rights. Regarding Bosnia and India, as
mentioned above, there is nothing to suggest that the ancestors of Muslims
in the respective countries were more recent arrivals than the ancestors
of Christians or Hindus, although Islam is a relatively recent import.
What is interesting here, is how the varying depth of cultural genealogies
("roots") is used to justify differential treatment. The historical
location of the self along the dimensions of descent and place is thereby
invested with political significance.
Fifthly and finally,
the actual social complexity in society is reduced to a set of simple
contrasts. As Adolf Hitler already wrote in Mein Kampf, the
truly national leader concentrates the attention of his people on one
enemy at the time. Since cross-cutting ties reduce the chances of violent
conflict, the collective identity must be based on relatively unambiguous
criteria (such as place, religion, mother-tongue, kinship). Again, internal
differences are undercommunicated in the act of delineating boundaries
towards the demonised Other. This mechanism is familiar from a wide range
of interethnic situations, from social classification in Zambian mining
towns (Epstein 1992) to NorwegianSami relations in sub-Arctic Scandinavia
(Eidheim 1971), the SinhaleseTamil conflict (Kapferer 1988) and
Quebecois nationalism (Handler 1988): The Other is reduced to a minimal
set of "traits", and so is the collective Self.
do not necessarily indicate that there are universal mechanisms linking
personal selves and larger collectivities, but they do suggest that there
is a universal "grammar" common to contemporary identity politics
everywhere. In the final sections of this chapter, this argument will
be pursued slightly further, and it will be suggested that universal connections
between the self and the collective exist, which must be understood not
only to account for traditional societies, but in order to make sense
of the present. Far from being an "atavistic" or "primitive"
counterreaction to globalisation or modernisation, identity politics is
a special case of something more general, namely collective identity anchored
in personal experiences.
Where is the identity
of identity politics?
have proposed many typologies of ethnic conflict, dividing the groups
involved into categories such as majority, minority, irridentist and separatist,
using variables such as division of labour, relative political power and
historical intergroup relations as criteria of classification. In my view,
this kind of exercise can at best generate a limited understanding of
the dynamics of group conflict. To begin with, the very predicate "ethnic"
is hardly appropriate to describe all conflicts based on identity politics.
Indian Hindus are not an ethnic group in any meaningful sense, and it
is a matter of definition whether Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia
should be considered ethnic groups (they have shared origins only a few
centuries back). Many contemporary conflicts displaying some or all of
the features listed above cannot be seen as ethnic. To mention a few African
examples: The Sudanese civil war is partly fought over religion (Northeners
are Muslims trying to Islamicise the south), partly over culture and language
neither northern nor southern Sudanese are ethnic groups. Hutus
and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi, like the constituent groups of Bosnia,
are culturally very close; they speak the same language and have the same
religion. The Somali civil war presents an even more puzzling case, as
Somalia is one of the few sub-Saharan states that are truly ethnically
homogeneous and so far the only one that seems to have relinquished the
trappings of statehood completely, having dissolved into warring clans
(an intermediate level of social organisation, between the family and
the ethnic group) since the early 1990s. To the north-west of Somalia,
one of the great forgotten wars of Africa is being fought over a contested
border area between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Now, Eritrea, which seceded
from Ethiopia in 1991, has never been based on religion nor ethnic identity,
but has a vague legitimacy as a historical nation in the brief period
of Italian colonialism before the Second World War. The current war is
being fought between Tigrinya speakers on both sides of the borders, who
are united through religion, language, customs, history and even kinship
ties, but they are no less bitterly divided politically. This conflict
in turn creates its strange bedfellows in the alliance between Ethiopian
Tigrinyas and Amhara-speakers from the highlands, who are traditional
In other words,
the concept "ethnic conflict" is misleading, whether it is used
to classify phenomena or to explain hostilities. Several of the alternative
terms one might consider are, however, no less misleading: "Cultural
conflict" will clearly not do, as it is obviously not what is usually
thought of as cultural differences that lie at the heart of the conflicts.
