Conceptualizing Identity

Much of what I’ve been focusing on lately comes back to theories of identity. Identity has tendrils into everything – violence, collective action, nationalism, voting, and on and on. Evidence of identity’s centrality is the preeminence of ethnic studies, which fundamentally concerns identity. One of my biggest beefs with ethnicity studies, however, follows Kanchan Chandra (2009, in 2nd edition of Lichbach and Zuckerman) in her criticism of the concept’s elusiveness. Ethnicity soaks up so many identity categories, that a reasonable question is what kind of identity is not ethnic.

Chandra argues that many characteristics commonly ascribed to ethnicity are in fact not characteristics of identity, and she argues that we can discern only two intrinsic characteristics of ethnicity. The first, constrained change, refers to the fact that an individual’s ethnicity may evolve but is wedded to the core of descent-based attributes. The other, visibility, refers to the fact that much of an individual’s ethnicity is observable through simple observation. Chandra notes that many of the elements of different definitions, ranging from common ancestry, myth of common ancestry, common culture,common history, of ethnicity do not stand rigorous scrutiny as useful criteria for ethnicity. For example, Chandra notes that co-members of an ethnic group based on common culture should share more in common that with members outside of their group (p. 410). However, this simple assumption falls apart when, as is common, individuals are members of multiple cultures, descend from multiple ancestry lines, or subscribe to mutiple myths of group or lineage. The multiplicity of an individual’s available ethnicities thwarts the notion of strong, subsuming ethnicity. In this claim, Chandra underscores the instrumentalist frustration with primordial arguments. However, her attempt to break down ethnicity entirely as conceptually useful does not answer with what it should be replaced. Undeniably, Geertz’s primordialist givens exist – language, territoriality, traditions, kinship all contour individual and collective human experience. And, indeed, these are often invoked as bases for group identification, but to what extent should these givens be lumped together under the ethnic umbrella, and to what extent should we refer to them as distinct bases for identity?

Like Chandra, Connor (1996 [1978]) is concerned with conceptual clarity, and uses the concepts of nation and state to demonstrate conceptual ambiguity. He notes that while scholars understand the differences (or at least articulate that they do) between nation and state, they still confuse the concepts in scholarship. This creates significant problems, as the state is a tangible, geographically-delimited phenomenon and the other is intangible, fluid, and geographically-ambiguous. They are concepts which often coincide, though often not neatly and certainly not necessarily. And, as such, scholars need to tread carefully when utilizing the concepts in relation to one another. Connor explores the origins of nationhood, and identifies some very useful markers. He particularly focuses on the perception of group members, noting that actual common descent is less important than perceived common descent. This perception is often quite powerful, and revealed in nation-building agendas such as those of the Chinese Communist Party and Bismarck’s German unification. Because such projects have been so successful, nation-building has become synonymous with state-building and, Connor argues, few seem to notice that this is problematic. Connor notes that in 1971, only nine percent of states in the international system were completely coincident with nations (p. 39). The confusion between the two, is revealed in the fact that nationalism has come to mean loyalty to state, rather than to group. Connor notes, “scholars had failed to inquire how many cases there have been where fanatical devotion to a state has arisen in the absence of a popular conception of the state as the state of one’s particular nation” (p. 42).

Work that I’ve recently done with Saul Newman (2009, manuscript form) demonstrates the concept of nation is by no means necessarily synonymous with salient group cleavages within societies, particularly ones riven by group conflict. For example, in Israel, survey data consistently indicate that religious Jews consistently self-identify as “Jewish,” where secular Jews self-identify as “Israeli.” In Northern Ireland, Catholics identify as “Irish,” and Protestants variously self-identify as “Northern Irish,” “British,” or as “Ulster.” This demonstrates both the complexity of national self-identification, as well as whether nation, state, or something else serves as the most relevant cleavage within any society. The cross-cutting nature of religion, religiosity, and national allegiance suggests that Connor is correct in stating “ethnicity is, if anything, even more definitionally chameleonic than nation” (p. 43, original emphasis).

Gellner (1996 [1964]) begins with the proposition that only literate individuals have the necessary basics in place to claim and exercise their rights. Extending this, nations create systems through which to educate individuals on the legitimate forms of citizenship and rights. Only an entity on the scale of the nation can enforce a system that produces a body of legitimized citizenship, and it is typically generate through an educational system. Thus, for Gellner, nationhood is not latent and then evenutally realized (or not), but rather it is wholly created by a nationalism forged by entrepreneurs. For peripheral societies in the modernizing world, the constructed nation creates cultural uniformity, which is itself a bulwark against the currents and eddies of the globalizing world-economy. Gellner concisely captures his position thusly, “Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality, for better or worse, and in general an inescapable one” (1996 [1983]: 63-64).

Nairn (1996 [1971]), Hobsbawm (1996 [1983]), and Brass (1996 [1991]) also argue that there is nothing natural about nationalism, and that we must look to political and economic processes that created nations and nationalism and the conditions that made such nation-creation possible. Nairn argues that nationalism is a distinctive form of group identity that emerged in the early nineteenth century, as a response to the “wheels of commerce.” He explains nationalism as “folklore,” and “a sort of adolescence of all societies” (p. 71). Perhaps what is problematic about nationalism, in Nairn’s reading, is not that it exists – indeed, it serves as a useful “commodity” for identity. Hobsbawm points to the various inventions that sustain nationhood: primary education, public ceremonies, monuments, manifestos, flags and other symbols of shared history, identity, and commitment to group. For Hobsbawm, it is these pillars of nationalism that perpetuate the national myth, and provide easy and coercive mechanisms for individuals to align their national affinity. Anderson (1996 [1991]) argues that the rise of the printing press empowered strongmen the ability to construct, disseminate, access and enforce shared identity.

Ultimately, Brass (1996 [1991]) may have the most useful path forward for political scientists. He identifies useful elements within the primordialist repertoire, which provide an “easy affinity” with others of similar backgrounds (p. 83). However, these primordial elements pose a problematic in the extent to which they vary (sometimes widely) between members of the same putative group (mixed lineage, language, and knowledge, even if overlapping). Further, Brass points out that even when a strong core of culture exists within a people, it might not have much utility in predicting or understanding the behavior and organization of its individual members. Ultimately, Brass argues for a constructivist approach, merging the sticky aspects of primordialism, such as language, religion, and kinship. This, ultimately, is where constructivism appears to hold much explanatory promise – acknowledging the relevance of the phenomena that individuals are born into or cannot easily divest, while exploring how social and political processes shape and are shaped by identity and to what ends.

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