My Cultural Identity Essay: A Guide to Writing about Who You are
A cultural identity essay is a paper that you write exploring and explaining how your place of upbringing, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and family dynamics among other factors created your identity as a person. Even facts such as what activities you took part in as a child can be part of your cultural identity. Your culture identity is ultimately the group of people that you feel that you identify with. The thought process behind this is known as cultural identity theory. To get a better idea of this, take a look at this single paragraph blurb of information that you might see in a culture identity essay. After reading, you can easily write my paper and feel comfortable getting grades as high as you can imagine.
I was born in rural Missouri, but my family moved to St. Louis before I was a year old. My mother is 100 percent Irish and comes from a family that identifies very strongly with Irish culture. My father is Middle Eastern, but was adopted by an English family who moved to the United States when he was 5. We lived in a pretty big house in a subdivision. My parents had two more kids after me, they were both boys as well. My father wasn't religious, but my mom was a practicing Catholic. She went to mass every week. My brothers and I both had first communion and were confirmed, but stopped going to church as teenagers. We weren't really encouraged to play sports because our parents thought we should focus on our studies. They really emphasized math and science. I did well in these classes, but I didn't enjoy them. In high school, I became active in music and theater. Most of my friends were also into that as well. I earned a scholarship to study engineering on the East Coast, but I dropped out as a sophomore. I returned home to study music, needless to say my parents were disappointed. My brothers both pursued careers in technical fields. One is a mechanical engineer and the other is a software engineer. I am close with my family, but we do not have much in common. My circle of friends is fairly varied when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, and economic background, but it consists almost entirely of people who are artists, musicians, writers, or people involved in those industries.
Keep in mind that your essay may look nothing like this. In our example, the writers choice of career, talents, and interests influenced his cultural identity more than his religious, ethnic background, or family values did. This may not be the case for you. Remember that when you are writing your paper there are no wrong answers. You just have to ask yourself insightful questions and keep the theory of cultural identity in mind as you write. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How did the foods I ate as a child influence my identity
- Did I look different from the kids I went to school with? How did that impact me?
- Did birth order influence who I am as an adult?
- Does my life today match the life I was raised in?
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It is understandably difficult to determine in general—and even in a concrete individual case—what influence specific ethnic factors . . . have on the formation of a group. . . . Any cultural trait, no matter how superficial, can serve as a starting point for the familiar tendency to monopolistic closure—Max Weber
In the late twentieth century, ethnicity and ethnic conflict captivate the world's attention like perhaps no other social phenomenon on earth. Even "peaceful" societies like the United States are not immune to it, although it only infrequently erupts into open conflict and violence and then only briefly. But despite its ubiquity—or perhaps because of it—ethnicity and ethnic conflict are not particularly well-understood, either by the public or by many scholars. This is due both to terminological confusion and to inadequate knowledge of the details and background of specific cases. Ethnicity and ethnic conflict are particularly fertile subjects for conflation of categories, mystification of facts, and general demagoguery, in no small part because the issues, as in the U.S., are so emotionally charged. This essay is dedicated to clarifying some of these confusions and to presenting some of the information crucial to understanding these momentous social forces.
Some of the most perplexing problems arise from the vagueness of the term and phenomenon called ethnicity, and from its indefinite and ever-expanding domain. One of the central arguments of this essay will be that ethnicity is not a single unified social phenomenon but a congeries, a "family," of related but analytically distinct phenomena. The foundations of ethnicity, the "markers" of ethnicity, the history of ethnicity, the aims and goals of ethnicity—these vary from case to case. For instance, in one circumstance religion may be the decisive distinction between two ethnic groups (say, in Northern Ireland), while in another language or history or race or any number of other qualities may serve the same function. Even within one case of ethnicity or conflict, the referents or the emphasis on referents of the groups concerned may shift over time. Further, not all culturally-distinct groups are ethnic groups precisely, and (in an odd paradox) not all ethnic groups are culturally-distinct groups; the relation of ethnicity to "culture" is less than perfect. Not all ethnic groups are ancient and organic social entities; some can make the claim, while others are noticeably recent. Finally, not all ethnic groups are in conflict, not all conflicts are equal in intensity, and not all conflicts seek the same ends.
This very elusiveness of ethnicity is largely responsible for its expandability, which is largely responsible for its utility in the modern world. When is a group an ethnic group? There are no hard-and-fast rules or standards by which to judge. The answer, as unsatisfying as it is, is that social collectivity, of any nature and antiquity, can don the mantle of ethnicity—one of the most elastic of social concepts—and stake a successful claim to identity and rights as a group. The point is this: it does not matter if any particular group is "really" an ethnic group, or what a "real" ethnic group is; instead, ethnicity has become so central to social discourse—and social competition—that its salience and effectiveness have become attractive to all sorts of collectivities.
Ethnicity and Ethnic Groups
Ethnicity is, at first glance, the process or phenomenon which underlies or gives rise to ethnic groups. George DeVos defines it as the "subjective symbolic or emblematic use of any aspect of culture [by a group], in order to differentiate themselves from other groups." For Elaine Burgess it is "the character, quality, or condition of ethnic group membership, based on an identity with and/or a consciousness of group belonging that is differentiated from others by symbolic 'markers' (including cultural, biological, or territorial), and is rooted in bonds to a shared past and perceived ethnic interests." These and other definitions repeatedly raise points about (1) symbolism, meaning, and identity (2) cohesion, solidarity, and belonging. Ethnicity is a social and psychological process whereby individuals come to identify and affiliate with a group and some aspect(s) of its culture; ethnicity is what emerges when a person, as affiliated, completes the statement: "I am a ____ because I share ____ with my group." Ethnicity is consciousness of difference and the subjective salience of that difference. It is also mobilization around difference—a camaraderie with or preference for socially-similar others. It is in this sense a "familial" kind of relationship, with emotional characteristics—a bond, a tie, a sentiment, an attachment. It is even regularly likened to kinship, as a kind of kinship writ large. David Horowitz writes that, based on the primacy of birth and shared origin, "ethnicity and kinship are alike. . . . The language of ethnicity is the language of kinship." He quotes Michael Fischer as saying that "ethnicity may be the maximal case of societally organized intimacy and kinship experience." Pierre van den Berghe goes even further in asserting that "ethnic and racial sentiments are extensions of kinship sentiments," developing this observation into a biological or ethological theory of ethnicity.
This much being said, there is much diversity within the phenomenon of ethnicity. One of the first things that ethnographers of ethnicity discover is that the strength and significance of ethnicity vary between individuals and groups, as well as over time for any particular individual or group. Some ostensibly ethnic groups (say, some indigenous people or urban minorities) with authentic shared origins and culture have little ethnic feeling, and other groups with much less in common have strong feelings. Not only that, but a group may have vibrant, even militant, ethnicity at one moment in time and much less so at a later moment, or vice versa. And of course, in any particular group some individuals have powerful ethnic sentiments while others do not, and some individuals with powerful sentiments engage in ethnic-based confrontation and violence, while others do not.
Ethnicity is, thus, subjective, even while it is based on, refers to, or invokes "objective" or shared cultural or historical markers. The first of several issues I might raise, following DeVos's definition above, is which part of culture is used by a particular group and why. No ethnic group treats all aspects of its culture or history as markers of its identity; it would be awkward if not impossible to do so, and besides, for any group, some elements of its culture will be the same as those of another group, thus defeating the purpose of distinguishing it from the other group. Any part, no matter how small, of a group's trait-list can make a perfectly adequate ethnic marker. What is more, for any one group, the parts of culture which it chooses and uses may vary over time, from religion at one stage to language at another to class or some other.
A second issue is that having distinct social/cultural characteristics is not sufficient to make "ethnicity"—and not having them is not sufficient necessarily to prevent it. A group which is distinct in some way may not be aware of or mobilized around that distinction and may not use it for any social or political purpose (again, all groups are distinct in some ways: senior citizens are distinct, but most people do not ordinarily think of them as "ethnic"). For example, the difference between "ethnicity" and "ancestry" has been highlighted by some students of ethnicity. Ancestry is a more or less objective fact (although not one that all of us readily know), and if asked to give one's ancestry most Americans can and will list one or more societies which enter into one's family history. However, if asked one's "ethnicity" or "ethnic identity" these facts often recede into the background: individuals tend to choose one (even if two or more lines of ancestry obtain) or to ignore them all and choose "American" or some other generic term.
