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Wim van Binsbergen

Dynamics of African cultural and ethnic identity in a context of globalisation

? An approach to African popular culture


van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘Dynamiek van cultuur: Enige dilemma’s van hedendaags Afrika in een context van globalisering? contribution to a special issue entitled ‘De dynamiek van de cultuur? guest editors L. Brouwer & I. Hogema, Antropologische Verkenningen, 13, 2: 17-33, 1994; English version: ‘Popular culture in Africa: Dynamics of African cultural and ethnic identity in a context of globalization? in: J.D.M. van der Klei, ed., Popular culture: Africa, Asia & Europe: Beyond historical legacy and political innocence, Proceedings Summer-school 1994, Utrecht: CERES, 1995, pp. 7-40.

? 1994-2002 Wim van Binsbergen

ABSTRACT. Particularly as elites mediating between local communities and the outside world, actors in Southern African societies today tend to speak more about culture than, until quite recently, the social scientists analyzing those societies. The latter have tended to explain away culture in a materialist and political economy discourse. (Paradoxically, the latter type of discourse is now gaining ascendancy in the study of the multi-cultural society of Western Europe.) A discussion of ethnicity seeks to define this concept and the strategic identity construction to which it gives rise. Discarding the illusions of ethnic boundedness, localization and cultural purity which have dominated the study of cultural dynamics in Africa for too long, a new elan is suggested to derive from a perspective which combines globalization, commoditifica­tion, embodi­ment (the extent to which cultural practices are inscribed onto the human body), the changing role of the state, and the strategies of social inequality in these four contexts. Theoretically, this means a continued dialogue with the paradigms of the past decades, including structural functionalism, Marxism, and postmodernism. Empirically, this perspective stresses the paradoxical proliferation of local partic­ularisms precisely in a context of mounting globalization. The case of the Kazanga Cultural Association, a recent ethnic movement focussing on the Nkoya identity in Zambia, serves to bring out the heuristic potential of the approach advocated. The conclusion assesses the implications of the argument for the uses and limitations of the concept of popular culture.

?1994 W.M.J. van Binsbergen


1. Introduction[1]

When the organizers of this conference sollicited my contribution, I proposed as title of my paper: ‘Possible scholarly contributions to the future of identities in South Central and Southern Africa? I intended to follow up an argument advanced by Leroy Vail (1989b; cf. Ranger 1982) in his introduction to one of the most significant col­lections on African ethnicity to appear in recent years: the idea that outsiders to African societies, including missionaries, anthropologists and employers contributed greatly to the definition of the ethnic categories which subsequently reified and ossified and now popularly pose as social realities, often thought ?wrongly so, of course ?to derive directly from some pre-contact, primordial African context. Over the years, I have not only studied ethnicity in various African settings but, particularly in the context of the Nkoya identity in Zambia, I have also consciously been an ethnic actor myself, intensively sharing in court life at traditional capitals which are centres of ethnic identity and mobilization, and publishing ethno-historical texts and analyses that are now used in Nkoya ethic strategies. However, when I set out to write the paper I found that it would be far more meaningful to dwell on what should be the outside scholar’s main contribution to African ethnicity: not so much the production of materials which could be recirculated as ethnic material in the hands of local actors, but the production of theoretical insights which would throw the analytical light of scholarship upon the processes of identity formation and identity presentation in the modern world, and would help both outsiders and actors to critically assess the political and existential claims propounded in the context of these processes. The world over, ‘identity?has been one of the key words of the twentieth century, with strong mobilizing power which can be used both for justified emancipation and for self-deception and strategic blackmail. The researcher’s main contribution to the future of African identities is to make widely available such insights as detached yet empathic social and historical research into this topic has produced, and to indicate directions for further research in the years to come. My argument in the present paper seeks to make that kind of contribution, by presenting paradoxes, dilemmas and potentials of African identity research today. Even so it remains a personal contribution, in the sense that its inspiration largely derives from my Nkoya research, and that some of the most pressing identity problems in Africa today (ethnic and racial violent conflict) are not touched upon.

2. Paradoxes

Looking at postcolonial identity from the Southern African perspective, a number of striking paradoxes become apparent:

?the paradox that for a long time ‘culture?as a term was hardly used in the scholarly discourse on the societies of Southern Africa, whereas certain categories of actors in those societies, or in contact with those societies, have been only too keen to use that term;

?the paradox of the ‘phase difference?(in the physics sense) between the paradigms as employed in the study of cultural dynamics in Africa, and those that inform the study of West European multicultural society; and finally

?we have reached the end of a rather long period in which cultural dynamics was considered largely from a marxist-inspired, political economy perspective: as the pro­duction and reproduction of the manipulative conditions (allegedly based on ‘false con­scious­ness? for the exercise of power by the state, the state elite and international capital. It is only recently that, in the study of contemporary Africa, we have begin to speak publicly of culture and its dynamics as phenomena which in themselves invite profound research.

silence on culture

Although much is being researched and written on cultural phenomena in Africa, in the course of the last few decades anthropologists/ Africanists have done remarkably little theorizing on culture, and have tended to use the word as a non-technical blanket term. However, at the same time two categories of actors have been rather vocal on culture:

?development experts from the North Atlantic part of the world, who have made a reified concept of culture into an integral part of a new discourse on development which, while somewhat less technocratic, has become no less mystifying than the earlier variant;[2] and

?actors who are members of the societies which we as anthropologists study in Africa, but who occupy more or less an elite position there (in terms of education, political power and wealth); their explicit use of the word culture in connexion with local societies reflects tension and discontinuity, particularly

?between a state elite and the wider civil society (and here the concept of culture becomes ideologically subservient to the construction of national consensus under the state elite’s hegemony), and/or

?between an intellectual and consumptive elite, and the more or less historic social forms peculiar to the rural communities where this elite goes looking for its roots as a solution for its problematic identity.

