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Ethnicity INC: or why ethnicity is not the bogeyman we were told it is

Posted on 13 January 2010 by Codrin Arsene

From anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff comes a new and intriguing analysis of the role ethnicity could and should play in today’s world. Given that contemporary nation-states are forced to acknowledge the existence and the implications of social and ethnic heterogeneity like never before, it appears that a new opportunity for ethnic groups in search of collective prosperity is in sight. In their new book, Ethnicity INC., the Comaroffs are defining this opportunity by both exploring the social and economic space in which ethnicity can play a positive role for its subjects and by dismissing some of the traditional theories on ethnicity.

For many of us, especially those interested in contemporary African affairs, ethnicity is a factor that has at times radically influenced the political and social arena of a country. Perhaps even those with a limited background in African politics can identify some of the most notorious cases in which the manipulation of ethnicity has had a disastrous effect: Rwanda in the early 1990s, Sudan since 2005, Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007 contested presidential elections, and so on. Politicians with high personal aspirations can play and have played the ethnicity card to accomplish their selfish goals and many fear that will be the case for the foreseeable future. Without dismissing the above mentioned cases, Jean and John Comaroff argue that there might be a different way of interpreting and conceptualizing ethnicity.

From the very beginning of their study, the authors ask us to take a step back and stop thinking about ethnicity only as a political tool. Rather, we should extend new attributes and opportunities to the social and economic entity that an ethnic group is. What if, the authors ask, the future of ethnicity lies in its capacity to incorporate identity (incorporate as in creating a legal corporation based on ethnic grounds) and couple this normative shift with the progressive commodification of one’s ethnic group culture? The authors think that the new product could efficiently represent the interests of its members. They argue that the commodification of culture doubled by the branding of the newly marketed entities could trigger the formalization and the institutionalization of the consumption of culture in ways that would be beneficial to those creating and generating culture in the first place.  The Comoroffs go further in their analysis and suggest that this process and the subsequent cultural products would be managed by legal entities which will finally allow their members to reap the fruits of their culture’s commodification.

“Why not branding ethnicity instead of labeling it?” appears to be one of the extremely interesting questions that scholars interested in ethnic studies should ask themselves. The authors ask this and many more questions in an intriguing and refreshing manner, in times when ethnic studies (at least on Africa) are saturated by traditional discourses that mostly focus on the connection between violence, political / economic instability and ethnic warfare.

Also to be kept in mind is the fact that the authors do not claim that this new way of reasoning is entirely their vision but that these practices need to be formalized and recognized for what they are. Moreover, the Comaroffs claim that the theory behind Ethnicity INC has old roots and various precedents which were already in place before they shed light on this issue. In addition, they also successfully show that when this strategy was successfully employed by people with vision, it brought about remarkable results. To prove their point, they look at the Native American casinos, the Ethno-Theme parks, Scotland the brand or the San people who have the legal patent rights over a plant that could bring them a fortune.

The authors carefully argue that the commodification of cultural difference and the incorporation of ethnic identities in business models is more than a simple curiosity. Conceptually, they do not try “invent” a problem from scattered sources but present the process of ethnic commodification as a recent but rapidly evolving phenomenon within the neo-liberalist logic. By clearly looking at this phenomenon within the context of much larger discourses, they successfully point to the fact that ethnic studies should take into consideration this facet of ethnic identities in their subsequent analyses.

There is an additional underlying concern which is brought to light by Jean and John Comaroff and other like-minded intellectuals that deserves our attention. One of the issues we have in mind after reading this very interesting book is the intellectual rights that various ethnic groups are fighting for. The legal access over property or intellectual rights is an overlooked dimension of modernity and a topic that many legislators have yet to deal with. In a world in which doctors could even claim the right over our blood if that could help them in their medical research, the legal system is more constraining than helpful. But the Comaroffs show that in some cases (notably the San people looking for legal rights over their land and communal discoveries) this very system is in fact not protective enough. As the struggle continues, so should the debate over the legal expression of ethnic commodification, a theme that is brought back to general attention through this remarkable book. And, in the process, we should still be looking for an answer to an extremely critical question: who owns culture? If you’re interested in some views on this topic you should also read Who Owns Native Culture by Michael Brown and Intellectual Property in the Dreamtime- Protecting the Cultural Creativity of Indigenous Peoples by Michael Blakeney.

While I agree with most of the arguments presented in this book, I have my reservations with respect to some of the issues presented in Ethnicity INC. Based on my understanding, one which is still in formation with respect to contemporary African realities, the biggest “fault” of the Comaroffs is that they implicitly suppose that humans are rational actors who play their part within a much larger framework which is laid out by the international political and economic order. If that were the case, then it would be unreasonable not to do your best as statesmen and public institutions to encourage the ethno-cultures the Comaroffs deal with in their book. After all, we are all consumers of cultures or, I would go even further and say, we are consumers of otherness. By exploring the others we rediscover our own roots, passions and ultimately the ideals we stand on. The others are just a reconfirmation of the self. And those who have a culture and seek to both preserve it and promote it should also find ways to capitalize on these cultures since, after all, nothing is for free. But this is not always the case. After a closer examination of the last part of the book I no longer think the discussion about rationality is accurate. However, I reserve my opinion that the impact of politics over ethnicity should have been given more attention.