By the same token, a group may overlook differences in the pursuit or definition of its ethnicity—in fact, ethnicity generally demands the overlooking of internal differentiations. "Hispanic" as an "ethnicity" embraces a remarkable amount of cultural, historical, and economic diversity. Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Rican-Americans, and all of the other "Hispanic"-Americans are distinguished by a tremendous variation of society and culture and of economic class in the U.S.; the only thing that unifies them is language (or linguistic descent) and the general part of the world from which they, or their ancestors, hail. The same can be said of "Asian-American," an even more diffuse term, since the groups so encompassed do not even share language. In fact, many Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans have not affiliated with those ethnic identities and still conceive of themselves in more particularistic, local terms; they have not (yet?) developed the self-concept and group-concept implicit in the label.
To a certain extent, "ethnicities" are labels, often labels created for administrative purposes. Labels can be made and unmade and remade. In Canada, the ethnicity of "French-Canadian" has lately been quietly replaced with "Québecois." Labels, however, also have consequences. The shift from French-Canadian to Québecois changes the membership of the group created by the label (e.g., are francophone Canadians living outside Quebec "Québecois"?). The shift from "black" to "African-American" in the U.S. does not change the membership much but does change the marker of ethnicity, from skin color to ancestral origin in the broadest sense. And, since any trait, large or small, can be a marker and the basis of a label and an ethnicity, it is possible to see today a move to create new labels and "ethnicities" such as "mixed race." If, in the end, individuals with a particular trait achieve consciousness and organization on the basis of that trait, then it is an ethnicity, even if it was not one yesterday.
Accordingly, if a group is not conscious of or organized in terms of its characteristics, then there is no ethnicity, no matter how distinct it may be. Many indigenous peoples, radically distinct from any other groups, did not and do not have "ethnic consciousness." As I will explain below, ethnicity and mobilization as an ethnic group require a certain consciousness of difference, a certain objectification of culture and cultural difference, and a certain "distance"—cognitive if not temporal—from culture, a certain reflexive relation with one's own culture. People who live their culture unproblematically tend not to be "ethnic" in the proper sense of the word.
In other words, ethnicity is not and cannot be an objective phenomenon. There is, first and foremost, no one-to-one correspondence between culture and ethnicity. Cultural differences alone do not ethnicity make; culture, or cultural difference, becomes ethnicity if and when a group takes it up and uses it in certain specific and modern ways. Naturally, too, ethnicity does not always or necessarily make for conflict; certain kinds of ethnicity in certain situations with certain catalyzing events make conflict out of ethnicity. Thus, small differences in culture may make for large and contentious differences in ethnicity, while large differences in culture may lead to small or no ethnic differences or conflicts. If scholars want to understand ethnicity, they will not succeed by merely listing the empirical cultural traits of groups (which in itself is not as simple as it sounds) or describing their empirical or "true" history.
In concluding this section, it is well to remember that not all instances of ethnicity will be the same. In terms of cultural markers, inter-group relations, and intra-group subjectivity, there is in actuality not one ethnicity but many. Milton Yinger offers a schematization of this variety, finding eight types of ethnicity depending on three variables which are only indirectly related to objective cultural characteristics: self-perception (or avowal) of ethnicity, other-perception (or ascription by other) of ethnicity, and participation in ethnicity. The eight resulting types become: (1) full—if self-perception, other-perception, and participation are all present; (2) unrecognized—if self is absent but other and participation are present; (3) private—if self and participation are present but other is absent; (4) hidden—if participation is present but self and other are absent; (5) symbolic—if self and other are present but participation is absent; (6) stereotyped—if other is present but self and participation are absent; (7) imagined—if self is present but other and participation are absent; and (8) nonethnic—if all three are absent. This complexity is, I believe, not only important but also salutary for ethnic studies.
It goes without saying that ethnicity is not the only way to affiliate, organize, or categorize human beings. Nor is ethnicity the only source of conflict in the world, even between "cultural" groups loosely construed. For example, the ongoing problems in Algeria would hardly, under normal circumstances, be considered "ethnic" in nature. Religious, political, economic, ideological, gender, and other kinds of groups can have the same quantity of cohesion, salience, and even animosity and conflict as "ethnic"groups, and it is very inadvisable to confuse the disparate types. What, then, is an ethnic group? It is one of the types of human social collectivity, named identity-groups, based on some shared quality of social behavior, thought, or feeling. One of the main problems for social scientists is the specification of its difference from or relation to other social collectivities such as "nation," "people," "society," "tribe," "minority," "race," or "class." Students of ethnic phenomena offer various definitions and characterizations; some even suggest differentiations or substitutions within the term itself. A discussion of terminology like the one which follows may seem sheer pedantry, but it serves two critical functions—to clean up conceptual sloppiness which interferes with description and comparison, and to articulate issues of "unit of analysis" which are increasingly important in anthropology and other social sciences.
In, if not the first, then the classic definition of ethnic group, Max Weber describes it as one of "those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists." R.A. Schermerhorn has defined ethnic group as "a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood. . . . A necessary component is some consciousness of kind among members of the group." Abner Cohen calls it "an informal interest group whose members are distinct from members of other groups in that they share a measure of . . . 'compulsory institutions' like kinship and religion, and can communicate among themselves relatively easily. [In] strife between such ethnic groups . . . people stress their identity and exclusiveness." Yinger defines ethnic group as "a segment of a larger society whose members are thought, by themselves or others, to have a common origin and to share important segments of a common culture and who, in addition, participate in shared activities in which the common origin and culture are significant ingredients." For Anthony Smith an ethnic group is "a type of cultural collectivity, one that emphasizes the role of myths of descent and historical memories, and that is recognized by one or more cultural differences like religion, customs, language, or institutions."
As different as these definitions are, there are clearly certain commonalities between them. Most basically, they return always to difference, however conceived or however employed—to a difference between groups which is apparent and important to the members of the groups. The crucial domain of difference is culture or more precisely some part of a shared culture; some theorists also allow that physical or "racial" traits may figure into ethnic groups, but this is not always the case, and even when it is those traits, in the modern phenomenon of ethnic group, are inscribed with "cultural" significance. However, this "culture" may be real, or it may be "putative" or "subjective" without compromising the power and salience of the group's identity; specifically, the "culture" (often taken as "tradition") exists as memory of the "true" or "original" condition of the group—whatever its actual condition in the present. Origin and descent are frequent idioms in positing this group identity, and, even more critically, an ideology of continuity with that past, that "traditional culture," or that blood or kinship line is regularly maintained. It is unimportant whether these views are true or demonstrable. Ultimately, the group is based more on its "consciousness" or "awareness" of difference and shared traits and past than on the objective quality of those traits.
Further, the various definitions emphasize the relational quality of ethnic groups; an ethnic group is a "culturally distinct" segment of a larger social whole. It is impossible, or better yet nonsensical, to think of an ethnic group in isolation from other groups or "at home" in a culturally homogeneous society or state (for example, Japanese are not an "ethnic group" in Japan). Arguably, then, groups which are not part of a larger social whole cannot be "ethnic" in the strict sense of the word; fortunately for us, there are few if any such groups in the world today (although in the past some indigenous societies probably qualified, but not all of them). Fredrik Barth helped shift the attention away from the "contents"—that is, the list of traits—of ethnic groups to their "boundaries" and relations. His and other studies have actually shown that the "contents" of a group may change, and the membership of the group may change through assimilation and such processes, while the boundary of the group—its name, its relative status, etc.—remains. They conceive of ethnic groups as moving, as movements, in the sense of "doing something about" their culture or social situation, having some goal; an ethnic group at rest, without an agenda, is almost a contradiction in terms. Ethnic groups thus differ in terms of the nature and direction of their movement; as an illustration, Ted Gurr and Barbara Harff note four types of "politically active ethnic groups" (which raises the question of whether there are politically inactive types) including ethnonationalists, indigenous peoples, communal contenders, and ethnoclasses. Each type differs in such characteristics as size, geographic distribution, relation to other ethnic groups and to government, relation to the economy and class system, and political aims. Thomas Eriksen too identifies four types: urban ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, proto-nations (or ethnonationalists), and ethnic groups in plural societies.
