Culture As Identity: An Anthropologist's View
Anthony P. Cohen
CULTURE AS IDENTITY. It is a title which includes within its brief span two frequently abused
words. Their abuse angers anthropologists, not because we are lexical purists, but because it threatens
to steal our clothes. Culture is our business, the conceptual focus and organizing topic of our discipline.
And identity: one of the buzz words of our times. In lay discourse it has become an awful portmanteau,
carrying all sorts of murky cargo.
I shall attempt to be resolutely empirical. Without any semantlc finesse, I shall treat identity as the
way(s) in which a person is, or wishes to be, known by certain others. "Culture as identity" thus refers
to the attempt to represent the person or group in terms of a reified and/or emblematized culture.
It is a political exercise, manifest in those processes which we frequently describe as "ethnic," the
components of which are referred to as "symbols." So we cannot avoid a little more definition--just
enough to know roughly what we are talking about. First, culture; then symbol; then ethnicity.
These are all words which have some currency in ordinary gauge, and whose academic and
anthropological usage is thereby considerably complicated. In anthropology, culture has gone through
a succession of paradigm shifts. In the past it was used to suggest a determination of behavior; for
example, that you could only think the thoughts which your culture gave you the words to verbalize--
the infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; or, that environment, technology, economic modality shaped
a congruent culture which, in turn, dictated appropriate behavior. There was then a major school of
thought which treated culture as the means by which the supposedly discrete processes of social life,
such as politics, economics, religion, kinship, were integrated in a manner which made them all
logically consistent with each other. In this view, the individual became a mere replicate in miniature
of the larger social and cultural entity. The tendency now is to treat culture much more loosely-as that
which aggregates people and processes, rather than integrates
them. It is an important distinction for it implies difference rather than similarity among people. Thus,
to talk about a culture is not to postulate a large number of people, all of whom are merely clones of
each other and of some organizing principle. That is important, for in ordinary language the word is
still used all too frequently to imply this.
Moreover, if culture is not sui generis, exercising a determining power over people, then it must be
regarded as the product of something else: if not the logical replicate of other social processes-say,
relations of production--then of social interaction itself. In this perspective, we have come to see
culture as the outcome and product of interaction; or, to put it another way, to see people as active
in the creation of culture, rather than passive in receiving it. If we are--in the contemporary jargon--the
agents of culture's creation, then it follows that we can shape it to our will, depending on how
ingenious and powerful we may be. And this, in the matter of the politicization of cultural identity,
is another most significant characteristic to which we will return.
Culture, in this view, is the means by which we make meaning, and with which we make the world
meaningful to ourselves, and ourselves meaningful to the world. Its vehicle is the symbol. Symbols are
quite simply carriers of meaning. To be effective, therefore, they should be imprecise, in order that
the largest possible number of people can modulate a shared symbol to their own wills, to their own
interpretive requirements: a tightly defined symbol is pretty useless as anything other than a purely
formal sign.' Symbolism is one of the richest veins of anthropological literature, and anything I
attempt to say about it here is bound to be the grossest simplification. All I wish the reader to keep
in mind is that symbols are inherently meaningless, they are not lexical; they do not have a truth value.
They are pragmatic devices which are invested with meaning through social process of one kind or
another. They are potent resources in the arenas of politics and identity.
Finally, ethnicity. In some respects, this is the most difficult word of the three since it appears to mean
something--indeed, has been imported into lay usage for this reason--but in practice means either
everything or nothing at all. When a Labor politician or a Birmingham policeman says ethnic, they
mean "black." When the Indian Workers Association or the Notting Hill Carnival Committee says
ethnic, they mean "minority," usually "disadvantaged or discriminated minority." When the racial
theorist says ethnic, he refers to a relationship of blood and descent. If the word is to be
anthropologically useful, it cannot refer exclusively to any of these. Ethnicity has become a mode of
action and of representation: it refers to a decision people make to depict themselves or others
symbolically as the bearers of a certain cultural identity. The symbols used for this purpose are almost
invariably mundane items, drawn from everyday life, rather than from elaborate ceremonial or ritual
occasions. Ethnicity has become the politicization of culture.2 Thus, it is in part a claim to a particular
culture, with all that entails. But such claims are rarely neutral. The statement made in Ethiopia, "I
am Oromo"-- or in Northern Ireland, "He's a Prod"--is clearly not merely descriptive: it has an added
value, either negative or positive, depending on who is speaking and to whom.
