ethnicity is the curse of culture

I wrote the above phrase in an email to a senior scholar (not a social scientist) I enjoy arguing politics with. I’m not entirely sure what I meant by it, but he liked a lot so I thought I’d flesh it out here.

I think the point I was getting at is that culture is about patterned behaviors, ideas, thoughts, styles, skills, habits–it’s something that’s done or thought. By contrast, ethnicity is a static label–a categorization implying exclusivity. It’s based on culture (whether practiced or just perceived), but it’s more than culture. Ethnicity is culture ossified, abstracted from culture and (re)presented to the bearer of culture, confronting her as if it were an alien reality beyond her control.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

10 thoughts on “ethnicity is the curse of culture”

  1. As someone who studies categorizations AS culture, I’d love to hear more about this ossification process, and how it is able to transform things into “more than” culture. I’m lead to assume that ossification unevenly attacks cultural objects, leaving some of them “still” culture…like, genres? while others become “more than”. Why? How?


  2. It seems to me that the ossification is linked to status competition and institutionalization. Culture which aids in the pursuit of political projects (e.g., the struggle for political sovereignty) becomes essentialized — the group comes to view it as an inextricable aspect of its identity and the basis for its political claims. But of course, essentialization can come from without as well. Groups that want to limit others’ access to economic and political opportunities tend to identify particular aspects of the competitors’ culture as “more than culture” — as fundamental properties of who they are. Once these assumptions are taken up by political and economic organizations, they become increasingly real, durable, and taken-for-granted (i.e., institutionalized).

    Ethnic categories may be more likely than genres to become institutionalized features of status hierarchies due to their distinct temporal trajectories. Culture-as-ethnicity is always framed in terms of immutable traits that have been present for generations (regardless of the objective validity of these claims). In contrast, tastes (and genres used to classify them) are seen as mutable. They certainly do serve as bases for status distinction, but because the distribution of tastes changes reasonably quickly, at least in relation to ethnic characteristics, they are viewed as less essential, less real. They are “still” culture, while ethnicity is “more than” culture.

    At least that’s my intuition.


  3. The “ossification” idea seems wrong to me. Why would you say ethnicity is just a static label? On survey forms it is, sure, and to the degree that it’s institutionalized by the state or wherever (as Bart says) the expectations associated with it are relatively stable. But they’re being actively reproduced all the time. I’d sooner say that sort of thing is culture in a very strong or pure form, and very much alive. Ossified culture is signifiers that don’t signify any more, rituals that don’t mean anything to anyone, genres that no-one works in, etc. The experience of being confronted by the facticity of some body of thought and practice, on the other hand, seems like the definition of culture that’s very much alive — especially when people are oriented to one another in terms of expectations and beliefs they take to be somewhat naturalized, as in the case of ethnicity.


  4. I agree with Kieran. Ethnicity, like race and gender, is something that is continually enacted, contested, and maintained or changed to varying degrees. They are continuously shifting at different tempos in different times and places. I think it is precisely because ethnicity (like race and gender) is so precarious that people try to make it stable or “ossified” (i.e. try to defend how things are “traditionally” done, maintain group boundaries and collective identities, etc). If ethnicity appears exclusive or static, it is only so from a very narrow (temporally, geographically, or both) point of view.

    So the phrase, “ethnicity is the curse of culture” is a little mystifying to me. Unless you are making a commentary on persistence of ethnic conflict around the world. Then maybe I could see what you mean.


  5. I think I understand what Andy means by static if you take it from the very common but mostly unhelpful multiculturalism approach to ethnicity that people learn in grade school: “these are Mexicans- they eat beans and rice and they are all Catholic and have big families; these are French people–they eat snails and drink wine and smoke cigarettes.” This is clearly too rigid and homogenizing an approach.

    But the proposed opposite–an understanding of ethnicity that is completely defined by a process of enacting and reenacting culture, is similarly wrong. As mentioned above, many parts of ethnicity are institutionalized, formally as ethnic categories that, say, limit one’s capacity to immigrate, or more informally as more firmly set (if not permanent) sets of expectations of participation in community life. I think keeping these more solid aspects of ethnicity are important as well.

    Doesn’t the term ethnicity bring us both the structure and the process? If not, what term would?


  6. I suppose I’m out of the cultural sociology loop in this, but what seems to be missing from Andy’s original post and only vaguely alluded to in subsequent (especially Tina’s) is stratification and hierarchy. Boundaries between groups and hierarchical relations between bounded groups do exist for some groups (even if those boundaries themselves are constantly reconstructed and fuzzy). Ethnicity as a relatively static label capturing those boundaries and the process of stereotyping within and between those boundaries is very real. Ethnicity in this sense often is imposed from without, in a structure of domination, or may be created from within, as a group resists pressures to assimilation.

    So, cycling back and re-reading in light of this, one could argue that that’s what Andy meant in the first place? But if so, why not say so? The post reads as if everyone is in the same position with respect to culture and ethnicity.


  7. I think I did mean what OW infers (and states much better than I did!). I’m thinking partially about Adam Kuper’s work on culture in the context of South Africa, wherein anthropological concepts of culture were attached to ossified ethnicities and became the legitimating logic behind apartheid. So yes, hierarchy is very much part of what I’m saying when I draw this point.

    I have to look more carefully at the cites offered by Aaron. I guess I agree that ethnicity, like race, gender, etc., is continually re-performed, but not under conditions of the performer’s choosing. These categories are relatively exclusive, relatively sticky, and experienced as relatively external, where the practices of cultural styles, skills, and habits are relatively more cross-cutting, potentially plural, and experienced as relatively internal. (All of these are ideas, not claims or even hypotheses – just thinking it through.)

    So, to add an additional twist referring back to Jenn’s comment: is ethnicity to culture-as-group as genre is to culture-as-taste?


  8. Not something I know much about, but ethnicity seems less static, more susceptible to change and redefinition in its content, while genre is more fixed. When there is change to a genre, the variant gets a new name, often by the addition of “neo-” or some other descriptor to the old name (neo-realism, post-impressionism, spaghetti Western (?), etc.). But we don’t talk about neo-Irish-American, even though the content or meaning of “Irishness” in US society has changed.


  9. “Is ethnicity to culture-as-group as genre is to culture-as-taste?”

    Interesting question. My instinct is yes, but ethnicity is just one of many possible labels that we apply to “culture-as-group,” and genre is just one of many possible labels for “culture-as-taste.”

    Other culture-as-group categories: subcultural group, religious group, voluntary community, etc.

    Other culture-as-taste categories: style, medium, etc.

    And what about culture-as-taste-groups?

    Any theorist out there want to come up with a typology for classifying cultural classifications?


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