Clearly, then, ethnic groups are multifarious things, with a problematic relation not only to each other but also to the "culture" and "origin" or "descent" which they brandish. Conventionally, however, much of this subtlety is lost, and ethnic groups are conceived as conceptually uniform from one to another, continuous with their own culture and history ("ancient," "fixed," "primordial," and other such words), co-terminous with their culture ("bounded," "discrete," and so on), and fundamentally different from other types of groups. These are some of the fallacies that I aim to dispel. First, "it would be misleading to state simply that ethnic groups are identical with cultural groups," for all the reasons I raised already. This flies in the face not only of popular wisdom but also of the founding principle of anthropology—that discrete culture-bearing units, true to their original cultural state (i.e., "traditional"), with specific names and occupying specifiable territories, exist for our inspection and analysis. These units were deemed societies or even worse tribes and were the unit of analysis of choice in early anthropology. What anthropology began to discover and to admit, especially after Edmund Leach's seminal ethnography, is that the cultural world is not quite so neat: groups exist with vague and permeable boundaries, social "identity" is flexible and negotiable, and even the most "primitive" and "isolated" of "tribes" can be in contact with other societies, not least European/colonial society.
In fact, continuity and discreteness are ideologies of ethnic groups and not necessarily veritable qualities of such groups. To go even further, it might be argued that the ideology of cultural continuity and discreteness is the essential distinguishing characteristic of ethnic groups and their permutations as opposed to other human collectivities. A century of observation has taught us that, while some ethnic groups may indeed be ancient, others are brand new; and not only the groups but also the "cultures" or "traditions" or "heritages" to which they refer can be of recent vintage. It is not, as I have stated, important that the "memory" of the "past" be true, only that it be strong and convincing. Andrew Greeley goes so far as to say "that if there are no differences supposedly rooted in common origin by which people can distinguish themselves from others, they will create such differences." I will discuss below the role of "ethnic entrepreneurs," "cultural enthusiasts," and "elites" in just such a creative process.
Part of the mystification of ethnic groups and ethnicity is that they exist apart from any instrumental ends or interests. The group would still be a group independent of such crass considerations as economics and politics because the group is premised on more ancient, more noble, more authentic grounds than those. While this may be true for some ethnic groups, it is ideological for all of them, and even the old authentic groups would not be "ethnic" groups without the politicization and "economization" (to coin an awkward phrase) of their cultures. The question remains this: why should groups be "ethnic" groups instead of some other kind? And why should "ethnic" organization—the discourse of ethnicity—be so common and effective today? The answer, proposes Daniel Bell, is that the ethnic group as a species of collectivity "can combine symbolic and instrumental purposes," can merge "an interest with an affective tie." Immanuel Wallerstein goes even further to assert: "Behind the ethnic 'reality' lies a class conflict." This facility, to clothe practical interests and competitions in the garb of antiquity, authenticity, and kinship, makes ethnicity and ethnic groups uniquely attractive, uniquely "real," and uniquely irresistible to their opponents: the ethnic ideology is a "discourse of and for value dissensus and disengagement from an inclusive sociopolitical arena [which] says in effect that we do not agree on the ultimate values (or goals or ends) of the system, and we want to be left alone (perhaps with enough resources) to pursue 'our' own ends, whatever you may be doing."
As such, ethnicity is the radical appropriation and application of "otherness" to the practical domain, potentially denying any cultural common ground between groups—"to each group its culture and values"—and taking the practical competition or conflict out of the realm of the practical, where no other group can question or refute you. This is why Clifford Geertz found ethnic or "primordial" claims so extremely corrosive to political integration, since those claims base legitimation on an alternate system of values and truths which is unimpeachable by any other system. In this way, ethnic groups are products of a politicized version of cultural relativism.
Ethnic Group, Nation, and State
"Ethnic group," "nation," and "state" compose a constellation of related yet discrete phenomena which are all-too-often confused or conflated. Ethnic group and nation are often used synonymously, and nation and state are often used synonymously, which is not only empirically wrong but leads to the logical conclusion that ethnic group is synonymous with state, which is absurd. In fact, not all ethnic groups are nations but some are; not all ethnic groups or nations have or want states, but some do. Terminological sloppiness leads to muddled thinking and mental and political mistakes.
State is the simplest of these terms to grasp, since the political entities which are the principal legitimate actors on the world stage are states; when one looks at a map, what one sees are states, not ethnic groups, not nations, and not any other form of political or social collectivity. Although Americans use the word state to refer to the constituent parts of our polity (Texas, California, New York), in proper political terminology those are not states; rather, the U.S. is a state—a sovereign centralized political entity with a government empowered over a territory to make laws, collect taxes (including coining money), and maintain an army. State and statehood are an objective, if contested and contestable, reality (consider Taiwan in 1997 as an example of both qualities: Taiwan exists as a sovereign polity on world maps, yet the People's Republic of China at least contests its right to be recognized and to exist, i.e., its reality as an independent state). States, even when they are real, are not "natural" or "given" but are generally products of an historical and political (often a military or colonial) process, made and broken and remade as groups and/or individual leaders vie for control over territory; again, as "natural" as the current U.S. seems, a glance at maps from 1776, from 1848, and from today show the gradual construction of the state—a lesson it would be well not to forget. There are various kinds of states, of course, ordinarily distinguished by how they distribute political power through the population (e.g., monarchy, constitutional monarchy, republic, etc., and many permutations thereof—totalitarian, democratic, fascist, communist, and so on), but to an extent the lineaments of all these forms are basically the same, since the state is a fairly recent and generalized political form. Clearly most ethnic groups lack the powers and prerogatives of state as well as the level of organization and sovereignty.
Nation is a more diffuse term, if only because, unlike state, it is not a clearly demarcated, officially recognized, and objective unit. Anthony Smith defines nation as "a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members." This definition is similar to his definition of ethnic group, except for the references to mass culture, economy, and law; in a sense (but not a definitive sense) a nation is a fully mobilized or institutionalized ethnic group, but this is to say a lot in a few words. Further, by this definition, and by other considerations, nation is not only different from ethnic group but also from state, and it is not only a different phenomenon from the other two but a different level of reality. Let us use African-Americans as a case in point. As a group they are typically construed as a race. They clearly are not, or do not have, a state. Are they a nation? The difficulty of this question should be obvious. In the U.S. they do not occupy a distinct territory, and it is debatable whether they share a common economy and political culture (especially one discrete from "white" or general U.S. society); they do share, in the widest sense, an "historic" territory in the form of Africa but originate from a plethora of societies (and nations?) within that geographic field.
The best answer to our question is that they are a nation if they can acquire the characteristics—and even more, the consciousness—of nationhood. In a way, the move in name from "black" to "African-American" is a move toward nationhood, toward emphasizing historical/territorial qualities over physical/race ones. In other words, nationhood is an achieved status, at least to a degree. Certainly, the peoples of Africa, or even the peoples in most single African states, do not conceive of themselves as one nation but as many; they may, in any one state or across the whole continent, someday come to see themselves as a common nation (as was the dream of pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah) but not yet. Then, if African-Americans do not "come from" a single nation, can they be a single nation in the U.S.? This raises the point that nationhood is not only achieved but subjective; it is a "state of mind" (if you pardon the pun, which is a suggestive one), a will, and a consciousness. It is, as Benedict Anderson phrases it, an imagination—not in the sense of falseness but of psychological creativity. In other words, if the "group" embraces a common myth and memory (whether or not it is "true" in the perfectly objective sense) and begins to act on the basis of shared rights, norms, and interests, then it becomes, it is, a nation. Furthermore, as much as the "nationhood" of the nation may be imagined or constructed, the specific markers and elements of its nationhood—its history, its culture, or any part thereof, like symbols, rituals, and so forth—may be imagined, interpreted, or even "invented" as well. This is why it is possible to find within any nation or proto-nation competing factions and leaders with competing visions of what the nation is, or should be, and competing evidence and interpretations to back up the claims. The nation which evolves is the product of the will-to-nationhood which prevails—an (often personal) imagination which becomes the nation's imagination.