These two non-analytical actors? discourses on culture are not unconnected. For the elitist insistence on culture often serves to claim or to support ? within the national domain ?a key position within the flows of initiative and intervention which seek to connect the North with non-elite groups in the societies of the South. Moreover, among members of modern African elites, prolonged personal exposure to the growing global culture of formal education, a world religion, mass consumption and electronic media has reduced that elite’s continuity with the original village culture, language and religion to only selected life spheres (e.g. recreational behaviour, therapy, primary kinship relations) and to a almost permanent state of latency ?with the exception of individual or national crisis situations. When this elite claims to search its own cultural roots, this does in part reflect an existential problematic of alienation and symbolic erosion, as a parallel to what culture critique has since long signaled for the industrial North Atlantic societies. However, in the Southern African context we must not lose sight of the unmistakable strategic elements in such a discourse. While in quest for its own culture of origin, the national elite establishes or reinforces linkages (between basis and middle classes, between village and town, between peasant and salaried workers) which offer that elite not only symbolic but also, and particularly, politico-ethnic and politico-economic gains. While expressly claiming their own cultural continuity vis-a-vis a less privileged constituency, the elite celebrates its own social, political and economic privileges, and further expands them. The selective display of cultural continuity vis-a-vis one’s ‘own?village, clan, chiefdom, ethnic group etc. is thus combined with the display of symbols derived from a different (for urban, North Atlantic, global) repertoire of distinction, through which the elite articulates itself in terms of power, status and wealth. And it is symbols of the latter type which, on their turn, create access, and credibility, in the world of international co-operation, on which a few African countries are dependent for most of their national income, and many for a considerable proportion of that income.

          ?          ? While presenting themselves as ethnic brokers between, on the one hand, newly-invented or newly-revived ethnic groupings at the basis, and the national political and economic centre, on the other, the elite strengthens its own position both in the centre and at the basis, but often in ways which are applauded, if for different reasons, in either domain (e.g. van Binsbergen 1992b). In a comparable way we see a modern religious elite (leaders of various versions of world religions within the national space) establish successful mediation between the state and their followers at the basis, through a dextrous play of organizational forms and symbolic contents, which satisfies both the state’s demands of bureaucratic rationality and the longing, among the believers, for historic continuity vis-a-vis a local religious heritage (e.g. van Binsbergen 1993b and in press (a)). Traditional political leaders (‘chiefs? in modern Africa can be demonstrated to play a similar mediating function in the constitutional domain (e.g. van Binsbergen 1987), although their actual political and economic power is often very limited.

phase difference in paradigms

Since Kuhn, the circulation of scientific paradigms has become a cynical cliche of the production of knowledge in the social sciences, to such an extent that we often lose sight of the complex interactions between researcher and the researched ?even when it is those interactions, more than the researcher’s desire to produce something novel for the academic market, which make certain new approaches suddenly appear as more attractive than other, earlier ones. In other words, we cannot rule out the possibility that paradigms may simply be supplanted by others because researchers genuinely learn from the people and the social situations they study, and on that basis produce insights which are felt, by their colleagues, to be not only good for a change but more revealing, more in tune with topical developments outside academia. Such interaction in research is specific in time and place. Therefore fields of enquiry which are related in substance but directed at different socio-political parts of the world, and which therefore have little overlap in terms of research interaction and research organization, may display a remarkable phase difference.

          ?          ? On the felicitous moment that in the study of West European multicultural processes Marxism is again vigorously defended as an attractive perspective (Rath 1991), in the study of Southern Africa we are struggling to escape from a too stringent Marxist view of ethnicity, one which sought to reduce that phenomenon to class struggle under the umbrella of the apartheid state, on the spur of a somewhat naive idea which could be paraphrased as follows:[3] if we could only show ethnic divisions in South Africa to be a form of false consciousness, notable the result of a sinister strategy in the near past redefining the fundamental underlying class struggle in perverse racist terms, then ethnicity will be prevented from playing a similarly destructive role in the post-apartheid phase. The extent to which, also with reference to other parts of Africa, class and ethnicity have been seen as incompatible, mutually exclusive theoretical points of departure is for instance clear from the influential piece by Shaw (1986) entitled ‘Ethnicity as a resilient paradigm for Africa? around the same time I myself also presented a Marxist approach to ethnic processes in Zambia.[4] In this respect a study such as that of Beinart’s (1988) marks a turning point especially for South Africa: for that argument admits, against the grain of the intel­lectual ideology which has been dominant in that country, that ethnic considerations may be a factor in the social views and personal strategies of Black South African even without direct intervention from the apartheid state. Because of this re-orientation (which of course is connected with recent political change in South Africa) the study of ethnicity could become once again the principal growth point in South African anthropology ?to wit the rapid succession of major conferences on the topic.[5]

from politico-economic manipulation back to culture?

