Miskitu or Creole? Ethnic Identity and the Moral Economy in a Nicaraguan Miskitu Village

By Jamieson, Mark | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Miskitu or Creole? Ethnic Identity and the Moral Economy in a Nicaraguan Miskitu Village


Jamieson, Mark, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Anthropologists and sociologists have come a long way from the view that studies of ethnicity describe discrete groups of people. Thirty-two years ago, Frederik Barth (1969) showed in his classic discussion of boundaries and ethnicity that in some contexts people may switch from one 'ethnic' group to another with relative ease. Drummond's (1980) fascinating study of Guyanese weddings showed that at any given moment both groups and individuals use a wide repertoire of symbolic inventories as a means of accruing various complex forms of social and cultural capital, gaining advantage from the deployment of many different diacritics of 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic' identity. Because, in societies with Creole-like cultural morphologies such as Drummond's Guyana, markers of identity are so promiscuously exchanged, it is extremely difficult to ascribe unambiguous labels of 'ethnic' identity either to people or to their practices. Individuals and groups therefore exist on 'ethnically focused' Creole continua which allow th em, through the deployment of particular diacritics of identity, to reposition themselves along these continua according to context and inclination.

The notion that ethnicity is fixed has also been challenged by Linnekin and Poyer (1990) and by Astuti (1995) who, using material from South East Asia and Madagascar respectively, provide powerful critiques of the notion that 'ethnic' identity is forever fixed by one's 'primordial' membership of a group.

These authors show that membership of a particular group may well be imagined performatively in terms of one's actions at particular moments. One is, therefore, a Vezo because one 'struggles with the sea'. As soon as one stops doing so, one ceases to be a Vezo (Astuti 1995). 'Ethnic' identity is thus imagined in terms of a particular way of being in the world.

The work of these authors indicates that 'ethnic' identities, if we persist in describing them as such, are frequently both contextual and negotiable, depending both on performances and on local associations with particular 'ways of living'. What has received less attention in this work is the social logic by which particular 'ways of living' in the world, perceived in local contexts to be discrete entities, are actually kept apart and reproduced in contrastive opposition. (1) In this article, I draw on my own work in the Miskitu village of Kakabila on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast and recent work by Kindblad (2001) among the Miskitu of neighbouring Tasbapauni to suggest why it is that dual 'ethnic' identity and bilingualism actually reproduce themselves in such small, apparently homogeneous, communities.

Kindblad has established for the people of Tasbapauni a relationship between, on the one hand, the individual's interests as determined by his or her membership of one of four sex- and age-based groups (older men, older women, younger men, younger women) and, on the other, his or her likely relation to the two kinds of 'exchange cycles' found in Tasbapauni. Following Parry and Bloch (1989), he distinguishes between 'short-term' and 'long-term' 'cycles of exchange' which, along with Parry and Bloch, he sees as encoding two seemingly contradictory 'transactional orders'.

'Transactional orders' for Parry and Bloch, and also Kindblad, are rather like Bohannon's (1955; 1959) 'spheres of exchange', in that both refer to morally charged regimes of value in which goods appropriately or inappropriately circulate. However, the notion of 'transactional orders' proposed by Parry and Bloch constitutes an important theoretical advance over Bohannon. For Bohannon, goods and services that are deemed to belong to the same 'sphere of exchange' are 'conveyed' (or exchanged for one another) unproblematically Goods and services from different 'spheres of exchange' are not 'conveyed' but 'converted'. 'Conversions', unlike 'conveyances', are intrinsically morally charged and are generally deemed inappropriate, though, as Bohannon acknowledges, they are far from infrequent. …

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