An Exercise In Ethnology

Longtime readers of my blog will be well aware of my blog’s interest in questions of ethnicity, which at their basis are studies in identity.  In our nationalistic world we tend to think of “nations” or “peoples” as the fundamental justification for the existence of nation-states.  This creates a lot of problems, a few of which I will discuss below.

One of the fundamental problems in justifying a nation-state by origin is the immigration problem.  If Germany is defined as a state inhabited by Germans, then where do Turkish immigrants fit in the picture?  Turks share no recent common descent from Germans, and come with an alien religion and culture and language.  What sort of minority rights exist, and what is the relationship between the majority host nation and its minority population?  These are difficult questions.

Other nations face the problems of having minority populations that are not immigrant populations but are indigenous peoples with serious grievances.  For example, Spain has independence-minded Basques and wealthy Catalans.  Britain has Celtic fringe regions in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Cornwall, all with lengthy histories of English exploitation and domination.  France has stubborn Brittany, exploited Languedoc, the remnants of a rival Burgundian state, and Italian Corsicans among its native populations.

Other nations have some serious “ethnicity” problems.  For example, although the United States was founded by mostly Northern and Western Europeans, from very early times it had notable English, Welsh, Scottish, Scot-Irish, Irish, French Hugonaut, German, Swedish, and Dutch strains, besides the indigenous peoples of North America and imported slaves from a wide variety of African peoples.  Very quickly to this mix were added Acadian (Cajun) French, Spanish.  Before long Italians, Poles, Russians, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, native Hawaiians, and many other peoples were added to this mix.  The legitimacy of all of these peoples within the United States springs from the very universalist national principles upon which the United States was founded.  By seeking legitimacy for rebellion from a “candid world” and declaring that all men were created equal (a declaration which included women as part of mankind, along with the slaves that the Americans themselves held at the time), America made any sort of sexist, racist, or nativist movement anti-American by definition.  Clearly, this has some serious implications.

Other nations have precisely the opposite problem.  While the United States engages in an uncertain experiment in making one culture out of many, and one nation out of people from all parts of the earth (and maybe a few aliens in Area 51, just kidding), honorary nations like Bosnia & Herzegovina consist of three major “nations” or “ethnicities” descended from the same ancestry and even speaking the same language, but divided by religion–Croats are Catholics, Serbs are Eastern Orthodox, and Bosniaks are Muslims.  All of them are cousins, fighting and feuding when they are not forced into an unhappy peace by force.

And yet with a few exceptions, states that have a solid ethnic basis seem to be easily recognized by the world at large.  South Sudan, with its distinctive African Animist-Christian identity from the Arab-Muslim north, appears to have a smooth process to internationally recognized nationhood.  Tiny Nevis of St. Kitts and Nevis or sparsely populated New Caledonia would probably have a seat in the UN General Secretariat as soon as they voted for their independence in a free and fair internationally monitored election, though who knows if that will ever happen.

In some parts of the world, though, the ethnicity problem appears to be an unsolvable dilemma.  This is true for much of Africa, which sits astride several metaethnic frontiers, especially the Muslim-Christain/Animist divide that runs across the Sahel regions cutting through Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Sudan, along with the metaethnic European-Black African divide in South Africa.  Besides these there are too many numerous smaller divides to mention.  To imagine an Africa populated by “pure” ethnic nation-states seems aboslutely inconceivable, on account of the large number of tribes and peoples and the wide disparity in power between them that would invite wars of imperialism as the larger peoples (like the Amhara and Oromo in Ethiopia, the Somalis of Djibouiti, Somaliland, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya), the Ashanti/Akan of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, or the Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo of Nigeria, sought to dominate the smaller tribes around them.  It would be a Hobbesian state of nature, a nightmare for all, and the African Union has foresworn the attempt.

There are other areas, though, where ethnic problems appear to be less hopeless, but only slightly less troublesome, than in Africa.  Take the situation in Southeast Asia.  The mainland portion of this subcontinent consists of Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.  Each of these nations (apart from tiny Singapore, itself a city-state) has notable minority populations, sometimes restive.  All of them have sought to blend a realistic allowance of different cultural and linguistic (and even religious) identities among its various peoples and the security and prestige needs of its central authority.  Some seem to have done this successfully (Thailand and Malyasia, for example), while others have been pitiful failures (Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam, for example).

What makes the balance so hard?  Some nations were clearly helped by a long history of tolerant and wise rule (see Thailand), along with leaders that genuinely cared about the well-being of their people, no matter their culture or ethnicity.  Other nations, though, lacked the finesse and legitimacy to straddle political divides (Cambodia and Vietnam) or lacked the ability to deal honorably and faithfully with restive minority populations (see Burma’s thorny problems with the Karen, Shan, and Kachin peoples, among others).  The fact that some of these ethnicities could make a go of it as independent (albeit small) states makes the problem even more troublesome, along with the permanent situation of borders that plagues many would-be nations (like the poor Tuareg scattered over more than half a dozen Sahelic and North African states, or the Kurds of Southeast Asia who form a permanent and restive minority in at least five nation-states unwilling to grant them independence).  What possible peaceful end is there to such longstanding and intractable conflicts?  Any solutions appear to be beyond human abilities, though let us make our best efforts to do it, while there is time to do so, as the days are evil.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Exercise In Ethnology

  1. I enjoyed your post. You might want to check out the sample chapters from my upcoming memoir, which I posted on my blog, showing the multi-ethnic makeup of my family and the island of Jamaica.

    • I will definitely take a look at those. Despite all appearances (given my freckles and pale skin and blond hair), I am like most Americans a person of baffling cultural blends, ranging from Cherokee to the usual English, Scottish, Welsh, Scot-Irish, and German, to two strands of Jewish descent, and even a bit of Basque. Needless to say, ethnology is a subject of considerable personal interest in untangling my own complex genealogy.

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