Also more in general it would be true to say that the study of ethnicity in Africa is gradually leaving behind the obsession with political economy, power and manipulation which has dominated this field of study since the 1960s. By a striking dialectics in the process of the production of scholarly knowledge, an intellectual develop­ment which was most timely and liberating only a quarter of a century ago, now has to give way to less rigid approaches. At that earlier phase, the purpose of ethnicity studies[6] was to explode, or ‘deconstruct? the colonial and ethnographic myth of the ‘tribal?culture as a unit of social experience and of social analysis in Africa. Ethnic identity turned out to be a strategic phenomenon, linked (according to principles first theoretically explored by Barth (1970)) with ecological and economic specialization and with differential access to scarce resources. As a consequence, ethnic processes turned out to be subjected to the hegemony of the colonial and post-colonial state. This to such an extent even that an entire genre of studies emerged seeking to demonstrate, also for other parts of Africa than South Africa, that ethnicity was entirely a colonial creation. In fact this trend is still dominant today,[7] despite a growing body of studies exploring pre-colonial ethnic processes.[8] Again, however, the turning point is unmistakable, for instance in recent work by John Peel, who engages in a polemic with Cohen’s work and reminds us (Peel 1989: 201):

‘The further we go back, the more we find that Yoruba ethnicity was a cultural project before it became a political instrument.?o:p>

In this way yet another phase difference can be detected between African studies and studies of cultural dynamics in Western Europe: while in the European context culture is being problematized not to say exposed as a reified concept in the hands of the minorities-studies industry,[9] in the African contexts we see, on the contrary, a rediscovery of the cultural dimension notably in ethnicity studies.[10]

          ?          ? Before we can appreciate this development, let us consider the concept of ethnicity in greater detail.

3. Ethnicity[11]

A perennial and probably universal aspect of the human condition is that we give names,[12] to elements of the non-human world which surrounds us and to human individuals, but also to the groupings into which we organize ourselves.[13] Usually members of a society designate their own grouping by a proper name, and in any case they give names to other groupings around them. Such nomenclature is often vague, but it brings about a dramatic ordering within the wider social field which various communities share with one another. On the logical plane, projecting onto another grouping a distinct name which does not apply to one’s own grouping, denies that other grouping the possibility of differing only gradually from one’s own. Through the expression in words which make up the name, the opposition between groupings is rendered absolute, and is in principle subjected to the relentlessness of the dendrogram, of binary opposition which plays such an important role in human thought.[14] By calling the other category ‘A?one’s own category in any case identifies as ‘not-A? The latter is usually also given a name, ‘B? by those which it has called ‘A? and third parties within the social field can either adopt this nomenclature or replace it by one of their own invention.

          ?          ? Every society comprises, among other features, a large number of named sets of people: for instance local communities, kin groupings, production groupings, parts of an administrative apparatus, cults, voluntary associations. We would call such a named set of people an ‘ethnic group?only if certain additional characteristics are present: when individual membership is primarily derived from a birth right (ascription); when the set of people consciously and explicitly distinguishes itself from other such sets in its social environment by reference to specific cultural differences; and when the members of such a set identify with one another on the basis of a shared historical experience. ‘Ethnicity? then, is the totality of processes through which people, by reference to the ethnic groups which they distinguish, structure the wider social and geographical field in which they are involved so as to transform it into an ethnic field.

          ?          ? The nature of the additional characteristics mentioned is gradual and not absolute. For their formulation and application is in the hands of the members of a society; the social scientist tries to identify these socially constructed characteristics through empirical research. In order to be effective the relationships which people enter into with one another, have to be not only systematic but also flexible and contradictory. The social process creates boundaries, but also in order to cut across them. For instance, most ethnic groups include a minority of members who have gained their membership not at birth but only later in life, in a context of marriage, migration, language acquisition, adoption, the assumption of a new identity and a new life style, religious conversion etc.[15] Ethnic fields turn out to be differently organized at different places in the world and in different periods of human history; there is a great variation in the way in which people demarcate ethnic groups through distinctive cultural attributes (for instance, language) and through historical consciousness.[16] Ethnic groups may often have a subjective historical consciousness, but what they always have is an objective history open to academic enquiry, from their emergence to their disappearance,[17] and this history cannot be understood unless as part of the history of the genesis of the encompassing ethnic field as a whole.

          ?          ? It is analytically useful to make a clear distinction, by reference to strategically chosen characteristics, between ethnic groups and other ascriptive groupings such as castes and classes, but we must not expect that such analytically-imposed distinctions stand in a clear-cut one-to-one relationship to analogous distinctions in the consciousness of the social actors themselves. For the distinction between such ethnic groups as exist, side by side, within the same social field is not limited to the logic of nomenclature (,which merely entails co-ordinative relationships, without hierarchy), but tends to assume a subordinative nature; within the overarching ethnic field, the participants articulate political, economic and ritual inequalities between ethnic groups in a way which the analyst would rather associate with classes and castes.[18]

          ?          ? Ethnic nomenclature is a complex social process which deserves specific research in its own right. This is a position which anthropo­logy has only adopted in the most recent decades. Until the middle of the twentieth century anthropology used ethnic names as labels marking apparently self-evident units of culture and social organization: within the units thus demarcated one defined one’s research, but the demarcation in itself was hardly problematized.

          ?          ? The card-index boxes and book shelves of the young anthropological science filled with an overwhelming production of ethnographic material which almost invariably was presented by reference to an ethnic name intended to identify a ‘people? or especially a ‘tribe? Colonialism produced a nomenclatural fragmentation of social fields in the colonized areas, with the implied assumption that each of the units so identified displayed absolute boundedness and internal integration, char­acter­istics which allegedly were inescapably underpinned by century-old tradition. Such was the unit of analysis within which individual careers of anthropologists could come to fruition.

          ?          ? It was only in the 1960s that the concept of ‘tribe?was subjected to profound criticism as an ethnocentric and reified designation of an ethnic group within the global ethnic field but outside the politically dominant civilization ?in other words in the so-called ‘Third World?[19]

          ?          ? Since then much has been written about the rise and fall of the concept of tribe in Africa, in the context of political and economic processes in this continent since the end of the nineteenth century.

