Posted by: Johan Normark | June 18, 2009

Ethnicity in the archaeological record pt 2 – ethnic identity as a quasi-object

Style is sometimes used to signal ethnicity but do we attribute ethnicity to style when there might have been other processes going on? As will become apparent, ethnicity is one category of a set of similar categories that is used to explain something people are believed to share.

For Barth (1969: 9), ethnic groups are “categories of ascription and identification by the actors themselves.” Siân Jones further defines ethnic groups as “culturally ascribed identity groups, which are based on the expression of a real or assumed shared culture and common descent” (Jones 1997: 84). A group like this is also believed to share the same norms, laws, and cosmology.

Jones characterises ethnic identity as a shifting, situational, and subjective identifying of oneself and others. This is supposed to be founded in daily activities and historical experience. It is seen as a process that transforms and is discontinuous (Jones 1997: 13-14). This definition also emphasizes the construction of ethnic boundaries from and within social interaction. Ethnicity is here seen as how people recognize identity towards other groups in a binary opposition between “us” and “them”. These ethnic boundaries can consist of language, dress, economic roles, or geographical location. The boundaries determine and signal membership in a specific group. The boundaries are dynamic and for an ethnic group to persist, the interaction with other groups needs to allow for a continuance of differences (Barth 1969: 16). Otherwise, one group may be assimilated in the other.

However, this kind of definition of ethnicity describes processes that also can be applied to other groups, such as gender, class, and lineage (Johannesen 2004). To use a distinction from Bergson (1998), identities are seen as dualistic, as differences of degree rather than differences in kind. An identity consists of one group at one extreme end, and the other group at the other extreme, the differences is then just a matter of degrees between them.

A pattern seen in the study of ethnicity, gender or classes, is thus the somewhat arbitrary creation of at least two different groups, as shown by Turner (1994, 1997) in his critique of the theories of practice. A common way to proceed is to apply an anthropological model that explains differences between groups, as that people in group A shares y and people in group B shares x. The difference between these groups is that they possess x or y. This difference is not individual differences but rather difference between the “thing” that one group shares and the other “thing” the other group shares. The problem is therefore the shared “thing” (in this case, the culture an ethnic group is believed to have shared), and the sameness of this “thing” that people are believed to possess (Turner 1997: 346). How can this “thing”, this quasi-object, become internalized and still share the sameness? This has been solved by using generalizations such as culture, tradition, ideology, discourse, paradigm, episteme, or practice, etc. What these generalizations have in common is the sharing of something external, invisible, and structural to the human agents sometime relying on social constructivism.

The most obvious of these shared external invisibilities is culture and I have been bashing this concept in earlier posts. Culture as a macro-level concept has been used to describe a changing totality, which still remains the same. Mayanists talk about “Maya culture” when they describe the present and also when they describe people during the Middle Formative, as if it is the same, only a difference of degree (Normark 2004b). In fact, people at Cuello, in 1000 B.C. had much more in common with contemporaneous people, such as at San Lorenzo in the Olmec area, than they have with present “Maya”. However, to use the Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha (1994: 95) insights, it might be argued that a population’s “culture”, such as the one at Nohcacab (mentioned in the first post in this series), is not imposed by a new “culture,” such as the Itzá’s. Both are created within the encounter, within a third space. All “cultures” are hybrids; there are no “pure cultures”. “Cultures” are not homogenous but are built up from many different agents and fractions, in which ethnicity and identities derive from different sources.

In contrast to Bhabha, I argue that there is no culture at all if by culture is meant this structural element that persists externally of the human agents. To me, there are only individual habits. Culture as an analytical concept has no operational use and since ethnicity relies on culture, neither can ethnicity be a functioning operational analytical concept. Culture is nothing more than an assumed shared external invisibility that researchers too easily rely upon. Archaeology beyond culture is a difficult but necessary task.



  1. […] record? Johan Nomark writes about Ethnicity in the Archaeological Record in this three-parter here, here and […]


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