Being thus not only a construction but a subjective and psychological one at that, it is possible to distinguish between different types of nations. Walker Connor, for example, lists three types of nations and two types of related collectivities. Nations proper are "the largest human grouping characterized by a myth of common ancestry." Prenational or potential nations are groups which will or may become nations in the future but which currently lack a "national consciousness," their "meaningful identity [being] still limited to locale, clan, tribe, and the like." In fact, living and identifying at the level of locale, clan, or even tribe they might also be considered "pre-ethnic," although Connor himself does not say this. Offshoot nations are larger segments of a nation which have been "geographically separated from the parent group for a period of time sufficient for it to develop a strong sense of separate consciousness"; he illustrates with the examples of Afrikaners and Québecois. The remaining two groups he calls diasporas and immigrant societies, the latter being people whose primary affiliation is not to their ancestral nation but to their new society (the ideal in the American "melting pot" philosophy). Thus, nations as a class of social phenomena are as diverse as ethnic groups, and the particular status of a nation or nation-fragment will affect its behavior.
The relations between nation and state are numerous but can be distilled into two major categories: states which are co-terminous with nations, and states which are not. The co-terminous state-and-nation is the well-known "nation-state," the model and aspiration of Western nations/states for two centuries and maybe longer—and more recently of most non-Western nations/states. The hesitation here over Western nations and Western states results from the question of whether it was the will of the nation (i.e., the "people") or of the state (i.e., the ruler) to organize polity and identity on the nation-state principle. Plenty of historians point to the fact that rulers of already-existing states (say, Napoleonic France) forged the states' population into a nation through intensified institutionalization, language standardization, acculturation, and military conscription. While the nation-state has been the dominant social model for Europe and lately for the whole world, few states actually qualify, even on the relatively generous criterion that ninety percent of the population consist of a single nation. Perhaps Japan, Iceland, and Norway truly constitute nation-states, but even these instances come under doubt as indigenous populations are considered and immigration and internationalization take effect.
All other states would be multinational by definition. The obvious questions are (1) how many nations occupy the state?, (2) are the nations fully contained by the state, or do they spill across state boundaries?, and (3) what relations exist between the constituent nations? Perhaps the oldest and most important multinational state form is empire, which is dominated by the military and/or economic power of one of the nations (e.g., the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, or the British Empire); in such a state, most enclosed nations continue to reside in their homeland while the power of the imperial nation expands to engulf them. Imperial or colonial arguments and analogies have become an important part of the discourse of ethnicity and nationalism even in places which are not associated with classical imperialism, such as Quebec.
Empire, then, is one type of what Connor calls multihomeland, multinationalstates, which contain two or more (and maybe many more) nations more or less in their discrete and "native" home territories; these states may be heavily dominated by one nation (as in the former Soviet Union or present-day Russia) or be composed of relative equals (as in Belgium or the former Czechoslovakia). Such states would differ from unihomeland multinational states, in which one nation claims the entire territory as its homeland and disputes the rights of other nations to own or even occupy it, as the case may be; Connor offers Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Fiji (in which the "homeowning" nation is actually the minority), and Germany as examples. Nonhomeland multinational states, significantly, contain two or more nations, none of whom can claim to be in their national homeland, as is the case in many Caribbean states. A subtype of such states is immigrant states like the U.S. in which virtually all the population (excepting some Native Americans ) live away from their national or ancestral land while the state is not ethnically defined. Finally, mestizo states, unique to Latin America, are set apart for their populations "in which those of joint European-Amerindian ancestry are dominant."
It should be clear that not all states are nations and that not all nations are or have states. States encompassing two or three nations in their entirety will, then, differ considerably from states encompassing a dozen or fifty or a hundred nations. States in which one nation constitutes a majority will also differ from states where no nation predominates or all nations are fairly equal in size and power. And states which circumscribe nations in their entirety will differ from states which contain only a portion of a nation, whose people are spread across a multi-state area (for example, the Kurds); such nations might reasonably be called multi-state nations, and it will be immediately apparent that they face challenges unlike those of nations fully contained in a single state, even if the latter face explicit discrimination and persecution in their state.
What then is the connection between ethnic group and nation? It is as complex and variable as that between nation and state: some ethnic groups are nations, some are not. Conceivably, some nations are ethnic groups, some are not. For instance, if the U.S. is to be considered a nation in any way, it must be as a non-ethnic or multi-ethnic one. An even better example is the "Arab nation" or the "Islamic nation," two forms of nationhood or ideologies of nation which formulate trans-state identity but on a basis other than "ethnicity" and which, to be precise, reject ethnicity or "cultural/national" divisions within the broadly-conceived nation. Furthermore, I proposed earlier that a nation is a mobilized and institutionalized ethnic group, but this is not completely accurate or sufficient. First, as I just argued, not all nations are or start out as ethnic groups, although they may come to be draped in the ethnic rubric and discourse (for example, Islamic or Arab nationhood might and has at times come to be construed and defended as an "ethnic identity") or attacked on that same basis, as in the case of Bosnia. Second, the mobilization and institutionalization of an ethnic group and its culture is no insignificant feat and effects a qualitative change in the group and its culture, creating a new kind of culture and cultural politics and a new perspective on culture which some anthropologists have likened to a "culture cult." Ethnic groups which achieve (some would say "awaken to") nation status—and even more so, those which take the next step into nationalism—are substantially altered by the fact. Their aims and aspirations, their identity, and even their very culture are changed by the shift in dimension from ethnicity to nationhood—and not in the simple sense of "waking up" to a pre-existing identity and cause. In fact, most ethnic groups which have not attained nation-consciousness exist below the threshold of world attention; most of the "ethnic conflicts" which fill our televisions and newspapers, are therefore more than ethnic; they are "ethnonational" or even "national" in nature. At this stage in history, such conflicts, rather than conflicts between states, are the most common and seem the most likely to spread and intensify. The nation, in the modern sense of the word, is thus intermediate, in terms of identity and of political organization, between the micro-organization of the family, clan, tribe, etc., and the macro-organization of such collectivities as, for instance, the Islamic umma or Christendom.
Ethnicity and Nationalism
Having distinguished ethnic group and nation as two types of collectivity, sometimes empirically overlapping but not conceptually identical, it should be evident that I must distinguish the forces or processes which underlie or motivate them, namely ethnicity and nationalism. Specifically, nationalism, although often built upon a foundation of ethnicity and using or applying to an ethnic group, is a different species of social force. When ethnicity is implicated in nationalism, or when it evolves into nationalism, it is thereby essentially changed: an ethnic group may or may not be nationalistic, but when it is, it is significantly different from a non-nationalistic ethnic group both in terms of its relation to its own culture and of its political aims.
Nationalism, writes Peter Alter, is "both an ideology and a political movement which holds the nation and the sovereign nation-state to be crucial indwelling values, and which manages to mobilize the political will of a people or a large section of a population"; it "exists primarily whenever individuals feel they belong primarily to the nation, and whenever affective attachment and loyalty to that nation override all other attachments and loyalties." Kenneth Minogue calls it "the belief that each nation has both the right and the duty to constitute itself as a state" but goes on to explain that in this sense it "is not a belief but rather a force supposed to move people to both action and belief." Sammy Smooha maintains that nationalism "is the claim of ethnic groups to self-determination. When an ethnic group achieves sovereignty in a certain state, it will become a nation. . . ." Anthony Smith characterizes it as "a form of culture—an ideology, a language, mythology, symbolism, and consciousness" with four goals: (1) turning a passive ethnic category or group into an active ethnopolitical community, a "subject of history," (2) organizing the community's culture and creating a standard, official, and "high" culture if one is absent, (3) forming the community into a "culturally homogeneous 'organic' nation," and (4) obtaining a home territory or even a state for the nation.
