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An assessment of the significance attributed to ‘place’ as a source of identification in three ethnographic studies

An assessment of the significance attributed to ‘place’ as a source of identification in three ethnographic studies

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Catriona Arlow.
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Catriona Arlow.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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An assessment of the significance attributed to ‘place’ as a source of identification in three ethnographic studies
The relationship between place and identity is the foundation of much anthropologicalinquiry: in investigating aspects of ‘other cultures’ the anthropologist is seen to go‘there’ to study ‘them’; and/or, as is often the case, universalist claims about humannature are made which dissolve the boundary between countries, and between countryand culture (Gupta and Ferguson, 2001b:34). Indeed, implicit in this statement is notonly the “mapping” (ibid.) of the concept ‘culture’ onto the concept ‘country’, but theequation of the concept “country” (as a ‘bounded’ object) with the concept“container” (Chilton, 2004:118). Culture is seen to be (in)formed by geographicallocation, to the extent that “society and culture are routinely appended to the names of nation-states” (Gupta and Ferguson, 2001b:34), and, simultaneously, such nation-states are conceptualized as “containing” the material and metaphysical features of specific cultures. Moreover, the fact that structural phenomena such as “state” and“society” are often conceptualized in terms of the individual “person” (Kövecses,2002: 68) implies state- or societal agency; and entails that the country, as the“embodiment of culture” (Gupta and Ferguson, 2001b:34), is, similarly, ascribed(metonymic) agency. A geographical territory, then, might be conceived asrepresenting a specific culture and specific individuals. However, similarities (ethnic,religious, ideological) between people might allow a certain ‘culture’ to be assignedto a geographical territory which spans the area of several countries; and, conversely,differences between people might delimit that area into separate (albeit notnecessarily distinct) cultural territories (cf. Anderson, 1983).Set in motion by the rise of political economy in the 1980s, and in a bid not to“assum[e] [the] isomorphism of space, place and culture” (ibid.), anthropology hasconcerned itself with ever greater conviction with the means by which“marginalization” affects and is affected by the relationship between place andidentity (see, amongst others, Anderson, 1983; Herzfeld, 1987; MacDonald, 1997).This essay seeks to critique and evaluate the ways marginal (and marginalized)‘societies’ are shown to identify, and are identified by, themselves and others inrelation to the ‘places’ they each inhabit. Three ethnographies will be considered:Page 1 of 9
Sarah Green’s
 Notes from the Balkans
(2005), which combines themes of ambivalence and abandonment on the Greek-Albanian border; Anna Tsing’s seminalwork on the movements of the Meratus Dayaks of South Kalimantan,
 In the Realm of the Diamond Queen
(1993); and Liisa Malkki’s
 Purity and Exile
(1995), aninvestigation of ‘mythico-history’ in two Hutu refugee camps in Tanzania. Thesethree texts are viewed as points along a crude scale from the least to the most “out-of-the-way” place, conceived, initially, in order to contrast the effect of geographicmarginality on processes of self-identification and identification by supra-local‘others’. An autonomous analysis of the relationship between place and identityfollowed by a comparative evaluation will show that in each case discourses of ambivalence or resistance emerge at the interface between geographic marginality andideological marginalization, which ultimately breed new means of identification. Letus begin with (Green, 2005).Green’s ethnography traces the roots of marginality in a township in the Pogoniregion of Epirus in NW Greece to its isolated, highland location on the Greek-Albanian border, and contrasts the local narrative of abandonment by the state withthe state’s investment in the neighbouring region of Zagori. By invoking a metaphor of ‘fractality’ (2005:17), Green illustrates how the fundamental tenets of thehegemonic “order of things” (Malkki, 1995:passim) are seen to filter from thenational to the local level by a process of “replication” which works on two levels: notonly is the township of Mavropoulo a geographical and geomorphological replica of ‘the Balkans’ as a ‘whole’, but the concentration of ideology at the macro-level is alsomore or less mirrored by the ideology observable at the micro-level. And just as theeffect of seismic activity on the physical landscape is met with indifference, so too isthe Epirot’s own concept of selfhood ambivalent, as is evident from their constantassertions of their “just Greek”-ness (2005:13). This emphasis on indistinctivenesswas especially concentrated when frequent comparisons with the relative spatial andhierarchical mobility of the ‘exotic’ Sarakatsani, inhabitants of the neighbouringZagori region, were made (ibid.:6, 67). These generalized dichotomies of ‘Pogoni/Zagori’, or even ‘Balkans/Greece’ reinforce the marginality andmarginalization of collectivized groups of people, and therefore also reinforce thediscourse that both place and people “are and are not something, somewhere, andsomeone in particular” (ibid.:1).Page 2 of 9
“Centralizing” themes of marginality by positing them as the “antidote to master narratives” (Seremetakis, 1991:1-7, quoted in Green, 2005:2) therefore alsocentralizes the folk concept of the relationship between place and identity as, not somuch an imposition on ‘the Epirots’ by the “powers that be” (the state, the EU, theUS, (2005:37)), but a negotiation between the two categories (ibid.:3). Whilst thenarrative of abandonment, legitimized by a lack of investment in tourism (ibid.:6) andmisrepresentation in national statistics (ibid.:162), did provide an opportunity for a process of resistance, it was ultimately naturalized as one which “constituted theseaccounts as always already embroiled with other things” (ibid.). Part of the reason for this naturalization was the replication of themes of marginality at the local level, thatis, between areas and villages within Pogoni. For example, the “black-kneed” pastoralists of the relatively infertile lowlands were looked down upon by the Upper Pogoni peoples, who, furthermore, were able to distinguish themselves from theLower Pogoni people as ‘fully Greek’ rather than of probable Albanian descent(ibid.:44). This micro-marginality, whilst highlighting difference between relativelysmall groups of people, reinforced their collectivity as
(ibid.:12) in contrast tothe exoticised Sarakatsani and, ultimately, the rest of Greece, and enabled their effective assimilation with, and dissolution into, the landscape. Comparatively poor or wealthy, indistinct or distinct places and people, then, acted as the touchstones bywhich those same places and people could (re)affirm their categorical identity inrelation to one another.However, for the people of Pogoni in particular the “isomorphism of space, place andculture” (Gupta and Ferguson, 2001b:34), was challenged by the “drawing and re-drawing” (Green, 2005:6-7) of the state border line, and its permeability, where“movements had begun to take on a predictability and a familiarity, a not-quitereplication of what had occurred before for people on both sides” (2005:46).Consequently, although the Pogoni people might profess their “just-Greekness”, in theeyes of onlookers they and their fellow Epirots are often conceptualized as “neither one thing nor another, or alternatively too much both one thing and another, andsomehow still not particularly noted or notable” (ibid.), which is again reinforced by,Page 3 of 9

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