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Barth, Fredrik 1995. "Ethnicity and The Concept of Culture".

Paper presented to the
Conference 'Rethinking Culture', Harvard 1995.©All rights reserved.Reproduced here for
educational use, Unit for Culture Research, Tel Aviv University, as it has disappeared from
the original site.(
Fredrik Barth February 23, 1995
The juxtaposition of ethnicity with the current debate in anthropology on the concept of
culture is a way of trying to elucidate one problem with another. In 1969 I argued that
ethnicity represents the social organization of culture difference. Thus it raises issues about
the constitution of that which we call culture, but only as its ground. Contrary to what is still a
widely shared view, I argued that ethnic groups are not groups formed on the basis of shared
culture, but rather the formation of groups on the basis of differences of culture. To think of
ethnicity in relation to one group and its culture is like trying to clap with one hand. The
contrast between "us" and "others" is what is embedded in the organization of ethnicity: an
otherness of the others that is explicitly linked to the assertion of cultural differences. So let us
start by rethinking culture, the ground from which ethnic groups emerge.
We anthropologists are even more aware than others of the enormous global variation in
culture. But like others, we have been inclined to think of this variation in terms of there being
a multiplicity of different, distinct cultures in the world, each a unit and a whole onto itself. If
there are many cultures out there, then we must be able to specify where each of them is, what
composes them and what bounds them. Where do we imagine that a culture is lodged? Is its
stuff made up of a population, or customs, or all the ideas shared by the people of a tribe, an
island? Where is this unit located, in space and time and in persons?
We all agree that culture refers to something (everything?) that is learned. More precisely,
that means that culture is experience-induced in people--so to identify it, we must be able to
point to those experiences. We must also accept certain implications that follow: that culture
must constantly be generated by those experiences from which people learn. We then have a
focus--not a way to say where culture is localized, but a way of pointing to where it is being
produced and reproduced.
I invite you to look at culture globally, and to see it not just as showing great variation, but as
showing continuous variation. I share some ideas with persons widely distributed over the
world, others with my closest neighbor; and no single other person in the world has the
identical set of concepts and ideas--culture--that I have. However, variation is continuous not
in the sense that is shows every form and has uniform gradients: there are steeper and less
steep clines, and patterned scatters of sharing of some ideas in contrast to others. It is thus
characterized by a complex and patterned continuity. But the pattern is not--as speaking in
terms of a multiplicity of local cultures would imply--a mosaic of bounded, internally
homogeneous units. The ideas that compose culture overflow and spread differentially and
create a variety of clusters and gradients.
Secondly, we should think of it as something distributed on people, in people, as a result of
their experiences; while by having similar experiences and engaging each other in reflections,
instructions, and interactions, people will also be induced to conceptualize and in part share
many cultural models. I suggest that a crucial aspect of cultural things is the way they thus
become differentially distributed on people and on circles and groups of people.
Thirdly, culture is in a constant state of flux. There can be no stasis in cultural materials,
because cultural materials are constantly being generated, as they are induced from people's
experiences. I argue, therefore, that we must not think of cultural materials as transmitted
traditions from the past, fixed in time, but as basically in a state of flux.
All these features differentiate the stuff of culture very clearly from the stuff of social
organization. Social groups can perfectly well have clear boundaries. One group may be
clearly and categorically distinct from another. A group can also have internal uniform
membership in the sense that everyone who shares a position in a group has identical rights
and duties. Furthermore, groups can be stable, in that the group structure remains unchanged
through time by virtue of a consistent pattern of recruitment, regardless of the change and
replacement of personnel. In all these ways, the social shows different properties from the
cultural. Much of the confusion (and perhaps also the compelling importance) of ethnic
groups arises from this tension between the nature of social groups and the nature of the
cultural materials on which the definition of ethnic groups as social units is based.
