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Paradoxes of social cohesion
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 15 March 2005
Mister Rector Magnificus, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Theoretical concepts go in and out of fashion so discreetly as to be almost
unnoticed in the social sciences. For a hundred years, Herbert Spencers
conceptual pair structure and function was de rigueur, although
the definition shifted somewhat although not quite as much as the
term race. Spencers pair of concepts can, at least for
now, finally be proclaimed dead as a dodo, half a century after the fruition
of Talcott Parsons ambitious structural-functionalist theory of
society which was at the time familiar to every sociologist and
many other social scientists, but which is today virtually unknown to
everyone except the historians of the discipline. The 1960s and 70s
saw the phenomenal resuscitation of the entire menu of a century old Marxist
terms surplus value, infrastructure, contradiction and so on
but apart from a handful of Marxist words which have entered the everyday
language, notably ideology, this jargon has virtually become obsolete
again. Culture, used in the anthropological sense, has been
with us for over 130 years now, but many shift uneasily in their seats
whenever it is used without a ritual invocation of inverted commas.
Regarding the concept which forms the backdrop of this lecture, security,
it is not a technical term and has therefore, being part of everyday language,
outlived most more specialised terms. In its 5,000 word entry on the word,
the Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to 1432, and groups
its definitions of security into twelve main categories. Even with the
slghtly vacuous qualifier human ahead, the term is almost
impossibly vague and wide-ranging. Introduced as an applied social science
term in 1994 by the United Nations Development Programme in its Human
Development Report of that year (UNDP 1994), the term human security is
meant to humanise strategic studies, to anchor development research in
locally experienced realities, and to offer a tool to gauge the ways societies
function seen from the perspective of their inhabitants. Attempts to clarify
the meaning of the concept, to limit its range of signification and operationalise
it, have been met with hostility and skepticism among some scholars, while
others defend its place in the analytical vocabulary of the social sciences
(Alkire 2002, Security Dialogue 2004). Some deem it hopelessly
fuzzy and impossible to operationalise; others have argued that it adds
little to extant terminology. It could nonetheless be argued that the
term human security has an important job to do in reorienting
social theory and building bridges between the different social sciences.
In social anthropology, to speak of my own chosen discipline, it may in
fact turn out to be a concept we have been looking for in the last decade,
a concept which may enable anthropologists to update and rephrase some
of the classic, but chronically unresolved problems of the subject, notably
the ones to do with social cohesion and integration, stability and collective
identity. The eclectic methodology of contemporary social anthropology
moreover makes that discipline eminently suited to grapple with a multistranded
concept like the one of human security. Anthropologists collect their
data in both systematic and unsystematic ways, and they may regard a passing
anecdote or a chance event as just as valuable as the results of structured
interviews. They relate to media, statistics and history writing, they
collect life stories and sit in at public meetings and rituals, and they
do their best, within the bounds of common decency, to peek over their
informants shoulders to see what they are up to when they think
nobody is watching. Unlike many other scientists, anthropologists impose
rigour on their material largely during analysis, not during data collection.
As the late Eric Wolf famously said, anthropology can be seen as the most
humanist of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.
What anthropologists look for when they sift and sort their diverse materials,
are indications of patterns and regularities which can enable them to
weave their strands into a tapestry. Asking for the ways in which people
under different circumstances strive for security, and conversely identifying
the factors that render them insecure, offers a promising framework for
future anthropological research. Using human security as a unifying concept
for many different research projects, which the Department of Social and
Cultural Anthropology at the VU has recently decided to do, can counter
internal fragmentation and redirect theory in necessary directions. In
her inaugural lecture delivered here two years ago, Professor Donna Winslow
(2003) offered a magisterial presentation of the recent literature on
human security, as well as a discussion of the implications of the concept
for international cooperation. Among other things, she noted that the
human security approach parallels the shift in economic development and
international law from instrumental objectives (such as growth, or state
rights) to human development and human rights (Winslow 2003: 5).
From the, admittedly biased, vantage-point of the anthropologist, this
reads like a shift from the harder social sciences such as economics to
the kind of qualitative approaches that anthropologists represent.
