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Why we should still study peoples

September 17, 2008

The previous post about how the German broadsheet Die Zeit writes about contemporary sociocultural anthropology (Ethnologie, in German) and its supposed focus on ethnic groups has got me thinking about the importance that we continue to study peoples (pueblos, bangsa-bangsa, Völker, etc) whilst avoiding what we might call ethnos-centrism, that is, an a priori privileging of ethnic ties at the expense of other kinds of ties (of friendship, residence, trade, leisure, etc) when conducting research, say among transnational migrants (Amit 2007, Eriksen 2008).  

In my own research in Sarawak in 1996-1998 and 2001 I lived among people who consider themselves to belong to the bansa (or bangsa, in Malay) ‘Iban’, i.e. the Iban people or Volk. The exception was a local politician who considered herself to be, first and foremost, Bangsa Malaysia. Although the term Iban only became widely adopted after the Second World War (previously the label ‘Sea Dayaks’ had been used) I think it is undeniable that those in rural Sarawak who use this term to refer to themselves share a common origin in the Kapuas region of what today is Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), a common language – with some minor dialectal variants -, form of domicile (the longhouse), Christianised worldview, etc, and a common repertoire of boundary markers when interacting with members of other ethnic groups (Bidayuh, Melanau, Chinese, Malays, etc).  

That said, I agree with TH Eriksen, Vered Amit and other colleagues who insist that we should not privilege the ethnic a priori. When in 2003 I moved my field research base from East to West Malaysia to work in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, my initial aim was to study what difference, if any, new digital technologies were making to the governance of this multiethnic township (Subang Jaya-USJ). However, I soon came to realise that although ethnicity was – as always in Malaysia – literally all over the place, there were other key organising principles at work in the local political scene, such as neighbourhood of residence, educational background, profession, age, gender, etc. I didn’t find the kind of interest in people’s ethnic or subethnic  origin (Minangkabau, Kadazan, Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, etc.) that I expected to find in a recently settled suburban frontier. Instead local activists were primarily concerned with getting the local authorities to solve problems affecting the residents, regardless of their ethnic origin. Had I gone into the field with a rigid ‘ethnic template’ (Amit 2007) I would have missed out on the many other forms of emergent residential sociality besides those based on (sub)ethnic ties.

At the same time – and here perhaps I differ from both Amit and Eriksen – I suggest that these emerging micro-socialities cannot be understood without reference to the broader ethno-religious faultlines running through the locality, and indeed across the entire Malaysian territory. For example, although this suburb is over 70% ethnic Chinese, its municipal council (MPSJ) is staffed almost entirely by Malays – a manner of Native reservation surrounded by a non-Native (as far as the state is concerned) population.  


Amit, V. (2007) ‘Globalization through “Weak Ties”: A Study of Transnational Networks Among Mobile Professionals’, in V. Amit (ed.) Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement, pp. 53-71. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2008 8:59 pm

    I think its also how you decide to define ethnic. Personally i think ethnic can include such things as “neighbourhood of residence, educational background, profession, age, gender, etc.” part of the problem as i see it is the way in which we claim ethnic/ethnicity to be reified when really its far more suitable to identity politics when thought of as a conversation about identity that shifts constantly – as conversations do. As Audre Lorde once put it you can be 100% African American, 100% caribbean, 100% chereeoke, 100% Lesbian, 100% a poet, 100% a new Yoker, 100% a women – its the question that follows, “yes but how do you identify?” that is the problem. We’re using ethnic wrong, we know its not contingent but we dont seem to grasp that its about a performance of automatic solidarity, when and where the situation necessitates. And that many different times each day depending on who your talking to and what you want to get out of the situation people’s ethnic parameters shift, “ties of friendship, residence, trade, leisure, etc. are part of this perfomativity. perhaps to brush the world with this def is incorrect but ive seen it in various ethnographic situations and think even class analysis can be considered differently when one sees that people often perform class behaviour independent of their relationship to the means of production.