At the village level, even Hindus and Muslims in India hold many of the
same beliefs and worship in similar ways. The low-intensity conflict in
Fiji involves groups that are by any criterion more culturally different
than, say, the Bosnians groups. All the conflicts considered here are
conflicts over resources perceived as scarce territory, political
power, economic gain, employment, recognition; rights in a wide sense.
What they have in common is their successful appeal to collective identities
perceived locally as imperative and primordial, identities associated
with a deep moral commitment, whether ethnic (based on notions of kinship
and descent), regional (based on place) or religious (based on beliefs
and forms of worship). For these reasons, the term "identity politics"
is preferable as a generic term for all such political movements, whether
nonviolent or violent.
This final section
will therefore amount to an attempt to unravel the identity of identity
politics. What is it that makes it so powerful? What is the "identity"
that such political movements can draw upon?
proposes an answer in the Introduction to his seminal Imagined Communities
(Anderson 1983), where he points out that nationalism has more in common
with phenomena such as religion and kinship than with ideologies like
liberalism and socialism. He argues that nationalism (and, one might add,
any form of identity politics) expropriates personal identity, transforming
intimate experiences into the raw material of politics. I owe my existence
to my parents, and by metonymical extension they represent the larger,
abstract collective. I harbour tender feelings for my childhood, which
by extension becomes my groups glorious and tragic history. I feel
attached to the place where I grew up, which was not just any arbitrary
place, but the nation (or, as the case might be, the sacred land of Hinduism,
the traditional territory of the Fijians, the tormented country of the
brave, but sadly misunderstood Serbs). Indeed, this argument can profitably
be seen as echoing Turners aforementioned argument on the instrumental
and emotional dimensions (or "poles") of ritual. In both cases,
the integrative strength of the imagined community (be it a tribe or a
nation) depends on its ability to mobilise emotions proper to the intimate
sphere of kinship and personal experience.
for this transformation to take place the move from an interpersonally
anchored identity to an abstract national, ethnic or religious identity
are usually tantamount to certain general conditions of modernity
(cf. Gellner 1997). It is through school and mass media that people are
taught to identify with an abstract, mythically rooted community of people
"of the same kind". Through the replacement of traditional economies
with an abstract labour market, they become participants in a large-scale
system of subsistence. Through the implementation of a bureaucratic system
of political management, their allegiances are at least partly moved from
the concrete to the abstract community.
It is important
to remember, as theorists of nationalism and ethnicity have pointed out
time and again, that identification is relational, situational and flexible,
and that each person carries a number of potential identities, only a
few of which become socially significant, making a difference in everyday
life. Even fewer gain political importance, forming the basis of power
struggles and group competition. This is not, however, to say that collective
identities can be created out of thin air. They have to be connected,
in credible ways, to peoples personal experiences. These experiences
in turn are flexible not only historians, but everybody else as
well selects and interprets events to make a particular kind of sense
of the past but not indefinitely so. Regarding our main examples,
in Fiji, virtually nobody doubts whether they are Indian or Fijian, and
politics whether based on compromise or conflict will have
to take this into account for the foreseeable future. In Yugoslavia after
the breakup, cross-cutting ties and cultural hybridity were undercommunicated.
Cosmopolitanism was increasingly seen as a suspect, unpatriotic attitude,
and people of mixed ancestry were forced to choose a bounded, unambiguous
identity: They had to select past experiences that made them either Serbian,
Croatian or Muslim, more or less like the proverbial North African mule,
who speaks incessantly about his uncle, the horse, but never mentions
his father, the donkey. In India, finally, some of the strongest scholarly
arguments against the lasting influence of hindutva have actually pointed
towards peoples personal experiences (Frøystad 1999). Since
Indian everyday life is still permeated by caste distinctions, and caste
continues to define the very fabric of social integration, these scholars
argue that hindutva the idea that all Hindus have something profound
in common is so counter-intuitive to most Indians that it can only
unite Hindus as long as the enemy image of Muslims can be kept ablaze.