I referred just now to the entailments of cultural claims. one aspect of the charged nature of cultural
identity is that in claiming one, you do not merely associate yourself with a set of characteristics: you
also distance yourself from others. This is not to say that contrast is the conscious motivation for such
claims, as some writers have argued,3 but it is implicit and is understood, the more so the more highly
charged the situation may be. Cultural identity also entails a patrimoine and a history, or the
acknowledged need to create these. It is in the expression of all of these entailments that symbolism
If the ethnic card is played in identity, it is not, then, like announcing nationality. Ethnicity is not a
juridical matter, carrying legal rights and obligations. It is a political claim, which entails political and
moral rights and obligations. Please note that I use the word nationality, not nationhood--since, as we
know, nationhood may also be a statement of claim, and is one which is often made to emphasize the
circumstances of its denial. The putative "nationhood" of Scotland, or of "the Jewish People," is the
axiomatic premise for claims, say, to nationality, or to the legitimacy of Israel's occupation of so-called
Judaea and Sumaria. But these are utterly different from the argument made by Hong Kong Chinese
regarding their entitlement to a British passport; or from that of the British government concerning
sovereignty and the Malvinas. The one, nationality, is an argument about legal status. The other,
nationhood, is a claim about the character and integrity of one's cultural identity. They may well
coincide in a process which 0rvar Lofgren describes as "the nationalization of culture" in which
attempts are made to forge a distinctive identity, for any of a variety of strategic reasons.4 His
example is the creation of the national symbols and consciousness of "Swedishness" in late-nineteenth
century Sweden. Some other contemporary anthropological work on this issue focuses on Israel,5
Australia,6 and Czechoslovakia;7 and the historian Peter Sahlins hasingeniously demonstrated the
modulation over time of local and national identity in the transnational Pyrenees region of the Cerdagne (France)/Cerdanya (Spain).8
Now, the position has been taken in the past in anthropology that ethnicity--politlcized cultural
identity--was merely contrastive: that is, that it is invoked only to draw a real or conceptual boundary.
This position, associated primarily with Fredrik Barth, has dominated ethnicity studies for more than
twenty years. It seems to me inherently unsatisfactory for reasons too complex for me to spell out here
in any detail. But suffice it to say that in treating ethnicity merely as a tactical identity, it ignored both
self-consciousness and the symbolic expression of ethnic identity. By the first, I intend to draw
attention to the idea that when we consult ourselves about who we are, that entails something more
than the rather negative reflection on "who we are not." It is also a matter of autobiography: of things
we know about ourselves; of the person we believe ourselves to be. By the second, the symbolic
expression of ethnic identity, I refer you to the multivocality of ethnicity. If, instead of announcing
myself as, say, Sri Lankan, I say "I am Tamil," I do not mean to suggest that I am just like every other
Tamil. I do not have to sublimate myself in an anonymizing "Tamil-ness" in order to suggest that
Tamils have something significant in common which distinguishes them from Sinhalese. But because
ethnic identity is expressed through symbols, it is possible for this internal heterogeneity to be
preserved, even while masked by common symbolic forms.
I put these two matters together--the self-consciousness of ethnicity, and the symbolic form of ethnic
identity--to suggest that the political expression of cultural identity has two distinctive registers to
which we should attend. The first is used for the apparently dogmatic statement of more or less
objective doctrine: "I am a Palestinian"--and certain things will be understood as following from that.