Jean and John Comaroff admit that the political dimension of ethnicity has been on many theorists’ minds for a long time. They quickly dismiss it by saying that the reduction of ethnicity to “politics misses the complexity of its reembedding in neoliberal political-economy.” So far, so good. But one can also argue that the connection between ethno-commodities, the incorporation of identity and the existential grounding of ethnicity can all be easily overshadowed if not paralyzed by the political dimension of ethnicity. When politicians play ethnicity as an all-in card whenever their individual interests are in danger, thus causing mass murder or even genocide, the potential of ethnicity is in jeopardy. If we look at various “Big Men” in power all over the African continent, we see that many of them have no problem with using ethnicity as a political tool against their own fellow citizens. President Kagame of Rwanda claims that he still needs to  be in power because he is overseeing the process of reconciliation in his country where in fact many of his actions clearly show that he is tacitly reinforcing the ethnic divisions just enough to ensure his long reign in power. The Odinga versus Kibaki charade in Kenya recently showed just how destructive ethnicity can be (also read It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle Blower by Michela Wrong). In Sudan, members of one ethnic group are used as a tool to destabilize an entire region. Now in all fairness, there is now a larger number of democratic or soon-to-be-democratic states in Africa than ever before. In these countries perhaps the ethno-futures the Comaroffs are talking about can and should be employed in the interest of the people. After all, the Maasai in Tanzania, the country with the forth smallest GDP per capita in Africa, could definitely use some recognition for their cultural differences. My point is not it is not only “us”, the academic community, who simplify and reduce ethnicity to politics but those in power to make such dangerous decisions. Put differently, whether the ethno-futures will actually become reality or not depends on the societal checks and balances, on how the state and the judicial systems regulate the social interactions between its members. But what do you do when those checks and balances work against the general interest? The book doesn’t solve this inherent contradiction.

Another critique of the book comes from the engagement of secondary resources. Like never before (perhaps because their arguments are so new and innovative that they feel the need to be very blunt and dismissive) the Comaroffs aggressively unleash their criticisms of other books on ethnicity. The authors’ criticism of the main thinkers in the field is quite harsh but it does not provide a more substantial justification and textual support for their dismissal of other people’s theories. To contextualize what I mean by that, I find it uninspired to call Adorno a farce (page 23) and not explain to your audience in more detail what is wrong with Adorno’s arguments. I had to go to Adorno’s book and skim it through before I finally understood why the Comaroffs considered his work a farce. My point is that parts of this book are written with the assumption that the audience knows the literature in this field to the extent that they could easily correlate various arguments and see the ludicrousness of some authors’ views. But many of us are not familiar with that literature which makes the reading of Ethnicity INC quite a challenge.

Lastly, one cannot judge anthropologists based on criteria which are not used to evaluate their particular area of expertise. Jean and John are perhaps better than most authors working on Africa at identifying a set of problems. They tend to reshuffle an issue to the point that the reader is able to navigate through various thorny issues, or, to use a word favorite to the Comaroffs “conundrums”, and then lay out the underlying complexities and contradictions with most people’s arguments and views. Jean and John’s clearly have a decent grasp of the topic they are dealing with and they show it in their work. But then you ask yourself “now what?” They don’t provide any practical solutions and perhaps they shouldn’t. But one can only ask oneself “What can we do next?” The sense of urgency and the need for action is evident after reading their books but the paths to be taken are still unknown.

All in all, Ethnicity INC is a provocative, rigorous and well-argued book. It is also profoundly embedded in contemporary global realities. It is, if you may, Comaroffs 2.0.

I strongly recommend buying and reading this book.

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Anna S Says:

    I read the book last autumn. Very interesting stuff. People in the Anthro Dept. here at Harvard have a thing for the Comaroffs. I agree with the comments about ethnicity as a tool for personal ends. When politicians do that, when instigate their own subjects then Ethnicity INC. as a theory loses strength. But there are no perfect theories since we don’t live in a perfect world, right?
    This is one book that deserves our attention.