Although the concept of human security, as it is currently being used
in the worlds of development studies and peace and conflict research,
was introduced as late as the mid-1990s, it can be used to address questions
which are as old as the social sciences themselves. The modern social
sciences grew out of the frictions and tensions arising from the Industrial
Revolution in Europe and North America in the 19th century, and questions
to do with insecurity were at the core of the early grand theories. Marx
famously spoke of alienation under capitalism, and Ferdinand Tönnies
introduced the dichotomy between the tight, clearly bounded moral community
the Gemeinschaft and the loose, anonymous society
the Gesellschaft. Almost every leading theorist had his
own foundational dichotomy between traditional or collectivist societies
on the one hand and modern or individualist societies on the other. The
human security theorist par excellence was nevertheless Emile Durkheim,
whose entire oeuvre gravitates around a deeply seated anxiety that
modernity may entail a loss of societal cohesion because of its pluralism,
individualism and fast-paced change.
The first generations of social scientists portrayed traditional societies
in a somewhat romanticising, stylised way owing much to Rousseau, assuming
that life in closely knit, kinship-based societies was predictable and
stable, unburdened with existential doubt and disruptive challenges to
tradition and authority. However, already the first generation of fieldworking
anthropologists, who began to publish just after the First World War,
described societies which did not seem to fit this model. Life in the
Melanesian societies studied by the likes of Bronislaw Malinowski and
Reo Fortune appeared profoundly insecure; people seemed to live in perennial
fear of either witchcraft attacks or witchcraft accusations, and there
were status anxieties associated with political power, gifting obligations
towards relatives and economic uncertainties. Anthropologists describing
the lives of small, tightly knit groups in Africa, Melanesia and South
America show, sometimes inadvertently, that they live in a state of almost
continuous anxiety. Anything from warring neighbouring tribes to poisonous
snakes or crop failure could put their lives in jeopardy any day of the
If we move to more hierarchical, complex societies, also customarily studied
by anthropologists, they seem to offer little more by way of security
for their members. It is sometimes said of Egyptians that they tend to
die of anxiety in middle age, usually connected with money problems, which
could be described more accurately as an almost chronic inability to look
properly after their relatives economically. Ethnographies from India
show that very many Indian women live in constant fear of male violence,
men worry about dowry payments for their daughters and a thousand lesser
expenses, and that everybody fears downward mobility, whether individual
Now, security naturally refers to much more than this and that
could be said to be the strength and the weakness of the concept. Most
individuals are, presumably, secure in some respects and insecure in others.
In official documents from the UN Commission for Human Security, freedom
from want and freedom from fear are stressed as common denominators
of the concept. Well, if we are to take this delineation in a literal
sense, it must in all fairness be pointed out that every society
even the most stable and well-organised one has its own wants and
Every society, group and individual on earth has its way of dealing with
the problems of human security. Nobody is immune. Nonbelievers often assume
that religious people have a greater existential security than they do
themselves, but it is an unconvincing general thesis. If one belongs to
a religion with a notion of hell, or divine intervention, or both, then
one had better mind ones step.
Moreover, it is often assumed that insecurity is more pronounced in the
global era than it was formerly, given the fundamental vulnerability,
the proliferation of risks, the environmental crisis, AIDS, the alienating
individualism of neo-liberalism, fears of terrorist attacks or outbreaks
of war, or the loss of faith in canonical tradition, including religious
salvation and protection from supernatural entities, that are assumed
to accompany this era. A cursory look at the historical and ethnographic
records do not support this view. The risk of being the victim of a terrorist
attack for an inhabitant of Amsterdam in the year 2005 can safely be assumed
to be much less than the risk of being bitten by a poisonous snake for
an Azande in the 1920s. The threats of starvation, disease and war in
the poorer countries, horrible as they are, were unlikely to be much less
in premodern times than what is the case today, although their impact
was for obvious reasons different.
* * *
You will by now have discovered that I could easily have spent the entire
lecture discussing the concept of human security, but I fear we would
all have emerged none the wiser for it. Suffice it to say, without any
further qualification for now, that it is a concept of great promise to
the social sciences, which allows us to raise old questions in new ways,
to develop interdisciplinary research projects and to grapple with both
the huge global questions engulfing us all and local questions at the
community level. It needs fleshing out in many directions.
