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Defining Ethnicity in a Post-modern World

(The following is taken from Anthony P. Cohen, "Culture as Identity: An Anthropologist's View." New Literary History, Vol. 24, Number 1, Winter 1993.)

Cohen begins by defining "identity" as "the ways in which a person is, or wishes to be, known by certain others" (p.195) and "culture as the outcome and product of interaction; or to put it another way, to see people as active in the creation of culture, rather than passive in receiving it. If we are - in the contemporary jargon - the agents of culture's creation, then it follows that we can shape it to our will, depending on how ingenious powerful we may be." "Culture, in this view, is the means by which we make meaning, and with which we make the world meaningful to ourselves and ourselves meaningful to the world. Its vehicle is the symbol." He then goes on to identify symbols. "symbols are inherently meaningless, they are not lexical; they do not have a truth value. They are pragmatic devices which are invested with meaning through social process of one kind or another." (p. 196)

Cohen then moves to defining and discussing ethnicity. "Finally, ethnicity. In some respects, this is the most difficult word of the three since it appears to mean something - indeed, has been imported into lay usage for this reason - but in practice means either everything or nothing at all. When a Labour politician or a Birmingham policeman says ethnic, they mean "black." When the Indian Workers Association or the Notting Hill Carnival Committee says ethnic, they mean "minority," usually "disadvantaged or discriminated minority." When the racial theorist says ethnic, he refers to a relationship of blood and descent. If the word is to be anthropologically useful, it cannot refer exclusively to any of these. Ethnicity has become a mode of action and of representation: it refers to a decision people make to depict themselves or others symbolically as the bearers of a certain cultural identity. The symbols used for this purpose are almost invariably mundane items, drawn from everyday life, rather than from elaborate ceremonial or ritual occasions. Ethnicity has become the politicization of culture. (see Robert P.B. Paine, "Norwegians and Saami: Nation-state amd Fourth World," in Minorities amd Mother-country Imagery, ed. Gerald L. Gold (St. John's, Nfld., 1984), p. 212.) Thus, it is in part a claim to a particular culture, with all that entails. But such claims are rarely neutral." (pp. 196-197)

He continues "If the ethnic card is played in identity, it is not, then, like announcing nationality. Ethnicity is not a juridicial matter, carrying legal rights and obligations. It is a political claim, which entails political and moral rights and obligations." (p.197)

He further states "Ethnicity, then, is the politicization of culture; ethnic identity is a politicized cultural identity. In what kinds of circumstances does culture become politicized, intentionally put to the service of identity? I would suggest that the minimal conditions are that people recognize that ignorance of their culture among others acts to their detriment; that they experience the marginalization of their culture, and their relative powerlessness with respect to the marginalizers."

Although the author is British, and his references to the Saami in Norway, he is speaking of the experience of Fourth Worlders, the indigenous. Much of the article resonates with the situation and activities of the native peoples of Canada, whatever ethnicity or political group in which they claim membership.

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