The Politics of Resemblance: Ethnicity, Trademarks, Head-Hunting

By Harrison, Simon | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Resemblance: Ethnicity, Trademarks, Head-Hunting


Harrison, Simon, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Introduction

According to certain influential folk notions, it is natural for people to prefer the company of their own kind. These seemingly self-evident, common-sense conceptions are often employed powerfully in the discourses of nationalism and ethnicity. In Europe, for instance, they are invoked by those writings of the New Right which argue that some degree of cultural xenophobia is normal, beneficial, and healthy (for examples, see Cohen 1994: 178, 202-3, 209). Indeed, Blommaert and Verschueren suggest that all contemporary European nationalisms, even in their most benign and liberal forms, share essentially the same underlying ideology of 'homogeneism', according to which

[a] homogeneous society - implicitly defined in terms of the vague and largely imaginary feature cluster of history, descent, ethnicity, religion, language, and territory - is seen as the norm and as a condition for social harmony, yielding natural groups' with a self-evident right to self-determination (1996: 109).

Accordingly, significant cultural diversity within the same society is assumed to be abnormal, a form of social fragmentation (Blommaert & Verschueren 1996: 114; see also Stolke 1995). Assertions of cultural difference certainly do seem almost inevitably to accompany ethnic animosities. We do not hear of ethnic conflicts in which a key issue for the antagonists is that they conceive themselves to be too similar, even though - so I will suggest - this can in fact be a key issue. On the contrary, they are likely to claim to be culturally (even biologically) incompatible and alien to each other, though it may be obvious to outsiders that they are very much alike (Cole & Wolf 1974; Eriksen 1993: 38-9). Ethnic groups may claim that it is their inherent differences that give rise to conflict. But clearly, this is not so much an explanation of ethnic conflict, as a kind of rationalization of it, indeed part of the justificatory rhetoric accompanying it, in which the opposing sides may ideologically discount and deny even their most self-evident similarities.

In academic discourse, too, ethnicity tends to be understood as having to do specifically with perceptions or imputations of otherness. Ethnopolitics is sometimes described as a politics of difference, in which minority groups are categorized as 'other', and marginalized or excluded on the basis of traits attributed to them by the majority (e.g. Sibley 1995; Wilmsen & McAllister 1996). A corollary of this is that it is often assumed in the social sciences - as in the folk 'homogeneism' discussed by Blommaert and Verschueren - that powerful forms of social cohesion are manifested in common values, shared background, and allegiance to the same symbols, or are generated by these cultural commonalities. Hammell, for instance, reflecting on the civil war in Yugoslavia, suggests optimistically that the diffusion of 'cultural and symbolic systems across social groups' (1997: 7) can help to soften the hard edges of ethnic boundaries and thus reduce social divisions.

Especially under the homogenizing influence of the much maligned mass media, ethnic groups in many countries share large parts of major symbolic systems. The sports and entertainment industries are cases in point. Football and baseball in the U.S., soccer in other countries, basketball in many, the cinema, and musical forms such as jazz and rock are great unifiers and diminishers of cultural distance (Hammell 1997: 7-8).

There is, though, a rather different tradition of thought in the social sciences, represented by theorists, such as Simmel (1955: 42-3) and Coser (1956: 67- 72), to whom it seemed that the deepest and most destructive antagonisms often occur in the closest relationships, that is, between those who have the most in common (see also Enloe 1996: 199). Freud too can be placed in this tradition, because he argued that groups with much in common can experience these commonalities as a threat to their identities. …

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