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Lecture 15. National sphere of concepts



To study the concept of national sphere of concepts

To study the notion of concept as a unit of national sphere of concepts

To study the model of national sphere of concepts


The formalist approach, conceptualizing ethnicity as a type of social process in which notions of cultural difference are communicated, enables us to view ethnicity comparatively, and to account for ethnic phenomena without recourse to crude conceptions of "cultures" and "peoples". It has moreover proven more flexible, and capable of higher theoretical sophistication when dealing with complex contexts, than a related approach in which ethnicity is reduced to a kind of stratification system, or in which ethnic process is virtually by definition reduced to group competition over scarce resources (Despres 1975; Cohen 1974b). Such reduction prevents full understanding of the discriminating characteristics of social systems where the communication of cultural differences is essential to the reproduction of the system.

For all its merits, the formalist approach associated with Barth (1969) has two important limitations preventing a satisfactory comparative understanding of ethnicity.

First - and this is nowadays a common criticism (O'Brien 1986; Wolf 1982; Worsley 1984; Fardon 1987) - it is in principle ahistorical. Its very useful, highly abstract comparative concepts such as ethnic boundary (Barth 1969), dichotomization/complementarization (Eidheim 1971), symbolic form and function (Cohen 1974a), and so on, indispensable in accounting for ethnicity on the interpersonal level, divert analytic attention from the wider social and historical context and thus implicitly disregard processes taking place beyond the grasp of the individual agent. For one should never neglect, or even "bracket", the fact that ethnicity is always a property of a particular social formation in addition to being an aspect of interaction. Variations on this level of social reality, moreover, cannot be accounted for comprehensively through studies of interaction, no matter how detailed they may be. For instance, ethnicity involving a modern national state is qualitatively different from ethnicity activated in a neighbourhood because a state and an individual are different kinds of agents. In addition, the context of interaction is constituted prior to the interaction itself and must therefore form part of the explanation of interpersonal processes. This implies that we ought to investigate the historical and social circumstances in which a particular ethnic configuration has developed, and a subsequent localization in time, place and social scale of the ethnic phenomenon in question must follow. A concept of power distinguishing between individual and structural power is essential here. Moreover, these findings are bound to influence our analysis, and should not be bracketed, even - or perhaps particularly - if the ultimate goal is a reduction of social process to a formal comparative model of ethnicity. On the other hand, historically bounded studies of ethnicity and related phenomena (e.g. Anderson 1983; Smith 1986) usually fail to account for the reproduction of identity on the level of interaction, and have limited comparative scope.

Secondly, and partly by implication, it can be misleading to consider ethnicity simply as an "empty vessel" or a system of arbitrary signs, or a form of deep grammar. Certainly, the "critical focus of investigation" ought to be "the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff it encloses" (Barth 1969:15, italics in the original) - that is, ethnicity is a property of relationship, not "the sound of one hand clapping", to paraphrase Bateson. It is further doubtless correct that ethnic distinctions can persist despite insignificant differential "distribution of objective [cultural] traits" (Eidheim 1969:39), and that the symbolic articulation of cultural difference can frequently be seen to change in form and content, historically and situationally. Nevertheless, the cultural specificities or differences invoked in every justification of ethnic differentiation or dichotomization may (or may not) have a profound bearing on the experiential nature of ethnic relations themselves. This implies that the medium is not necessarily the message, and that the differences themselves, which represent a level of signification conventionally glossed over by the formalists, should be investigated, and not only the form of their articulation. In other words, if there are contextual imperatives for the production of ethnic signs - and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise, then the contexts in question must be understood along with the acts of inter-ethnic communication.