  2. Akili Says:

    Since I’m Kenyan, I tend not to believe in the positive attributes of ethnicity. As you astutely pointed out the politicians in my country play the ethnicity card every time they feel they are about to be removed from office. Now is ethnicity only about politics or only about incorporation or the commodification of culture? Of course not. It’s about both. And much more. Insofar as Professors Jean and John Comaroff, they are from South Africa a country much more stable and with politicians that are much more responsible. And I would give them not the political exemple, but a clear example of wrongful ethnic incorporation. In Kenya, the Nakumatt supermarket chain is a kikuyu business. During the presidential elections these assholes knew how terrible things will go and in the aftermath of the elections they supplemented the store with machetes. In the first days after elections tens of thousands of machetes were sold in store which were then bought by both kikuyus and other tribesmen who engaged in mass murder (1000+ killings). This is a clear example of ethnic incorporation which shows how detrimental the “ethno-futures” can actually be. I doubt an example like this ever made Ethnicity Inc (I don’t know since I did not read the book). Oh well, the debate it’s still rolling.

  3. Codrin Arsene Says:

    Hello Akili
    Thank you for the Nakumatt example. I knew about the machetes scandal, but I totally forgot about it when writing this review. That’s a good example on ethnic incorporation which can go very wrong. However, you cannot judge Nakumatt solely based on that incident. As you might know, Nakumatt played a significant role in Kenya’s urban development, especially in Nairobi. It contributed not only to development but also do the tourism industry by investing in stores and international eateries which are used by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. But I see your point. It’s well taken.

  4. Jabu Bandile Says:

    I would also like to contribute to this debate on ethnic commodification. I’m a Zulu living in the United States. I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and I am familiar with some of the issues Jean and John Comaroff talk about in their book both about South Africa and Botswana. I came across this book a couple of months ago and I read it in one night. Whereas I found the arguments plausible I thought this issue is more representative in consolidated democracies than everywhere else. @Akili, the authors do actually give some examples from Kenya which I found to be a poor choice from the beginning because of the troubled history of your country. The point is wherever we have stable states and independent judicial systems the questions asked by the Comaroffs will resonate with the institutions which could solve some of these tensions. It might not happen over night, but it’s more likely that it will. But the negative aspect of it is that in the absence of judicial independence which can protect average citizens from committing ethnic crimes, or worse, when public institutions instigate to ethnic violence, then the situation is at least in my view hopeless. I will give an example of this: i remember the early 1990s and the Mandela years. In that time, in Kwa-zulu Natal we, the Zulus, had two main enemies: the White People and the Xhosa. At times we didn’t know who we really hated more. The Whites who oppressed us for decades or the Xhosa for being lazy, stupid and annoying. (It goes without saying that at the time I had the same views since I was born in 1984 and, as a kid, I would believe everything I was told by my folks). But you see, the Mandela government was able to negotiate some of these differences and ultimately avoid any ethnic cleansing some of us feared. And the thing is, no matter how good Madiba was, that did not change people’s view about the Xhosa. When I go home to my parents they always complained about the Xhosa: “those greedy bastards” says my mom and this is one of the few things she says in English and it’s always directed towards the Xhosa. And it’s in some ways funny that if I ask her: “Mom, what about Mandela, Makeba, Desmond Tutu and so on?” she always says “Those are exceptions my dear. Good exceptions, but exceptions. The Xhosa remain a bunch of stupid cows no matter what you tell me and how many Mandelas come to power.” I shared this tragi-comic episode with you just because I wanted everyone to understand how difficult the transition to a post-colonial South Africa really is. And the idea of Ethnicity Inc is a slippery slope but one which we should acknowledge and respect. Again, I loved the arguments presented in the book and i see the value of their arguments. But we should also bear in mind the other contradictions that were conveniently or by error left out of the book.

  5. John Comaroff Says:

    Thanks much for sending your review, and thanks for its generally positive tone. There are a few things I would have put differently: Jean and I do not argue “for” ethnicity inc. Indeed, we do NOT take sides on good/bad ethnicity at all. We lay out its analytic parameters and point out that it may be regarded both as positive (by those who benefit) and negative (by the many who lose out) — our concern is not to recommend it, but to dissect how and why it emerges and to lay bare its contradictions (see the Conclusion). Also, we say very specifically that it is an aspiration, not an inevitability, that there is an indeterminate relationship between ethno-business and ethno-politics (which is why politics is not the only domain in which it should be addressed; we do not suggest that politics are irrelevant, quite the contrary). Nor do we assume a “rational actor”; the dialectic that produces ethnicity inc in its mature form is historically driven, not, in the first instance, by the cost benefit practices of individuals. So the reactions of your Kenyan and South African interlocutor really miss a good part of the point. But it IS an interesting conversation!

    I would also add as an afternote, that we also say very specifically that Ethnicity Inc is not a totalizing “theory” that is intended to “explain” everything: at the end of the book we say precisely the opposite, that the phenomenon is distinctly uneven, that it does not do away everywhere with political conflict or violence, that it occurs in unexpected degrees in unexpected places. In other words, the book is a provocation: it is meant to open up an analytical window on something that is happening in uneven ways in many unconnected places across the planet due, largely, to world-historical shifts in the nature of identity.

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