It is readily apparent that nationalism comes in association with four other terms which I have previously discussed—nation, state, ethnic group, and culture. In conventional thought, nationalism represents and mobilizes a nation—that is, a nation which already exists and is ripe and ready for political action. However, if the "ism" in nationalism is taken seriously, it is a belief in a nation or in the idea of "nation"—that a "nation" is an important, arguably the most important, social collectivity and, even more fundamentally, that the "nation" is a real, perhaps natural, collectivity. The nation is thereby more genuine from this perspective than the state (which is secondary to and derivative of the nation, the political institution of the nation in the best of occasions, the nation-state), especially in the case of multi-national states. Yet, it is not necessary, or even perhaps ordinary, that the nation precedes nationalism; rather, the belief in a nation, the belief in "nations"—that nations exist, are good, and have rights—may hypothetically come before the actual existence of nationhood, the "knowledge" or "will" or "consciousness" of being a nation and sharing a national identity among "the people," who may still be experiencing their lives through identities, ideologies, and collectivities both smaller than and larger than the nation, such as the family, the clan, the region, the religious community, or the state or empire. Some nations have long histories of nationhood (that is, of being conscious that they are a nation and acting accordingly on the interests of the nation), but others do not; recall Connor's category of prenational groups and potential nations. Thus, while it is seductive to think of nationalism as emerging from and representing real, concrete, perhaps ancient nations, in many actual cases "the nation . . . must be seen as a creation of nationalism." In other words, the belief that nations are real, important, and necessary can lead a people, or more accurately leaders of a people, to interpret and construct their identity and their experience as a "national" one.
This phenomenon, the construction of nations out of other preceding kinds of social collectivities, could be called "nation-building." Nation-building has been a topic of interest to anthropologists for thirty years or more; by the early 1960s investigators had noted the incidence and significance of "the making and breaking of nations," as Karl Deutsch has put it. However, nation-building is an ambiguous term which is interesting for both of its possible meanings. Usually, in the kind of terminological confusion I chronicled above, what researchers discuss in studies of nation-building would more accurately be called state-building: Geertz's famous essay "The Integrative Revolution," for instance, analyzes the "reduction of primordial [ethnic] sentiments to civil order," and the cases he provides are of states, not nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, India, Lebanon, Morocco, and Nigeria. The "nation" which is being built in these cases is "the whole society encompassed by the new civil state." Such state-building—the creation of statewide civil and political institutions, often across great cultural divisions—is in itself a fascinating and serious subject of study but should not be confused with nation-building (although the two can be related). After all, building the Roman and British imperial states would not be quite the same as building the Roman or British nations.
That being said, one of the regular and fundamental aspects of state-building is precisely nation-building—not only creating the legal-political apparatus of state (police, military, political parties, tax system, etc.) but creating a sense of nationhood among all the people within the territory of the state. The task is, as Geertz indicates, to amalgamate different and independent groups (which may already conceive of themselves as nations on the smaller scale) into a single large unit whose horizon is not local but statewide—to erase "ethnic" or "national" differences and to establish a single unified state-nation. This new nation manifests the increasingly inclusive identity which scholars such as Bell and many others saw or foresaw. As numerous students of nations and nationalism have argued, this process of nation-building was a particularly strong element in modern (that is, since the eighteenth century and especially in the nineteenth century) Europe, whereby the "nations" and national states of Europe—the French, the English, the Italians, the Germans, etc.—were first constituted. In the reduction of sovereignty and loyalty away from the state in the person of the ruler and toward "the people" inhabiting the state's territory, "the people" had to be constituted as a self-conscious and homogeneous group and as a group with cultural and political rights. Differences in language, law, and custom had to be flattened out or assimilated or merely overlooked in shaping some model of national culture and identity. As Smith notes, it is just as important, ideologically, that a nation be internally undifferentiated as that it be sharply differentiated from other nations. By many accounts this is a recent accomplishment in Europe, if it is not still an unfinished project (as one feels when considering, for example, the political culture of Italy). In many new states, the project has only just begun.
Of course, this nation-building is today not what we usually think of as nationalism. Rather, contemporary nationalism connotes particularism, not homogenization; separation, not inclusion. In a sense, this result is the fulfillment of the prophecy, for nationalism as an ideology does not specify which groups are nations, what level of collectivity may deserve the distinction of nation (a state society like Spain? an "ethnic" nation like the Basques? a dispersed minority like the African-Americans? a pan-state category like Arabs or Muslims?), or which aspects of "national" commonality will provide the criteria for national recognition. Groups formerly submerged in states (and therefore undergoing the previous kind of "nationalization") or from whom scholarly attention may have wandered because of our interest in state-level nationalism have launched their claims to nationhood based on "the right to one's own culture" implicit in all nationalism. They can and do say, with more or less justification, that their culture was ignored or threatened by state nationalism and that only real nationalism—that is, the nationalism of "real" nations, which often means "ethnic" or "cultural" nationalism—can correct the situation. Hence, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were an age of separatist/ethnic/cultural nationalism, frequently leading to new "national" states in Europe, often out of the larger dynastic empires of the time—for instance, Greece (1821), Belgium (1830), Germany and Italy (1871), Romania and Serbia (1878), Norway (1905), Bulgaria (1908), Albania (1912), Finland (1917), and Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Yugoslavia (1918, as a result of World War I). Under the ideology of "self-determination," nationalist movements representing segments of larger populations, states, and empires could and did press for nation and state status.
Not all nationalism necessarily seeks or results in a national state, and not all nationalist movements represent real, concrete, already-existing nations. Some nationalism sets more modest goals, such as "national" recognition of a region or province and perhaps a certain amount of devolution of power to the regional or provincial level; arguably, early Tamil demands in Sri Lanka and recurrent Kurdish demands in their various host-states take this form. On the other hand, as recent events have reminded us, Yugoslavian nationalism—"Yugoslavism," the nationalism resulting in the formation of the state of that name—did not refer to a homogeneous, self-conscious nation but rather attempted to emphasize (and "awaken" in people of various "nations") the kinship and shared identity between a set of related "nations"; the same can be said of Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, or many other nationalisms. There is theoretically no lower limit to the size of a group which may call itself, and demand recognition as, a nation; there is also no cultural or political "litmus test" which can establish or deny a group's claims to nationhood, no objective standard or definition to apply. That nationalist movements do stake their claims in terms of culture is no great advance in clarity, but it does present an opportunity for anthropologists to bring their concepts and methods to bear on the phenomenon.
Nationalism may merely seek recognition, respect, and justice for a nation—its people and their culture; the raison d'être for a nation, writes Smith, is the enjoyment and cultivation of "its unique (or allegedly unique) culture values." The relation, though, between nationalism and culture is a problematic one and in fact relativizes once again the entire question of who precisely is the nation. Which aspects of culture are central to the nation: language, or religion, or homeland, or history, and so on? The elevation of one or another of these to the status of a national symbol and marker changes the contours of the group which might be claimed a nation. Serbs and Croats speak essentially one language but have distinct religions and histories; are they therefore one nation or two? If a group loses or changes part of its culture, is it thereby less of a nation or a different nation? If so, the Irish, the Ukrainians, and most Native American groups might cease to be nations. Connor finds, though, that national identity "may survive substantial alterations in language, religion, economic status, or any other tangible manifestation of its culture." In fact, the mere memory of having had a distinct culture in the past may be sufficient to create and maintain a sense of nationhood.
Beyond this issue, once again as at the state-/nation-building level, at a more local, "ethnic" level the nationalist movement may create or find the nation. Individuals may have, for any number of reasons, never thought of themselves as members of this or that nation, and nationalism may have to provide the cohesion to make of them a nation; Smith writes that to convert "the masses" into a nation "it is first necessary to 'vernacularize' them and thereby bestow a unique identity and destiny upon them"—give them something to rally around or show them that what they possess already should be rallied around. Thus, just as culture is problematic from the standpoint of nationalism, so is the group or nation. I said previously that the nation is an organized and mobilized ethnic group, but I must qualify this assertion with Smith's observation that nationalism can be related to ethnic groups in three different ways—as a revitalization or protection of a "well-formed, ancient but 'decayed' ethnie," as an effort of a segment of the community—especially the elite—to motivate a passive or unorganized group, or as a movement in search of a constituency, which "may actually 'invent' an ethnie where none existed."
But as Smith notes initially, nationalism is not just about culture but about high culture. Without sounding ethnocentric, I would suggest that a high culture is one which is literate, aesthetic, and politically astute. Many groups which would qualify as nations or proto-nations, which most certainly have a culture, lack a high culture, or more precisely a well- and widely-distributed high culture. Such high culture as exists may be limited to the academics, the intelligentsia, the political leadership—often urban, often Western-educated. The task of nationalism—of mobilizing or assembling the nation—involves in such instances at least the "vernacularization" of the restricted high culture, its digestion and presentation to a mass audience. At most, it may involve the creative elevation or invention of a high culture if none exists: in an interesting paradox based on the powerful claims of culture, nationalist leaders (or would-be leaders) may rummage through, for example, peasant cultures for symbols, behaviors, tales, myths, and the like which can be appropriated, packaged, and "sold" as a national culture and then re-vernacularized, often to the same people from whom it was lifted. However, in the process of collection, assembly, interpretation, and vernacularization, what is produced is not the same culture as the "peasant" or "rural" or "traditional" culture which was ostensibly "discovered."
