Posted by: Johan Normark | June 24, 2009

Ethnicity in the archaeological record pt 3: ethnicity is about self-identification, archaeology is not

The major obstacle in using ethnicity as an operational concept in archaeology is that “the study of ethnicity and ethnic groups needs to take self-identifications as its point of departure rather than turning to comparisons with neighbouring groups, abstract theories of ethnic identity, and political ideologies in search of analytical terms” (Hervik 2003: 53). Thus, we should go from internal differences in kind rather than external differences of degree. However, there are no ways in which we can reach self-identifications in the archaeological record. Epigraphy cannot help us here since what may have been “true” for some ancient high ranking kings may not have been the same among other high ranking people at a neighbouring site, for their descendents a century later, or among other social groups from which we have no written sources. The common approach to study the “Maya culture” – to take a little here and then, add something from there and now, and voilá, we have a “Maya culture,” – cannot be used if we are to understand differentiations.

If we turn to the micro-level instead, will we find ethnicity there? Do all ethnicity and culture come down to the individual human agent? Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus has been used to explain how ethnicity is formed from both conscious and unconscious interactions. However, ethnicity is a conscious difference that relates to others. It is not constituted by subliminal consciousness of shared similarities (Johannesen 2004). Ethnicity is all about externalised differences. That is; differences between groups that share something.

Should we in any particular analysis consider or rather speculate around the intersection of different kinds of identity, such as; ethnicity, class, gender, lineage, “house,” or even individual habits? Should we study the way these identities become institutionalized, internalized, or socialized in different social settings and how they interact with each others to get a more complete view?

No. Such approaches will create a mess of assumed ontologically secure categories (see Smith 2005). These secure categories reflect a metaphysics of presence in Derrida’s sense (Hägglund 2002). That is, the need of a static presence of a timeless entity (“being”) that we depend upon in our analysis. This entity is believed to remain stable even though its content has a tendency of becoming something else. The belief is that the contents of culture and ethnicity change but that culture and ethnicity in themselves as concepts remain the same. We thus freeze a changing world to static frames, to beings such as ethnicity, and generate a deceptive stability that reduces differences in kind to differences of degree. Ethnicity as a concept becomes eternal and external.

Can we use other tools that reduce the stability and dissolve the sharing of external structures, tools that help us to see the world in all its becomings of differentiation?

Yes. However, these are not to be found in Mayanist Culture-history. Alternatives are to be found among those French philosophers that Rice and others (2004: 7) have dismissed by claiming to cling to what they appear to see as “true” archaeology. However, we do not need to use the French philosophers through their “British archaeological ‘translators,’” (ibid), since Hodder, Shanks, and Tilley are too caught up in the culture concept and social constructionism. The alternative I propose is the one sketched out in an earlier blogpost series: the one on posthumanocentric archaeology (PA).

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