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Too much attention paid to imagined communities

January 23, 2009

Christopher Kelty from the collective anthropological blog Savage Minds has posted some interesting “Thoughts on Imagined Communities on Inauguration Day“. My own take on this discussion (the following is an expanded version of my comments posted last night) is that nationalist ideals, policies and practices are still very much a reality all over the place. A few recent examples:

– the Malaysian government telling employers to sack foreigners not Malaysians if they have to sack anyone during the downturn

– the other day, the Basque soccer team refusing to play an ‘international’ match unless they are renamed Euskal Herria (the federation wants to retain the name Euskadi)

– Barack Obama’s inaugural address to the United States of America and ROW (Rest of the World)

etc etc

I think too much attention is paid to Anderson’s imagined communities and too little to the empirical actualities of living in states with markedly different universes of cultural practice. I consider sovereign states (e.g. Spain, France, Malaysia, Turkey) to be the preeminent culture areas of our era. Cross the border from Spain into France – or the other way round – and you’ll see what I mean. As we can see clearly in the Spanish case, cultural autonomy is very difficult without political autonomy – or even better, political independence (=territorial sovereignty) which is the aim of many Catalan and Basque nationalists.

May I propose that anthropologists start paying comparative attention not only to entities of dubious existence such as ‘nations’ but also to actual sovereign states – also known by the useful and uncontroversial term ‘countries’ – and their unique universes of cultural practice.

Since we’re on the subject of Spain – what is Spain? Well, the conventional received wisdom in anthropology has told us since the 1980s that Spain (or France, the US, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, etc.) is an ‘imagined community’. OK, that may be the case, I will not dispute it here. But surely there is far more to say and to research on this matter? At the very least, I hope you will all agree that Spain is also:

  1. a sovereign state with a territory of over 500,000 sq. km. and a population of roughly 45 million
  2. a multiplex network of road, railways, ports, airports, telecommunications, finance, etc. with a few hubs (Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao)
  3. a cultural space with a widely shared lingua franca (Spanish) to run the multiplex network and a number of other weaker languages (their more committed speakers struggling to resist the formidable strength of Spanish) and dialects
  4. a country with a material culture, fashion, cuisine, nightlife, etc, that is distinctive from that of neighbouring countries: Morocco, Portugal and France
4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2009 5:25 pm

    …and besides being very much a reality everywhere, I do not agree with the proposition that we each hold multiple identities (we always have) that are somehow free and equal and exchangeable. I think that actual persons experience some multiple identities as identities (some of their other identities are ascribed by analysts more than the actors themselves), and that they experience the nation as the most, or one of the most important, to shape their identities and their lives. I also think that if we are going to apply “post-” to everything that continues to be dominant, active, and that has a massive impact on people’s lives, then either “post” becomes a meaningless label applied for fashion, or we need to be even handed and talk about our work not as anthropology, but rather post-anthropology.

  2. January 25, 2009 10:17 pm

    Yes, and we also have to be careful not to confuse cultural identity with cultural competence. For example, an immigrant from country A may feel that they she belongs in country B but still be regarded by her consociates in that country as being from country A, not least if she has retained a strong ‘foreign’ accent. Cultural performance is key – the ability to display the competence of a native when interacting with others in the adopted country. For most immigrants who arrived in their 20s or 30s this level of competence is not an option.

    Also someone may want to stress again and again that they’re from a certain locality and reject a broader identity, insist that their true ‘identity’ is local, but localities are embedded in culture areas, embedded in countries. Your local culture is a variant of a country-wide culture – it shares myriads of cultural practices and collective memories with the rest of the country.


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