The aspect of human security with which I will henceforth be concerned,
is that to do with belonging. Although people may in a traditional past
have been no more secure in their lives than we are in many cases
they were far less secure at least most of them tended to belong
to a community by default. Nobody challenged their group membership, they
knew who to turn to in times of need and scarcity, and they had a clear
notion of the moral universe within which they lived. When contemporary
social theorists speak of our era as somehow more insecure than the past,
this is roughly what they have in mind. Zygmunt Baumans liquid
modernity (Bauman 2000) concerns the floating, shifting qualities
of values and social structure in our era; Ulrich Becks risk
society (Beck 1992) refers not to increased objective risks, but a
heightened awareness of unmanageable risks; and Anthony Giddenss
term post-traditional society (Giddens 1991) describes not a society
where traditions are extinct, but one where a tradition can no longer
be taken for granted, but must actively be defended vis-à-vis its
alternatives, which have now become visible. Such concepts, and the analyses
underpinning them, suggest that the research questions raised by Durkheim
and his collaborators a century ago, concerning the conditions of social
integration and the human consequences of social disintegration, remain
more relevant than ever before. This I will now try to demonstrate.
Henrik Ibsens plays from the latter half of the nineteenth century
are widely respected for their psychological depth and their accurate
depiction of profound contradictions in the bourgeois family of pre-First
World War Europe. However, in some important ways his earlier plays Brand
and Peer Gynt (Ibsen 1972 ) speak more directly to
the sensibilities of the early 21st century than the dramas dealing with
late 19th century bourgeois society. Brand, Ibsens first
masterpiece, was a play about a Christian fundamentalist despairing at
the moral decay and confusion he saw all around him, and his attempts
to bracket off his own existence and that of his flock of faithful, from
the surrounding turmoil. His attempt to escape from modernity can be described
as an attempt to create a controlled space where all questions could be
answered, a community which was predictable and morally consistent. Brand
is a puritan in the literal sense of the word; a good Protestant, he seeks
purity and simplicity. By contrast, the protagonist of Ibsens next
play, Peer Gynt, is an entrepreneur and an adventurer who lies
and cheats his way across the world, who makes a small fortune in the,
by then illicit, slave trade, who poses as a prophet in North Africa and
as a cosmopolitan gentleman on a Mediterranean coast, before returning
to his native mountain valley only to discover that his personality lacks
a core. The struggles involving collective identification in the contemporary
era, with which much of my research for nearly twenty years has incidentally
been concerned, gravitate around the questions raised by Ibsen in the
1860s. Be who you are fully and wholly, not piecemeal and partially,
proclaims Brand, a prophet not only of evangelical Christianity but also
of the integrity of the person. Peer Gynt, on his part, boasts of having
received impulses from all over the world, introducing himself in the
fourth act as a citizen of the world in spirit (verdensborger
av gemytt). Whereas Brand can be said to inhabit a closed universe,
Peer Gynts universe lacks boundaries. The two characters cover,
between them, the span between fundamentalism and collectivism on the
one hand, and voluntarism and individualism on the other. Brand stands
for security, while Peer stands for freedom and insecurity. The contrast
between the two, and attempts to stake out third ways, are part and parcel
of the experience of the children of immigrants in Western Europe, to
mention just one contemporary parallel.
In order to begin to understand security in the sense of social belonging,
we first have to consider personhood as such. I first realised this, belatedly,
when some years ago I was writing a book about identity politics, realising
one day that I had not done the groundwork of properly studying the foundations
of any kind of identity, that is the person. This led me, among
other things, in the direction of developmental psychology and evolutionary
theory, but that is another story. For now, we shall restrict ourselves
to the person and his or her forms of attachment, seen as the basis for
The Latin term persona originally meant mask, which indicates that
personal identity is shifting and can be treacherous (cf. Mauss 1960).
Life is a stage (Shakespeare), and personality can be like an onion
layer upon layer, but with no core (Ibsen). When all the layers of makeup
and make-believe are peeled away, do we then encounter the real person
or do we instead meet a faceless monster? The answer from social
science is: neither. Even authentic persons have to play out
their authenticity through an identity which is recognisable to others.
