Auxilary instruments of labor: The homogenization of diversity in the discourse of ethnicity

Wilmsen, Edwin N.
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In the creation of an image of national unity successful political states employ their power of cultural hegemony to facilitate the continual renewal of forms of involuntary ascription, such as ethnicity, that can coexist with a national consciousness without apparent contradiction precisely because they are cultural, that is ascribed, and therefore appear both natural and national from the perspective of individuals. Continued tacit acceptance of imposed ethnic terms for current political discourse (e.g., in Eastern Europe, Islamic Asia, southern Africa, USA minorities) reaffirms the established status of these terms as the most readily available avenue for collective self-identification and action. "So long as social practice continues to be pursued as if ethnicity did hold the key to the structures of inequality, the protectionism of the dominant and the responses of the dominated alike serve to reproduce an ethnically ordered world" (Comaroff 1987:xxx). It is particularly important to stress this at a time' when a philosophy of primordial ethnicity is being widely reasserted as a form of neo-racism to justify new or continued suppression of dispossessed ethnic groups. In this paper, I will analyze processes of ethnicization, identity construction, and class formation in Botswana. In ethnicity and tribalism are conflated (e.g., Vail 1989). But tribes, as Vail's authors make abundently clear, are a product of colonial engagement; they are essentially administrative constructs. On the other hand, ethnicity as a central logic emerged out of conflicts engendered in competition for favored positions among these tribal constructs. The emergent ethnicities were formulated out of an amalgam of preexisting indigenous and inserted colonial partitive ideologies. A dominant class - in colonial Africa, this was often an ascendent 'tribal' aristocracy - defined and determined the terms of subordinate class competition which is the seedbed of ethnicizing processes.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 3 May 1993
Ethnicity, Ethnicity. Botswana