Synopsis – Rethinking Ethnicity

Edited by Eric P. Kaufmann, University of Southampton, UK

Today’s nations are experiencing an unprecedented degree of pressure from the forces of globalization. In particular, the spread of liberal rights discourse since the 1960s has mounted an increasing challenge to the model of ethno-national congruence.[1] Nations, nearly all of which were formed on the basis of a dominant, ‘core’ ethnic group, are thus facing pressure to shift their self-definitions from ‘ethnic’ to ‘civic’ criteria. They are encouraged to look to their future rather than their past, to treasure their cultural diversity (past and present) rather than their homogeneity, and to be open to foreign trade, foreign immigration, and foreign (‘multi’) cultural influences. In short, global narratives of liberal universalism are driving an ever-greater wedge between modern nations and their dominant ethnic groups.

Much has been written about ethnic minorities and their relationship to state structures and abstract ‘host societies.’ There is also a voluminous literature on nations and nationalism. Yet there has been virtually no consideration of the living, breathing ethnic communities which gave birth to, but are by no means coterminous with, the nation-state. These dominant ethnies – no less then their minority counterparts – are engaged in a process of reviving, constructing and adapting their identities and political strategies to the evolving context of late modernity. Due to their demographic and emotive power, such groups are arguably more central to explaining cultural and political developments than either ethnic minorities or state élites. We must therefore make every effort to improve our understanding of dominant ethnicity. How are ethnies like the Melanesian Fijians of Fiji, English in England, and Jews of Israel responding to the pressures of our global era? Are such groups in decline or are they successfully negotiating (or resisting) the challenge of new global values? These questions comprise one axis of our analysis.

The other concerns the place of politically dominant (or formerly dominant) minorities. As with ethnic majorities, evolving global norms pose a challenge to dominant minorities. In this instance, our post-colonial, post-communist era has generated renewed legitimacy for the idea of democratic self-determination. Notions of suzerainty and hegemonic control have been de-legitimated, and dominant minorities have been forced on the defensive. Rhodesians, Afrikaners, Baltic Russians and North Indian Muslims – all share a sense of loss, and face a crisis of ethnic legitimation. Even so, other dominant minorities, like the ethnic Fijians, Tutsis, Alawis or Gulf Arabs, appear as robust as ever. Once more, the focus of this work will be to probe the response of these dominant ethnic communities to the new ‘stimuli’ in their environment, to examine whether such groups are in decline, or are successfully negotiating the latest wrinkle of global modernization.

The development of the specialist literature in the field of ethnicity and nationalism studies has been astonishingly rapid in the past two decades. Indeed, many of the contributors to this volume are recognized as leading figures in this scholarly revolution. Since 1980, great strides have been made toward differentiating the concepts of state, nation, and ethnic group, and sketching the linkages between such phenomena. Richard Schemerhorn’s concept of an ‘elite minority’ and Anthony Smith’s articulation of the term ‘dominant ethnie’ are cardinal points of departure for this investigation.[2] Since their definitions appeared, however, there has been virtually no conceptual follow-up, beyond several encyclopedic definitions, an important work on Asian majorities, and one journal article.[3]

This book is therefore the first of its kind, and represents a new step in the maturation of ethnicity and nationalism studies, away from the Anglocentric equation of ‘ethnic’ with ‘minority.’ Here, for the first time, hermeneutic light is being directed toward dominant ethnic groups, which will be interrogated not as abstract states, nations or host ‘societies,’ but as ethnic communities like any other.

[1] Soysal, Yasemin. 1994. Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 135.

[2] Schermerhorn, Richard A. 1970 Comparative Ethnic Relations: A Framework for Theory and Research (New York, NY: Random House); Smith, Anthony D. 1991 National Identity (London: Penguin).

[3] Yiftachel, Oren. 1998. “Nationalism and the Homeland,” in A. Motyl (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press); Kaufmann, Eric. 2000. “Dominant Ethnie,” in A.D. Smith and A. Leoussi (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (London: Transaction Publishers); Publishers); Doane, Ashley W., Jr. 1997 ‘Dominant Group Ethnic Identity in the United States: The Role of ‘Hidden’ Ethnicity in Intergroup Relations,’ Sociological Quarterly, 38, 3, pp. 375-397; Gladney, Dru (eds). 1998. Making Majorities: Constituting the Nation in Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, Fiji, Turkey and the United States (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Website by Eric P Kaufmann