All the basic
components of political identity familiar from classic political anthropology
can be identified in contemporary identity politics: It is based on a
sometimes ambiguous mix of kinship and locality; it has well developed
myths of origin and myths of past suffering; and it distinguishes clearly
between "us" and "them". The main difference between,
say, the nomadic Nuer society studied by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1940) in
the 1930s and Serbian (or Croatian) nationalism today, is probably that
of scale: While the Nuer rarely imagined themselves as members of larger
groups than the clan, a Serb in Vojvodina can readily identify him/herself
with a Serb in Kosovo. The act of transformation from personal, concrete
social experiences to the abstract community is naturally much more demanding
in a large-scale society than in a village-based one, hence the importance
of modern institutions of communication, economic transactions and political
rule for the growth of abstract communities.
Some final lessons
from political anthropology
Having long ago abandoned
the early ambition of becoming "a natural science of society",
social and cultural anthropology has for decades been reluctant to formulate
lawlike propositions about the functioning of society. The constructivist
turn of recent years seems to confirm that contemporary anthropology is
less concerned with absolute truths than with the analysis of local cultural
constructions. This need not be so, and the study of current identity
politics may illustrate the power of comparative anthropology in generating
research on ethnic groups, particularly in Africa (as in A. Cohen 1974),
searched for the logic of group cohesion, which they assumed to be roughly
the same everywhere. The related, actor-based perspective developed by
Barth (1969) and his colleagues, assumed the logic of action to be quite
universal people act to maximize benefits. Later analyses of the
constructedness of ethnic and national ideologies (the seminal text is
Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; see Chapman et al. 1989 for an overview) also
emphasise universal characteristics of a particular kind of societal formation
(the modern state) and its relationship to group identities based on notions
of culture. The canonical texts on nationalism (such as Gellner 1983,
Anderson 1983, Smith 1991) also have clear universalistic ambitions. As
this chapter has made clear, these approaches have obvious strengths,
but they need to be supplemented by detailed research on the experiential
world of the everyday; the Lebenswelt (life-world) of the actors.
A renewed focus on the informal, intimate and often non-instrumental dimensions
of everyday life reveals that terms such as "ethnicity" by themselves
explain little. The parallels between a supporter of the BJP and a supporter
of Serbian supremacists should not be located to their respective "ethnic"
identities or "civilizational" membership, but to the fact that
their everyday life, social networks and personal obligations connect
them to particular groups that may be exploited politically, given the
right circumstances. It should also be kept in mind that class politics
can sometimes be a form of identity politics (Shore 1993), which can profitably
be understood along the same lines as ethnic or religious identity politics.
The cause of group allegiance lies in the everyday, not in the overarching
In order to complete
this analysis, it is necessary to go a few decades back, to classic political
anthropology, in order to see how the perspectives developed earlier in
the chapter can be enriched by the work of previous generations.
of persons into groups can be described as the work of an inverted refrigerator:
The function of a refrigerator is to generate inward coldness, but in
order to do so, it more or less inadvertently, as a side-effect, creates
outward warmth. Conversely, groups form to create warmth for their members,
but they necessarily create some outward coldness in order to be able
to do so. Under particular circumstances, the outward coldness is more
readily perceptible than the inward warmth. A sociological principle originally
formulated by Georg Simmel, known as "Simmels Rule", simply
states that the internal cohesion of a group is contingent on the strength
of external pressure. This principle may explain why group integration
generally is so much stronger in small groups, especially if they are
oppressed, than in large ones why, for example, Scots seem to have
fewer difficulties in defining who they are than the English.
corollary of Simmels Rule is the fact that what kind of group
that emerges depends on where the perceived pressure comes from. Both
gender-based and class-based social movements have periodically been successful,
given that the perceived threat was seen not as alien religion or foreign
ethnic groups, but as male supremacy and ruling classes, respectively.
