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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
Remaking Cultural Identities in the New East and Central Europe. Edited
by Lazlo Kurti and Juliet Langman (1997) Boulder, CO, Westview Press,
Reviewed by E. L. Cerroni-Long, Anthropology, S.A.C. Department, Eastern Michigan University
the most striking outcomes of a three-day symposium on ethnicity, held
at the 1998 International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological
Sciences, was the contrast in the proposals respectively advanced by the
American and Russian delegations. While the American contributors voiced
a strong recommendation for eliminating the term "race" from
the social science discourse on ethnicity, the Russians expressed an equally
strong belief in the need to eliminate the concept of nationality! The
ironic symmetry of these statements illustrates particularly well the
"cultural embeddedness" of our analytical procedures, and it
highlights how certain terms and concepts acquire symbolic meanings that
are very context-specific. The collection of articles put together by
Lazlo Kurti and Juliet Langman in Beyond Borders, is a helpful introduction
to this issue, and the fact that the volume's focus is the ethnocultural
dynamics of post-1989 East and Central Europe gives it special immediacy.
of the fashionable ring of the title, this book does not introduce -
in one of the contributors' felicitous phrase - "another post-modern,
globalized concerto" (p. 95). On the contrary, the various case studies
it presents solidly document not only the persistence of ethnic identity
in populations that have long been presumed "homogenized," but
also the inevitability of separatist movements catalyzed by such identities
whenever the political circumstances are favorable. The fact that the
volume's goals seem to derive from quintessentially postmodern premises
makes its conclusions all the more relevant. As the editors point out
in their introduction, the book was designed to address the question:
"Does globalization really result in an unprecedented integration
of the life-ways of ordinary citizens in East and Central European cities
and regions?" (p. 4).
the overall focus of the contributions is squarely centered on the issue
of identity - that most postmodern of preoccupations. The case studies
presented in the volume, however, answer the thematic question with a
resounding "no" and consistently point out the remarkable strength,
stability, and persistence of ethnic self-ascription in geographical settings
and historical circumstances that could be expected to have obliterated
paradoxical situation is described most cogently in one of the strongest
pieces of the collection, Jonathan Schwartz's "Listening for Macedonian
Identity" (pp. 95-110). In a chapter that effectively integrates
ethnographic detail and complex historical information, the author sets
out to describe the characteristics of a group of people whose sense of
self is specifically correlated to experiences of "border crossing"
and diasporic existence. In the words of Pecho, the Macedonian emigrant
whose life history introduces the chapter: "In today's world you
need two faces. ... I have four passports" (p. 95). The passports
turn out to be Australian, Swedish, Yugoslavian, and Macedonian, and Pecho's
life history is a veritable emblem of postmodern transnationalism. Nevertheless,
as the author points out: "At no point in the narration is there
any doubt in Pecho's identity as a Macedonian" (p. 97).
experiences - and the longing for a homeland that is all the more
alluring for being partly fictional - are not the only factors behind
the resilience of ethnic identity in Central and Eastern Europe. Juliet
Langman's piece, focused on the identity of Hungarian youth in Slovakia
(pp. 111-131), highlights particularly well the role played by language
- and language-based education - in confirming a sense of ethnic
identity that is perceived as "given, primordial and unchangeable"
(p. 114). Also, the author clearly explains how such strong identity may
nonetheless become subsumed to state membership, no matter how shifting
national boundaries may be. Thus the Hungarian youths Langman interviewed
in Eastern Slovakia in the mid-1990s define themselves as first and foremost
Hungarian, but they also reveal a strong attachment to their regional
environment, which they fully recognize as being part of the Slovak polity
complicate matters, in Eastern and Central Europe the terms "ethnicity"
and "nationality" do not have the same connotations they have
in Western Europe or in the immigrant societies created by Western colonial
expansion, such as Canada or Australia. This is an important point, which
Langman illustrates in these terms: "... the Gypsies are considered
an ethnic minority in Slovakia and Hungary as they have no 'home state,'
while Hungarians in Slovakia and Slovaks in Hungary are considered nationalities"
(p. 114). This is precisely the reason many Russian social scientists,
as I mentioned above, find the concept of nationality so cumbersome. Culture,
in its holistic anthropological meaning - involving expressions
such as language, literature, art, or religion - has traditionally
been correlated in Central and Eastern Europe with a territorial base,
and - at least potentially - with an autonomous political
organization. Consequently, the dilemma faced by Soviet communism has
typically been how to accommodate the "local nationalism" of
its republics within the framework of a political organization dominated
by an ethnic group with national aspirations of its own. Thus, it could
be argued that while Marxist ideology is internationalist, its political
application has the best chance to succeed in settings in which it can
be easily combined with solid forms of ethnonationalism.
is not the perspective adopted by the compilers of Beyond Borders, who
instead argue that "state socialism in its Soviet and East Bloc versions
... may be conceived of as a sort of failed globalism in which individual
cultures were subsumed under the culture of the working man" (p.
5). This is a particularly naive statement, especially considering that
at least one of the two editors specializes in cultural anthropology (one
wonders what "the culture of the working man" could ever mean
in anthropological terms). But, as mentioned above, while the documentation
provided by this volume belies its assumptions, these seem to involve
the postmodern fascination with globalization, transationalism, and hybridity.
