The Politics of Ethnic Consciousness

By A, Johnathan | Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Ethnic Consciousness


A, Johnathan, Ethnic Studies Review


Cora Govers and Hans Vermeulen, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1997). xi, 377 pp., $79.95 cloth.

Govers and Vermeulen's book seems to be a timely one, considering the resurgence of inter-ethnic strife that is causing so much misery in many parts of the world, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. The book, however, is not an expose on the politics of ethnic consciousness. Rather, it is a collection of case studies that address certain aspects of ethnic consciousness. Govers and Vermeulen provide the theoretical context for these studies in the introductory first chapter of the book. Indeed, the book can be usefully divided into two main parts, with the first chapter constituting one part and the rest of the chapters constituting the other.

In the first chapter, Govers and Vermeulen describe, albeit briefly, the changes or shifts in ethnic studies since the 1960s. The first is the shift to social organization of ethnic differences. They point out that those who focused on social organization, like Fredrik Barth for example, have been dubbed "situationalists". Their study of ethnicity became a study of ethnic politics, with ethnic groups regarded as political and economic interest groups.

The second shift occurred in the 1980s -- a shift to ethnic consciousness that is characterized as "constructionist". Much of the first chapter is focused on this second shift. Govers and Vermeulen hasten to point out, however, that constructionism is neither a movement nor a school, but its central concern is ethnic identity itself.

Ethnicity, they say, was regarded as a pre-modem phenomenon in functionalist theory -- one that was destined to disappear as a result of modernization. Ethnic minorities were expected to be assimilated by dominant majority cultures. Govers and Vermeulen attribute this to an air of confidence that prevailed within nation states up to the end of WWII.

The post-WWII era saw the reassertion of ethnicity, brought about by, among other things, anti-colonial struggle and the rejection of assimilation policies in that nation states. In the United States, Jews had rejected assimilation as early as the turn of the century. In the 1960s, African Americans not only rejected assimilation but also asserted their racial and cultural identity. Ethnicity became a matter of ascription and self ascription according to Govers and Vermeulen. They define ethnic identity as one distinguished by "a belief in common origin, descent, history, and culture" (6). Ethnic markers such as religion, language and physical appearance (race) are the stuff of politics of ethnic consciousness. …

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