The cultural differences referred to in ethnic interaction, then, cannot always be reduced to its form without a loss of analytic comprehension. Since culture is such a difficult term to handle analytically, and since one of the main insights from formalist studies of ethnicity is that culture cannot be treated as a fixed and bounded system of signs, it is tempting to reduce or disregard this level of social reality in description and analysis. The most common (tacit) reduction of culture has consisted in showing how ethnic signifiers may change due to changes in context, thereby indicating that the signifiers themselves are really arbitrary, and that the fundamental aspect of ethnicity is the very act of communicating and maintaining cultural difference. This is the position advocated by Leach (1954), who emphatically states:

"Culture provides the form, the 'dress' of the social situation. As far as I am concerned, the cultural situation is a given factor, it is a product and an accident of history. I do not know why Kachin women go hatless with bobbed hair before they are married, but assume a turban afterwards, any more than I know why English women put on a ring on a particular finger to denote the same change in social status; all I am interested in is that in this Kachin context the assumption of a turban by a woman does have this symbolic significance. It is a statement about the status of the woman." (Leach 1954:16)

This type of argument has been very illuminating, but it is unsatisfactory in the end because the cultural context of an act of communicating distinctiveness may, as correctly assumed (and experienced) by non-anthropologists, make a systematic difference in inter-ethnic encounters. At a certain point in the analysis of ethnicity, where recognized cultural differences shape or prevent meaningful interaction, or where power asymmetry distorts discourse, it becomes impossible to neglect substantial features of social, cultural, historical contexts. Although the formal relationship between say, the Canadian state and Mohawk Amerindians may be similar to that between say, the Botswana state and Basarwa (San) people, the social and cultural significance of the respective relationships differ because of important differences in the cultural contexts referred to in the ongoing invocation of differences. This implies that formal modelling of ethnicity may miss the point not only because it leaves out aspects of ethnicity which are important to the agents, but also because it disregards the potentially varying importance of cultural differences in the articulation of ethnicity.

Handelman's (1977) typology of ethnic incorporation, ranking ethnic groups or categories from the socially very loose to the socially very strongly incorporated, has similarly limited explanatory power. It is misleading insofar as it treats ethnic categories or groups as analytical entities. This will not do: it is necessary to account for the production and reproduction of ethnicity in a less abstract, less static way in order to understand its concrete manifestations. Any detailed analysis of ethnicity must therefore take into account the varying cultural significance of ethnicity, not only cross-culturally, but also intra-culturally and perhaps most importantly, intra-personally. Different inter-ethnic contexts within a society, which may or may not involve the same sets of persons, have variable significance in relevant ways. Ethnicity, as a source of cultural meaning and as a principle for social differentiation, is highly distributive within any society or set of social contexts involving the same personnel. Its varying importance, or varying semantic density, can only be appreciated through a comparison of contexts, which takes account of differences in the meaning which are implied by the acts of communicating cultural distinctiveness which we call ethnicity.

A treatment of the relationship between the systemic level of interaction and the systemic level of social formation, necessary in the final analysis when the validity of ethnicity as a comparative concept is to be assessed (cf. Fardon 1987), falls outside of the scope of this article. The ethnographic examples and contexts to be discussed below illustrate the second theoretical point; namely, that the cultural differences which are confirmed in the communication of ethnic differences, vary between contexts which may otherwise be comparable, and that this variation should be understood in accounts of ethnic processes.

Why is ethnicity so important?

Like activities in politics and in the productive sector, family life and certain leisure activities in the two societies are routinely understood and codified in an ethnic idiom. However, the contexts of ethnicity encountered here may differ markedly from those reproduced in fields which are to a greater degree regulated by sets of formal rules. In routine politics, a shared language-game contains rules for competition over shared, scarce values; in the context of wage work, a similar competition is important although, as I have shown, not always sufficiently important to prevent the articulation of incommensurable language-games. It is nevertheless usually in informal contexts of interaction that ethnic differences can be regarded as expressions of incommensurable language-games.