He or she must, for example, possess a linguistic identity. The phantasmagoric
point zero, where the real person, cultureless and pure, coalesces
with the faceless one, is tantamount to autism. There is no other
person behind the social person.
Personal identity is shaped through social experiences. Some of them are
easily forgotten, some can be interpreted to fit a present state one wants
to belong to (it is never too late to obtain a tragic history or a happy
childhood if one needs it), some may be more or less fictional, and yet
others cannot be modified at all. In this sense, personal biographies
are reminiscent of national historiography and religious myths of origin.
Personal experiences are as malleable as national histories, neither more
nor less. They can attach us to a great number of different communities
based on gender, class, place, political persuasion, literary taste, sexual
orientation, national identity, religion and so on. Yet they cannot be
bent indefinitely; certain facts about ourselves are unchangeable. One
can deny them, but they keep returning, as the ageing Peer Gynt discovers
in the final act, when he literally meets his maker. As Bob Marley once
put it: You cant run away from yourself.
Peer tries to to just this, and he thus sacrifices security for the sake
of freedom; Brand does the opposite. A parallel to the contrast between
Peer Gynt and Brand is found in a metaphor used among some West African
peoples. In describing what a person is they compare it with a tortoise.
It may stick its head out, making itself visible and vulnerable, but it
then retracts its head into the shell, rendering itself hidden and invincible.
This metaphor seems to travel well into the world of mass media and reality
TV, that infamous Dutch invention. Some of our contemporary tortoises
prefer to stay inside their shells most of the time, while others live
almost continuously with their heads stuck out for all to see.
What the tortoise metaphor does not claim, is that there exists
an insulated, pure self in the inner recesses of the individual, a self
which is independent of its surroundings. Such a creature is, besides,
difficult to envision. For example, we depend on thinking through linguistic
categories, and if we should usually keep our thoughts to ourselves, at
least we share them with a few confidantes. The metaphor of the tortoise,
transposed to contemporary modern societies, is best understood as stating
that human beings switch between being socially extroverted and directed
towards the open, uncertain external world, and being socially introverted,
limited to that which is secure and familiar. It deals not so much with
the internal life of the individual as with two forms of sociality; the
secure and the insecure, the closed and the open.
Secure sociality moves in a terrain of undisputed we-feeling. In this
realm you may be backstage; you can speak your dialect, laugh at
in-jokes, savour the smells of your childhood and know that you have an
intuitive, embodied cultural competence which you succeed in performing
without even trying. In a field of secure sociality, everyone is predictable
to each other, and if they are not, there are ways of demarcating displeasure
which are immediately understood by others. A relaxed intimacy engulfs
secure sociality. It is related to Tönnies concept of Wesenswille,
which in his view characterised life in the Gemeinschaft, that
traditional community where everybody knew each other and had a limited
horizon of opportunities. the Wesenswille recommends itself, it
makes us behave along certain lines without asking critical questions.
Insecure sociality is to a much greater extent characterised by improvisation
and negotiations over situational definitions. Whoever meet in this kind
of field are much less secure as to whom they are dealing with, and as
a result, they are less sure as to who they are looking at in the mirror.
The opportunities are more varied and more open to a person in a state
of insecure sociality than to someone who rests contented in a condition
of predictable routines of secure sociality, but the risks are also much
Insecure sociality appears, typically, in cosmopolitan cities, along trade
routes and especially after the industrial revolution in
societies undergoing rapid change. Suddenly, something new happens, and
one finds oneself in a setting with no preordained script to be followed.
One is faced with the task of rebuilding the ship at sea.
A typical reaction to this kind of insecurity is withdrawal, but it is
equally common to try to redefine the situation in order to make it resemble
something familiar. When Columbus became the first European to set foot
in the Caribbean, he was convinced that he had reached India. Later conquistadors
were aware that they had arrived in a country which was not described
in the Bible, that is an entirely new land with unknown and undescribed
inhabitants. Many of them still tried to interpret their experiences through
biblical interpretations. In The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov
(1989) shows that the Azteks and the Spaniards interpreted each other
into their respective pre-existent world-views. Neither group was ready
to acknowledge that something completely new had entered their world,
which required new cognitive maps or even an intellectual revolution.
