Ethnicity. Aspect of a Relationship or Property of a Group?

Essay, 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 1.0



‘Ethnicity is essentially an aspect of a relationship, not a property of a group’(Eriksen).

Since its introduction into the spectrum of anthropological discussion, the notion of ethnicity has been received with considerable debate and postulation. At a general level, however, it has been examined as an element closely related to, or even governing, broader areas such as cultural identity, nationalism, as well as individual and group identification. In this essay, I intend to analyse Eriksen’s (2002) assertion that ethnicity is an aspect of a relationship, rather than a property of a group (2002:12), and do so in light of other relevant theories and issues in order to provide a critical discussion of the concept as a whole. Eriksen’s approach has been described as anti-essentialist (Hutchinson & Smith, 1996:15), as it adopts a subjective, relational view on ethnicity which defines many core, recurring features, whilst also appreciating the unique and varying forms it may reveal itself as cross-culturally. As this essay progresses, I will expand on the details of this approach, and others, through the use of three separate case studies: Mitchell’s (1956) The Kalela Dance; Barth’s (1969a) study of Pathan identity in Afghanistan and West Pakistan; and finally Haaland’s (1969) research into the Fur and Baggara of Western Sudan. Through these analyses, as well as a critical evaluation of the most prominent insights into the topic, I will argue that indeed, ethnicity is less a property of a group, but rather an aspect of a relationship. However, I will suggest that in making this assumption, one must account for the distinctiveness of each case, and even sacrifice the desire for a more specific, all-encompassing definition of the phenomenon, in respect of its complex and subjective nature.

To begin this discussion, I wish to introduce the first case study; Mitchell’s (1956) The Kalela Dance. This specific ethnography took place in the 1950s and focuses on the performance and meaning of the kalela dance for the Bisa, one of the numerous tribes found on the Copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia. It is explained that the kalela originates from a separate dance, the mbeni, which was popularised in the 1920s during the introduction of the European colonial influence into the country. As is also the case with the kalela, the mbeni dancers were assigned names such as “governor”, “major-general” and “colonel” (and other titles with European affiliation), which Mitchell proposes was an act of subtle resistance. He states, “[w]hatever form modern mbeni dances may take it is abundantly clear that these early dances were a sort of pantomime of the social structure of the local European community” (1956:11). As will be elaborated on, it is important to view Mitchell’s study of the kalela in light of the emergence of the mbeni dance, and the country’s political context from the 1920s onwards. In his description of the kalela dance itself, as well as of those who performed it, there are several specific features which are emphasised. Firstly, regarding the dancers, Mitchell explains that they were all men, and none of them had “white collar” jobs or lower professional posts, yet when they danced they dressed smartly in the style of the Europeans, who remained a prominent population within the Copperbelt. Secondly, he explains that the dance was accompanied with a song, most of the lyrics to which related to the ethnic diversity of the area. Importantly, the words also praise and venerate the Bisa people, whilst ridiculing many other nearby tribes. These features of the dance, as well as the significance of the ethnic diversity on the Copperbelt, are crucial to Mitchell’s analysis of the kalela, and subsequently, this discussion of ethnicity.

Although Eriksen (2002) provides rich detail into what he considers to be some of the fundamental components of ethnicity, there are two particular criteria he regards as essential, and without which, the concept could not exist as it does. He states; “[f]or ethnicity to come about, the groups must have a minimum of contact with each other, and they must entertain ideas of each other as being culturally different from themselves. If these conditions are not fulfilled, there is no ethnicity” (2002:12). I suggest that these two features also become apparent in Mitchell’s ethnography, and are demonstrated most clearly through the Bisa tribe’s performance of the kalela. However, before this connection is elucidated, a greater degree of context must be provided. In Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland before the introduction of a European colonial power, the people were governed by a number of dominant tribes such as the Lozi, Ngoni, Bemba and others. There was considerable hostility between these groups, and Mitchell explains that if it was not for the suppression of inter-tribal warfare and the slave trade that resulted upon the entry of the British, there would have been growing animosity between the tribes, as each would try to assert their dominance over the others (1956:35). The consequence of the colonial influence meant that unresolved conflict existed between the groups, as a singular dominance was never established; in fact, as the industrial situation in the area developed, the previously opposing tribes were in fact driven to work together, united by the common enemy of their European employers. Moreover, the people who were once immersed in tribal conflict, now lived in relative peace with one another, even if this peace was an inevitable and pressured response to a colonial presence.

Returning, then, to the issue of ethnicity, it is this increased contact between ethnically discrete groups that Mitchell believes was the instigating factor leading to the use of the kalela dance as a means of establishing and reinforcing the ethnic distinction between the Bisa tribe, and the neighbouring others. He suggests that the aspiration for dominance, that was hindered by European contact, reappeared in the different and less aggressive manner of a “joking relationship”. Although the concept of a joking relationship need not be fully elaborated, Radcliffe-Brown (1952) essentially describes it as a mode of interaction which mediates and stabilises social relationships within which there is tension or conflict (1952:95). In this ethnographic case, as explained above, the Bisa use the kalela song to extol their own tribe and chief, but, importantly, distinguish themselves from other groups through teasing behaviour and words. Yet, the form of the joking relationship allows for such teasing to be received with ease, and not hostility; as Mitchell explains; “the kalela dancers, as representatives of the Bisa tribe, set up a sort of unilateral joking relationship with their spectators in which they express their hostility towards other tribes and yet do not incur animosity” (1956:42). Therefore, I suggest that the prerequisites outlined by Eriksen as fundamental to the existence of ethnicity are in fact fulfilled through the use of the kalela dance. The groups, specifically in light of European influence and the subsequent change in the industrial and social climate, gained a minimum of contact with one another. This increased contact then led to the emergence of the kalela which succeeded in highlighting both cultural diversity, as well as the individuality and autonomy of the Bisa tribe in relation to others. Although the use of the word “ethnicity” within the field of anthropology only gained popularity after the time of Mitchell’s ethnography, I would argue that he still illustrates many of the concept’s core features long before they were outlined by Eriksen and many others. I also suggest that more elements, that are critical to this notion of ethnicity, can be found within Mitchell’s case study.

In providing a definition of what an ethnic group consists of, Schermerhorn (1970) suggests that a group’s defining trait, among others, is a “cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood” (1970:12). He proceeds to explain that such symbolic elements can include kinship patterns, religious affiliation, tribal affiliation and others. However, Nash (1989) points out that, at times, “members’ basic symbols of ethnicity are not visible, graspable, or available in social interaction” (1989:10), such as those listed by Schermerhorn above.


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Ethnicity. Aspect of a Relationship or Property of a Group?
Queen's University Belfast  (School of History and Anthropology)
Social Anthropology
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ethnicity, aspect, relationship, property, group
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Timothy McGlinchey (Author), 2015, Ethnicity. Aspect of a Relationship or Property of a Group?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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