Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

Affect, Identity, and Ethnicity: Towards a Social-Psychological Model of Ethnic Attachment

Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

Affect, Identity, and Ethnicity: Towards a Social-Psychological Model of Ethnic Attachment

Article excerpt

Since the days of Shils and Geertz it has been common to refer to ethnicity as a bond, a tie, or an attachment. Shils used the term "tie" in the title of his seminal 1957 article to refer to a set of social relationships, including what he called "civil," "kinship," "sacred," and "primordial." The primordial tie was notable for the "ineffable significance" which social actors attribute to it and to the relationship which it engenders: "the attachment [is] not merely to the other ... as a person, but as a possessor of certain especially 'significant relational' qualities, which could only be described as primordial. The attachment ... is not just a function of interaction."^1 Subsequently Geertz developed the notion of ethnic "attachment" as an affect and identity, or better yet, an affect-centered identity. The intention, often quite explicit, of these thinkers and the many who followed them was to emphasize the emotional quality of ethnicity as an explanation of its persistence and power. At the same time, as an emotional and not rational phenomenon, ethnicity was expected to decline and disappear under the onslaught of modern rationalizing social forces.

This essay returns to the issue of ethnicity as an affective relationship. It will argue that affect is indeed a critical element in ethnicity but that the theoretical treatment of ethnic affect has tended to be counterproductive. Simply put, the appeal to ethnic "bonds," "ties," or "attachments" has inhibited the analysis of ethnic attachment because the terms are unarticulated and purportedly in no need of articulation. The unexamined use of affect or the use of unexamined affect as the base of ethnicity has led to the overestimation of its irrationality, underestimation of its variability, and disregard of its social construction.

Therefore, I will sketch a model of ethnic attachment as affect but as comprehensible affect. First, I will demonstrate that ethnicity is characterized by an emotional attachment. I will then show how the apparent ineffability of ethnic attachment has misled us. Finally, I will illustrate how conceptually-examined and socially-constructed affect can be brought to ethnicity by introducing two theories of attachment from psychology -- Bowlby's attachment theory and Tajfel's social identification theory -- and exploring in a preliminary way their implications for a social theory of ethnicity. This will contribute to the "psycho-cultural approach to social belonging"^2 upon which a complete understanding of ethnicity depends.

Ethnicity as Affect

Most -- but not all -- theorists seem to agree that ethnicity is essentially or largely a "sentiment," "feeling," or emotion: "ethnicity is felt."^3 From this perspective ethnicity is the feeling of being "attached" to some group and/or its symbols or "markers." Individuals experience a certain attendant affect which makes the group and its markers important to their own sense of identity, interest, and destiny.

What holds the individual to the ethnic markers and what makes of him or her an ethnic member and makes of the group an ethnic group is an emotional attachment. It is this emotional attachment, most theorists agree, which renders the markers and the group personally significant and which gives ethnicity its distinctive power, pervasiveness, and persistence (and in many eyes perniciousness). Individuals are deeply emotionally involved with or committed to the markers of their group and to other members of the group, and individual identity and action are accordingly based on this affective connection to group and symbol.

However, this being said, ethnicity theory has often not scrutinized this fundamental bridging concept which nevertheless is called upon to do such critical duty in the explanatory process. What is this emotion like? How is the emotional attachment formed? These are questions which are not adequately asked. In fact, in many formulations they are questions which do not need to be asked beyond the two assumptions that it carries a high -- an invariantly high -- "emotional loading"^4 for all individuals in all groups and that it is essentially primal, natural, unconstructed and not a function of interaction, that is, primordial. …

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