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ASEN Mini – Conference, in association with the British Academy and ESRC, “Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities: Conceptualising Dominant Ethnicity”

Eric Kaufmann (University of Southampton)

This ASEN mini-conference took place on Monday, 16th December, in the Shaw Library, and was chaired by Dr. Eric Kaufmann of the Department of Politics, University of Southampton. Some eighty participants gathered to watch eight speakers present papers on theoretical aspects or case studies of dominant ethnicity. These included Eric Kaufmann (Southampton), Steve Bruce (Aberdeen), Theodore Wright (SUNY Albany), Danielle Juteau (Montreal), Anthony Smith (LSE), Chetan Bhatt (Goldsmith’s College, U. London), Oren Yiftachel (Ben-Gurion) and Yaacov Yadgar (Bar-Ilan). Sadly, Dr. Andreas Wimmer (UCLA), who was slated to speak on the institutionalisation of dominant ethnicity in Mexico, Iraq and Switzerland, had to withdraw from the programme for family reasons.

In his introductory paper, Dr. Kaufmann confirmed his intention to distinguish the concept of dominant ethnicity from the major scholastic traditions that have heretofore bulked large in the discipline. Namely, ethnic minority studies (USA) and the study of modern state nationalism and the minority ethno-nationalist reaction to it. (Europe). Dominant ethnicity had always been neglected in favour of misleading descriptions like ‘majority nation’, though Richard Schermerhorn’s identification of ‘dominant majorities’ and ‘dominant elites’ (1970) as well as Anthony Smith’s more cultural-ontological development of ‘dominant ethnie’ (1991) can be seen as discursive starting points. Two main reasons were given for the increasing importance of dominant ethnicity. First, western norms of cultural liberalism are driving a wedge between increasingly ‘civic’ nation-states and their dominant ethnies in an attempt to render western states ethnically-neutral. Second, the fragmentation of state-nationalist projects (i.e. Nehru’s India, Nkrumah’s Ghana, Tito’s Yugoslavia) in the wake of the collapse of colonial empires and the fall of the Berlin Wall, coupled with more assertive secessionist minorities, has more clearly drawn dominant ethnies out from behind their nationalist screens. Kaufmann also stressed the importance of distinguishing between economic, political, cultural and demographic brands of dominance, not all of which always go together.

The next three papers considered aspects of the problem of dominant ethnic decline (largely in the West) in relation to the rise of liberalism, secularism and cultural egalitarianism – as well as conquest.

Professor Steve Bruce, a well-known sociologist from the University of Aberdeen followed with an engaging powerpoint presentation on the ‘Strange Death of Protestant Britain.’ Professor Bruce suggested that, despite its quasi-Catholic nature in England, and the differing brands of Protestantism to be found in Wales, Scotland and England, a kind of broad, popular, low Protestantism formed an important component of British national identity. However, Bruce picks up where Colley left off, and stated that Protestantism lost its position as a key defining feature of British identity between 1876 and 1914. The reasons for this change were various, he contended. The individualistic, fissiparious nature of Protestantism, particularly in British societies, made it ill-suited to serve as a backbone of ethnicity. Moreover, the stability, legitimacy and strength of the British state (and the limited threat of Catholic enemies) helped to keep at bay the insecurities which may have fuelled religious nationalism. Add twentieth century secularisation, opined Bruce, and this all but finished off Protestantism as a cornerstone of British identity. Only in Northern Ireland, a case of extreme political instability centred on a religious division, could Protestantism serve an ethnic function.

After the first break, Theodore Wright, Professor Emeritus in Political Science at SUNY Albany, delivered a disquisition on ‘The Identity and Changing Status of Former Elite Minorities: The Contrasting Cases of North Indian Muslims and American WASPs.’ Wright tried to explain the different outcomes in two cases in which dominant ethnies (North Indian Muslims and North American WASPs) lost their hegemony. North India Muslims ruled their region for six hundred years, but lost control to the British East India Company in a century (1757-1857). The WASPs of the United States, meanwhile, lost their numerical and political dominance over a century and a half because of immigration from non-Protestant Europe. Even so, boundary maintenance and dominance only weakened in the past two generations. The WASPs expanded to include all European immigrants and some Asians into a new dominant majority, sometimes called Euro-Americans, continued Wright. Widespread exogamy since the 1960s has facilitated this change of identity whereas there is very little exogamy between Hindus and Muslims because of national antagonisms and parentally controlled arranged marriages. Paradoxically, noted Wright, dominant group survival in the US may depend on the failure of boundary maintenance which eventually undermines group identity, whereas in India successful boundary maintenance may spell the doom of the Mohajir group in genocide or expulsion.

Professor Danielle Juteau of the University of Montreal continued the theme of examining western dominant ethnies and the liberal pressures on them in her paper on ‘Pure Laine Ethnicity in Quebec’. She began by tracing the etymology of the term pure laine (virgin wool), which actually goes back to the turn of the century but was revived under the Duplessis administration in the 40s and 50s. Juteau stressed the importance of shifts within the Quebec nationalist project – which began to alter its self-definition from a religio-ethnic to a more statist basis. In the second phase of Quebec nationalism in the 80s and 90s, argued Juteau, those of non-French ethnic origin ceased to be considered ‘cultural communities’ apart from the pure laine French-Canadian ethnie. However, this elite discourse did not necessarily have deep social roots, hence even French immigrants to Quebec tend to tell pollsters that they still feel outsiders to the dominant community. To conclude, Juteau told the audience that there is a growing awareness of the distinction between Quebec’s dominant ethnic group and the Quebec nation, but at the same time a reluctance to identify with the term ‘ethnic’ which is associated with the low status minority position in which many Quebeckers of pure laine ancestry once saw themselves prior to the Quiet Revolution of the sixties.