McKim Marriott, in a chapter in Geertz's renowned volume Old Societies andNew States, studies how current ethnonationalism is related to pre-existing high cultures (what he calls "great traditions" or "civilizations") in many new states seeking a kind of national identity and culture. Where dominant great traditions exist, either indigenous to the area or borrowed long ago, nationalism will select from but simplify this culture for popular consumption; he cites India and Pakistan as examples. Where more than one high culture exists but none is dominant, a cultural struggle will accompany the vernacularization process, as in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Finally, where no internationally recognized and esteemed high culture exists or is deeply rooted (he uses new African states as an example), such a culture must be borrowed or invented, then struggled over and vernacularized. It is not only high culture but any culture that can be used as a tool and weapon in "ethnic" or "national" struggle.
Thomas Hyland Eriksen presents one example of this "invention" of culture in the case of Norway. He reports that in pre-nationalist Norway (as late as the mid-nineteenth century) a distinct and widespread "national" culture was missing. The main written language was Danish, not Norwegian. However, "ethnic" or nationalist leaders—principally the urban and middle class—desirous to demonstrate that there was a distinct and ancient Norwegian "nation," went "in search of" authentic Norwegianculture in the rural and peasant sectors of the country. They brought back "folk costumes, painted floral patterns (rosemaling), traditional music, and peasant food" which were elevated to the status of national symbols; high culture creators such as the composer Grieg and the author Bjornson incorporated these "folk" elements into their works; furthermore, Norwegian dialects were reformulated into a "new literary language" called New Norwegian. Never mind that the claim to "authentic Norwegian culture" was dubious on two counts—that these cultural traits were not the heritage of all or even most people in the "nation" and that many of the traits (for example, the floral patterns and many of the folk tales and costumes) were not indigenous or unique to the "nation" at all but were diffused from other parts of the world or invented outright by the nationalists themselves. The newly-elevated symbols were offered as "evidence" that "Norwegian culture was distinctive, that Norwegians were 'a people' and that they therefore ought to have their own state," but essentially what transpired is that a national culture was invented and with it a nation. Nevertheless, to a greater or lesser extent it worked: Norway became an independent state (ostensibly a nation-state) in 1905, and the new king (interestingly, from a Danish family) took a dynastic name—Haakon VII—to claim continuity with Norway's ancient political past.
This practice of legitimating new states and mobilizing (or consolidating or inventing) nations through invocations of some distant past which is at best of questionable relation to the present people and polity is commonplace in the world of post-colonial states in Africa and Asia. One has only to think of the Gold Coast becoming Ghana or Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe to see the process in action. The phenomenon is by no means, though, restricted to non-Western and post-colonial societies but can be and has been identified in Western societies as well (for example, Hitler's Germany has been mentioned as a case of manipulating symbols of "traditional" culture and history, from folk music to the dead emperor's remains; the same can also be currently or recently observed in the former Yugoslavia). Questions of authenticity, uniqueness, continuity, and even relevance of the old in relation to the new are secondary to the function of the claims and symbols in the "nation-building" process.
Ethnicity as Past, Present, and Future
The popular perception of ethnic groups and nations—a perception which has been raised to the status of theory by some researchers—is that they have long, continuous, often glorious histories of cultural distinctness (and often conflict) which confer to them the rights of "a people." This may be true in some cases, but it is by no means true in all. Even so, virtually all ethnic groups, and virtually all scholarly conceptions of ethnic groups, make some reference to the past. Smith gives six attributes of ethnic groups, two of which are past-related—"a myth of common ancestry" and "shared historical memories"—and Yinger, as I quoted above, sees a notion of "common origin" as characteristic of such groups. This opinion is nearly universal and quite generally valid. Yet, what does it really mean? What is the relation between an ethnic group—and especially ethnic conflict—and the past?
Like most terms in anthropology and other social sciences, "past" has a large and diverse semantic field, and its connections to the field of ethnicity and ethnic conflict are numerous. It is possible to identify four such connections, which are quite different though related: the past as "tradition" or the cultural past, the past as history (that is, a record of key events that formed or galvanized the group), the past as myth, and the past as "resource" for the present. Most if not all ethnic groups incorporate some alloy of all of these factors, sometimes in such a way that the distinctions between them are disguised or mystified in consequential ways.
1. Past as Tradition or "Cultural" Past
As cultural past or tradition, the ethnic group defines "what we really are" in terms of "what we were." This is an interesting yet ubiquitous and powerful phenomenon, a little foreign to Americans with our limited historical memory and our orientation toward the future but not altogether unknown in our own society. But for many people in many parts of the world the past is a strong presence. Thus, the language the group has "always" spoken, the religion it has always followed or that it converted to at some ancient time, the customs, the clothes, the stories and music, the values and morals—these things are effective identifiers and legitimizers of the group. An ethnic group without a memory of its cultural past and without some continuity with that past into present behavior or identity or ideology is, by definition, virtually unthinkable. I might mention at this point the role which anthropology has played in this process, both as a practice of collecting and preserving what might have been lost in the past without it and as a perspective and discourse which validates and to an extent reifies "the past" or "tradition" as something important, real, and available; anthropology cannot take all of the credit, even among the various fields of scholarship (history, linguistics, and philology among others have played major parts, too), and certainly both scholars and lay-members were aware of and concerned with their past and traditions before anthropology came along; still, anthropology has been a powerful engine for research into and conceptions of tradition which, it would be wise to remember, have had ramifications well beyond the academy.
This does not mean, however, that the past ("traditional culture") was what culture is today, nor that it was as they remember it in retrospect. Memory is porous and productive, and the past is elusive, especially but not exclusively when the past was a preliterate period. The porosity of memory allows elements to slip out and to slipin, rendering the firmest memories contestable. Ethnography is replete with accounts of the traditional conditions of various cultures which are questionable at best, absurd at worst: Deborah Bird Rose, for example, reports stories from Australian Aboriginals which place Captain Cook in the Central Desert—a highly unlikely event. Tradition and culture are not synonymous, as any number of anthropologists have argued; as hungry as anthropology has been "traditionally" (for we have our own traditions as well) for the "past" or "real" culture of a society, it has not been totally credulous and naive about that thing. "Tradition is the past of a culture, as that past is thought to have continuity, a presence, and a future."
Even by Bronislaw Malinowski's time, over fifty or more years ago (and probably earlier in some places), what was available to anthropologists was not "tradition lived"—that is, society living in unchanged manner from its distant past— but "tradition remembered." He himself saw and appreciated the significance of this phenomenon when he asserted that even the "authorities" of societies, like the old men, give us information about tradition which is "always affected by sentiment, by retrospective regrets, and longings." Even so, he does not dismiss this information; he merely asks us to be circumspect about it. From the point of view of the student who not only aims to piece together the past but to establish its relation to and salience for the present, "retrospective vision, however erroneous, is more important than the myth unknown or forgotten by old informants."
When a group begins to think of its culture as "tradition" rather than as an almost unconscious "way of life," a conceptual shift occurs within that group: the culture is frozen in time, an ideology of authenticity is produced, and a "new self-awareness, through a kind of 'spontaneous' hermeneutics" is established. "Culture" becomes an object, maybe a tool, maybe even a commodity. In the most extreme cases, the "tradition" may even be a fabrication, an invention, either from bits and pieces of the past, from disparate local cultures and traditions, or from a stipulation of contemporary culture or social situation as representative of the past.