When I speak in this way, I am making a slight simplification of world ethnography. There
have been, and are today, a few places where the continuities break down. When the first
explorers fought their way through the ice and made contact with the Polar Eskimo of North
Greenland, they met people who thought that the rest of humanity had perished and they were
the sole human survivors in the world. In other words, they represented both an insulated
group and a culture with definite boundaries. That was true then; it is not true anymore. But I
do know one place where it seems to be thus today. In the Andaman Islands of the Bay of
Bengal there are Andaman Pygmies who live in a scatter of surviving communities. Most of
the Andamanese have some contact with the world, but there is a group on one little island
called Sentinel Island. These people refuse any contact with people from the outside. Some
years ago there was an article in National Geographic with a magnificent photo of them on the
beach, threatening and chasing away a little ship that was trying to land to make contact with
them. But there are few such places. No people are, or have been, able to maintain this
truculent isolation under normal geographical circumstances. The island of Manhattan is
much more typical of the human condition than Sentinel Island, and this has been so for many
thousand years. Living in communication, in a place where people come and go and mingle
and mix with a considerable degree of cultural pluralism is the normal condition of
humankind. It is not the result of modernization; all the great civilizations throughout the ages
have certainly been characterized by this kind of pluralism. Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean,
and major parts of the New World long before Columbus, all had this characteristic.
In a previous Program on Nonviolent Sanctions and Cultural Survival Seminar, David
Maybury-Lewis spoke about indigenous groups. Indigenous groups are, in a social sense,
survivors of populations that occupied the land before some of the most dramatic clashes and
meetings of peoples. Their cultures, on the other hand, are certainly not aboriginal. As David
was saying, he could introduce persons from many an indigenous group who have Ph.D.s, and
they have all participated in a great deal that is not aboriginal and a lot of interaction that is
external to their indigenous group. Being an indigenous person does not mean that you carry a
separate, indigenous culture. Instead, it probably means that at some times, at some occasions,
you say, "This is my ethnic identity. This is the group to which I wish to belong." And you
will cherish some particular signs that this is your identity. And it surely means that you will
have learned some things that show a cultural continuity of tradition from previous
generations of the indigenous population. But that knowledge, those ideas and skills, are
certainly not exhaustive of what you have learned, of the culture that you command.
I wish to hammer this point and proceed slowly, so as to shake off misconceptions that we are
all prone to harbor and that will distort every understanding of what ethnicity is about. I will
do it by speaking about the emergence of a new ethnic category, that of Pakistanis in Norway.
There are about 30,000 Pakistanis living as part of Norwegian society. Norwegian society
used to be exceptionally homogeneous, and these foreign labor migrants, who came from
Pakistan starting in the late 1950s or early 1960s, seemed very strange and anomalous to
Norwegian communities. Let us now examine not the Norwegian reaction to them, but the
reaction to Norway, what their experience was and what it resulted in. I'll start with a Pathan I
know who came from Pakistan in the early 1960s.
In Pakistan, Pathans are one of several ethnic groups who are periodically in stark conflict
with each other. For years there was an ethnic independence movement for a free
Pakhtunistan; and from current newscasts you will be familiar with the ethnic riots taking
place in Karachi, where Pathans are some of the players. So to be Pathan is very clearly to
have a distinct ethnic identity within Pakistan.
Now this Pathan man came to Norway, very aware of his identity. He arrived as a labor
migrant. Of course in such a situation one learns very much very quickly. He had to learn
some Norwegian, though not all that well. As he learned language, he learned about
Norwegian society. He had to learn new skills and new knowledge to obtain employment, and
further learned new things in his new workplace. His conception of Norwegian society grew
and changed, and this I insist is a change in his culture. It is not just like being bilingual,
learning a bit of Norwegian and continuing to know an unmodified Pashto language. No, he is
learning all sorts of things that also change what he used to know. He actively reflects on his
position in Norway. His idea of being a Muslim becomes different from what it was when he
was living in a Muslim society. The idea of being a "Pakistani," moreover, is a new and
growing idea. It comes about as he seeks out the company of other persons who are in the
same position as himself, who can support each other in a growing fellowship of being
Pakistani in Norway. He never much considered himself to be one before, but the old ethnic
differences from Pakistan now seem pretty irrelevant as he confronts what is Norwegian. He
is responding to the things he is learning by reviewing and restructuring a lot of things that he
formerly had not reflected much on. He is discarding some of his previous values, and
increasingly cherishing others. In other words, his total culture is undergoing change, and it
quickly becomes illusory to identify a part of him as molded by Pathan or Pakistani culture
and another part of him as representing the Norwegian culture that he is learning.
After some time his wife joins him in Norway. Now, a woman's experience living as a Pathan
in Pakistan is very different from that of men. Since she has lived a woman's life, when she
arrives in Norway her culture is, in a very real way, different from that of her husband.