The second is for contentious statements which treat ethnicity as the context of, or as an aspect of,
identity with very uncertain implications: "I am a particular Palestinian." The apparently monolithic
character of ethnic identity at the collective level thus does not preempt the continual reconstruction
of ethnicity at the personal level. Ethnicity is not a dogma, although in certain circumstances political
leaders and others may attempt to politicize it to the point at which they can enforce it dogmatically.9
But this is comparatively rare, since ethnicity is so frequently a matter of dispute, and can only rarely
command consensus for longer than the very brief period of a specific campaign. Ethnicity has a
definite appearance but rather indefinite substance.
Ethnicity, then, is the politicization of culture; ethnic identity is a politicized cultural identity. In what
kinds of circumstance does culture become politicized, intentionally put to the service of identity?
I would suggest that the minimal conditions are that people recognize that ignorance of their culture
among others acts to their detriment; that they experience the marginalization of their culture, and
their relative powerlessness with respect to the marginalizers.l0
With ignorance of a culture goes the denial of its integrity. Because culture is expressed symbolically,
and thus has no fixed meanings, it is often invisible to others, especially to powerful others. In his book
To Square with Genesis my colleague Alan Campbell argues that the Brazilian government would not
acknowledge the cultural desecration of Amazonian Indians which followed hard in the wake of the
environmental destruction of the Amazon itself--through mining, highway building, and so
forth--because they insisted that there was no culture there to desecrate!ll This denial of, or threat to,
cultural integrity is experienced by people in all manner of ways: through the subordination of
indigenous languages--say, Tamil to Sinhala; Breton to French; French, among Quebecois, to English;
through the denigration of their tradition (the examples are almost limitless--Australian Aborigines;
Mongolian Buryats; Basques); and from the outright denial of their distinctiveness--say, Armenians
and most other nationalities in the Soviet Union, sectarian groups in South Asia, and so on.
It does happen, has happened historically on a massive scale, that such continuous denigration seems
to drive people into cultural retreat, where they either make their tradition a covert matter, or appear
to desert it in large measure. Arguably, the assimilationist stance in American race relations prior to
the emergence of the Black Power movement had something of this character. Perhaps the demise
of Gaelic might also be seen in this way. Certainly, the literature records similar responses among
Norwegian Saami, North American Indians, peoples throughout Francophone Africa, and so on.
Perhaps the most vivid argument in this connection has been Edward Said's Orientalism.'2 Said
maintains that the Western intellectual tradition created its own versions of oriental cultures which
it imposed upon oriental peoples and then denigrated, thereby justifying the West's own domination
of the Orient as an essentially civilizing mission--the same kind of validation that accompanied
colonial expansion throughout Africa, South Asia, and, much earlier, South America. I said above that
I thought this kind of reading of dominated cultures was mistaken--and I believe this to be because
it confuses the form of indigenous response with its substance. One thing we do know is that the
historical era in which this retreatist stance prevailed came to an end emphatically during the later
1960s and was replaced by an assertive stance in which the putative stigma of cultural inferiority was
transformed into an emblem of its superiority--and that, really, is what lies behind the title of this
So, from the experiential point of view, the politicization of cultural identity requires people to react
against their own felt disadvantage and denigration. It seems also to occur in characteristic economic
and political circumstances. So far as the former is concerned, a crucial factor appears to be the
relentless centralization of the big economy--that is to say, the increasing political, geographical, and
conceptual distance between those who produce, and those who control economic decision making.
