Notes on 1st Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: Barth

Section I: Identity

Comments on Fredrik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969).

The description quoted below is excerpted from a text I found very useful: Hastings Donnan and Thomas M. Wilson, Borders: frontiers of identity, nation and state (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 21-22 [Google Books limited preview: http://bit.ly/4wkpNt].

Donnan and Wilson describe Barth‘s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries as:

An edited collection of essays which set out to address ‘the problems of poly-ethnic organization’ (1969: vii), or what happens when different cultural groups come into contact. In his introduction to this collection, Barth questions the value of a view that sees the world as divided up into social collectivities which correlate neatly with discrete and discontinuous cultures. Instead, for Barth, ethnic groups are socially constructed, made up of individuals who strategically manipulate their cultural identity by emphasizing or underplaying it according to context. People may cross boundaries between groups should they find it advantageous to do so, and may maintain regular relations across them, but this does not affect the durability and stability of the boundaries themselves. Cultural emblems and differences are thus significant only in so far as they are socially effective, as an organizational device for articulating social relations.

… [I]t will be useful to summarise some of the salient points [Barth and his colleagues] make about ethnic boundaries. Above all, Barth argues that ethnic groups cannot be understood in terms of long lists of ‘objectively’ identified cultural attributes. People may stress some cultural traits in their dealings with other groups but ignore others, and we cannot predict these in advance. Instead, it is much more productive to view ethnic groups as an ‘organizational type’[1]; as categories, in which membership is based on self-ascription and ascription by others. As long as individuals themselves claim membership in a particular ethnic category, and are willing to be treated as such by others, they express their allegiance to the shared culture of this category however that shared culture might be signaled. From this perspective, the boundary between categories becomes the critical focus for investigation: how and why are such boundaries maintained in the face of personnel flows and systematic relations across them? What sorts of rules structure behaviour at and across boundaries in such a way as to allow those boundaries to endure? Ethnic groups are not simply the automatic by-product of pre-existing cultural differences, but are the consequences of organizational work undertaken by their members who, for whatever reason, are marked off and mark themselves off from other collectivities in a process of inclusion and exclusion which differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’.[2] The pressing question as far as Barth is concerned, therefore, is why inter-group boundaries are sharply marked even as people cross them and even as the cultural differences between groups change.[3]

Barth’s observations clearly challenged existing wisdoms and his suggestion, in a phrase which has been widely cited since, that critical focus of investigation should be ‘the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses’ (Barth 1969: 15, emphasis in original) set the agenda for much subsequent research.

Ground breaking though Barth’s text may have been in the 1960s, by 2000 some researchers had moved past some of the precepts. Canadian historian D.N. Sprague, for example, described Barth’s work as simplistic.[4] I am not entirely comfortable with the term ‘ethnic‘ as it is used in Barth’s collection — or anywhere else for that matter. As far as I can tell, ‘ethnic’ should apply to all socio-politically organized communities of people, in which case it becomes a term that signifies a distinction without a difference. The groups that figure in Barth’s text (notwithstanding his theorizing), appear to be categorized according to their cultures. They are examined as situated in relation to ‘neighbouring’ ethnic groups. Barth notes the importance of the boundary between groups as a dynamic site for investigation. ‘Where is it and how constructed?’ ‘where is it solid and exclusionary and where permeable?’ and ‘who constructs it?’ are presented as questions that have to be asked. History enters into the examination of the dynamic because obvious questions are raised as to when the boundary got the way an examiner found it, and how long it had been acting as a ‘stable’ enough boundary for an examiner to be aware of it.

In Barth’s text there appear to be hierarchies of ethnicity – in terms of prestige – that various researchers describe in any given area, but it is not entirely clear to me whose perspective is accessed when one group is considered to hold a rank ‘beneath’ another group. Barth seems to note that valuation is relative in some circumstances. I’m left wondering if he thinks a dominant group is always regarded as a desirable group to join — if all else were equal. I’m not convinced that, given a chance, people in a ‘less esteemed’ group would necessarily choose to belong to the apparently ‘more esteemed’ group. The obvious problem being that one needs to be aware of whose perspective is adopted when any esteeming is being done. Certainly, history has shown the ‘less desirables’ among peoples colonized by imperialist powers to be quite happy to ‘reclaim’ their distinctiveness and reject the mythic norms of the ‘conquerors’ — suggesting that the once vaunted ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is not universally attractive after all.

Additional resources:

Fredrik Barth, “Towards greater naturalism in conceptualizing societies,” in Conceptualising Society, ed. Adam Kruper (Routledge, 1992), 17- 33, limited preview (pages 21-22, 28-29 omitted) available through Google Books http://bit.ly/7YTLYA.

Richard Jenkins, “Rethinking Ethnicity: Identity, Categorization, and Power,” in Race and ethnicity: comparative and theoretical approaches, ed. John Stone and Rutledge M. Dennis (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 59-71, available through Google Books preview http://bit.ly/5gvBwB.


[1] In my view, this is a sociopolitical organizational type.

[2] In my opinion, if this marking off behaviour is important, then the phrase ‘for whatever reason’ is regrettable turn of phrase, implying as it does that the reason is not particularly important.

[3] On that question, see Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[4] D.N. Sprague, “The Cultural Bias of Metis Studies,” review of The New Peoples: On Being and Becoming Métis in North America, edited by Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown, Prairie Fire 8 (summer, 1987): 66-67.

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“Interview with the anthropologist Fredrik Barth,” posted to You Tube by ayabaya, 28 October 2006.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes 2, Section I: Identity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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