Moreover, her experiences living in Norway are drastically different than her husband's, both
because she is living a different life, and because she is interpreting everything in her different
terms. She is limited in ways he was not at the time when he arrived, while he was forced by
his circumstances to do many things and learn many things that she is not. So these two
Pathans in Oslo, starting out different, become only more different because of the different
experiences they accumulate. They have children, born in Norway but of Pakistani descent.
These children go to Norwegian schools, and presumably learn the things that other
Norwegian children learn. They live in a local neighborhood, partly containing other
Pakistanis, partly Norwegians. The children, then, are exposed to enormous bodies of learning
experiences that are vastly different from those of the mother or father when they came to
Norway. Thus the children of this little family will grow up with a "culture"--a precipitate
from learning, reflection, and experience--that will be different from both their mother and
their father, and from everybody else. I wish to highlight this aspect of one small Pakistani
family which, though a unit for reproduction of the Pakistani ethnic group is not also a unit
for the reproduction of a shared culture, but on the contrary, is a dynamic mix of cultural
difference, contrast, and conflict. The wife and the husband have different ideas of how to do
things and how to adjust and are arguing about it. The children are also pushed and pulled by
their different relations to significant others, interpreting their own unique experiences and
grappling with their own problems. Their interests and interpretations may be in direct
opposition to those of the parents in many respects, and moving in divergent directions. In
other words, this group is a witch's cauldron of conflicting interests, ideas, misinterpretations
and misunderstandings, and deep cultural differences--right there in the center of a small,
elementary family. What happens to such a family?
Firstly, they will converge on an idea of sharing an identity as Pakistanis. They live in Oslo
with shared contacts in a growing community of Pakistanis, mostly Punjabis. But what used
to be a highly salient ethnic contrast between Pathan and Punjabi becomes irrelevant; they are
now all Pakistanis in Norway. They have a common nationality and some degree of common
background to justify this, and certainly a shared contrast: being Muslims (though of a great
variety of orientations and commitments) in a Christian majority. They experience being
stereotyped by other members of Norwegian society--who care if you say you are Pathan or
Punjabi, you're a Pakistani. People seek community with others who are placed in positions
similar to theirs, and soon a Pakistani ethnic category emerges from their experiences of being
stereotyped, of being among strangers, of being in the same boat. But the cultural bases of this
shared identity are really quite weak and limited, while their internal differences are of course
even greater than in the little family we explored. None the less, the experience that seems
undeniable--though based on different events as between adults and children, men and
woman--is their being different from the surrounding Norwegians.
Observe how this community of Pakistanis progressively forms and asserts its effects. Some
of the Pakistanis are more successful than others at accommodating to the Norwegian
situation. But those who are less successful, spend more time in their Pakistani circle and
thereby become more influential in articulating the dominant attitudes of the Pakistani
community. In fact they use their Pakistani fellowship as a way of retrenching and building a
more positive self image in a problematic world that they have to cope with to some extent,
but can seek refuge from in a community of Pakistanis. This is the context where the central
myth of ethnicity is formed: the non sequitur that since "we" of the minority identity share so
many differences from the dominant "them"--in life situation, concerns, and attitudes--we
must be similar to one another, we must share a culture that reflects those differences to
another culture.
The formation of such a myth, and of the social group that lives by it, again has its further
effects. I return to the Pathan man that I opened with. Before his wife came to Norway he
didn't have to worry much about his identities, contacts, and memberships, specifically in
terms of culture. He could move as a single person among Norwegians, and he could see other
Pakistanis whenever he felt like it. With his wife there he is in a new situation. First, because
he is troubled about what she might be learning about Norwegian women's situation and their
ideas about gender rights and roles. Furthermore, other Pakistanis are pressuring him to
institute the kind of controls over female spouses that they want instituted. What better
solution than to form an alliance with them so as to better protect his interests. Within the
Pakistani community, collective pressures are brought to bear to constrain the movements of
women and control what they may learn. And his new concerns will influence and change the
positions he himself takes on the various Norwegian ideas that he has learned.