This distance makes more difficult the expression of particularistic differences, and therefore neglects
them. Its ignorance or contempt for such differences is buttressed by mass-marketing. The distance
also means that returns from production and investment are not merely distributed unequally, but in
a way which is experienced as doubly inequitable, because of the apparent insensitivity to it of the
remote center. Hence Scottish fishermen and French sheep farmers react to decisions made in
Brussels with vehemence and an accompanying bitterness because of the supposed ignorance behind
these decisions, rather than just of their partiality. The big economy promises much to everyone, and
is seen as delivering in a very uneven way. Therefore, writes M. Elaine Burgess, "the myth of the
'liberal expectancy' has given way to the reality of ethnic diversity.''l3
The political circumstances? The need for a new kind of platform a novel mode of representation
in the context of political centralization, the growth of the suprastate, the multinational. Again, the
increasing remoteness of the locus of power induces particularistic identity--in regional, local,
sectarian, linguistic, and class terms, and so on. The remoteness of government also requires it to have
local agencies, and these, ironically, provide precedents for devolution. A Scottish office for the BBC,
or for the hitherto-centralized Universities' Funding Council or whatever, provides a model for, and
suggests the appropriateness and desirability of, devolution.'4 Also, on the subject of precedent, the
process of decolonization has no objective end to it: its logic is to continue the process to a kind of
infinite federalism. Pierre van den Berghe describes ethnicity in the industrialized world as "the last
phase of imperial disintegration." He asks, "if the Fiji Islands can be independent, why not
Scotland?"'5 If Sri Lanka, why not a Tamil state within the island; if Ethiopia, why not Eritrea
(again)? And so on. Almost everywhere one turns, there is being played out an epic struggle for
recognition, for the acknowledgement of rights--above all, for the acknowledgement of cultural
integrity. Culture itself has become the issue, a political commodity batted around the political playing
field in a game which is as hugely complex and ramified to its participants as it is simple and
unidimensional to outside observers.
Culture is represented as identity through symbols: simple in form, complex in substance because of
their malleability, imprecision, multivocality. One can easily posit the icons of a culture--tartanry,
cuisine, costume, music--but what these mean is unspecifiable, because their meanings vary among
all those who use them. Intrinsically meaningless, then, but powerfully eloquent, so much so that their
loss or proscription may be experienced as an utter silencing of the cultural voice. When the Inkatha
militant says, "I lose my manhood if I cannot carry my spear," this may be a protestation not of
gratuitous machismo, but of the integrity of cultural personhood, however regrettable or misguided
it may appear to be to others of us. This selection from everyday life of cultural items for the
representation of identity is a process which the American anthropologist Theodore Schwartz has
He has borrowed, some might say corrupted, the term to convey the idea of cultures putting down
their own lines of demarcation-let us call them symbolic boundaries. His own research on Admiralty
Islanders led him to the perceptive observation that the distinctiveness which people attribute to their
behavior may be imperceptible to those on the other side of the line; moreover, that outsiders might
well light upon quite other elements of another people's behavior to emphasize their distinctiveness.
But the important suggestion to which his argument leads us is that culture is in the eyes of the
beholden rather than the beholder. This has been noted in various ways by anthropologists for a long
time: it is the significance of the "expressive" or ritualized idiom of technical behavior that Edmund
Leach referred to as an "aesthetic frill" of otherwise instrumental action; 17 or the accomplishment
of the "standardized cultural act" which Gregory Bateson saw as celebrated by the Iatmul through the
performance of the otherwise curious Naven rites.~8 But neither these earlier writers nor Schwartz
himself followed through the implications of their arguments sufficiently to recognize culture as the
creature and product of people's own agency; and, therefore, to recognize its malleability and efficacy
in the formulation, management, and presentation of identity.
When we look at the political processes which attended the struggles for decolonization
and the welding together of disparate indigenous entities into the solidary Independence
state, we encounter repeatedly the expedient use of a kind of folkloric "culture": the
projection of the enlarged icons of an idealized peoplehood. There are celebrated
instances: Nyerere's notion of "African Socialism"Senghor's of "n‚gritude"; the syncretic
merging of some aspects of Gandhi-lsm with supposedly customary principle and
practice. They are not limited to the Third World. But they belong to a pragmatic politics
in which a contrived version of a culture is employed tactically in a political encounter.
It is the phenomenon which Hobsbawm and Ranger termed, in their eponymous book,
the invention of tradition.'9 I am referring here to a rather different process: not to
culture as tactic, but to culture as the issue itself, the object of strategy. I am referring to
the circumstance in which a culture is seen to be in such a condition of crisis that the
consequence of its loss means not just the impoverishment of the social scene--like the
loss of a beautiful building--but a kind of social death, because people predicate their
very identity on "the culture."