  2. September 21, 2008 11:10 am

    Thanks Dylan. I agree that seen in their social contexts, folk ideas about ethnicity can be variously associated with ideas about neighbourhood of residence, occupation, etc, so there is an overlap. For instance, in many places a certain people or ethnic group/category (using these terms loosely now) is routinely associated with a certain occupation, e.g. ‘Asians’ in England’s Midlands with taxi driving.

    I’m not sure ethnicity is always about situated performance, though, e.g a Malay-looking woman dressed in Malay attire travelling on a Kuala Lumpur train will automatically be classified by fellow passengers as ‘Malay’ or ‘Melayu’ and not Chinese, Indian or Eurasian. She has little choice in the matter, whatever her situated performance: her phenotype and attire will determine which box she’s put into.

  3. September 21, 2008 4:43 pm

    It’s me again…John, I am not suggesting that the following is your line of thinking here, but I sometimes get the little feeling that because we see terrible things done in the name of ethnic identity, we want to purify our theoretical analyses and purge ethnicity. What prompted this was the idea of “privileging ethnicity” (which can be an ironic choice of words, when we consider deeply underprivileged ethnic groups), or “assuming ethnicity a priori.” I think what matters first is how the people we interact with go about conceiving and representing their own identity, and if it resembles what we tend to call ethnic identification, then there is no a priori privileging. My blundering point is that I think it is just as problematic to engage in an a priori dismissal of ethnicity, or a desire to look elsewhere, anywhere else other than ethnicity, at all costs.

  4. September 22, 2008 3:44 pm

    Hi John and Max,

    Good points both. I was thinking in terms of John’s observation “She has little choice in the matter, whatever her situated performance: her phenotype and attire will determine which box she’s put into” while a valid observation is only one side of the equation.

    Perhaps (and i have little knowledge of the situation in Malay) while power identifies “a Malay-looking woman dressed in Malay attire travelling on a Kuala Lumpur train” by demanding she is not Chinese, Indian or Eurasian, there are other things going on too. For sake of simplicity we could suggest Scott and his hidden transcripts, or the Commaroffs small fissures in hegemony, or even on the otherside Althusser and his bad subject of intepellation.

    No doubt her situated performance is, as the term denotes, determined; i just think that ethnicity – over race/class for example – allows the ethnographer to discuss and describe the social reality as it is from various perspectives and how this reality is subject to transformation through self identification.

    So outside of the train scenario in the marketplace or perhaps the local community these determinations made in terms of phenotype and attire can shift. While you’re correct about the train instance their are many more places and situations a person’s day passes through and creates its moments out of. This is not to disagree with the implication that in maybe a majority of situations the subject is determined in ways that are pejorative but it is a headturn toward the idea of process and movement and that none of the numerous day-to-day situations people find themselves in exist in isolation. the train doors will open, the subject has come from somewhere and is heading somewhere into and from spaces where variables and the peoples/structures encountered will be distinct to what they were before and after. Ethnicity for me is important for this idea of constant movement and change. Thats why i like the idea/model of a conversation, we have lots of them everyday with many different people, some of them ending, continuing or starting for the first time. In each of those many/infinite spaces we perform our cultural selves/identities in many ways all of which arent necessarily the ones power spots, determines and discusses..

  5. September 22, 2008 4:49 pm

    I think Max and I agree that when studying and working with people as anthropologists, even when working with ‘diasporas’, we should neither assume the primacy of ethnic ties nor of any other kind of tie. This should remain an open empirical question – if such ties matter to them, they should matter to us as well. Yes, I too think that we should retain key notions such as ethnicity, ethnic group, etc, and not ‘look elsewhere.. at all costs’, as Max puts it.

    Where I would qualify Max’s position is when he says that ‘what matters first is how the people we interact with go about conceiving and representing their own identity’ – surely we should also pay close attention to the inconsistencies and contradictions in such conceptions, as well as to what outsiders make of, and do with, ‘the people we interact with’? In my own Iban case study in Sarawak, I also had to take into careful account non-Iban and part-Iban agents, organisations, media, etc.