In a word, they were not yet modern.
The processes that create insecure situations secure take many shapes.
Imperialist powers may try to reshape their new lands to make them less
threateningly different, or they may erect physical boundaries against
the aliens, as the architects of apartheid did in South Africa and Israel
is doing presently. Dominated peoples may either try to imitate their
rulers in order to mitigate the sense of insecurity on both sides, or
they may establish their own boundaries following the lead of the dominating
group separatism, revolution or independence.
Is insecurity a good or a bad thing? That depends. In social anthropological
theory, different terms are being used, which provide different answers
to the question. Mary Douglas (1966), who belongs to a tradition focusing
on the study of social integration and assuming it to be a good thing,
regards departures from the existing order as anomalies. They are
cumbersome since they do not fit in. Many person who appear as anomalies,
besides, seem to become anomic, that is normless; alienated, confused
and unhappy. In Douglas intellectual mentor Durkheims view,
anomie was an important cause of suicide.
An opposite approach is found in the early work of Fredrik Barth (1963),
who, in the early 1960s, directed a research programme about the entrepreneur
in Northern Norway. According to Barths definition, the entrepreneur
was someone who bridged formerly discrete spheres; who found new commodities
to sell in new locations, new ways of running a business, new niches and
so on. He thrived on uncertainty and change. In his purest form, Barths
entrepreneur was a Peer Gynt; poorly integrated into the moral community,
but hardly a candidate for suicide. It may perhaps be said that the entrepreneur
fares like everybody else in the age of neoliberalism, which values freedom
so highly but neglects security: Whenever one has success, the range of
options and the scope of personal freedom feel fantastic, but the moment
one hits the wall, freedom is reinterpreted as insecurity and the choices
as a kind of coercive compulsion. The entrepreneur becomes an anomaly
the moment he fails to succeed.
It has been well documented that identification in our day and age can
be an insecure kind of task with many difficulties and poor predictability.
People who formerly had no mutual contact are brought together, new cultural
forms arise, and the dominant ideology dictating that life should consist
in free choices, puts pressure on everyone. Safe, old recipes for the
good life may not have been lost, but they are conventionally discarded
as reactionary and inhibiting. The result may just as well be frustrated
confusion as positive self-realisation.
Even without the aid of this kind of freedom ideology, capitalism is capable
of creating insecurity and new social dynamics. It has been a massive
force, uprooting people from their conventional ways of doing things,
moving them physically, giving them new tasks and bringing them into contact
with new others. When mining began in the copper-rich areas of the eastern
parts of present-day Zambia, just after the First World War, workers were
recruited from all over the colony. They spoke many languages and had
many different customs and kinship systems, but very soon, the workers
began to sort each other, in a rough and ready way, on the basis of ideas
about social distance. The people hailing from the western regions were
seen as a category apart, likewise the Lozi speakers, the matrilineal
peoples and so on. Some of the groups had experienced regular contact
before urbanisation, and had conventionalised ways of dealing with each
other. Some even enjoyed an institutionalised joking relationship with
each other. (This wonderful African institution deserves being exported
to other continents. Perhaps Jews and Palestinians, or Christians and
Muslims, might want to give it a try?)
J. Clyde Mitchell (1956), who studied urbanisation in the Copperbelt in
the 1950s, famously describes a situation in a beer hall in his Kalela
Dance. A man and a woman are drinking beer. A second man joins them.
He has a few coins which he puts on the table, intending to spend them
on beer in a minute. Suddenly, the woman snatches a coin and sings, in
a teasing voice, An X has lost his money... She belongs to
the Ys, who have a joking relationship to the Xes. Instead
of joining in the laugther, the man becomes angry and says that he is
far from being an X; as a matter of fact, he is a Z, and the Zs
have no joking relationship whatsoever to the Ys. The woman retorts
that to her, the Xes and the Zs are the same kind anyway.
(Norwegians who are treated as Swedes in Copenhagen, which happens very
often, can relate to the mans reaction.)
