Michael Herzfeld

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:

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The erstwhile concentration of anthropologists on small, bounded communities often appeared to occlude such encompassing phenomena as nationalism. The anthropological predilection for marginality, however, underscores and reaffirms the utility of ethnographically grounded perspectives for a critical purchase on the role of the ideologically centralizing nation-state in citizens’ lives. Ethnographic approaches offer not only a necessary corrective to the top-down generalizations of other social science disciplines, but they also reveal the crucial significance to nationalistic projects of attitudes and dispositions that superficially contradict the ideological claims of nationalist leaders and intellectuals but that, at the same time, secure citizen solidarity and loyalty. Moreover, all nationalistic ideologies rely heavily on metaphors of kinship and blood, and thus they engage a reciprocal relationship with everyday social organization. Ethnography explores this complex articulation, illuminating the attraction of an ideology that, viewed locally, often appears extremely abstract, predominantly bourgeois, and historically Eurocentric, yet that appears, globally, to exercise an almost universally irresistible appeal. The anthropological perspective dissects assumptions of primordial “essences” shared by all citizens. Studying such diverse topics as refugee migration, the emergence of new ethnic movements through performance, the revival of folklore as a national treasure and the celebration of heritage as a shared validation of collective identity, and the complex dynamics of linguistic nationalism reveals the mechanics of nationalistic truth construction, which appear with particular clarity in models of “repatriation” (a suggestively gendered and familial term) in the case of self-identified Jews “returning” to Israel, German-language speakers “returning home,” and Greeks “returning to the fatherland.” More broadly, essentialism attributes a set of immutable characteristics, and irredentism an equally immutable geographical location, to a particular people, grounding a social ontology in claims to timeless antiquity and rewriting historical teleology as irrevocably leading to the emergence of common cultural origins. Even nationalisms that celebrate a duality (e.g., France, Greece) or a plurality (e.g., the United States) of origins emphasize transcendent unity. Rare indeed are countries—Italy stands out as one in Europe—in which national integration remains suspect or even the object of humor. More commonly, the monumentalization of “unity in diversity” —from China’s “fifty-six ethnic groups” to the “Ancient City” park in Thailand (a collection of replicas of ancient temples mapping the entire territory claimed by the Thai state) to Indonesia’s self-miniaturization as a park displaying its various constituent ethnicities to the United States motto E pluribus unum— both acknowledges processes of mythical construction and thereby seeks to control and naturalize them. Museums of “national” culture startle by their transnational similarity, suggesting that global power dynamics have leveled differences among those nationalisms that have proved successful in leading to the actual creation of nation-states.

Article.  7734 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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