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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (13)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (j)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities
A year ago on Round and Square (28 July 2012)—The Accidental Ethnographer: Reading Geil
Two years ago on Round and Square (28 July 2011)—Longevity Mountain: Always the Southern Entrance
[a] Dynamic RF
In the next dozen entries, I will be posting an initial draft of a book introduction on Asian ethnic groups. It is meant for the blog, and does not represent anything like what will eventually be published. I do so especially because this represents a compilation of my thoughts after a full year of intensive teaching and research on Asian ethnicity. The introduction to this series shows some of my thoughts from last year—before I taught my advanced seminar by the same title as this series. This is something of a culmination of the process, even though I will be now moving in many new directions in the teaching and study of Asian ethnic groups.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
Dynamics of Ethnicity (b)
[b] Shred RF
There is one more dimension that we must add to this equation if we are to get the deepest benefit from this volume’s entries. To do so, let’s go back, briefly, to our baseball example. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, can we really assume that everyone in Boston is a Red Sox fan? We already know that there is no possibility that everyone in New York—however we define the area—is a Yankees fan (there have almost always been two or even three teams in the city). How do we account for the Baltimore Orioles fans living in Brooklyn and the Minnesota Twins fans living in Boston? Does “Boston” speak through a single idiom?

Of course not.
Too many discussions of ethnicity seem to assert that “this people” or “that people” acts, works, or plays in a manner that can be shared by the entire group. There is a tiny shred of “truth” to this, of course. To the extent that a group (Boston Red Sox fans, the Tajik people) can be called a group at all, they have to share certain qualities. The purpose of individual descriptions is in outlining exactly those items. These, too, are “subjective” if we parse them enough, but it is clear to any reader that the Boston Red Sox play their home games in Fenway Park, broadcast to all of the New England states, and won the World Series in 2004 and 2009. Those who try to claim that we can know nothing without our “subjectivities” getting in the way have missed the point. We need precisely that kind of detailed information if we are to understand any complex group.

On the other hand, such information can take us only so far. Homi Bhabha might say, “fine; memorize that….now put it into motion—dynamic motion.” For that, we need to understand how the Yankees and Red Sox played their games (myriad contests throughout the past). We need to understand marriage alliances, feuds, and treaties between the Bai people and the Han. We need, in short, to understand the interstices, the contestation.
And to do that, we need to understand that individuals inhabit their ethnic and cultural realms. There is no such thing as “a culture” (or even “an ethnicity”) doing, acting, or contesting anything. Individuals do that, and make individual (sometimes weird and idiosyncratic) choices while doing so. Sometimes they make terrible mistakes. Sometimes they strike out.

And sometimes they hit a home run. Individuals hit home runs. Teams don’t hit them; they help create them in many ways, and then benefit from them. Only individuals can hit them.

Pierre Bourdieu, our second cultural theorist, never forgot the individual. His angle is a bit different from Bhabha’s, but it merges together with it nicely. His conception of social action, while enormously complex and nuanced, can be summarized in a useful idea—there are no rules that determine how people act. To the extent that researchers have focused on “the way” the Zhuang people behave, for example, they have missed a much larger and more powerful point. People make individual choices within a vast set of correspondences and challenges. Every social action—from a marriage alliance between Han and Miao people to the complex PRC decision to emphasize ethnicity as a part of the history and culture of the state—is strategic. These choices can be individual or engage many layers of people and opinion. Choice is always a large part of the equation.
Although this may seem obvious, enormous misunderstandings have flowed from “over-reading” the stories of individual groups. A “minority” family, for example, that wants to see its younger generation thrive will often embrace ethnicity in one manner (for example, accepting the criteria for minority representation in universities) even while acting in a much more ecumenical manner in others, such as business dealings. Ethnicity is not a “thing” that is worn in the same way in all contexts. They change in time and space, and nuanced interpretations—and actions—are the norm.
***  ***
If we pair the insights of Bhabha and Bourdieu, we can see a sophisticated weaving of two themes. On the one hand, we best understand concepts like ethnicity by focusing on the margins, the interstices, of “ethnic categories.” On the other hand, following Bourdieu, every action at those margins—in the end, every action at all—is a (complex), layered medley of choices in historically and culturally situated settings. What this means for our study of Asian ethnic groups is that we must balance the detailed knowledge we can gain from the formidable information in this book’s encyclopedic entries with knowledge of process, change, and choice. A Mongol family choosing to marry a member of the Han elite today would not be the same—in terms of power, class, or motivation—as one performing the same cultural “act” (engaging to marry outside of one’s ethnic group) during the Mongol-controlled Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).

Ethnicity is always in motion, and this book will help you to understand both the dynamics of movement and the key elements shared by ethnic groups in northern, central, and eastern Asia.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10

[f] Motion RF

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