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The formation of group identity: Ethnicity and nationalism – appreciating particularities and appeasing collectives. Lecture for the MA course: “ Ethnic Challenges to the Nation-State: Studying State Responses from a Human Rights Perspective ” Kjetil Tronvoll, NCHR, 22 August 2005.

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The formation of group identity:Ethnicity and nationalism – appreciating particularities and appeasing collectives

Lecture for the MA course: “Ethnic Challenges to the Nation-State: Studying State Responses from a Human Rights Perspective”Kjetil Tronvoll, NCHR, 22 August 2005


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What is a collective identity?

  • A collective is not a given ‘pre-existing’ category

  • It is a symbolic representation of ‘commonness’ among a group of people, in contrast to other collectives

  • The boundaries are flexible and constantly reproduced through social interaction

  • Since they are symbolic representations, their appearance are multivocal

  • They are generated through perceived aspects of shared knowledge and recognised social routines (‘common’ behaviour and institutions)

  • They appear self-ascribed or ascribed by others

  • It is a relevant and meaningful category for its members


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Collective identities: primordial or instrumental?

  • Are ethnicity and nationalism (collective identities) an intrinsic, primordial aspect of human existence and self-consciousness? Are identities somehow clearly definable and demarcated? Are they basically unchanging and unchangeable in the fundamental demands they make on individuals and in the bonds they create and sustain between the individual and his/her group?

  • Or are ethnicity and nationalism to whatever extent defined situationally and contextual? Being strategically and tactically manipulative? Do they have the quality of being capable of change at both the individual and collective level?


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Primordialist vs. instrumentalist/constructivist

  • Primordialist: identity as something intrinsic and inherent (importance of blood and descent, religion and language, custom and culture) → static, non-changing perception of identity

    • Neo-primordialism: ethnic consciousness is only realised when the group is threatened (culturally, politically, socially) by external forces (the fundament of right to self-determination?) (Comaroff 1996)

  • Instrumentalist/constructivist: identity as a created sentiment, based on social, political and cultural resources → flexible, manipulative, processual, multivocal, ever-changing perception of identity

    • Realist perspective: ‘objective’ interest underpin collective identities

    • Cultural constructionism: formation of groups as a function of shared ‘culture’

    • Political constructionism: elite-driven hegemonic production of ‘culture’ (Comaroff 1996)


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What is ethnicity?

  • “Ethnicity is an aspect of social relationship between agents who consider themselves as culturally distinctive from members of other groups with whom they have a minimum of regular interaction” (Eriksen, 2002: 12)

  • I.e.:

    • it is an aspect of social relationship, not a cultural ‘entity’ in itself;

    • it is relational;

    • it makes cultural differences relevant in communication;

    • it requires social interaction with ‘others’

    • it is contextually influenced


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Understanding ethnic boundaries

  • Fredrik Barth’ seminal work Ethnic group and boundaries (1969)

  • Ethnicity as a form of social organisation, not an aspect of culture

  • Focus on boundary mechanism which upholds the ethnic group, not the ‘cultural stuff it encloses’

  • Allows for self-ascription of identity and ascription by others

  • Shifting from a static to an relational and processual approach


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Ethnic boundary ‘maintenance’

  • The ethnic boundary markers define the difference between groups (customs, traits, language, political ideas)

  • The boundary markers may change through time and according to context (some markers emphasised vs. one group, different markers emphasised vs. another): what is made relevant? (Barth)

  • Who defines culture/markers, for which purpose (power)?

  • The groups ‘culture’ and social organisation may change without removing/changing the ethnic boundary markers

  • Cultural differences relate to ethnicity if, and only if, such differences are made relevant in social interaction (Eriksen)


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Ethnic boundary transcendence

  • Ethnic boundaries are not necessary territorial boundaries, but social ones

  • There is a continuous flow of information, interaction, exchange and even people across them

  • People may change ethnic identity, individually or collectively (intermarriage/cultural adoption, economic/production strategies, escape social stigma, political pragmatism, etc)

  • Boundaries connect, as well as distinguishes


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Ethnicity as political organisation

  • “Ethnicity is fundamentally a political phenomenon, as the symbols of the traditional culture are used as mechanisms for the articulation of political alignments” (A. Cohen, 1974)

  • Dual capacity of ethnicity:

    • Manipulated from the outside to create ethnic antagonism and schism

    • May also serve as a residual category for people to mobilise behind from within

  • Ethnicity is a social organisation which might be used as mobilising force, since it simultaneously may serve political ends and satisfy psychological needs for belongingness

  • The ethnic group as a political actor is a product of the situation, not of history → concerns for future prospects, not past grievances.

