Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, Nationalism and Racism

By Gullestad, Marianne | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, Nationalism and Racism


Gullestad, Marianne, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


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Despite different historical traditions and political cultures, present debates about 'immigrants' are surprisingly similar in many European countries. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s a general shift took place in the direction of more 'realism', implying that the migrant presence is generally regarded as deeply problematic. In this article I want to discuss European debates about 'immigrants' through the specific particularities of the Norwegian case. The first point I want to make is that there are close relations among egalitarian cultural themes, majority nationalism, and racism. My contention is that there is currently a popular reinforcement of the ethnic dimensions of majority nationalism, with a focus on common culture, ancestry, and origin. Analytically, my task is to pinpoint a contested hegemonic 'fixity' (Bhabha 1999), without unduly essentializing or reinforcing it. In other words, I want simultaneously to identify and to historicize an emerging doxic field.

The second point is that the process of ethnification needs to be understood in terms of cultural content as well as in terms of boundaries and relationships. In the rightly famous introductory essay to Ethnic groups and boundaries, Fredrik Barth (1969:15) argued for a focus on 'the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses'. In partial contrast to Barth's formulation, this article suggests a more intricate analytical relationship between organizational form and cultural content. In Norwegian debates about 'immigration', the boundary is not only organizational, but also cultural. Furthermore, in contrast to Barth's one-sided focus on the self-ascription of ethnic identity, I also want to emphasize the role played by the power to categorize others (see also Jenkins 1997).

The discussion starts with a theoretical presentation of egalitarian individualism, supplemented by a short overview of immigration to Norway Then follows an interpretative analysis of the underlying categories and ideas of five empirical examples. My interpretation is informed by many years of experience as a native anthropologist. Like all interpretations, it is partial, localized, and not the only possible one. It is therefore meant to be provisional, to contribute to the reader's own production of knowledge from locations different from mine.

The five examples are selected so as to be markedly different with regard to points of view and intentions. They present different genres, uttered in different contexts for different audiences. The first example is an extract from an anonymous letter written by a man who expresses vehement hostility to the presence in Norway of inhabitants with a Pakistani background. The second example is a story told informally by a male university professor of linguistics. The third is a set of quotations from an academic book for a general readership written by a female university professor of social anthropology. The two last examples are the reflections (in an oral interview conducted by a journalist for the popular press and in a book for the general reader) of two Labour party politicians with a Pakistani background. With the exception of the anonymous letter, all the examples are utterances by people who might be classified among the Norwegian cultural and political elite, in a wide sense. All the examples have been translated from the Norwegian by me.

Imagined sameness

While 'egalitarian individualism' is often said to be a characteristic feature of the Western world (Dumont 1986; 1987; Kapferer 1988), many researchers have suggested that a special emphasis can be found within Norway and the other Nordic countries (see, among others, Barnes 1954; Gullestad 1984; 1992; 1996; Jonassen 1983). Alexis de Tocqueville (1969 [1835-40]) suggested that the idea of equality easily leads to a search for identity, in other words to the idea that people have to feel that they are more or less the same in order to be of equal value. …

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