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

By | January 14, 2010

… is the title of a review of anthropologists Jean and Jean Comaroff’s book, Ethnicity, INC. An excerpt of the review:

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.

And:

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.

The full review. The book is going on my to-read list for the year.

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  • Vitpil

    I have yet to read this book, though I am very (very) familiar with the rest of the Comaroff’s corpus. In the interest of full disclosure, one of them was the chair of my dissertation committee. That said, I think this review might not be getting the point of their argument–and I have to repeat that I have not yet read the book!–they are assuredly not advocating a particular position to take towards ethnicity now or in the future. That is not their thing! They certainly would not argue for (or against, even, though that is less sure) Ethnicity, Inc. Rather, I suspect that they are identifying a new direction or form that ethnicity is taking in the context of neoliberal political and economic developments in Africa.

    I also have a real hard time imagining that they make the assumption that humans are “rational actors”–in fact this is one of the primary assumptions about what it means to be human that they argue against in much of their work. Their understanding of human consciousness (note: not human nature) is one that is produced through a dialectic between material circumstances and historical events.

    OK, off to read the full review! Thanks for drawing this to your readers’ attentions and reminding me that I really need to read this book.

  • Vitpil

    I have yet to read this book, though I am very (very) familiar with the rest of the Comaroff’s corpus. In the interest of full disclosure, one of them was the chair of my dissertation committee. That said, I think this review might not be getting the point of their argument–and I have to repeat that I have not yet read the book!–they are assuredly not advocating a particular position to take towards ethnicity now or in the future. That is not their thing! They certainly would not argue for (or against, even, though that is less sure) Ethnicity, Inc. Rather, I suspect that they are identifying a new direction or form that ethnicity is taking in the context of neoliberal political and economic developments in Africa.

    I also have a real hard time imagining that they make the assumption that humans are “rational actors”–in fact this is one of the primary assumptions about what it means to be human that they argue against in much of their work. Their understanding of human consciousness (note: not human nature) is one that is produced through a dialectic between material circumstances and historical events.

    OK, off to read the full review! Thanks for drawing this to your readers’ attentions and reminding me that I really need to read this book.

  • Vitpil

    I wish I had looked before I typed! Check the original post for John Comaroff’s response to the review.

  • Vitpil

    I wish I had looked before I typed! Check the original post for John Comaroff’s response to the review.

  • I just read John Comaroff’s response. From what I know of their work, what he wrote in the response is what I would have expected the book to be about. I linked to it here largely to remind myself to read the book.

    Thanks for the comments.

  • I just read John Comaroff’s response. From what I know of their work, what he wrote in the response is what I would have expected the book to be about. I linked to it here largely to remind myself to read the book.

    Thanks for the comments.

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