Cultural differences between blacks and Indians are in both societies strongly articulated in matters relating to sexuality. The sexual ideologies of black men in Trinidad and Mauritius encourage promiscuity; to brag publicly of one's numerous achievements in this regard is an affirmation of black identity. In the ideology of Indian-ness, on the contrary, great value is placed on sexual purity in women, and the sacred character of matrimony is emphasized. In an Indian language-game, the supposed sexual prowess of black men is coupled with the widespread notion that women are unable to resist sexual advances. In this way, black men seem to represent a threat against the domestic supremacy of Indian men - and stories about faithless Indian women eloping with black men are so widespread in both societies as to be proverbial. When, in Mauritius, I asked black men about their views on extramarital sex, they might reply, giggling, that "it's not like in Europe" - meaning that it was a daily occurrence. Indo-Mauritians, on the other hand, would usually be reluctant to talk about sex at all. Aids figures from Trinidad, incidentally, tend to confirm the folk assumption that blacks there on an average have a larger number of sexual partners than Indians: there is a striking overrepresentation of blacks in the official figures.

This kind of cultural difference is very important, even if practices do not necessarily conform to folk representations. The distinction suggests that varying representations of self and relevant others indicate, and reproduce, a relevant cultural difference as regards the most intimate of human relationships. Variations in the conceptualization of sexuality are in both societies indexically linked with ethnic labels. It is therefore widely assumed that inter-ethnic interaction in this area can lead to conflicts in the most personal of social fields. Despite generally cordial relations between people of different ethnic identity, intermarriage is rare in both societies.

The important point here is that what anthropologists regard as political ethnicity ("competition over scarce resources") cannot be fully understood unless an understanding of private ethnicity (immediate struggles) is first established. It is in the intimate contexts of family, close friendship and the like that the basic cultural contexts making up individual identity are reproduced. Only if one fully understands the reproduction of discrete, socially discriminating language-games at this level can one hope to understand why ethnicity can be fashioned into such a powerful political force within the unitary language-game of institutional politics. It is in such contexts that the language-games on which all communication of cultural difference feeds, are reproduced. Such contexts are also crucial in the transcendence of ethnic disctinctions; it is significant, thus, that popular national sentiment transcending ethnic boundaries in either society is perhaps never stronger than in contexts of international sports.

The formal systemic frameworks, in this case those of politics and labour, are thus fed with cultural distinctions on which they have a mitigating effect insofar as they represent shared desirable values, but which they neither autonomously create nor reproduce. Both Trinidad and Mauritius have recently (in 1986-7 and 1982-3 respectively) experienced concerted attempts to transcend the ethnic dimension in politics through the formation of broad nationalist coalitions. Following their rapid breakup (in Mauritius, the government lasted nine months, in Trinidad seven), the politicians and the electorate immediately fell back on an ethnic perception of politics, and its subsequent organization was related to such a perception - although not all the new alignments followed strictly ethnic lines. For instance, in Trinidad, the foreign minister BasdeoPanday was removed by the black-dominated government and replaced by another Hindu, SahadeoBasdeo, who was nevertheless considered a less "rootsy" Hindu than the former. Ethnicity in this case proved empirically more fundamental than other principles of classification (in this case, nationalism). Ethnicity is in many contexts the single most important criterion for collective social distinctions in daily life; ethnic distinctions are rooted in perceptions of differences between lifestyles, and the others are held to represent lifestyles and values which are regarded as undesirable. As mentioned, cultural differences are sometimes activated in non-ethnic situations, such as rural/urban, middle-class/ working-class and male/female contexts. However, in these societies, one is never simply "male" or "middle-class": one is Indian male or Coloured middle-class. The ethnic dimension nearly always enters into the definition of a situation; it is an underlying premises for all social classification. To the extent that agents routinely ascribe their own experiences of cultural incompatibility to ethnic differences, ethnicity also remains dominant as a principle for cultural differentiation. This, among other things, entails the maintenance of incommensurable language-games conceptually identified with ethnic differences


Problem questions:

What forms of perception of reality are formed in every culture? Can cross-cultural communication help to create the second linguistic personality? If yes, what can it lead to? Do concepts change within time? In different social spheres? In ethnic and age groups?

Date: 2014-12-22; view: 1969

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