Culture is always in flux, always changing, but also always subject to constraints. The main
creative and overflowing processes of learning and diversifying that I have spoken of are not
unfettered in the continuous variation that they produce. I see three contrary processes at work
that I would like to highlight: the processes of controlling, of silencing, and of erasing
experiences. The culture that each person is accumulating and living by is under constant
reshaping, not only by growth, but also through being limited and channelled by those three
processes. Most dramatically, we see thais in the Norwegian-born children of Pakistani
descent. These children must go to Norwegian school, and parents both welcome it and worry
about it. As they experience the increasing distancing and alienation that these experiences
and this learning produces in their own children, they try to control and minimize their
children's contacts with the source of disturbance. Many Pakistani parents refuse their
children permission to bring Norwegian classmates and friends home or to visit them at their
homes. Experiences will also be silenced: whatever friendships these children have with
Norwegians in the school situation, they will learn not to tell about them at home because it
makes for trouble. I am not sure what effect this has on the conceptualization of such relations
and experiences, but it must surely have an effect. Finally, if silencing fails, there may be a
need for active erasing. Consider, for example, a daughter in a Pakistani family who goes to
Norwegian school, and like all other pupils has physical education. Small girls, by Pakistani
conventions, are allowed to be physically active and boisterous and need not be discouraged
from gym. But as they get to be ten or twelve, such physical activity is no longer suitable as
far as the parents are concerned. The scene of their daughter, a budding woman, dancing
around in a state of relative undress is deeply troubling. The child may indeed have enjoyed
the activity greatly and accumulated a pleasurable valuation of it--in which case her positive
experience needs to be erased and she must learn that it is bad. Continued physical education
for girls is a recurring bone of contention between school authorities and the Pakistani
Even more dramatic, of course are cross-gender friendships and crushes. Children have not
progressed very far into school before they show the first signs of having sweethearts. How
do these Norwegian children of Pakistani descent handle such matters? Their parents are very
troubled by the slightest suggestion or even thought of such relationships, and there is bound
to be difficulties. For the boys, control and silencing set in. In the case of girls, real
desperation may result, because any story that circulated in the Pakistani community that their
daughter has a Norwegian boyfriend will greatly damage her reputation and reduce her value
on the marriage market among Pakistanis. Inevitably, the news even passes back to Pakistan
and prevents an arranged marriage for her there. What can the parents do? They certainly do
not allow the child a chance to reflect on the experience, to speak about it with anyone and
take it in and learn anything positive from it--instead they work to erase it, stamp it out. If that
tactic does not succeed, the girl may be sent to relatives in pakistan, even in anticipation of the
dangers rather than after the fact. Some girls, born in Norway, fluent in Norwegian and
mainstream culture, are sent "home" to Pakistan to grandparents or an uncle they may never
have met, given a one way ticket only to discover they are not allowed to come back. The
Norwegian consulate has been involved in a few such cases, because the girls in question
managed to get word to them and tell their story. Yet, as on many other issues, Norwegian
authorities have tended to participate on the side of the parents, controlling and silencing on
the basis of their construction of the nature and meaning of cultural differences and ethnic
Thus we see a number of ways in which the potentially unfettered processes of experience,
learning, and interaction that would produce an unbounded and truly continuous global field
of variation in culture are counteracted by these specifically social processes of controlling,
silencing, and erasing. These social processes work towards creating cultural discontinuities
and a somewhat greater isomorphy between the social with its divisions, and the cultural with
its inconvenient tendency to overflow, vary, and blur. The resulting disordered field of
continuous variation and occasional interruptions of discontinuities is further conceptually
distorted by a myth of cultural homogeneity and sharing, so it will provide a better charter and
justification for the construction of social identities and group memberships. A few select
items of culture, preferably organized as contrastive idioms, are then selected as icons of these
contrastive identities. That is how cultural variation is enrolled to serve as the basis for the
social phenomenon of ethnic groups. Ethnic group membership is constructed without
reference to the real diversity of culture, reaching right into the individual family, but through
an overdrawn myth of contrast and sharing respectively. This is dramatized by a few select
contrastive cultural emblems and some choice, confrontational historical accounts of
situations where groups (not "cultures") have clashed and perpetrated injustices on each other.