          ?          ? In a nutshell this body of literature revolves on: colonization (in the course of which the state created administrative units which were presented as ‘tribes??an optique which the Africans soon took over in their own per­ception and political action)[20]; the im­plantation of the capitalist mode of production by means of cash crops and migrant labour (which eroded local systems of production, reproduction and signification, and at the same time produced regional inequalities which soon came to be interpreted in terms of an ethnic idiom); urbanization (in the course of which a plurality of ethnic groups, and their members, engaged in urban relationships which, through a process of selective transformation, referred less and less to the traditional culture of their respective region of origin);[21] decolonization (the rise of a nationalism which exposed ethnic frag­mentation as a product of manipulation by the state); and, notwithstanding the previous point, the ethnic overtones of political mobilization and networks of patronage in the post-colonial states;[22] the vicissitudes of military and one-party regimes which often presented them­selves as the solution for ethnically-based domestic political problems; and most recently the rise of democratic alternatives which despite their emphasis on constitutional universalism would yet seem to offer new opportunities for ethnic mobilization.[23]

          ?          ? The Africanist literature on these topics is large and rapidly increasing, but at the same time we know far less of the processes of symbolic and cultural transformation which have informed ethnicity in these contexts.[24] It is these processes, specifically, which constitute the main topic of the present argument.

4. Ethnic identity and ethnic brokerage

A common term in the context of ethnicity and ethnicity research is that of ‘identity?[25] As social scientists in the narrower sense, we might define ‘identity?as the socially con­structed perception of self as group membership. Everybody plays various dif­ferent roles in various groupings, and therefore everybody has a plurality of identities, as acquired in the course of one’s socialization to become a member of these groupings.

          ?          ? Usually the rise of an ethnic group in Africa consists, as a project, in the launching of a new identity and the installation of that identity in the personalities of the ethnic group’s prospective or intended members. The project of ethnicization presents the ethnic identity (as expressed by a group name) as the ultimate, all-encompassing and most deeply anchored identity, which is then supposed to incorporate all other identities which one has acquired as a member of the local society.

          ?          ? Not by accident, such an ethnic identity reminds us strongly of the concept of culture in classic anthropology, often defined as: ‘everything one acquires as a member of a society? However, the local culture need not in the least be limited, in place and time, to a specific named ethnic group; often it has a much wider distribution. For instance, in the savanna belt of South Central Africa scores of ethnic groups have been distinguished one next to the other since the nineteenth century; yet if one were to concentrate on the distribution of patterns of production, reproduction and signification one would perceive such an underlying unity that there is every reason to speak of one large cultural area in this part of the world.[26] Within this far-reaching regional continuity distinct ethnic groups have distinguished themselves ?almost in the way one may cut several differently shaped cookies out of the same slab of dough. Among those sharing in this regional cultural continuity, self-perception will be anchored in ethnic names (which do not define cultural boundaries), and moreover, rather diffusely, in references to kin groups and local groups at various levels of inclusiveness and scale, in a landscape, a language, a poly-ethnic state system etc.

          ?          ? Ethnicity comprises the process of taking consciousness (which for many people means being actively persuaded to do so, by ethnic leaders and brokers), in the course of which a plurality of diffuse, accumulated, often cross-cutting, identities are brought under the denominator of one ethnic identity, which is then marked by a specific name. The ethnic name is constructed so as to mark a cultural boundary, and therefore pre-existing culture (or at least a selection of items from that culture) has to be partly reconstructed so as to fall within that boundary and to offer distinctive cultural attributes. In the bundling and reshuffling of identities the personal experience of self and of the world of transformed: the discovery of ‘I am a ?Fleming, Azeri, Yoruba, Nkoya?etc. offers a ordering perspective in which powerlessness, deprivation and estrangement such as one has experienced earlier on in all kinds of situations, suddenly appear in a new light: as if the collective historical experience suddenly makes sense of them, and as if there is reason for hope that these negative experiences will be turned in their opposites through ethnic self-presentation. Viewed in this way ethnicity has many parallels with other ideological phenomena such as nationalism, the awakening of class consciousness, religious conversion and religious innovation.

          ?          ? Ethnicity displays a remarkable dialectics which I am inclined to consider as its engine.[27] On the one hand, the binary opposition through nomenclature offers a logical structure, which is further ossified through ascription and which presents itself as unconditional, bounded, inescapable and timeless;[28] on the other hand, the actual processual realization (through the construction of a culture coinciding with the group boundary, through distinctive cultural symbols, through a shared historical con­scious­­ness, through that part of membership which is non-ascriptive but acquired) means flexibility, choice, constructedness and recent change. Both, entirely contradictory, aspects form part of ethnicity. This dialectics renders ethnicity particularly suitable for mediating, in processes of social change, between social contexts with are each of a fundamentally different structure, and particularly between the local level on the one hand, and the state and wider economic structures on the other.[29] The ethnic name and the principle of ascription produce the image of a bounded set of people. Therefore integration between the local level and the national and international level, which poses such bewildering problems of structural discontinuity, under conditions of etnicization, no longer remains a challenge which the vulnerable individual must cope with on his own on the basis of his inadequate skills and perceptions geared to the local level; on the contrary, such integration becomes the object of group action. Internally, a set of individuals is restructured so as to become an ethnic group by designing a cultural package which, in its own right (i.e. not just because of its symbolizing more abstract power relations such as exist between the local level and the more global levels) constitutes a major stake in the negotiations between the emerging ethnic group and the outside world. One takes a distance from rival ethnic groups at the local and regional scene through a strategic emphasis on cultural and linguistic elements; and on a more comprehensive, national level of socio-political organization one competes for the state’s political and economic prizes (primarily: for the exercise of power and the benefit of government expenditure) by means of the state’s recognition of the ethnically constructed cultural package.

