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.
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.