We are all of us part of such stories and may have difficulties separating ourselves from the
convenient identities they deliver. But it is a striking fact that depending on where we are and
what society surrounds us, these stories will be different and the nature of the ethnicity that
results will be different. There do not seem to be any identifiable primordial processes at work
producing the same kind of ethnic groups in different situations--rather, the particular
circumstances under which ethnic identities emerge vary so greatly that the results will be
likewise variable. All the generalizations so far advanced have proved simplistic and wrong.
Ethnicity and Political Entrepreneurs
The above argument was more about culture and cultural pluralism and some of the social
processes that shape ethnic sensibilities, and less about the issues of ethnicity as they are
constructed in contemporary media treating current conflicts. When one speaks of ethnicity in
the media or in much of the social sciences, the attention is narrowly focused on the
politization of this ground of cultural variation within certain modern state structures, i.e.
ethnic conflicts as they tend to arise today. To address those issues, I need to add a further
account of the processes whereby certain kinds of leaders activate ethnic identities in
collective political action. These contemporary events are often talked about as
"retribalization," imputing a historical perspective that dismisses them as somehow archaic
and anomalous. This is one of those plausible falsehoods that David Maybury-Lewis
mentioned in his seminar. I believe the phenomenon has nothing to do with tribalism and pre-
state political systems--on the contrary, it is a response of people to a particular form of state
organization and the political opportunities it creates. Further, it is important to recognize that
the dynamics whereby political mobilization to conflict on an ethnic basis takes place are not
the expression of collective popular sentiments, but result from tactical moves made by
political entrepreneurs. Our ability to prevent and reverse such tragic perversions of relations
in culturally plural states depends on our ability to understand these dynamics with some
Crudely, I would say that the conflicts we see today are the work mainly of middle echelon
politicians who use the politics of cultural difference to further their ambitions for leadership.
This is tempting to them because in ethnic identities they see a potential constituency, so to
speak, waiting for them, and all they need to find is the key to set the process in motion.
Leaders seek these constituencies and mobilize them by making select, contrastive cultural
differences more salient, and preferably by linking them to grievances and injustices, whether
in the past or escalating in the present. They mobilize such constituencies in dissatisfaction so
that they can lead them to a promised satisfaction. They engage in confrontational politics
where, in fact, the ethnic appeal of competing leaders or candidates is one that constantly
aggravates conflict and contrast, because once you are on this trajectory, the more you can
prove your own commitment by vociferous rhetoric, the more support and more authority you
can claim. Candidates emphasize the total unreasonableness of others, and the constraints of
the current situation to ensure the necessity that people join them so they can lead their
followers to the promised land. The emergence of such a wave of ethnic mobilization also
intensifies the processes of controlling, silencing and erasing experiences, thus progressively
producing their own preconditions. Persons with a rich network of relationships and
experiences that extend beyond the ethnic group are told that these things are banned,
valueless, or worse, that they must no longer be allowed, that we must be strong and united to
create the political force that is needed for our particular objectives. These objectives are
formulated by the entrepreneurs as a package. People are not left free to choose and say "Yes,
I want to activate my ethnic identity for this purpose but not for that purpose. I will support
you on this policy, but not on that policy." Thus the collective process is one that dramatically
restricts the freedom of persons to act and to choose. Blocks with prepackaged programs are
created, and either/or choices imposed. People's diversity of life and choices in their own
private lives are reduced, and their conceptions of who they are and what they might do are
limited and cut back.
Our anthropological colleague Tone Bringa started working as an ethnographer in a Bosnian
town before the troubles started. In her town were mainly Muslims and Roman Catholics.
People of the town who were Roman Catholic could identify themselves as Croat, but in fact
they thought of themselves as local people of this local town, not as part of Croatia. Bringa
has seen the process whereby the politization and mobilization of ethnic groups has invaded
that local society. She has tried to map the processes that have taken place there. It is one of
those pathetic human stories of people in a network straddling the Muslim/Roman Catholic
boundary--a category-boundary that entails differences in custom, difference of identity, but
vast bodies of shared cultural materials and a social network that tied people closely together.
A number of intermarriages used to take place, with patterns whereby people handled the fact
that boys and girls of different categories did fall in love with one another, and folk wisdom
on how to accommodate these links across fault lines. However, progressively the political
entrepreneurs mobilized them. They were drawn into situations where young men were given
no real choice and forced to join sides. Yet old women in the village long continued to come
together and give each other news of their respective sons and husbands who were away in
the hills killing each other. Living plural communities with a rich capital of cultural pluralism
and diversity were progressively destroyed.