          ?          ? In this process the ethnic group more and more articulates itself as just that. But although all persons involved in this process are in principle equals as carriers of the ethnic identity, the contact with the outside world, precisely if it shapes up successfully, causes new inequalities within the group. The mediation takes place via political, economic and ideological brokers who (through greater knowledge, better education, more experience, better political contacts and more material means of sustaining such contacts) are more than their fellow-members of the ethnic group in a position to exploit the opportunities offered by the outside world.[30] These brokers develop ethnic leadership to an instrument of power formation which works in two directions:

?externally, towards the outside world, where these leaders claim resources in exchange for an effective ordering of the local domain;[31]

?and, internally, within the ethnic group itself, where the brokers trade off a limited share of their outside spoils for internal authority, prestige and control at the local level.

          ?          ? The leaders negotiate both with the outside world and with their potential followers in the local society. In this context of brokerage between local community and the outside world, that which constitutes one’s own identi­ty becomes problematic, and asserting the ‘traditional? ‘authentic?(but in fact newly reconstructed) culture appears as an important task and as a source of power for the brokers. Ethnic associations, publications, and such manifestations as festivals, under the direction of ethnic brokers, constitute widespread and time-honoured strategies in this process.

          ?          ? The insistence on ethnic identity produces powerful ideological claims, which the outside world sometimes meets with more sympathy than with analytical understanding. These claims may not be recognized as a recent, strategic, and rhetorical product, but may be idealized (as they are idealized by the ethnic brokers themselves) as, for instance, ?..the courageous expressions, worthy of our deepest respect, of an inescapable identity which these people have acquired in childhood socializa­tion and which takes a desperate stand against the encroachments of the outside world...?For instance, in today’s thinking about intercontinental development cooperation a fair place has been reserved for such claims and the associated cultural expressions.

5. Current dynamics of African cultural and ethnic identity

Ethnicity is only one aspect of the contemporary transformation of African cultural forms producing identity. In my opinion, the greatest challenge lies in the quest for an acceptable analytical paradigm which offers a solution for the conflict between

?on the one hand the ideological and perhaps partly mythical heritage, within African studies, of the view of local African cultural forms as situated within clear-cut boundaries, even capable of being projected onto the landscape;

?on the other hand the fact that contemporary cultural forms in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, absolutely do not occur in isolation, purity, ans strict geographical demarcation, and that any assumption to the contrary would be detrimental to both our analytical under­stand­ing and our position-taking within the politics of identity.

I submit that a solution for this contradiction may be found in the elaboration, in research and analysis, of four interrelated themes:



?embodiment, against the background of a fourth theme which by now has acquired virtually classic status within African an­thropo­l­ogy:

?the role of the state.


By this term (cf. Robertson 1990) we understand the way in which, under specific contemporary technological conditions,[32] the global affects the local but at the same time the local asserts itself in the global. Also in more remote areas people are drawn with ever greater speed, and to an ever increasing extent, into the modern global society, especially through the spread of new communication techniques, electronic media, and industrially manufactured commodities in general. Political, ideological, religious and cultural developments which occur in one place in the world resound ever more rapidly in other places, including places which we used to call, in the terminology of an earlier vintage, ‘the periphery? But far from leading to a world-wide cultural hotchpotch of uniformity, the process of globalization very often turns out to go hand in hand with the strengthening and even the fresh construction of all sorts of parochial identities of great local or regional specificity. Within the global, distinction is being produced ?especially by means of differentiation within ever changing and innovating industrially produced material culture; and this distinction is not only vertical, between classes, but also horizontal, between that life style, religion, local and regional identity which an actor may recognize as his or her own, and other similar items which are rejected as incorporations of otherhood.[33] I will come back to this.


Commoditification is the process (cf. Jameson 1984, 1988) in which, according to a more or less capitalist logic, use value is transformed into market value, and items embodying use value either become commodities themselves or are supplanted by commodities, exchange­able without primary relations existing between the actors involved, and thus drawn into networks ?in principle world-wide ?of production and circulation. In the modern world commodities have come to play an absolutely dominant role, also and particularly in culture, cultural production and cultural politics. Commodities constitute the main nexus between the local and the global, and they function dominantly in the economic and political aspects of cultural transformation processes. The notion of commoditified culture implies considerable continuity vis-a-vis the Marxist paradigms which were dominant between ca. 1968 and 1983 and which since have lost much of their appeal because of both political changes (the liberalization of Eastern Europe) and paradigmatic ones (the rise of postmodernism). Increasingly it is not so much the representations or the organizational forms, but the commodities, which create and sustain socially and politically (including ethnically) relevant distinctions. In the course of the 1980s the cultural aspects of this process were increasingly emphasized; the culturally determined view of commodities and their value defines the interaction between local societies and the world market; it is for this reason that processes of commoditification can take all sorts of unexpected turns and reversals.[34] A renewed study of material culture from this perspective promises to be one of the important growth points of African studies in the 1990s (cf. van Binsbergen 1993c).

from forgotten body to embodiment

A third theme, which begins to be heard in recent discussions around globalizing aspects of clothing,[35] contemporary music,[36] and ecstatic therapy (Janzen (1992)), is the human body ?which outside the specific (but flourishing) domain of medical anthropology has been neglected for so long in the estab­lished social science of Africa. It becomes clear that the body (in ways which must appear rather obvious to ‘configurationalists?concen­trating on the study of European society; Elias 1939) plays a key role in globalization processes which hitherto has not by far received the proper attention. The body forms the condensation point around which the desire of, the manipulation of, and the spatial distribution of commodities are concentrated. The definition and emphatic marking of the body’s boundaries and orifices (clothing, adornment, shame, hygiene, sociability, desire, eroticism), as well as the body’s metabolism, give rise to socially meaningful patterns of eating, drinking, commensality, food taboos, sexuality, ?fields which are all increasingly invaded by commodities that are aggressively advertised and whose message has begun to dominate the individual’s experience and social display of her or his body. The movements, rhythms and acoustic expressions of the body (music, dance) reflect, comment on and challenge both local and global processes. Globalization and commoditifi­cation turn out to coincide, to a considerable extent, with the most literal form of incorporation, i.e. embodiment.