This vignette illustrates the social insecurity that arises when societies
change quickly. Just as a fish discovers the water only the moment it
is being hauled out of it, so does identification become an explicit problem
only when it can no longer be taken for granted. The Bisa, the Lozi and
other groups who met in mining towns like Luanshya, developed ethnic identities
which they had never had before, but they also immediately began to question
the significance of their new ethnic identities. Trade unions were also
important in their new lives, and quite soon, Africans began to differentiate
from another through education and achievements in the modern sector of
Notwithstanding the rigid racial hierarchy of the Copperbelt, which was
sometimes bracketed by the anthropologists who, even if politically radical,
were working at the mercy of the Colonial Office, the newly urbanised
Africans were thrust into a post-traditional existence, where their former
taken-for-granteds had to be defended, or else could be questioned. Another
telling example of this transition is the changing significance of female
circumcision among Somali women in exile. Because of the civil war and
the near-total dissolution of the Somali state, a considerable proportion
of the Somali population is exiled many of them in neighbouring
Kenya and Ethiopia, but there are also many in Europe and North America.
In local communities in Somalia, nearly all women are circumcised. Among
the few who manage to evade the knife are, incidentally, daughters of
deeply religious men who have studied the Quran and therefore know
that Islam does not prescribe female circumcision.
In Somalia, according to the anthropologist Aud Talle (2003), an uncircumcised
female body is conventionally perceived as imperfect, unappetising and
grotesque. Most Somali women in Somalia are oblivious of the fact that
most women in the world are not circumcised. Then, some of them are dislocated
to England, Canada or Norway, and soon discover that the attitudes towards
circumcision in their immediate surroundings are different from what they
have been accustomed to. The very woman who was pure and perfect on the
dry savannah of the Horn is suddenly transformed into a mutilated victim
on the streets of London. Nothing has changed except the circumstances.
But this is enough for a seed of doubt to be sown. Will she really choose
circumcision for her daughters, when nobody except a few Africans do it
in her new homeland? Is circumcision really necessary for a girl to become
a proper woman? She may decide not to let her daughters be circumcised,
despite the fact that this decision hurls her into cultural insecurity.
Suddenly, she no longer follows the hallowed script detailing how to be
a good Somali woman; she is forced to improvise and to trust her own judgements.
Cases of female circumcision which are known in Western countries lead
to strong indignation some speak of it as moral panic
in the majority; but the fact is that in this case, the path from
a traditional to a post-traditional identity can be surprisingly short.
As many as half of the Somali women interviewed in a Canadian survey indicated
that they did not want their daughters to be circumcised. Some of them
had just spent a couple of years in the country. In Somalia, the figure
might have been two or three per cent.
When a Somali woman begins to question her own cultural tradition in this
way, a deep ambivalence begins to ferment. If you have been engulfed in
an unquestioned tradition all your life and make a single individual choice
contradicting the traditional script, it is as if the entire fabric becomes
unravelled. In theory, from that point nothing prevents you from asking
other questions to tradition why should I accept being subordinate
to men; why are we Muslims; what exactly does it mean to be a Muslim?
Most Somali women in exile may limit themselves to asking a few critical
questions to their traditions, but their daughters are less modest. A
kind of liberal attitude which is widespread in our societies, not least
among those who want to help the new arrivals to become similar to themselves,
may nonetheless result in a mixture of pity and resignation when it turns
out that many of the women in question are not willing to sever all ties
(or chains, according to many liberals) to their dated and oppressive
tradition. Sometimes, they are under pressure from their surroundings;
perhaps their fathers, husbands and brothers do not want them to learn
the language of their adopted country, and they may resort to violence
or the threat of violence to prevent their women from becoming
liberated. But this is hardly the whole story. Many immigrants
both women and men remain faithful to tradition because
they are familiar with its feel and smell, it gives them a sense of security
and a clear, safe identity, and besides, it offers resources they need
to survive; such as work, a social network and the right to be themselves.
They feel the cold breath of the chronic insecurity of late modern society,
and some of them immediately withdraw into their shell to avoid being
infected with pneumonia.