In 1970, the Norwegian government announced for the first time its plan to dam the
Alta River at Kautokeino, in the process flooding the village of Masi and intruding upon
strategic points of the routes used by the reindeer-herding Saami in their annual pastoral
transhumance. The plan disappeared and surfaced repeatedly until, in 1981, the Supreme
Court commissioned the anthropologist Robert Pame to write a report on the
consequences for the Saami of this proposed development. He showed why these specific
locations were of such importance in the ecosystem of the migratory herds. He further
showed that, although reindeer pastoralists were a small minority of the total Saami
population of Norway, reindeer pastoralism was of the greatest importance as a
representation of Saami culture, for a variety of reasons.20 The Saami had for long been
marginalized and stigmatized. This latest incursion into their territory, for which they
claimed aboriginal rights, threatened to be the straw which broke their cultural backs.
In 1982 Paine wrote "The proposed Alta/Kautokeino hydro scheme brings the Saami
world in Norway very close indeed to its 'to be or not to be.' The likely consequences are
so encompassing. They affect sedentary as well as pastoralist Saami: their ecology,
economy, demography and hence their sense of self as Saami" (90).
The Supreme Court did not uphold the objections; enabling legislation was passed; and
over a lengthy period of time dramatic protests, which mesmerized the nation, were held
both in Oslo and in Masi itself. Robert Paine has described these protests in a way which
illuminates their metatexts to leave us in no doubt that the issue was Saami culture itself.
Let me offer you just a taste. The Oslo protest was to be a hunger strike, held by young
Saami wearing traditional dress, in a traditional Saami tent (lavvo) erected for the
purpose in the grounds of the Parliament buildings:
Wednesday, 10th October.... The media watch and report. Particular note is taken of the
"valuable and varied 'instruction' in Saami culture" which the strikers--with megaphone
in hand--offer: communal singing, Saami poetry, joik and historical legends. Sometimes
a person steps out of the crowd, grasps one or other of the Saami group and tells him (in
Saami) that he himself is a Saami--adding that this is something he had kept secret since
coming to live in Oslo.
The Saami group already shows concern lest the crowd turn In anger on the police
should they come to take them (the strikers) away. They remind everybody that "our
action is one of passive resistance. The Saami people are a nation with strong traditions
of passive resistance." . . .
Thursday, 11th October.... In their reporting from the scene, journalists mention "black"
and "silent" figures standing inside the large window of the parliament building
overlooking the tent and the milling crowds of Eidsvolls plass. The dark silhouettes are
those of members of parliament. The imagery and the contrast is unmistakable: inside
the building all is dark and, for once, the politicians are not talking; outside, all is light
The strikers were arrested and the tent was pulled down. Their "spokesman" assured
journalists that they were not going to give up, but intended to continue their hunger
strike quietly--"in the Saami way" (198). And, indeed, this is what they did.
What has to be noted here is that it is the very everyday emblems of their culture, by
which they have been recognized and stigmatized in the past, which they now turn
against the state to denigrate it and to proclaim their own moral cause.
The strikers shrewdly used their own symbols--lavvo, joik (ballad) passivity--to politicize
their culture and to transform the value of their identity. As Paine put it, "Saami ethnicity was
demonstrated on a basis of self- ascription and self-advocacy" (201). As a strategy of
assertiveness, this reversal of stigma has become characteristic during the last quarter century:
blacks became "beautiful"; ladies became "women"; Eskimos and Lapps became,
respectively, Inuit and Saami.
The imperative need to posit culture as identity can arise from many different circumstances.