the role of the state

Globalization, commoditification and embodiment take place within a political space whose parameters we can now far better define than a few decades ago, when for instance even for the brilliantly innovative Manchester anthropologists the contours of the colonial societies within which they did their research remained basically invisible ?a black box vaguely indicated as the ‘colonial industrial complex??despite these anthropologists?very articulate personal political conscious­ness. One of the most remarkable achievements in African anthropology since the 1960s has been the development of a dynamic anthropological approach to the colonial and post-colonial state, a discourse which essentially complemented the discourses of political scientists and constitutional lawyers, and which has continued to increase in relevance as the models of the latter sciences turned out to be less and less applicable to African post-colonial realities (e.g. Bayart 1989).

          ?          ? For our present argument the important question is: to what extent can the state continue to play a mediating role between the continuing force of parochial identities, and the local and regional effect of globalization processes? At the descriptive level, the power of African ethnicity research lies in the fact that (in itself of limited originality) it does not pretend to be a paradigmatic innovation, yet it offers a clear perspective on one of the great themes of the last quarter of the twentieth century: the way in which the state becomes more and more invisible, in the context of a constant interaction between globalization (which at the political level is reflected in the increasing erosion of the nation state in favour of international and intercontinental forms of organization) and localization. By-passing the state, or eclipsing the state, ethnicity has become a dominant form to relate the local and the global. In this field fascinating possibilities are opening up for an exploration of the interaction between commodity, power, and the formation of identity. In this connexion we must continue to pay considerable attention to the role of ethnic brokers in their combination of political and cultural initiatives in the formation of identity.

inequality as an enduring theme

In this connexion I wish to make one cautionary remark concerning social and cultural inequality in the globalization perspective. Although the authors working in this field have shown through their other writings to be aware of the hegemonic and subordinative tendencies within global structures, yet the image of the circulation of messages, commodities and symbols ?a circulation which technological means have allegedly rendered as free and instantaneous as possible ?may create the totally unwarranted illusion of fundamental equality in access and participation, across the globe. For have hegemony, centre and periphery not been united by the fax machine and the communication satellite, and do not their operators, wherever in the world, wear the same sportive footwear and blue jeans even at their places of work? Why spoil that fun by pointing out the fundamentally different economic and political parameters in the myriads of local contexts which together constitute the modern world, and by tracing the subordinative dependence which exists between these various contexts. The essential characteristic of culture is that it is learned, not innate, and this creates a flexible escape clause (for individuals more than for social groups and categories) by which the apparently free circulation and acquisition of items of culture are somehow difficult to tie down to a discourse of the firm structural inescapabilities of political and economic power. In other words, if may well be as difficult to develop a convincing culturological discourse on power, as it has turned out to be difficult to develop a satisfactory politico-economic discourse on culture. Yet unintentionally the globalization paradigm (much like discussions of a new democratic world order) might be turned into a formula to conceal under a postmodernist culturalist jargon, rather than expose and reduce, the inequalities in the modern world. Is not the brave new world of the globalization approach too optimistic and naive by far? Is that approach perhaps in itself an ideological project promoting North Atlantic military, cultural and consumerist dominance? In this connexion the emphasis on the specificities which exist at the local level (where inequality is particularly visible, and accessible for perceptive research), and the emphasis on political and economic power as implied in such themes as commoditification and the role of the state, constitute a necessary correction.

6. Bones of contention

In the future elaboration of the emergent approach sketched above, the major bone of contention, but therefore also a great source of inspiration, could lie in the dialogue between the paradigms of the 1970s and ?0s (such as (post?)Marxism, as well as neo-classic, i.e. structural functional anthropology), and post-modernism.

          ?          ? More is involved here than a model of scientific knowledge and scholarly production. Sometimes, post-modernists do not seem to believe in fieldwork as a systematic method, and tend to stress the systematically global so much over the specifically local, that intensive fieldwork somewhere out in the fringes of the contemporary world system would appear to be not only extremely uncomfortable (no fax machines and E-mail there!) but also a waste of time; for if the global is declared dominant, the whole world would essentially be the same. More than commoditification, globalization (with its fascination with virtual, electronically patterned experience and modern gadgets) and embodiment are certainly themes which have only risen to paradigmatic power by virtue of the post-modern movement in the social sciences ? which in itself was a rather belated echo of developments in literary criticism, history of art, architecture etc. But once we have understood that globalization is only a new, systematic and world-wide framework for the ever greater proliferation of new identities, new distinctions, new symbolic boundaries (in other words, a framework for anti-globalization), then it will be clear that the mapping of these processes requires, more than ever, skilful locally specific fieldwork. In the contemporary globalizing cultural space the codes of distinction assume such sophisticated and subtle forms, and they are accompanied by such mirages of reference and counter-reference, imitation, reversal and denial, and by such confusing echoes and near-echoes between the worlds of the researcher and the researched, that by comparison old-fashioned fieldwork in an old-fashioned (but by now of course totally transformed) African village would appear a mere school outing. How does one detect and analyse this dynamics, in a world where researcher and the researched may both wear the same Far-Eastern manufactured blue jeans, but distributed and purchased via different routes ?constituting for the former a sign of quasi-humility (the emulation of a late nineteenth-century workman’s uniform meant to conceal the Western academician’s relative affluence at least by global comparison), but for the latter a sign of undeniable economic success and conspicuous consumption?