What exactly it is that provides a sense of security, varies. You may
be an entrepreneur in one place, but then you become a dreaded anomaly
in another. There is no simple answer available, to analysts or to citizens.
Those who demand the total victory of individualism and free choice, forget
their own need for security I have more than once observed Norwegian
anthropologists at international conferences, huddled together around
their own table and enjoying themselves quite a bit and they also
tend to forget that rights imply duties. Yet, those who romanticise the
intimate, tradition-bound communities are guilty of an equally grave error,
since they tend to forget that no such communities recommend themselves;
and that it is by virtue of courageous leaps into the unknown, into risk
and insecurity, that the world changes. Humans, in other words, have both
roots and boots.
Such is one predicament of security facing us in a world increasingly
made up by post-traditional societies. The theoretical questions about
individual and society which were raised by the likes of Tönnies
and Durkheim a century ago remain valid, but they need to be refashioned
in order to fit the requirements of an era of mass migration, global capitalism
and hegemonic individualism.
I have spoken of the literary characters Brand and Peer Gynt, Zambian
miners and Somali women in exile. Let me now, in a bid to sharpen the
argument, move to a late modern incarnation of Peer Gynt, who does not
travel to the Orient, but who comes from the Orient to make
himself a life as an entrepreneur. This man is initially an worriless
migrant who regards the world as his oyster.
In the famous opening sequence of The Satanic Verses, where Saladin
Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta fall out of Air Indias flight 420 from
Bombay to London, later to be fished out of the English Channel, Gibreel
improvises an English translation of an old Hindi film song: O,
my shoes are Japanese/These trousers English, if you please/On my head,
red Russian hat/my hearts Indian for all that. As every Indian
above a certain age knows, the source is Raj Kapoors film Mr.
420 from 1955. (In Hindi, the number 420 has connotations of sin and
treachery. The kinship with Peer Gynt is evident.)
In an essay written a year or two after becoming the victim of an Iranian
fatwa, Rushdie explained the deeper meaning of the book. It celebrates
hybridity and fears the absolutism of Purity, he explains (Rushdie
1991). Yet, both his masterful novel and the dramatic aftermath of its
publication indicate that Rushdies penchant for impurity is countered
by two formidable antagonists. Both of them can be seen as absolutist,
both demand purity, and both prefer simplicity to complexity. It is well
known, even among many of those who have not read Rushdies knotty
and multilayered novel, that it is a sophisticated satire lampooning literalist
forms of Islam. It is less known that the book also, and almost to the
same degree, makes fun of Margaret Thatchers Britain. It was during
her tenure that Norman Tebbit invented the Tebbit test, which
entailed that people who lived in Britain but did not cheer for a British
cricket team at international matches, were dangerous fifth-columnists.
Cricket is a huge sport in many of the British immigrants countries
of origin, not least in India and Pakistan. Rushdie, thus, does not only
turn against religious fanaticism, but also cultural intolerance and nationalist
homogenisation. Rushdie might also have criticised multiculturalism, being
an ideology which prefers security to insecurity, and which according
to its critics thereby sacrifices freedom. Rushdie prefers the
impure hybrids to the clearly delineated groups, and this is not an uncontroversial
option in a world where there is a great demand for simplifications. In
his seminal book on nationalism, Ernest Gellner (1983) compares the homogenising
force of nationalism with Modiglianis paintings, where neat
flat surfaces are clearly separated from each other, it is generally plain
where one begins and another ends, and there is little if any ambiguity
or overlap, contrasting them with Kokoschkas impressionist
canvases made up by a multitude of tiny specks of colour (the pre-nationalist
world). A few years later, Ulf Hannerz (1996) suggested, in a friendly
critique of Gellner, that perhaps Kokoschka had a future after all, thanks
to the emergence of new, changing cultural mosaics. Whatever the case
may be, the contrast between Modigliani and Kokoschka may offer a better
metaphor for the tensions characterising group integration and disintegration
in the present era, than simplistic contrasts between individualist neoliberalism
and fundamentalist collectivism. A world characterised by many small differences
was, in the modern era, reshaped to a world consisting of a few major
ones the ethnic, religious and national ones but the development
hinted at by Hannerz shows that the last word is by no means said yet.