2. Past as History
At least as important as the cultural/traditional past is the historical past, the record or memory of actual (or supposedly actual) events which happened to the group; often where the former is lacking, the latter will suffice to give a group identity and solidarity. The historical "ethnic" past could be thought of in at least three phases—ancient (formative) past, colonial past, and recent political past. Most of the ethnic groups and nations drawing our attention today and involved in the most public conflicts can claim a history of centuries or millennia; the Jews, the Irish, the Sinhalese are but a few examples. In that ancient time a kind of ethnogenesis occurred, due to the invention or adoption of a religion, the development of a civilization or state, a great national struggle, or some such course of events. This ancient history, interestingly, may be a past of glory and honor or of humiliation and dishonor, or a combination of both, since either can function as a means to define and motivate a group. Particularly common is the reference to a great historical military defeat (Catholic Ireland's Battle of the Boyne, Serbia's Battle of Kosovo) and the desire for revenge and group redemption which the memory evokes even today, centuries later. The defeat of Israel and destruction of the Temple were a cause of significant spontaneous hermeneutics and historical exegesis, and for them as for many groups the memory of a lost homeland—lost literally or symbolically—may be the central organizational experience for contemporary ethnicity.
Groups will, in fact, go to great lengths to "discover" and systematize a past in which they were either prior to, superior to, or dominant over rival groups, or in which they were damaged or shamed by those groups; both are equally calls to action. Groups in the process of "nation-building" will often emphasize the compilation of a national history as a national priority; Sri Lanka's rival groups have done so. Russian nationalists, "awakened" by Peter the Great's contact with and adoption of Western European cultures, "discovered" an ancient past for the nation in the document known as the Book of Vlas, allegedly a chronicle of the earliest rulers of Russia some three thousand years ago. The book claims glorious (interestingly, Aryan) ancestry for the Russian people—the frequency of claims to "Aryan" ancestry and identity in the realm of ethnicity and nationalism being truly astonishing—and priority among the peoples and cultures of Europe. Perhaps most importantly it establishes a European and not an Asiatic heritage for Russia, which was an important issue of the day. The orders to compile and copy the records and documents came from Peter himself, suggesting their significance to the nation-building endeavor. It is worth noting in passing that, as in the case of Norway above, Russian nationalists also looked to the village and peasant culture for the " artifacts, values, and symbols of the nation.
Consequentially, anthropological studies can be implicated in this nationalistic historical struggle in a number of ways. Ethnography can be appropriated as an authentic (or problematic) record of culture, and for many groups—like many Native American groups—it is the only written record of a now-defunct culture (as a result of the well-known "salvage anthropology"). Linguistic anthropology can serve as a means to establish antiquity for a language group or to link it to some glorious language or language family (again, often the "Aryan" or "Indo-European" family). Physical anthropology has been appealed to on more than a few occasions to establish "racial" links and superiorities, and the anthropology of the past per se—archaeology—is particularly valuable to ethnic/national interests. Even in the early 1960s it could be observed that governments were increasingly investing in archaeological research to confirm or invent historical bases for their nationhood or statehood, like the excavation of Great Zimbabwe which led to the reactivation of the name by a modern African state. In Sri Lanka, history in general and archaeology in particular have been contentious fields for politics and culture, so much so that the government would only sponsor research on Buddhist (Sinhalese) sites and ethnic extremists have been known to attack and damage sites which support the claims of their rivals.
After the ancient past, the most critical historical age for many groups is the period of European colonialism. This is a familiar point. A variety of fundamental social and cultural changes to non-Western "traditional" societies followed from colonialism, not the least of which was prolonged contact with a radically foreign culture. The very fact of conquest, occupation, and an end to (relative) cultural isolation, let alone the contents of the intruding culture, could initiate a sort of cultural reflection, a "spontaneous hermeneutics," on culture, identity, and difference. However, certain specific activities and policies of colonial powers had distinct and profound consequences for subsequent ethnicity, nationalism, and conflict. For one, colonial political boundaries were drawn, as is well known, with little or no regard for sociocultural boundaries; of course, in this pre-anthropological time little was known, and little was cared, about local sociocultural boundaries, and it has been argued that those boundaries were in actuality so vague and porous (if they were "physical" or territorial at all)—groups being much more mixed and permeable than we often allow and often not territorially structured—that any political borders would have done some injustice.
However, this is precisely the point: the importation of the notion of bounded territorial units ("states") and of bounded and usually territorial social units ("societies") had a dramatic effect on many parts of the world. In some cases, groups which had previously had little contact with each other or which had a history of hostility were thrust into the same colony, while other groups with more or less ethnic or national consciousness were divided across two or more colonies. Thus, "plural" societies were created in a way which may not have existed before. Certainly, "plural" societies, after a fashion, existed in pre-colonial times; Colin Turnbull's study of the Mbuti "pygmies" and the "Negroes" describes another such "society," within which the two groups are so intertwined that it is difficult to place specific boundaries, territorially or culturally, on them. However, in many places, even groups in geographic proximity (for instance, hill people and valley people) may have lived rather autonomously. Only the arrival of colonialism, and with it the effort toward uniform law and administration, brought them into real and sustained social proximity.
Again often for administrative purposes, but also out of genuine conviction, groups were taken to be real, exclusive, and well-bounded—that is, to be self-contained "societies." Further, they were often taken to be ahistorical, culturally static or stableis, "primitive" or "traditional" societies. At the very least, groups which were not utterly socially discrete were treated as so, administratively and anthropologically. In Edmund Leach's famous study of highlands Burma, not only were political/administrative boundaries introduced which enveloped a variety of groups, but the perception or expectation that the groups within the colony were discrete, bounded "societies"—compact, isolated, and distinguishable by such traits as language—led the administrators to demarcate internal boundaries and assign "societal" names and identities on that basis. In other cases, groups which were not societies or cultures at all, but some other type of collectivity like a class or a caste or a dominant or royal lineage, were construed as separate "societies" or "tribes" or "nations" or "ethnic groups." One example is Rwanda and Burundi, where the two main groups, Hutu and Tutsi, have been variously characterized as "tribes," "classes," and "castes," and in which by a kind of ethnogenesis the royal line, the ganwa, was converted into something approximating a separate "ethnic" group. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, "caste" distinctions cause heterogeneity within "ethnic" groups yet demonstrate how, even in traditional (pre-colonial) society, a process of incorporation could transform "ethnic" groups into "castes" and vice versa.
In many instances, racial categories were superimposed upon existing social differences, reifying those differences while often suggesting a closer racial relationship of one group than the other to the white colonizers. The very idea of "race" was (and to an extent is) a European or Western preoccupation, not endemic to all societies or civilizations—not only as a method to classify peoples but also to explain behavioral differences in terms of physical differences. Like the notion of "society," "race" too was supposedly a real, discrete, bounded phenomenon with a discernible set of traits, this time physical rather than cultural; yet, the two concepts worked hand in hand, since a set of cultural traits could ideally be attributed to the group identified by its set of physical traits. Race was often linked to or established on the basis of "cultural" characteristics, most particularly language or territory: the thinking was "every language group a race, and every race a language group" and "every territorial group a race, and every race a territorial group." Race was often even something of a synonym for society or nation, as in the "British race" or the "French race." Accordingly, in Rwanda and Burundi the Hutu and Tutsi were construed by administrators as two races, with distinct physical attributes; in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese, with much less physical justification, have employed the race concept. Not only that, but by definition (at least by Western definition) races—unlike societies—are hierarchically related. Race labels communicate the message not only that "we are different from you" but that "we are better than you." In fact, they can encode the even stronger message that "we are more like some third group than you are." Thus, when the Sinhalese claim to be Aryans, they are claiming superiority over the Tamils and racial affiliation with white/Western societies. In Rwanda and Burundi again, the ascription of Tutsi as a "race," as a "noble race," as a "Hamitic (Biblical) race," draws the association between them and their former European colonizers.
Having established discrete administrative units, ostensibly on the basis of pre-existent social or racial distinctions, colonialists also sought rulers or representatives from the local groups, with various cultural consequences. Some groups, such as Australian Aboriginals or some Plains societies of Native Americans, had no "leaders" or political integration of the sort adequate to Western administration. Groups which did have leaders often suffered the co-optation of those leaders by the colonial government, shifting the balance of power in the group in ways which may have been inconceivable before; Catharine Newbury, for instance, describes the intensification of control and exploitation by Rwandan (basically Tutsi) office-holders (chiefs and patrons) after colonialism began. And where no leadership, or no desirable leadership, existed colonialists were just as likely to create one—to invent offices and/or install favored individuals in offices. The social and political implications are obvious: new organizational forms and powers were created which later became the subject of ethnic/nationalistic pride, nostalgia, or bitterness (and sometimes the subject of anthropological investigation under the false impression that they were features of "traditional society"), and even more importantly intra-group rivalries and competitions were initiated or exacerbated which resonate to this day.