          ?          ? Beyond this rather predictable paradigmatic and methodological struggle there is the debate over the critical appreciation of the transformation processes which are taking place in Southern Africa today. Are we witnessing here a case of the local being totally trampled down by the global, while the latter has been effectively robbed of all value and meaning, because of its being linked to routinized and commoditified models of production and especially consumption? Or must we allow for far greater creativity and power of defence on the part of the local, resulting in new cultural products which are not only unpredictable and locally specific, but in which old and new forms of self respect and identity, of boundaries and boundary marking, create, on the contrary, new meaning ?so that the local appears in its far from passive negotiation with an outside world which is not merely seen as destructive and negative. Clifford stresses that there are ‘different paths through modernity? Like Hannerz and Appadurai he claims that globalization far from implies increasing cultural homogeneity. On the contrary, cultural heterogeneity seems to be on the increase, even in the metropoles. Anthropology and related disciplines should address that new cultural diversity. In this context Hannerz uses the concept of ‘creolization? the rise of new, hybrid identities from the interaction between local elements and modern influences, as furthered particularly through the new communication techniques. The term creolization however suggests far more admixture or fusion on the basis of equality and equal dosage, while in actual fact there is hegemony, partial selection and rejection, and the creation of new boundaries.

          ?          ? perhaps the irony of the Rushdie affair is a case in point: the post-Islamic writer who on the strength of The Satanic Verses earned himself a global death sentence, sees himself as the embodiment of the creolizing element in the modern world, but to his ?somewhat naive ?surprise he finds on his path another expression of the very same world society in statu nascendi, Islamic fundamentalism, which as a complementary aspect of the same globalizing logic stresses not fusion but boundaries, and bounded forms over which no compromise can be negotiated. Without that confrontation the writer’s attitude in itself would be meaningless and devoid of content. The same paradox can be seen in the social and academic reception of the Rushdie affaire: the champions of the lonely intellectual appeal (justifiably, despite’s Rushdie creolizing claims) on human rights and principles which, they hope, will assume the status of new, unshakable universals, new boundaries in a world culture which has become relativist to the extreme; whereas the (non-Islamic) champions of the fundamentalists, by contrast, seek refuge with a cultural relativism that was once such a beautiful and illuminating invention of humanist anthropology less than half a century ago.

          ?          ? The interaction between local elements and global influences can be studied with the aid of the concept of ‘rationality? It does not do to juxtapose a modern (= Western) rationality and non-Western irrationality. In reality the image is far more fragmented. The interaction between local and global should rather be analysed in terms of a struggle over which rationality is to dominate. Of course the idea is obsolete that this will naturally be the western one (yet it is this idea which informed much of the development and modernization thinking of a earlier period). On the one hand, the world-wide circulation of commodities implies a technical and bureaucratic rationality in the field of production, distribution, consumption, and their social organization. But this does not in the least preclude the possibility that commodities, surrounded by an aura of this type of global rationality, are being used for the articulation of distinction in the context of a local rationality which, although trans­formed, still displays a marked continuity vis-a-vis historic local forms of rationality and meaning. It is not only that forms of ‘modernity?(charged to a greater or lesser extent with elite connotations and notions of conspicuous consumption) are, in the last analysis, shaped and experienced though commodities. Also the formation of ethnic and religious groupings utilizes (for the definition of their own identity under construction) specific commodities, which on the one hand derive from world-wide circulation and on the other hand appear as expression of a parochial identity: for instance church uniforms, varieties of music and dance which emulate industrially produced and electronically con­veyed, commercial cosmopolitan forms, etc. Therefore the local is not by definition that which is passive, which is being trampled down, which receives the global ?no, it selects, rearranges and transforms creatively. Playing its own game, the local also seeks to penetrate the global with its own rearranged and transformed selection. And often, to our amazement, it succeeds in doing just that ?to wit African ethnic group formation and cultural production in that context, as well as African independent churches. As firm material cores in a world which in terms of images, ideology and norms is so fluid, complex and contradictory, the commodities form the main articulation points between the local and the global.

7. An ethnographic example: The Kazanga Cultural Association in contemporary Zambia

Let me conclude this sketch of general themes with an illustration derived from an ethnic association in modern Zambia (van Binsbergen 1992b, cf. 1992a, 1994a).[37]

          ?          ? In western Zambia a large number of ethnic identities circulate, among which that of the Lozi (Barotse) is dominant because of its association with the Luyana state. The latter had its pre-colonial claims confirmed and even expanded with the establishment of colonial rule in 1900, resulting in the Barotseland Protectorate, which initially coincided with North Western Rhodesia, and after Zambia’s independence (1964) became that country’s Western Province. Lozi arrogance, limited access to education and to markets, and the influence of a fundamentalist Christian mission, stimulated a process of ethnic awakening. As from the middle of the twentieth century more and more people in eastern Barotseland and adjacent areas came to identify as ‘Nkoya? In addition to the Nkoya language, and to a few cultural traits recognized as proper to the Nkoya (even if these traits have a much wider distribution in the region), royal ‘chiefs? although incorporated in the Lozi aristocracy, have constituted the major condensation points of this identity. The usual pattern of migrant labour and urban-rural migration endowed this identity with an urban component, whose most successful representatives distinguished themselves from their rural Nkoya nationals in terms of education, income and active partic­ipation in national politics. While the Lozi continued to be considered as the ethnic enemies, a second major theme in Nkoya ethnicity was to emerge:[38] the quest for political and economic articulation with the national centre, by-passing the Lozi whose dominance at the district and provincial level dwindled only slowly. In this articulation process the chiefs, with the lack of education, economic and political power, and being the prisoners of court protocol, could only fulfil a symbolic function. The main task fell to the urban Nkoya ‘elite?(in fact mainly lower- and middle-range civil servants and salaried workers), and with this task in mind the most prominent among them formed the Kazanga Cultural Association in the early 1980s. In subsequent years, this association has provided an urban reception structure for prospective migrants, has contributed to Nkoya Bible translation and the publication of ethnic history texts, has assumed a considerable role at the royal courts next to the traditional royal councils, and within various political parties and publicity media has campaigned against the Lozi and for the Nkoya cause. The association’s main achievement, however, has been the annual organization (since 1988) of the Kazanga festival, in the course of which a large audience (including Zambian national dignitaries, the four Nkoya royal chiefs, Nkoya nationals and outsiders), for two days is treated to a complete overview of Nkoya songs, dances and staged rituals. Of course what we have here is a form of bricolage and of invention of tradition (Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983): for it would have been impossible to completely revive the nineteenth-century Kazanga harvest festival, which comprised only one royal, but also human sacrifices. The details of the contemporary Kazanga festival I have treated at length elsewhere (van Binsbergen 1992b), and I shall here merely focus on the themes which I have discussed in general in the preceding sections of this paper.