In accordance with this, some inhabitants of Sarajevo during the war felt
that the conflict was really an urbanrural one, since city-dwellers
had a lot in common, irrespective of religion, that they did not share
with rural people. Strong opposition groups in India, similarly, argue
against a view of Indian politics as divided between Hindu communalists
and liberals, as they see the main problem of Indian society as one of
poverty and distribution of resources, which neither of the parties seems
to give priority to. In Fiji, finally, the immediate reason for the 1987
coup was the establishment of a government of national unity promising
to address issues of social welfare and economic development rather than
intergroup issues. In other words, re-definitions of societal cleavages
are entirely possible in so far as they do not contradict peoples
everyday experiences too obviously.
In the course
of this chapter, cross-cutting ties and conflicting loyalties have already
been mentioned as mitigating forces in situations of intergroup conflict.
Phrased within the terminology used here, one might say that shared experiences
across boundaries reduce the risk of conflict. In Max Gluckmans
re-interpretation of Evans-Pritchards Nuer material from the 1930s (Gluckman
1956), this point was made forcefully. The Nuer were organised along kinship
lines across villages, but they were also locally integrated in villages.
The women married out of the village and the lineage, so that everybody
had affines (in-laws) in other villages. Furthermore, men were tied to
non-relatives through trade, initiation rituals and friendship. All of
these factors led to a reduction in the incidence of violence among the
Nuer. In contemporary identity politics, it can easily be seen
and has been remarked above how political leaders emphasise inwards
similarity and outwards boundaries in order to reduce the potentially
mitigating impact of cross-cutting ties. They are true to peoples
everyday life, but try to emphasise certain experiences at the expense
of others (inward solidarity and similarity, outward conflict and difference).
more time-honoured principle from political anthropology is the twin notion
of fusion and fission in tribal societies. When the sole organising principle
for a group lacking hierarchies and formal political office is kinship,
there are limits to the groups growth; at a certain point, it splits
into two. Without such a fission, internal conflicts would soon become
overwhelming given the simple social organisation of such societies, and
the effects would be destructive. Fusion of discrete groups has also been
studied extensively, but in many acephalous societies it is seasonal (nomadic
groups fuse in the dry season or in winter) and fragile.
A more dynamic
view of contraction and expansion of tribal groups was developed, especially
by Africanists, from the 1940s (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). In studies
of feuding and political competition, they showed how two or several local
groups who might be periodically involved in mutual feuding, united temporarily
when faced with an external enemy. This form of organisation, described
as segmentary by Evans-Pritchard, follows the proverb often cited
in recent years to explain the logic of the Somali civil war: "Its
me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, and our cousins,
my brother and I against everybody else." A form of segmentary logic
is apparent in politics nearly everywhere; a distinguishing mark of modern
nation-building has nevertheless been its attempt to channel loyalties
away from various sub-national levels of identity in order to monopolize
the political loyalty of individual citizens.
logic creates a fluid, relational political organisation which,, in its
pure form, is impracticable in modern state societies given their requirements
for stability, centralised power and reified systems of political representation.
This does not, however, mean that segmentary identification does not continue
to exist, and one of the causes of oppositional identity politics in modern
nation-states is caused by their not providing subnational identity groups
appropriate political arenas, thereby encouraging counterreactions in
the form of identity politics directed against the state.
