The market for ethnicity

John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff have written a complex story of contemporary ethnicity and culture in Ethnicity, Inc.. The Comaroffs are, of course, distinguished cultural anthropologists at the University of Chicago who have done extensive research and writing on Africa. (For example, John Comaroff and Simon Roberts, Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context; Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa: 001.) So their observations on culture and ethnicity in a globalizing world are bound to be interesting.

Here is a nice statement of the way they conceptualize “ethnicity” (referring to Ethnography And The Historical Imagination):

For our own part (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:49- 67), we have long argued that ethnicity is neither a monolithic “thing” nor, in and of itself, an analytic construct: that “it” is best understood as a loose, labile repertoire of signs by means of which relations are constructed and communicated; through which a collective consciousness of cultural likeness is rendered sensible; with reference to which shared sentiment is made substantial. (kl 542)

So ethnicity is semiotic and labile — or in other words, it consists in socially shared expressions of meaning, and it is especially prone to change and adaptation. 

Their central focus in this short book is on ethnicity marketized — hence “Ethnicity, Inc.”  Here is the heart of their insight in the book:

While it is increasingly the stuff of existential passion, of the self-conscious fashioning of meaningful, morally anchored selfhood, ethnicity is also becoming more corporate, more commodified, more implicated than ever before in the economics of everyday life. To this doubling–to the inscription of things ethnic, simultaneously, in affect and interest, emotion and utility–is added yet another. (kl 18)

They document in detail the central idea expressed by the title; the idea that ethnic groups worldwide are looking to commercialize and commodify their indigenous cultures. Even Scotland is looking to brand and market itself — along with the Shipibo of Peru, MEGA of Kenya, and Contralesa in South Africa. And, of course, this process throws a big handful of sand into the gears of the idea of “cultural authenticity” itself (post). The commodification of ethnic identity to which they refer is illustrated with many examples; for instance, with snippets from marketing materials developed for some of the world’s ethnic groups.

Experience the Shipibo Way of Life for yourself in the heart of the Amazon Basin with our Peru Eco-Tourism adventure! Learn how to make Shipibo ceramic artwork, go spear fishing in the Amazon river and much, much more. (the Shipibo Home page from Amazonian Peru (disappeared))

The “identity” sector of the North Catalonian’ economy represents a new openmindedness [that] will see an expansion based on the culture of the region … as an alternative to globalisation. (the North Catolonian web page (disappeared))

MEGA [Meru, Embu, Gikuyu, Gikuyu Association, Kenya] Initiative Welfare Society is a community organisation formed to foster social/ cultural and economic development of Ameru, Aembu and Agikuyu people of Kenya. It … is driven by the desire to demonstrate how a community or a region can bring about prosperity by exploiting the cultural richness and entrepreneurial skills and resources of its people … (MEGA Welfare Society Home Page (disappeared)) (kl 14-46)

And from South Africa they describe Contralesa:

The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) is the representative voice of ethnicity in the country. It speaks for culture, customary law, and the collective rights of indigenous peoples. Also for the authority of their chiefs and kings, past and present…. Having established a business trust a year earlier in order to join a mining consortium, they were about to create a for-profit corporation to pursue investment opportunities in minerals, forestry, and tourism; formal application had been made to register the company. (kl 77)

The second thread of argument they engage is the current political and philosophical literature on ethnicity and globalization. Discussing Foucault, Adorno, Montesquieu, and numerous others, they do some careful thinking about where “ethnic identity” stands now in philosophy and theory. They discuss, for example, the juridicalism that has swept through the field in human rights and first peoples (kl 789). (They refer generically to the effort to establish legal rights of property along ethnic lines as “lawfare”; kl 797.)

The commodification of ethnicity plays directly into the argument that identities are socially constructed and performative.  The recreation of “traditional crafts, ceremonies, and dancing” in tourist villages is plainly a Disneyland kind of activity — even when the performers have some hereditary relation to the earlier practices to which these reenactments point.  The ersatz culture that is performed has little or no resonance with ordinary life in those current groups. 

But it also appears that C&C also believe that people have identities as embodied subjectivities — however labile and socially influenced they may be.  And this implies that it is possible and worthwhile to investigate those subjectivities in their own terms.

There is a final pole to their analysis of ethnicity within the marketplace: the fact that ethnically defined groups are concerned about their property rights in a variety of things: traditional medications, historical land holdings, mineral resources, and even their languages.  This reflects a point about power and politics: a group is more able to sustain itself as a coherent group when it is able to successfully establish rights in important resources.  And these collective rights of ownership may play back into the mechanisms that support the persistence of a subjective group identity.

So it is that we return to where we began, with the articulation–the manifest expression, the joining together–of culture to property, past to future, being to business, entrepreneurialism to ethno-preneurialism. The permanent, unresolved, often aspirational dialectic that connects the incorporation of identity to the commodification of difference looks to be extending in all directions. (kl 2004)

What is unclear to me after reading the book is whether the two parts — socially constructed performances for a paying public and persistent subjectivity — are as closely connected as the Comaroffs seem to think. Here, in a nutshell, is how they think the two dynamics are connected:

What conclusions may be drawn from all this? Could it be that we are seeing unfold before us a metamorphosis in the production of identity and subjectivity, in the politics and economics of culture and, concomitantly, in the ontology of ethnic consciousness? (kl 279)

But are the two processes of identity-shift really so closely connected?  Does the fact that economic development policy makers want to brand Scotland really tell us much about whether there is a “Scot identity”? What kind of theorizing and research do we need to do in order to take the measure do what it’s like to be a Scot today? What might be included in such a status over a dispersed population of people with some historical ties to Braveheart? Is it a set of collective memories and monuments, a set of emotions of attachment to a standard narrative of Scottish history, or a set of behaviors, habits, and locutions?

In some way it seems as though the commodification of ethnicity is a sideshow, though an interesting one, while the real action is taking place elsewhere. (I don’t doubt that they are right in judging that the performances the Shipibo people put on for ethno-tourists have a feedback effect on the ways they think about themselves, and therefore contributes to a degree of shift in the particulars of their ethnic identities.) But there is substantive ethnographic work to be done on the conceptualization and description of these forms of subjectivity themselves, and the ways in which they are influenced and transmitted over time.  Marketization is part of that process — but it is only one part. And it seems as though the marketing of ethnicity to tourists is a fairly special case.

Think of all the ethnic identities that are continuing to evolve and shift without any involvement of the kinds of commercialization of ethnicity that C&C focus on: the South Asian diaspora in the Midwest, the Burmese community in Minneapolis, the Jewish community in New Mexico or Shanghai. In each case there are complex dynamics of memory, cell phones, traditions adapted to new circumstances, remittances, family conversations, and dozens of other mechanisms through which dispersed communities are maintaining and morphing their ethnicities. There is certainly more to the dynamics of ethnicity in the contemporary world than the commodification that the Comaroffs single out.

(Earlier discussions of diasporic communities and methodological nationalism here and here focus on some of those dynamics.)


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