After lunch, the programme took a turn to consider parts of the world where dominant ethnicity was clearly not in abeyance.

Professor Anthony Smith (LSE-Government) began by delivering a paper that examined the dominant ethnie-nation nexus over the longue duree. The terms ethnie and nation were originally coterminous, argued Smith, and dominant ethnic groups were present in many parts of the world throughout recorded history. Many western nations developed on the basis of ethnic cores, hence the position of the founding or dominant ethnie in these societies. Outside the West, colonial administrators tended to favour one or other group(s), thereby elevating such groups to dominant status. Once independence was confirmed, dominant ethnic elites (who often developed their nationalism abroad through blocked mobility) saw their group’s dominant status locked in by the international state system. Hence the widespread nature of the phenomenon of dominant ethnicity today.

One case where a post-colonial dominant ethnie ushered in this change was India. Chetan Bhatt (Sociology – Goldsmith’s College) continued the programme by mapping the lineaments of Hindu ethno-nationalist (Hindutva) ideology in the twentieth century. After remarking that ethnic violence in India is now at its highest level since partition, Bhatt tried to trace the origins of the concept of Hindu nationalism back to the 1920s and 30s in the writings of Vinayak Savarkar. The notion of the ancient Hindus as a warlike, Aryan race of colonists was given impetus here – under the influence of German romanticism and western Sanskriti Orientalism. The new Hindu ideology was in many ways an import and a fabrication since no Hindu gods could reasonably provide a basis for the concept of a Hindu nation. Minorities like the Christians and Muslims are viewed as traitors to their (Hindu) blood, as sheep who had wandered into the grasp of foreign faiths. More recently, the 2-6m strong Hindu fraternal society known as the RSS – which maintains a quasi-fascist ideology and organisation – was blamed for much of the upsurge in Hindu violence, especially in Gujarat. The 70 branches of this organisation in the UK are important, noted Bhatt, for the successful middle-class Hindu male in the diaspora is a role model for many Hindus at home. On the other hand, the lack of political efficacy of this expatriate group provides for a deep identity crisis which finds an outlet in Hindu nationalist extremism.

Oren Yiftachel, Professor of Geography at Ben-Gurion University, kicked off the final session on dominant ethnicity in Israel. Expanding upon his theory of ethnocracy, Yiftachel pointed to a number of features of this regime type: a relatively open government, yet one which facilitates a non-democratic seizure of contested territory by one ethnonational group. It differs from democratic regimes by the constant undermining of the ‘demos’, namely equal citizenship, clear borders, or protection of minorities. Ethnocracies, he continued, emerge from the fusion of three main forces: colonialism, ethnonationalism, and the ‘ethnic logic’ of capital, and are characterised by structural stratification and segregation among ethno-classes. Such regimes, which can be found in Estonia, Sri Lanka, Serbia and Malaysia, are inherently unstable, due to the constant tension between the democratic self-representation and the on-going deprivation of minorities. In a colourful presentation, Yiftachel listed the many ways in which Jewish ethnocracy operated in Israel, notably legal (laws which prevent Arabs from buying land or occupying certain positions), geographic (land acquisition), political (control of institutions), and economic (social stratification of the form Ashkenazi-Mizrahi-Arab). Yiftachel spoke of a system of ‘creeping apartheid’, marked by deep divisions and conflicts, engendered by the Judaisation project of deepening and expansion which dates from Israel’s inception. To conclude, Yiftachel outlined the six geographic/political scenarios which are currently on the table, including Jewish control, Palestinian control, two separate states and a single, binational state.

Yaacov Yadgar’s talk diverged somewhat from that of Yiftachel, in that Yadgar traced a post-Zionist, universalist counter-narrative to Judaisation, which he claimed has been building in Israel since at least 1967. Examining the main Jewish-Israeli newspaper editorials of the post-67 period, he discerned a shift away from an ethnically-based Zionist concept of Israeli national mission to one that was more universalistic and pluralistic. This trend was interrupted by the current events of the second Intifada – and many former universalists fell back on the old ethnic narrative of ‘the world is always going to be against us’, which allowed for a recasting of the Arab as an untrustworthy ‘Other’. On the other hand, a minority of writers seemed unfazed by the new dispensation and have pledged themselves to a renewed post-nationalist radicalism which singles out the Israeli right as the obstacle to a lasting settlement.

Throughout, the proceedings provoked many interesting questions during the three discussion periods. This culminated with the Israeli case, which naturally generated a good deal of controversy given the current conflict and talk of a western boycott of Israeli academics. In all, it was a stimulating day, with many expressing their satisfaction with the quality of the event and looking forward to the publication of the papers as part of a larger edited volume (Routledge 2004).

Website by Eric P Kaufmann