I mentioned earlier those of a perception of imminent and possibly cataclysmic crisis; and
of the attempt to reverse extreme disadvantage. It appears also when there is a perceived
threat to the distinctiveness of a group through its assimilation or the blurring of its
boundaries, or as the consequence of internal differentiation or disagreement. One finds then
a politicization of culture or tradition or whatever putative dogma provides the raison d'ˆtre
of the group. The call for a jihad to unite nations against a common enemy, in order to
mask the internecine nature of dispute between themselves; the spurious elevation of
Zionism to the status of religious obligation; and the "metaphorization" of culture as a
response to such historical circumstances as demographic and economic change,
secularization, integration, and vulnerability to new kinds of information. For example,
in his book A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble, my colleague Jonathan Spencer
describes the use of a Buddhist ritual construct (perahara) and of the village temple itself
(pansala) to recreate the solidarity which had supposedly characterized the village in the
past before it had been transformed by infrastructural change, new agricultural technology, education, the growth of political opposition and faction and the increasing
heterogeneity of its population. The materials used in this attempt to contrive community
symbolically were drawn from "the language of reformed Buddhism,"2~ and had no
great historical depth. Similarly, Spencer found that the children of the village
represented it visually in terms of three icons of similarly doubtful pedigree and
accuracy: tank (cistern), paddy field, and stupa: "These are the three national symbols
of rural order, and it mattered little that one of these [the tank] had only recently been
rebuilt, the second provided work for only a fraction of these children's parents, and the
third did not yet exist. The children had been provided with a visual mnemonic for 'our
village' which more than anything, made 'our village' an integral part of the nation as
an imagined community of villages" (241).
It would be quite incorrect to construe as cynical these representations of identity in
somewhat contrived cultural terms: their expression and use speaks rather of a
commitment to the integrity of culture and group. It is only by making the culture visible,
so to speak, that its bearers can gain some awareness of what they have to defend, and
those to whom it is vulnerable can be made aware of what they might otherwise damage,
unwittingly or deliberately. So far as indigenes are concerned, the iconization of culture
is no more than a means of agreeing on a very limited number and range of symbols as
a kind of lowest common denominator, which can be interpreted and rendered privately
by each of them in ways to suit themselves. Apparent uniformity in the terms of public
discourse glosses over an uncountable multitude of divergences of meaning. But for
outsiders, it is a caution against their cultural blindness.
For example, the tradition of the Fourth World peoples frequently refers to their
incomparably expert use of the land, as either hunters and gatherers, or as pastoralists,
which is based on their expert knowledge and attitudes to the land, both of which are
peculiar to the people themselves and are not accessible to outsiders. The reason is quite
simple: outsiders cannot see the land in the same way; and, therefore, they cannot know
what they are looking at. The cultural boundedness of Australian Aboriginal perception
has been amply documented both in ethnography and in fiction. The stereotypical
insensitivity of the white to Aboriginal sacred places may be a consequence of contempt
in some cases; but it is certainly the result of cultural blindness in most. To us a stone is
a stone; to the Aboriginal, it conceals an ancestor. Another celebrated example is the
Inuit perception and verbal description of snow in its numerous varieties; a skill
supposedly denied to us, not just because our sight is defective, but because our language
is deficient in appropriate descriptive terms. There is nothing peculiarly Fourth
World-ish about this: the literature on East African cattle pastoralists is full of references
to the richness of terms available to describe cattle pigmentation and so on.23
Closer to home, I have commented on the extent of the vocabulary available to and
created by Whalsay Islanders in Shetland to describe the condition of the sky.24 But we
should not be thinking in terms of unique conditions. The point is that, in the politically
charged context of relations between the Fourth World peoples and the state, any of
these things are ripe for investment culturally with political significance. Thus, the
material conditions of social life provide the means for the symbolic construction of a
cultural identity. Analogous terms of identification are available to all groups for whom
culture has become the issue.