Often, this imposition of foreign power had one or both of two other effects. One effect was the elevation of a particular group in the area or colony over others in terms of favor or success vis-à-vis the colonialists; for example, Sikhs in the Punjab were favored over other Indian groups by the British, Tutsis were preferred as leaders and office-holders by the Belgians in Rwanda and Burundi, and Tamils took better advantage of Western education and achieved disproportionate success in Sri Lanka. The results were again animosity and rivalry between these advantaged minorities and the other groups in the society. The other effect was the actual creation of a new advantaged class, an elite class availing itself of the opportunities which education, economy, and politics (for example, the civil service) presented; interestingly, this elite class, which figures prominently in almost every instance of ethnicity, nationalism, and ethnic conflict—as the sort of "vanguard" movement of the group—often starts out as inter-ethnic or "non-ethnic," in the sense that it includes members of many or all "ethnic" groups and eschews an "ethnic" ideology in favor of a modernizing, often West-leaning, liberal, and "nation-building" philosophy. It is often this group which takes the reins of power upon independence from colonialism as the best prepared to manage a modern Western-style democracy.
Yet, paradoxically, efforts toward some degree of democracy—either in the late stages of colonialism or with independence—have often if not usually had the effect of intensifying group competition and identification; under the practice of "communal representation," which was viewed in some colonies at some times as the best way to represent all the people and to balance the interests of the constituent groups, group differences were reified, institutionalized, and politicized in unprecedented ways to assure groups a share of power as groups. Post-independence democracy continued the group rivalry but removed the foreign obstacles to competition and conflict; the potential for friction, even conflict and war, is immanent when numbers and population count toward power. Groups—ethnic, nationalist, class, caste, race, or what have you—are voting blocs or potential voting blocs, and mobilizing voters on the basis of ethnicity or identity, while "natural" in a certain sense, is also a powerful enticement to candidates and would-be leaders. Groups have even been inclined to dispute or falsify population figures or to block a census count (as in Lebanon) which might prejudice their numerical representation in the polity and therefore threaten to rearrange communal power relations.
One last area to discuss in regard to colonialism and ethnicity is cultural and economic "development." For instance, the introduction of European education had the effect of training a new set of indigenous elites, as I mentioned above, often with an explosive mix of Western political ideology (democracy, self-determination, even communism, plus notions of race and society) and practical organizational/administrative skill as well as "traditional" cultural or ethnic identity. It is good to remember that this elite group's acquaintance with or allegiance to "traditional society" cannot be presumed, since they may have been more or less completely removed from it in their socialization. Even so, modernized elite leaders may recognize their common cause with, or turn to, "traditional" authorities, constituencies, or values in their political quest, as did Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. Beyond the political domain, economic factors—arguably the raison d'être of colonialism—cannot be ignored in the genesis and development of ethnicity and conflict. For example, colonial labor regularly brought members of differing groups into sustained contact. Colonial economies had an ambiguous effect on "traditional" elites and social orders, sometimes strengthening them, sometimes undermining or displacing them. It also created new niches in the economy, like the "middleman" role, in which one group often predominated over others in the provision of some service (throughout history, Jewish and Chinese minorities have been especially common and successful "middleman minorities," often to the resentment of their local majorities) and new cleavages, like class stratification and rural/urban distinctions. The "proletarianization" of a large portion of the population is a critical effect, which brought to life an organized and interest-sharing group which was not necessarily bound to find succor in ethnic identities over "class" identities but often did so nevertheless (much to the consternation of Marxist analysts). And migration of labor (internal and intercolonial, voluntary or forced) shifted ethnic relations and even in many cases created ethnic relations, as in Malaysia, where Indian and Chinese groups arrived in numbers, and parts of East Africa like Uganda and Kenya, where certain groups had never been present before. In Sri Lanka, the importation of Indian Tamils to the central highland plantations had both effects: it not only upset the balance between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese but it created, because of the migrants' isolation from other Tamils on the island, a new third constituency imperfectly integrated with its cultural cousins.
Of course, European colonialism, or any colonialism, is not the only "foreign" contributor to ethnic group formation and ethnic conflict; Western states get more than their share of blame for all the world's troubles today. In recent world history, Russian imperialism and Ottoman imperialism also played key roles in ethnogenesis and the instigation of ethnic conflict. Besides these important centers of cultural aggregation and contestation, other groups and conflicts have materialized or may yet materialize from other (say, Chinese) or more local (say, Thai or Burman) cultural domination. And, further back in time, I could argue that Roman, Persian, Abassid, and other imperialisms gave rise to group consciousness or even "nationalist" movement—perhaps not identical to those of today but similar in ways—with consequences in their time and occasionally in our time as well; consider the group consciousness and historical "hermeneutics" of the Jews as a result of foreign (Babylonian, Persian, Roman) conquest and hegemony over two thousand years ago. It would not be too much of a stretch to regard the Zealots and Maccabees as "nationalists."
A final area of the historical past of central significance to contemporary ethnicity and conflict is the recent political past, especially since World War I. In some ways this period is an extension and completion of the colonial period, and in some ways it is a profound break. The early twentieth century saw the collapse or dismemberment of several European empires, notably the Austrian and Ottoman, and the establishment of new states on the Wilsonian principle of "self-determination." This ideology was already current in the late nineteenth century and can be seen in action in "nationalist" struggles in the Balkans, in eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The idea was ostensibly something like national self-determination—that is, that groups which could prove their credentials as nations were entitled to states—but the states which were devised were in many cases not nation-states and often no less artificial than the states, imperial or otherwise, which they replaced (for example, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia or the various states of the Middle East, including postwar Turkey). Notwithstanding the (not unreasonable) claims that, for example, "Yugoslavs" really were one people or nation or the efforts to create or instill a single national consciousness and to minimize or suppress particularistic identities, the failure of this new state and others like it in Europe and elsewhere bespeaks the fault in the original plan.
Further, where empire ended national self-determination did not always follow, especially outside Europe; the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the postwar fate of the Middle East is one glaring example. Like so many ideals, self-determination was applied selectively, especially against the enemies of its proponents, again the Austrians and the Ottoman Turks. There was never any serious suggestion, at least by the victorious European powers, that their own empires be dismantled in the name of national self-determination; there was arguably some rumbling to this effect from the new communist state, the U.S.S.R., and even some movement in that direction in the sense of letting subject-nations secede from the union, but that practice was ended and reversed within a decade or two under Stalin. National self-determination was apparently not intended to apply, for instance, to Ireland as far as the British were concerned, let alone such regions as India and Africa. In fact, in many places new imperial territories were taken after the war (as in Rwanda and Burundi) or new client-states were set up (as in Iraq and Syria). These states especially had more to do with the interests and global politics of Europeans than with the aspirations and identities of the local people. Kurdish claims to nationhood and to a state on that basis, for instance, while at first entertained, were ultimately dismissed on the basis of other factors, including the viability of the state of Iraq and the growing power and nationalism of Turkey.
Nevertheless, an ideal unleashed cannot be fully restrained, and the creed of self-determination could become a battle-cry, first to gain independence from empires (for example, India and many African states) and second to secede or attempt to secede from the resultant states (for example, Bangladesh, Biafra, Punjab, the West Bank, Croatia and Slovenia, Kurdistan, Chechnya, ad infinitum). And once these "new states" gained their independence, their social and political policies often paved the way for further segmental or communal conflict—or even gave birth to previously-undifferentiated segments of "ethnic groups." Questions of governance, of political representation, of cultural institutionalization, of economic development, of educational and occupational opportunity—questions which were either unaskable under colonialism or were summarily answered by colonialists—all of these aggravated group sensitivities and often mobilized groups to political consciousness and action. Even well-meaning attempts to redress group disadvantages through communal representation, confederation, or targeted development often only served to institutionalize group differences and create more grievances. Lebanon is an outstanding case of failed communalism, and a recent article in the popular press described how India's caste-oriented "affirmative action" programs are having negative social repercussions; there is undoubtedly some relevance in this experience for the American debate over group-based political programs. And it goes without saying that not all attempts to "level out" cultural differences were well-meaning (e.g., Russification efforts in the Soviet Union, institutionalization of Sinhalese language and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, etc.).