of identity based political groups generally entails both an expansion
and a contraction of the focus for identification. At the time of the
breakout of conflict in Bosnia, the federal or even state level was increasingly
seen as irrelevant the process was one of fission. At the same
time, internal conflicts and schisms within each constituent group were
minimised, and as a result, each group became more coherent and united
than before. In the cases of Fiji and India, this is even more obvious:
Among Fijians, rivalry between chiefs and clans has diminished in importance
as Fijian politics has grown increasingly ethnic; similarly, rifts within
the Indian population on the basis of regional origin, which could formerly
lead to Indian sub-groups supporting Fijian-dominated governments, have
become much less important since the military coup. In the Indian case,
the very idea of hindutva implies an enormous expansion of the in-group
for Hindus. Trying to bridge differences based on language, caste, region
and culture, hindutva tries to create a morally committing all-Indian
Hindu identity based on symbolic equality. This is, in the Indian context,
a very radical move. Simultaneously, Indian citizenship and (over-arching,
supra-religious) national identity become less important since the federal
Indian state includes millions of non-Hindus, who are depicted as internal
enemies by hindutva spokespersons.
In all the examples
considered here, group segmentation at a higher level and the ensuing
formation of imagined communities larger than the locality but smaller
than the state, is immediately related to the need for a firm boundary
in a situation of conflict within the state. The alternative identity
of national citizenship, which encompasses the other as well, no longer
functions. Interestingly, contemporary identity politics is very similar
to nationalism, for example in its appeal to mythical foundations, its
abstract postulation of similarity and equality, its rejection of segmentary
identity formation and its attempt to reduce a world of many small differences
to a world of only a few, major ones. In many cases, it is more successful
than nationalism, particularly in postcolonial, multiethnic states. This
is not only because identity politicians promise its adherents that they
will win zero-sum games against political competitors, but also because
they are able to represent themselves as natural extensions of peoples
personal, experience-based identities.
A challenge for
modern states, thus, consists in coping with the fact that personal identity
can be exploited politically not only by the state itself but by others
as well, not because the self is infinitely multifaceted (it is not),
but because the experiences and relationships that make up the self can
be expanded symbolically in several, often conflicting ways. Processes
of segmentary fusion and fission, the formation of different kinds of
groups involving overlapping personnel due to the functioning of "Simmels
Rule", group-based antagonism and competition: these ways of expressing
political interests, underpinned by shared meaning within the in-group,
are no more eradicated by modernity than personal identity is. The challenge
thus consists in laying the foundations for "a sense of belonging
to a community larger than each of the particular groups in question"
(Laclau 1995:105), and this can only be done by first acknowledging both
the richness and the variability of personal identities.
In the face of
violent identity politics, "ethnic cleansing" and the strong
attention to "roots" and historically based identities (ungenerously
described as "the narcissism of small differences" by Michael
Ignatieff) characterising many societies in recent years, it is not surprising
that intellectuals have recently tried to think essentialism away, emphasising
the endlessly flexible and fluid character of human identification. A
typical expression of this position can be found in a recent text by the
influential sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, where he states: "If the
modern problem of identity is how to construct an identity
and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern problem of identity
is primarily how to avoid fixation and keep the options open" (Bauman
1996, p. 18).
world it may be ethically imperative to endorse Baumans position,
but it is equally important to keep in mind that humans are not free-floating
signifiers, and no amount of benevolent intentions will be able to change
peoples life-worlds overnight. Rather than trying to think them
away, it is necessary to understand them and come to terms with their
enduring power. Notwithstanding globalisation and the universalisation
of modernity, cultural differences continue to exist, within and between
places, within and between nations and ethnic groups. It is also, however,
doubtless true that carbon can be turned into graphite as well as diamonds,
and the ways in which cultural differences become socially relevant vary
importantly. But to pretend they do not exist outside ethnic and nationalist
ideologies would be intellectually indefensible; peoples personal
experiences are the very raw material of such ideologies. Here lies an
important limitation in constructivist models of identity. Collective
identities are constructed, consciously or not, but nothing comes out
of nothing. In locating the universal not in the workings of identity
politics (it changes historically and varies geographically), nor in the
eternal sovereignty of the state (the same objection applies), but rather
in the social life-worlds in which individuals make sense of the world,
we may have found a basis for comparison which will outlive academic fads
and contemporary politics.
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for their critical readings and useful comments on an earlier version
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