  6. September 22, 2008 5:00 pm

    I am sceptical of Dylan’s association of ethnicity with fluidity and change, when he says that “Ethnicity for me is important for this idea of constant movement and change”. I would see ethnicity rather as one important dimension (along with age, gender, phenotype, class, etc.) in the bundle of sociocultural indexes that individuals and groups ‘give off’, more or less intentionally depending on the situation and their ability and will to negotiate their social identities. One important empirical and comparative question is precisely the extent to which human agents succeed in negotiating these sociological bundles over their life course. I would say that most of us most of the time have little room for manouevre – I could never be, for instance, pass for a North Korean grandmother, even if I wanted to; I’m stuck with my phenotype, gender and lifetime habitus.

  7. September 22, 2008 6:10 pm

    of course you couldnt, but north korean grandmother are also denoted by their interaction with things like kinship, gender and nationality, so ethnicity is not the primary definition here

    For me, ethnicity, and this was the purpose of my first post does not have to be situated as singular in such a way, otherwise it overlaps and loses its utility for nuance, again for me, demonstrating its modernist aspersions and losing its ability to chart the ways people play with the different ingredients of their identities at different times. To say power, or capital or the state or all three, labels someone a north korean grandma erases other peoples, persons, families, friends, and others who do not label that person in the first place as a north korean grandmother. It doesnt dissolve your observation but it acknowledges there is far more going on than the neatness empiricism craves.

    To use an example of Trinidad, who’s history involved the transplantation of many peoples, or even a city like New York which has seen much immigration, peoples ethnicity does shift and change, and get used both by the powerful and those with less power to negotiate different situations at different times.

    You are right to say ethnicity is in the main part of “the bundle of sociocultural indexes that individuals and groups ‘give off’, more or less intentionally depending on the situation and their ability and will to negotiate their social identities.”

    However, people, and this is a failure of anthropology more generally in my eyes, are not just “stuck with phenotype, gender and lifetime habitus” they are more than this too, hence my hat tip to Audre Lorde who voiced life on the margins, and many margins at that, and found social strength by voicing many identities and not concentrating on the ones power labelled her with.

    Also, you allude to this yourself with ‘habitus’ which in itself infers the ability to change through its notion of learned behaviour. Just because in the past ethnicity has been theorised as a dimension of identity does not mean others will not or are not learning to use it in new ways. That would imply culture is fixed which i dont believe.

    From much work in this field i cannot 100% refute your notions, however i would say in my personal work i am seeing in various locations and sites ways that make ethnicity, when understood as conversation and what that implies, a useful way into identity politics beyond gender, class, race, phenotype, age etc because of the way each of those categories is culturally contingent and can shift depending on locals and their relationship/viewpoint to a person/culture.

    I think ethnicity is a lot more useful than people imagine, how i personally play on my sexuality, nationality, class, colour, gender, home etc is determined by many things, including culture (mine, others, and the culture of the situation im in), ethnicity can grasp that if we succeed in being clearer by what we mean when using the term.

  8. September 23, 2008 6:14 am

    First let me say how impressed I am by your juggling what are virtually two separate threads here. Dylan is working on another level, so I don’t want to muddy things by adding my two cents there, and I do find your exchanges to be very interesting and I lean towards both somehow.

    I just wanted to respond to your question:

    “surely we should also pay close attention to the inconsistencies and contradictions in such conceptions, as well as to what outsiders make of, and do with, ‘the people we interact with’?”

    Yes, but. We can note what we think are inconsistencies and contradictions, and then ask ourselves questions about how we think, and why we think they are contradictions. After all, if we know the answer already and understand their self-understandings better than they do, then we really don’t need to go there. Sorry, that was blunt, but the question remains that if we take that position — and I think the vast majority of anthropologists would — then the question is: from where did our truth about others derive?

    Noting what outsiders think, and “bouncing” that off of the people we study with, seems to be a valid ethnographic task. I can’t object to it as such. What I am more concerned about is whose representation gets to stick, and what that says about power. Often it is the anthropologist who gets the first and final say in a written ethnography, and sometimes it is done so transparently that I get the strange feeling that the ethnography was pro forma, and that the people at the “heart” of the study were merely ornamentation for a theory conceived without them, and perhaps against them.

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