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Ethnicity and Identity

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Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

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Dale F. Eickelman

From The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach
© 1989 Pearson Education
Electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Section I


Notions of ethnicity are cultural constructions, although in popular usage ethnicity is sometimes assumed almost to be a biological given. Ethnicity in modern usage refers to "the way individuals and groups characterize themselves on the basis of their language, race, place of origin, shared culture, values, and history... Central to the notion of ethnicity is a conception of a common descent, often of a mythic character." 78 Ethnicity is often thought to be a matter of birth, but the exceptions are as frequent as the rule, especially as the social and political significance of ethnic and religious identities alters significantly according to specific historical contexts. The experience of large-scale migration in search of wage labor, be it Pakistanis to Saudi Arabia or Turks to West Germany, has had a major impact upon how ethnic identity is conceived. At the very best, "ethnicity" is an "experience-distant" term, much like "kinship" (see Chapter 7) but perhaps even more problematic because of its varying contemporary political significance and the sheer diversity of the forms of identity characterized (primarily by outsiders to the region) as "ethnic" throughout the Middle East. Indeed, it is difficult to find a specific counterpart in Middle Eastern languages for the English term "ethnicity." Take the term qawm ("people") in Afghanistan (see Chapter 7). Depending upon context it can mean a tribe or a subdivision of one, a people sharing a common origin or region of residence, or more generally a shared identity of religion and language. 79

Assertion of an "ethnic" identity is often a political claim and has very different implications according to context. In Afghanistan, opposition to a Soviet-dominated state comes largely from tribally organized ethnic groups, for whom attachment to Islam serves as a common denominator. In Pakistan, especially after the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, the country's ruling Punjabi elite views with suspicion the country's other ethnic groups, which include Sindhis, Pashtuns, Muhajirs (Muslim refugees who migrate after 1947 from what is now India), and Baluch. Unlike Afghanistan, the state emphasizes Islam as an identity more important than the common ethnic ties of its minority groups, including the Baluch, who from 1973 to 1977 fought an insurgency for regional autonomy. The insurgency was unsuccessful, but contributed to a heightened Baluch national consciousness that cut across tribal divisions.

Understanding "ethnicity" requires an analytic framework which presents the principles of ethnic stereotyping (notions concerning the motivations and attributes of the members of "other" ethnic groups and what can be expected of them, as well as those of one's own ethnic group), and how these notions are maintained in changing historical contexts. Ethnic identities, like linguistic, sectarian, national, family, and other forms of social definition, can be comprehended only in the context of more general cultural assumptions made in a given society concerning the nature of the social world and social relationships. Moreover, such identities must be analyzed in terms of the specific historical contexts in which they are maintained, transformed, and reproduced, and not as blocklike units of an ahistorical mosaic of objective "culture traits" amenable to easy mapping.

In a provocative essay written in the late 1960s, Fredrik Barth reviewed the drawbacks to defining ethnicity as a fixed and unchanging, almost biologically given, element of personal identity or set of prescriptive cultural "traits" or rules. He sought instead to focus upon the " socially effective" ways in which notions of ethnic group identities and boundaries were produced and maintained, as opposed to what he called the identification of "cultural stuff," which he considered to be merely the content, not amenable to sociological analysis, used to fill in social forms. 81 Barth's approach has been termed an instrumentalist one in that it maintains that subjective claims to ethnic identity are sustained by the manipulation of culture to support the collective political and economic interests of particular groups. Barth focuses upon the organizational forms of social groups whose principle of unity is presumed rather than demonstrated to be that of ethnicity rather than alternate or complementary attributes which could form the base of organizational cohesiveness. For example, the essay in his volume concerning Fur cultivators and Baggara pastoralists in the Sudan explicitly avoids consideration of the historical process of personal shifts of ethnic identity between the two neighboring groups. It is explicitly assumed that when persons change the means by which they utilize certain resources, their ethnic identities change as well. Even were this to be the case, little attention is paid to precisely what ethnicity means in the setting of the Fur and the Baggara and, indeed, only Fur views of social identity are provided in any detail. 82 In his own case study in the volume, Barth elaborates the economic and productive contexts in which it is useful for Pathans to stress their identities as Pathans and those in which it is not. By confining his discussion to "traditional" Pathans, and to social groups distinguished by their exploitation of particular ecological "niches," he disregards some of the most significant tests of the precise ramifications of ethnicity in contemporary and complex urban and transnational settings. 83 Barth developed his argument in a later study of Suhar, an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically complex coastal town in the Arabian Gulf. 84 Each group in this complex society is seen as carriers of distinctive cultural "traits," organized like threads in a piece of Baluch needlework into "cultural syndromes," which Barth seeks to sort out into their component parts. 85 In spite of the study's interesting description of social organization in a complex cultural setting, the notion of culture advanced moves very little past an earlier notion of culture as material and ideational "stuff."

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