Indeed, the introductory piece refers reverentially to the views of culture
of some of the high priests of postmodern orthodoxy, and such views throw
very little light on the issue of ethnicity.
limitation of the volume derives from the fact that several of its contributors
seem to take for granted a binary view of nationalism that is truly detrimental
to clarifying ethnic dynamics. This view is described in Langman's piece
as "the debate on what the basis of the nation should be: ethnos,
'the folk,' or demos, "the citizen" (p. 127). In a related note,
the author goes on to say that these two views lead respectively to ethnic
nationalism and geographic nationalism, and she argues that 18th century
nationalism, as typically conceived in Europe at the time of the French
Revolution, was of the latter type, while 19th century nationalism -
as expressed, for example, in Germany or Hungary - was of the former
(p. 131). In this view, the demos-based type of nationalism is perceived
as "superior" as it permits to accommodate ethnic diversity
within the context of a civil society in which rights are assigned to
individuals rather than collectivities. In other words, it is a democratic
and "modern" form of nationalism - as opposed to a tribal
and atavistic one.
that the "modern" nation is qualitatively different from its
more ancient versions, and that it eschews and transcends an ethnic anchor,
is totally unsupported by the anthropological evidence. The scholar who
has addressed this issue most clearly in recent times is Anthony D. Smith,
and his work points to the fact that the puzzlement expressed by many
analysts about the contemporary "re-emergence" of ethnicity
may simply derive from a faulty understanding of what a nation is. In
turn, this misunderstanding appears to be directly related to the continued
influence on Western social science of unexamined modernist assumptions.
It is quite ironic, then, that as non-Western scholars attempt to address
the indigenous dynamics of ethnicity through the conceptual framework
of postmodernism, they also reveal allegiance to modernist assumptions
built on very Eurocentric, social evolutionist premises.
ambivalence that characterizes the treatment of ethnicity in nation-states
built upon egalitarian ideologies (and in this respect there are more
similarities between political liberalism and state socialism than many
Westerners would be comfortable to admit) can only be understood by realizing
that they grew out of the very same philosophical roots from which the
most virulent forms of ethnonationalism have also emerged. Western social
science has translated this ambivalence into a set of myths about the
processes that can "purify" the nation of its atavistic tendencies.
The development of a healthy civil society is one of these processes,
and a great portion of current literature on democratization focuses on
it. The opening chapter in the Beyond Borders collection does, too, and
while its author, Chris Hann, has written eloquently on the topic elsewhere,
the Polish case study he presents here illustrates very well how democratizing
processes do not necessarily benefit minority groups (p. 34). This is
not surprising in light of the fact that, no matter how "healthy"
their civil society, the greatest majority of contemporary states incorporate
a cultural component - and a cultural component always intimates
a hegemonic ethnic base.
the world has seen the emergence of some states that successfully encompass
a number of cultural components. But examples of these "true"
plural societies - cases such as Switzerland, Mauritius, or some
Caribbean states - are few and very idiosyncratic. I would suggest
that the "multiculturalism ideal" pursued by immigrant states
such as Canada, and the "federalist ideal" being slowly implemented
within the European Union, are two contemporary attempts at developing
approaches that may be more generally applicable. Certainly, none of the
case studies presented in this volume provides a model of successful management
of ethnic diversity within a plural political framework. On the contrary,
the volume emphasizes the real or potential destructiveness of cultural
fragmentation. But then again, as Schwartz rightly points out: "Multiculturalism
as a political goal is not native to the Balkan peninsula" (p.100).
In fact, the term "Balkanization" has traditionally been associated
with "political disorder, social fragmentation, and volatility, one
which made Sarajevo in August 1914 not the mosaic, but the 'powder-keg
of Europe'" (p. 100).
the upheavals of 1989 to 1991, it may be legitimate to ask whether "Balkanization"
may be a phenomenon likely to characterize all of Central and Eastern
Europe, and, perhaps, even affect the stability - or civility -
of long-established Western societies. This is perhaps the question at
the real core of this volume, and at least one of the chapters -
the final one, by Ruth Wodak - openly addresses a version of it,
by focusing on the effect on Austria of its "new minorities."
The other chapters, with the exception of the introductory one, which
is more theoretical and programmatic, limit themselves to describing the
play of ethnic diversity in specific settings, giving special attention
to the process of identity formation. Thus, Hann discusses the case of
Lemko-Ukrainians in Poland, Crowther the Rumanian-speaking, ex-Soviet
Moldovans, Todorova the Pomaks of Bulgaria, Shehu the trans-Albania Albanians,
and Schwartz and Langman, as already discussed, the diasporic Macedonians
and the Hungarians of Eastern Slovakia respectively.
The authors include three anthropologists, a political scientist, a historian, a psychologist, a linguist, and a writer who is also a locally-based political activist. The interdisciplinary character of the book, which includes seven chapters and a long introduction, is presented as a programmatic choice, as is the fact that some of the authors live in the areas they discuss and others are based in Western Europe or North America. However, the result is a general unevenness of tone, and a rather mixed quality of the writing. Still, as a documentary collection of case studies, the volume is a valuable addition to the growing literature on a "new world disorder" that seems to be ever-expanding and intensifying.