Of Totemism and Ethnicity

  • Comaroff J
  • Comaroff J
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IN John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, eds. Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Pp. 49-67. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.\par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 \par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 5 propositions about ethnicity. \par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 (1) \'93Contrary to the tendency, in the Western tradition, to view it [ethnicity] as a function of primordial ties, ethnicity always has its genesis in specific historical forces, forces which are simultaneously structural and cultural\'94 (50). Cannot be treated as a truly independent explanatory factor. Communal definition is founded on us\'96them differentiation; these delineations are inscribed in culture and change over time; the tendency to mark relations or categorize in this way is \'93primordial,\'94 not the identities themselves. (Analogies this to totemism \'96 significance of objs not intrinsic to them. He says, \'93Ethnic consciousness also entails the formulation of collective identities and their symbolic embodiment in markers of contrast between social groupings\'94: 51.)\par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 (2) \'93[E]thnicity, far from being a unitary 'thing,' describes both a set of relations and a mode of consciousness; moreover, its meaning and practical salience varies for different social groupings according to their positions in the social order. But, as a form of consciousness, it is one among many [\'85] each of which is produced as particular historical structures impinge themselves on human experience and condition social action\'94 (54). \par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 (3) \'93[E]thnicity has its origins in the asymmetric incorporation of structurally dissimilar groupings into a single political economy\'94 (54). This is opposite of the emergence of totemism. [Seems to be saying that these relations are class relations. Hence it would seem that ethnic groups are in some sense different classes.] The ascribed identity placed on a dominated group by the dominant group might be different than that subjectively experienced by members of the group. Ethnic consciousness involves \'93the assertion of a collective self and the negation of collective other/s\'94 (56); the forces that are involved in this are in the \'93construction and transformation of economy and society\'94 (59). [I skimmed 57-58, but seems to be making a fairly complex argument.]\par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 (4) \'93With the emergence of class formations in which positions in the division of labor are signified by the labels of ascribed status and cultural distinction, ethnicity becomes a dominant medium through which the social order is to be interpreted and navigated\'94 (59). Ethnicity becomes to be seen as that which is ordering social status and class. \'93While ethnicity is the product of specific historical processes, it tends to take on the 'natural' appearance of an autonomous force, a 'principle' capable of determining the course of social life\'94 (60). \par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 (5) \'93Where it becomes an objectified 'principle' in the collective consciousness of a society, ethnicity may be perpetuated by factors quite different from those that caused its emergence, and may have a direct and independent impact on the context in which it arose\'94 (61). He said that subordinate groups can collectively respond to their shared condition by either taking direct action to remove the structures of inequality or negating cultural differences. [However, with cultural competency you see people claiming their difference as a basis for access to resources.] He warns that \'93any activity aimed at the reversal of 'ascribed' inequalities may reinforce the primacy of ethnicity as a principle of social differentiation: the very fact such activity is conducted by and for groupings marked by their cultural identities confirms the perception that these identities \plain\f1\fs22\cf0\i do\plain\f1\fs22\cf0 provide the only available basis of collective self-definition and action\'94 (62). [This seems like the point Shaw and Santiago-Izzary were trying to make in their pieces.] Individuals can also attempt to strategically manage and form their identities to move up the social ladder; this produces differentiations within ethnic groups and ethnic fractions (can eventually form status groups in the proper Weberian sense \'96 see 65); those who make it out of the underclass are faced with a predicament \'96 drop their ethnicity or hold onto it and maintain the contradiction, however both involves paradoxical relations between their identities. \par \ql\li0\fi0\ri0\sb0\sl\sa0 \plain\f1\fs22\cf0 }} }

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  • John Comaroff

  • Jean Comaroff

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