Ethnogenesis and Cultural Geography

By Jordan, Bella Bychkova; Jordan-Bychkov, Terry G. | Journal of Cultural Geography, Fall-Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Ethnogenesis and Cultural Geography

Jordan, Bella Bychkova, Jordan-Bychkov, Terry G., Journal of Cultural Geography

ABSTRACT. By working largely unaware of the huge literature in anthropology and certain other social sciences on ethnogenesis, Western cultural/historical and ethnic geographers remain aside from the mainstream in this inquiry and in fact do not address the topic as often as one might expect. Anthropologists have dominated ethnogenetic research for decades in North America. We further marginalize our work on ethnogenesis by ignoring completely the work of the Russian Leo Gumilev, a fellow geographer who devoted his career to the study of this subject. He remains virtually unknown in the West in spite of English translations of a number of his works. This neglect of the works of anthropologists and Gumilev leads Western geographers to deal with ethnogenesis infrequently and somewhat naively. The authors suggest that by becoming familiar with these valuable sources and by applying existing, well-developed cultural geographical themes and concepts, such as homeland, diffusion, landscape, preadaptation, and incremental change, Western cultural geographers can more abundantly and significantly join the debate on ethnogenesis, building upon Gumilev's foundation and offering a humanistic, particularistic, and holistic alternative perspective largely absent in anthropological and other nongeographical studies.


The formalized, systematic study of ethnogenesis--the origin and continued evolution of both cultural and ethnic minority groups--has for over four decades received abundant scholarly attention, mainly from anthropologists (see among numerous examples Michael 1962; Roosens 1989; Gladney 1990; Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; Hill 1996; Harritt 1997; and Hudson 1999). Their work, in turn, rests upon a body of earlier, less systematic and structured research done largely in ethnography and anthropology (see, for example, Oshanin 1964 and Foster 1960). Several anthropological journals, in particular American Ethnologist and Ethnohistory, regularly contain articles on the subject that employ both the concept and word ethnogenesis.

Anthropology's lengthy, codependent marriage to science has often led its practitioners to seek universal principles of ethnogenesis and to downplay a humanistic focus upon the unique and unpredictable. Such is the channelized path of science, and, whatever its limitations, much intellectual gain has resulted from this approach. Geographers studying ethnogenesis need to know the literature of anthropology better.

Sociologists and political scientists, too, have made widely recognized, if less abundant, contributions to the subject, tying the concept of ethnogenesis to their own particular interests, such as social structure, nationalism, and the nation-state (see, for example, Barth 1969; Anderson 1983; and Brubaker 1996). It is not our purpose here to review this huge multidisciplinary literature in anthropology and other social sciences, but instead to point out that Western geography's hesitancy to utilize it weakens the sophistication and diminishes the quantity of our ethnogenetic research.


Now, some will maintain that North American and British cultural and social geographers have in fact regularly dealt with ethnogenesis, but simply not used the anthropological jargon or a systematic social-scientific approach. Are we setting up a straw man here, based merely on the fact that Western geographers almost never use the word ethnogenesis and, typically viewing themselves as humanists, do not care to play by the rules of social science? True, geographers, including one of the present authors, have studied groups as diverse as Irish tinkers, Boers, and colonial Euro-Americans with attention to the roots of their cultural distinctiveness (see, for example, Guelke 1982; Kearns 1977; Harris 1966, 1977; Meinig 1986-1998; Jordan and Kaups 1989). But collectively--though we could add similar citations to these examples--such works add up to a body of literature that is both thin and, because it lacks a systematic structure, remains largely unnoticed outside our discipline, with the notable exception of history.

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