Ethnicity and the geometry of power: One moment in the imagination of the polity

Thornton, Robert
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Ethnicity, for those who subscribe to the concept, is understood to be one 'part' of a polity that contains, at least, other 'ethnicities' and probably many other kinds of groupings and 'parts'. This paper argues that in order to understand ethnicity, we must seek to understand why it is that people believe that 'society' is composed of 'parts' and to understand how those parts are visualized and 'imagined'. [To say that they are imagined does not means that they are thought of as merely 'imaginary', but rather that they depend on images and beliefs]. In short, it is argued that 'ethnicities' are conceptualised quite literally as maps, puzzles, blocks or masses, as groups or sets, as levels or power 'bases'. Ethnicity can be also understood, at a higher level of generalization as one moment, or part, of a complex visualization of other sorts of social power such as 'state', 'family' 'economic', spiritual/ancestral', 'witchcraft/sorcery' and so on. Ethnicity, seen in this way then, appears not as some special 'social formation', but rather as a special case of the visualization (or objectification, reification) and metaphorization of social relations. It is these visualizations that make political rhetoric and recruitment possible. They are objectified in 'ethnic' dress, dance, the built environment, bodily dispositions, ritual forms, and other cultural displays Ethnicity, then, is an aesthetic phenomenon, and must be understood at least partly in these terms. This approach permits us to reason about why special kinds of social power are associated with certain 'ethnicities' and thus to understand the cultural basis for an imagined, socially transmitted and sanctioned geometry of social power.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 29 March 1993
Ethnicity. Congresses, Power (Social sciences). Congresses