Rushdies appeal to the liberating qualities of post-traditional
society has a formidable opponent in another postcolonial author of global
significance, namely the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, whose belief in
the actual freedom involved in so-called free choice is less sanguine
than Rushdies. In an interview, Naipaul expressed deep suspicion
of the term exile. He saw it as a concept of the privileged few, which
seemed to say that the opportunities of the individual are limitless,
that movement is enriching, ant that one is somehow placed in an exalted
position as judge and jury if one is fortunate enough to be in exile.
Sir Vidia regards the condition of the exile as a punishment, not as a
release. The condition might give increased insight, but the cost was
high: lifelong solitude and lack of belonging.
In Naipauls books, we encounter a world which appears comical in
his early work the characters are clowns who inadvertently parody
the people they try to mimic but which gradually turns sombre and
dark: the persons grapple for something they have lost but will never
find. A core, an attachment. Although Naipaul, like many other postcolonial
writers, deals with fragmented and dislocated identities in his work,
he never celebrates them. To him, the loss of community, security and
roots is merely tragic.
In Rushdie, the reader encounters a world where insecurity is just an
other word for freedom, where the right to create and re-create oneself
by mixing this and that is enriching and liberating. The span between
Brand and Peer Gynt can easily be recognised in the relationship between
Naipaul and Rushdie. It is in the tension between these positions that
we should begin to look for an understanding of our eras simultaneous
obsession with freedom and security.
* * *
It is time to wind up. When I began to think seriously about this lecture,
I saw the options at least some of them and made a decision
which may have been risky, that is to say insecure. Instead of providing
an overview of sorts of the social science literature on human security,
or outlining a research programme, I decided to single out one dimension
of the security complex, namely existential security as opposed to insecurity,
and try my best to convince you, perhaps especially those of you who are
not anthropologists, that it can be worthwhile to carry out qualitative,
interpretive studies of peoples quest for a balance between freedom
and security, and that in order to do so, we have to in the words
of Geertz to figure out what the hell they think theyre
up to (Geertz 1983: 58).
There is a final point, which I almost forgot. The paradox of cohesion
mentioned in the title of the lecture has only been dealt with indirectly.
But it is quite simple really. Every social group is like an inverted
refrigerator. The purpose of the fridge is to create coldness inside,
but in order to do so, it is forced to create some outward heat. With
groups, it is the other way around. Their purpose is to create a cozy,
trusting atmosphere inside and in the present world, that can be
very hard work indeed. But in order to create this ambience of trust and
intimacy, it must by necessity emanate some outward coldness. No convincing,
simple solution is offered to this dilemma by politicians or social philosophers,
but as social scientists at least we have the privilege of being near
Before finishing, I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Vrije Universiteit
Amsterdam for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime by appointing me
to a Special Chair in the Anthropology of Human Security. This is a promising,
so far largely undeveloped field which will enable me to pursue my old
research interests as well as forcing me to develop intellectually along
new lines. My relationship with the Department of Social and Cultural
Anthropology began a year and a half ago, following an invitation from
Dr. Oscar Salemink to give some guest lectures. I was immediately struck
by the vitality and variety of the department, the breadth and quality
of the work carried out there and its congenial atmosphere. It is an up
and coming anthropology department, and I am proud to be associated with
it. I wish to thank his Excellency, the Chancellor, and the Board of Trustees
of the Vrije Universiteit for making this possible. Dean Klandermans has
impressed me thoroughly, not just as a more than competent leader and
a keen intellectual mind in his own right, but perhaps especially for
being a dean with a visionary research policy. In these times we need
more of his kind. At the Department of anthropology, I have been warmly
received by Professor Andre Droogers, who quickly introduced me to his
own fascinating research group; Professor Donna Winslow has been an enthusiastic
guide into her field, and among my many exciting new acquaintances at
this faculty, I especially want to thank Dr. Oscar Salemink, who has been
the nexus of my relationship to this university, and with whom I already
have several joint ventures going. So far I have received all the support
and generosity anyone could expect, and I am looking forward to years
of fruitful collaboration with the Vrije Universiteit.
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