  • A political strategy to achieve collectively what one cannot obtain individually


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Ethnic mobilisation

  • A political issue, conflict or race for natural resources, does not in itself produce ‘ethnicity’

  • An idea of common identity is inspired by and rooted in several factors, invented or real:

    • The appropriation of shared history (Tonkin)

    • Creation of common myths of origin (Hoskins)

    • Idea of a chosen people (Smith)

    • Nurturing the image of ‘historical’ enemies


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Ethnicity and the state

  • “The concept of ethnicity … is most useful when used as a label for a dimension of the identity formation process in a single political unit, most specifically the nation-sate” (Williams, 1989)

  • Ethnicity is a product of state formation, not the other way around, i.e. heterogeneity precedes homogeneity (Wilmsen)

  • Ethnicity as a response to state intervention/imposition; strategy to achieve collectively what one could not achieve individually

  • It is in contexts of imposed assimilation and simultaneous discrimination followed by a process of mobilisation, that an ethnic discourse, and a leadership, emerges

  • A minority group does not exist without a state


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Ethnicity from below, and above

  • Ethnic boundaries of identity have referents to personal consciousness, social interaction and cultural symbolism: i.e. they are contestable and multivocal (Anthony Cohen, 1994)

  • Ethnicity is also a collective expression of identify formation related to a hierarchical political system/state. Ethnicity has its origin in inequality (Comaroff, 1996)

  • Ethnicity is constructed in routine, everyday social interaction where relevant cultural differences are communicated (Barth and Comaroff)

  • Once ethnic identities/boundaries are constructed and objectified, their manifestations have a salient impact on the members of the group (Comaroff)

  • The conditions that give rise to ethnogenesis, are not necessarily the same as those that sustain it (Comaroff)


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Nationalism: in defence of the state

  • Globalisation challenges the politico-ideological foundation of nationalism (Comaroff 1996; Keating/McGarry 2001)

    • Growth of trans-national institutions, movements and diasporas

    • Weakening of the nation-state

    • Rise of a new politics of identity and difference

  • What is nationalism?

    • Ethnicity writ large and adapted to the state: “Nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones” (Gellner 1983); or

    • Nationalism/nation: is an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1991)

    • A process to establish the ideological justification of the state (Eriksen 1993/2002)


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Nationalism in practice

  • Try to make ethnicity and other sub- and supra national identities irrelevant (regionalism, religion, etc)

  • Establish/re-establish the state’s hegemony and authority over its citizenry (political and territorial control, etc)

  • The state must be relevant to its citizens (service delivery, sentimental attachment → “imagined community”, etc)

  • Manifestation of its geographical borders

  • Be prepared to use violence to defend the “nation”


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Two types of contemporary nationalism (Comaroff)

  • Ethno-nationalism: the ideology of uniting an ethno-cultural group with territory by way of genealogy. I.e. one dominating ethnic group defines the national content (Smith 1991). Emphasis on cultural particularism; membership by ascription; ‘trans-national’ character.

  • Euronationalism: an ideology that promotes a secular state founded on universalist principles of citizenship and social contract. Emphasis on heroic origin, historical continuity, not ethnic basis, politico-territorial community.

    “From the perspective of Euronationalism, all ethninationalism appear primitive, irrational, magical, and above all, threatening; in the eyes of ethnonationalism – which appears perfectly rational from within – Euronationalism remains inherently colonising, lacking in humanity, and bereft of social conscience” (Comaroff 1996)


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… and the third

  • Heteronationalism: a synthesis that seeks to integrate ethno-national identity politics within a euronationalist understanding of political community.

  • “Its objective is to accommodate cultural diversity within a civil society composed of autonomous citizens … equal and undifferentiated before the law.” It promotes the rights to difference, understood as multiculturalism (Comaroff 1996)


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Positioning the 3 theories of nationalism

  • Ethno-nationalism: primordial attachments gives validity and justifies claims to ethnic self-determination

  • Heteronationalism: also based on primordial group sentiments but recognises individual rights - multiculturalism; rationalised and explained by neoprimordial instrumentalism; self-determination

  • Euronationalism: relies on heroic human agency, justified by constructionism: emphasises individual rights and equal citizenship privileges


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Understanding collectives

  • Boundaries both distinguish and connect collectives

  • Must distinguish between the cognitive premises that construct the boundary – by what might be called acts of imposition – and the sociology of people living and acting around that boundary and thereby shaping an outcome (Barth 2000)

  • Boundaries are multivocal symbolic expressions, thus individually perceived based on personal experience and cognition (Barth/Anthony Cohen 200)

  • Whose boundaries?

  • Boundaries of identity are amorphous and ambiguous

  • Thus must be infused with symbolic content to create collective distinctions


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