There is an eloquent example in Harvey Feit's description of the resistance of the James
Bay Cree Indians to the appropriation of their land for the development of a
hydroelectric scheme.25 The government's case was that the condition of the flora and
fauna would be expertly monitored by government scientists using the most sophisticated
scientific techniques available. During the 1930s the federal and provincial governments,
following typical British colonial practice, had attempted to impose on the
Misstassini-Cree structures of leadership and representation which essentially turned
Cree incumbents into the servants of external agencies. The agencies spoke in terms of
"possession," for that is what the division of federal and provincial powers in Canada is
Both extraneous "expertise" and "possession" of the land were anomalous and offensive
ideas for Cree. Their own monitoring of natural resource stocks is meticulous and
detailed in a way in which the far less sensitive classifications employed by botanists
could not possibly be. In part this is because of an indigenous monitoring structure. The
Misstassini-Cree are a band society based on discrete hunting territories. Feit notes some
three hundred such territories with an average extent of 120 square kilometers, each
under the control, not of an owner but of a "steward." The language is significant. For the
Cree, land cannot be owned, for ownership implies rights, including the right to disposal.
In their view, there cannot be such a right, for this would preempt the rights of their own
successors. At any time, therefore, the band--specifically, its headman--IS custodian or
steward of the land, holding it in trust but not in ownership. Part of this trust is to ensure
the healthy condition of the resource stock for future generations and, hence, the responsibility for monitoring and conservation. Hunting and gathering strategies are
dictated by these requirements. The appointment of a scientist with authority over the
use of the land is thus (a) offensive since it denigrates indigenous structures,
responsibilities, and expertise; (b) ill-advised, because such a person is bound to be
inexpert relative to the Cree themselves, and his lack of knowledge jeopardizes their
future; and (c) denies their traditional rights, for it is based on putative ownership, which
is at odds with their own custodianship.
Displacement from the land is thus wounding in multiple ways It deprives indigenous
peoples of their means of subsistence and of their self-sufficiency. It deprives them of
their symbolic resources whether these are sacred places or cherished skills. It deprives
them of their characteristic knowledge for, once removed from the land this rapidly
disappears and transforms them from masters of their own environment into childlike
naivete in somebody else's, plunging them into a demeaning tutelary relationship.26 It
deprives them of the dignity which inheres in self-control, and replaces it with the
ignominy of dependency. Territorial occupation becomes an idiom for culture which, in
turn, serves as a representation of identity.
Wherever one sees this kind of struggle--whether in Norwegian Saamlland, in the
Torres Straits Islands, among Kayap¢ Indians, in South Aslan "communalism," or in
Southern Africa--there seems to be an almost irresistible inclination to explain behavior
by treating it as the product of culture: the Zulus or Yanomamo are said to
be warlike or aggressive; some other society might be spoken of as constrained in its
thought and action by its cosmology or its kinship system or whatever. There is a
fundamental confusion here between culture as a body of substantive fact (which it is
not) and as a body of symbolic form which provides means of expression but does not
dictate what is expressed or the meaning of what is expressed. In this respect, culture is
insubstantial: searching for it is like chasing shadows. It is not so much that it does not
exist as that it has no ontology: it does not exist apart from what people do, and therefore
what people do cannot be explained as its product. Culture can be invoked as a means
of representing them--as, for example, when it is deployed as identity. But in those
circumstances it must be regarded in the same way as any other symbolic expression: as
being inherently meaningless but capable of substantiation at the discretion of those who
use it--multireferential, multivocal, an infinitely variable tool.
The old saw, "when I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun," has been attributed
to sources as disparate as T. S. Eliot and Hermann Goering, Bertrand Russell and
Malcolm Muggeridge. The word culture ill-used does make me pretty angry. It is not
synonymous with ideology; it is not to be inferred from scattered shards of ancient
pottery. But my anger increases to apoplexy when I hear culture magnified and reified
as "the culture of" a people. If we are the agents and substantiators of our cultures, rather
than their creatures, we must resist the temptation to depict culture as the monolithic
determinant of our behavior. If culture did have that character, it would equip us with
uniform rather than with identity. Culture is a matter less for documentation than for
interpretation; it is more faithfully and sensitively depicted in metaphor than in
Its intellectual fascination lies in its extraordinary versatility, which is precisely what
makes it such an eloquent representation of identity.
UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
1.See Anthony P. Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (London, 1985),
2. See Robert P. B. Paine, "Norwegians and Saami: Nation-state and Fourth World,
in Minorities and Mother-country Imagery, ed. Gerald L. Gold (St. John's, Nfld., 1984),
3. See, e.g., Fredrik Barth, "Introduction," in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The
Social Organisation of Culture Difference, ed. Fredrik Barth (London, 1969), pp. 9-38;
and James A. Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the
.Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions and Texts (Cambridge, 1982).
4 See 0rvar L0fgren, "The Nationalization of Culture," Ethnologia Europaea, 19 (1989), 5-23.
5 See Don Handelman, Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events (Cambridge,
1990); and Robert P. B. Paine, "Masada between History and Meaning," paper presented to the
Conference of the Canadian Historical Association (1991).
6 See Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People,
Myths of State (Washington, D.C., 1988).
7 See Ladislav Holy, "Freedom, Nation and Personhood in
Czechoslovakia" (St. Andrews, 1990, mimeo).
8 See Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkeley, 1989).
9 See David E. Apter, "Political Religion in the New Nations," in Old Societies and New States: The
Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York, 1963), pp. 57-104.
10 See Anthony P. Cohen, The Management of Myths: The Politics of Legitimation in a Newfoundland
Community (Manchester, 1975).
11 See Alan T. Campbell, To Square with Genesis: Causal Statements and Shamanic Ideas in Wayapi
12 See Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978).
13 M. Elaine Burgess, "The Resurgence of Ethnicity: Myth or Reality?" Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1
14 See Charlotte Holmes Aull, "Ethnic Nationalism in Wales: An Analysis of the Factors Governing
the Politicization of Ethnic Identity," unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Duke University, 1978.
15 Pierre L. van den Berghe, "Ethnic Pluralism in Industrial Societies: A Special Case?" Ethnicity, 3
16 See Theodore Schwartz, "Cultural Totemism: Ethnic Identity Primitive and Modern," in Ethnic
Identity: Cultural Continuities and Change, ed. George A. De Vos and Lola Romanucci-Ross (Palo
Alto, Calif., 1975), pp. 106-31.
17 Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma (London, 1954), p. 12.
18 See Gregory Bateson, Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the
Culture of a New Cuinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View, 2nd ed. (Stanford, Calif., 1958).
19 See The Invention of Tradition, ed. E. J. Hobsbawn and T. O. Ranger (Cambridge, 1983).
20 See Robert P. B. Paine, Dam a River, Damn a People?: Saami (Lapp) Livelihood and the
Alta/Kautokeino Hydro-Electric Project and the Norwegian Parliament (Copenhagen, 1982); hereafter
cited in text. See also, Odd Terje Brantenberg, "The Alta-Kautokeino Conflict: Saami Reindeer
Herding and Ethnopolitics," in Native Power: The Quest for Autonomy and Nationhood of Indigenous
Peoples, ed. Jens Br0sted et al. (Bergen, 1985), pp. 23-48.
21 Robert P. B. Paine, "Ethnodrama and the 'Fourth World': The Saami Action Group in Norway,
1979-81," in Indigenous Peoples and the Nation-State: Fourth World Politics in Canada, Australia and
Norway, ed. Noel Dyck (St. John's, Nfld., 1985), pp. 196-97; hereafter cited in text.
22 See Jonathan Spencer, A Sinhalese Village in a Time of Trouble (Delhi, 1990), p. 69; hereafter cited
23 See David Turton, "There's No Such Beast: Cattle and Colour-Naming among the Mursi," MAN
(N.S.), 15 (1980), 320-38.
24 See Anthony P. Cohen, Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland Island Community
(Manchester, 1987), pp. 126-32.
25 See Harvey Feit, "Legitimation and Autonomy in James Bay Cree Responses to Hydro-Electric
Development," in Indigenous Peoples and the Natlon-State, pp. 27--66 26 See Robert P. B. Paine,
"Tutelage and Ethnicity: A Variable Relationship," m The White Arctic: Anthropological Essays on
Tutelage and Ethnicity, ed. Robert P. B. Paine (St. John's, Nfld., 1977), pp. 249-63.