It is worth emphasizing that this is a process that unfolds in response to and interaction with
the structure of a larger statehood and a larger international context of institutions, not in their
absence. Yet the ethnic mobilization that takes place in such contexts is not necessarily one of
nationalism. Quite often ethnic groups are mobilized as factions to control the center in a
multicultural state, or they may seek to survive on the peripheries of such states. They may
initially be designed as nationalist projects by their entrepreneurs, and subsequently move to
pursue other goals--or vice versa. In either case, current tactics will reflect the particular
opportunities and circumstances of the state structure within which they take place. It is
becoming obvious that such ethnic mobilization takes place less readily in the more
authoritarian states. It is no coincidence that Tito's Yugoslavia was a more unified state than
the post-Tito era, when it falls apart. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union held together
when the terror was strong. The scope for middle-level political entrepreneurs is much greater
where the competition for political leadership is more open and more decentralized. That
makes unorganized constituencies like ethnic identities more attractive, and their mobilization
more practicable.
On the other hand, state structures may also be directly based on ethnic groups. The classical
multiethnic and multicultural structure in Europe, of course, was the Ottoman Empire, with its
extraordinary organization of culture groups within a system of division of labor
encompassing the whole Empire. There were ethnic confrontations and ethnic cleansings and
exiles also in that structure, but we are beginning to see that more democratic systems of
government may provide a more open field for political rivalries that can lead to ethnic
movements and mobilizations. Obviously, what we call democracies are not simple systems
that directly express the popular will, they are systems that are governed through particular
instituted processes of populist appeal. They provide an open field for political leadership and
rivalry, and if there is this ground of ethnic contrasts in identity to work with, somebody is
bound to pick it up and use it. Sometimes it leads to fateful escalation of contrasts between
these political constituencies that are emerging in relation to the control of the state, or it may
lead towards separatism.
Finally, let us reflect on the possibilities of nonviolent solutions in the face of ethnic
escalation. Recall the materials on Pakistanis in Norway. I want to remind you of the constant
processes that are at work in that situation: ongoing processes where bridges are constantly
being built, boundaries are weakened through experience and learning that overflows,
enhanced individual variation in culture, and networks that are made more continuous. At the
same time, the processes of controlling, silencing, and erasing that counteract linkages and
create discontinuity are also at work. If we want to de-escalate a situation, I think this is the
key understanding of dynamics which we must bring to the task. The point is to attack the
grounds on which ethnic mobilization and separation take place--in other words, attack the
myths of culture. We need to reduce the saliency of people's awareness of these particular
differences, and draw their attention to all the other criss-crossing differences and the joint
interests they have as socially composite individuals. We want to create arenas, specifically
for negotiations, where one can work from common interests and move outward, where one
allows the processes that build bridges to be productive and assert themselves with less
constraint. This is the essence of Scandinavian collective bargaining in labor relations. You
don't start with opposed constituencies and try to bring them together. You start with the
common ground. You ask what the shared interests between the parties are. Then you
negotiate to expand that common ground. This is the opposite procedure from that employed
by the entrepreneurs when they mobilize ethnic groups. So if you are dealing with an ethnic
conflict, you do not create an arena that allows leaders to speak narrowly as representatives of
constituencies while relaying to those constituencies what they are saying--that can only result
in deadlock. You must define the discourse so it is not about those boundary-marking
distinctions, but about all the other interests that cannot be structured along that single line of
confrontation. That's what Roed Larsen did in his secret mediation between Palestinians and
Israelis that broke the deadlock of negotiations. It is obviously too early to say that it was
successful, but there is still hope. If you compare it to the Bosnian negotiations, you see a
clear difference. The Bosnian negotiators are there with their counterpoised symbols and
positions and the negotiators try to bring them closer. That is the opposite technique of what
would be indicated by the dynamics of ethnicity that I have tried to expose. Whatever shaky
and limited recognized common ground there may be, that will be where you should start,
with a view to progressively expand it through exploring shared concerns. Only in that way
can the dichotomies of ethnic boundaries be overcome, through attention to whole lives and
continuous cultural variation through the larger society.
[Fredrik Barth is a renowned Norwegian anthropologist.]