The Kazanga festival revolves around the mediation of the local Nkoya identity towards the national, and by implication world-wide space, ?a mediation which is to transmute the local symbolic production (one has hardly any other products eligible for exchange with the outside world) into a measure of political and economic power via access to the national centre. Besides the selection and presentation of culture, this involves the transformation of culture: the Kazanga festival has the appearance of presenting items of traditional Nkoya culture, but in fact all these elements have been totally transformed towards a performative format, orchestrated, directed, rehearsed, subjected to the streamlining ordering by an organizing elite and its mobiliz­ing and mediating ambitions. The models for this performative format derive from radio, television, the world of Christian missions, agricultural shows, state intervention in national ethnic cultural production, and intercontinental pop media culture. The Nkoya identity which is thus put on display, is not only recent and situational, but also ‘virtual? in the sense that it does not at all coincide any more with what the participating and performing villagers do experience as the self-evident ordering (in terms of space, time and social relations) of village life, in whose context superficially similar (but on closer scrutiny fundamentally different) truly historic forms of symbolic production are engaged in which might be more properly terms ‘Nkoya traditional culture?


Therefore, cultural presentation in the context of the Kazanga festival is a form of commoditification. The performative format anticipates on the expectations of the visiting non-Nkoya elite, and has to produce goodwill and rapprochement, some sort of symbolic ready cash, to be effective within the wider world of political and economic power which is represented by these dignitaries. There is also more tangible ready cash involved: the performers are paid a little for their services. Moreover the performances take place in a context which is increasingly dominated by characteristic commodities from the global consumerist culture of reference: the performances are supported ?and this is absolutely unheard of in the villages ?by public address systems, and all royal protocol has to give in to the urge, among those possessing tape recorders and video cameras, to ‘record?the event ?an act most characteristic of our electronic age and of the possibilities of individually reproduced and consumed, virtual and vicarious experience it entails. The standardization of a commoditified cultural production is also borne out by the emphasis (which is in absolute contradiction with historic village patterns) on identical movements according to neat geometrical patterns, the avoidance of ‘offensive?bodily movements particularly in the body zones singled out by Christian prudery, and in the identical uniforms of the members of the main dancing troupes. The representatives of the urban Kazanga troupe moreover advertise themselves through exceptional commodities such as shoes (which asre not only expensive, but offensive and impractical in village dancing), expensive coiffures, sun glasses and identical T-shirts imprinted for the occasion. The commoditification element is also manifest in the separation ?extremely unusual in this rural society ?between (a) passive, culture-consuming spectators, who explicitly are not supposed to join in the singing and dancing, (b) the producers (who clearly act not by their own initiative ?as in the village ?but as they have been told), and (c) the supervising elite (who in their turn single themselves out through such commodities as formal jackets and ties).


As we have seen under the previous heading, even under the performative format Kazanga has no choice but to present the Nkoya identity (recently constructed as it clearly is, and even reduced to virtuality in the commoditified and invented context of the festival) as inscribed onto the very bodies of those who define themselves socially as the bearers of that identity, and who express it through their bodily manifestations in music, song and attire. The performance embodies the identity and renders it communicable in an appropriate format, even to an outside world where, before the creation of Kazanga in its present form, that identity did not mean anything of positive value. The stress on uniformity of the performers and their actions paradoxically creates both

(a) an illusion of being identical ?which dissimulates actual class differences (for each dance troupe again represent the entire Nkoya nation as a whole), and

(b) a sense of distinction ?for very visibly, the urban elite’s troupe is ‘more equal?than the other performers, and than the spectators.

In this incorporative context one also borrows from a repertoire which has certainly not been commoditified even if it is performative: dressed in leopard skins, around the temples a royal ornament of Conus shells, and brandishing an antique executioner’s axe (all these attributes ?regalia, in fact ?have now become non-commodities, pertaining to a circuit that in the present time is no longer mercantile, although it was more so during the nineteenth century), an aged royal chief, with virtuoso accompaniment from a hereditary honorary drummer of the same age (he has always been far above performing with the state-subsidized royal orchestra in the routine court contexts), performs the old Royal Dance which since the end of the nineteenth century was hardly seen any more in this region; at the climax the king (for that is what he shows himself to be) kneels down and drinks directly from a hole in the ground where beer has been poured out for his royal ancestors ? the patrons of at least his part of the Nkoya nation, implied to share in the deeply emotional cheers from the audience. And young women who have long been through girls?puberty initiation, perform that ritual’s final dance (cf. van Binsbergen 1987), without any signs of the appropriate stage fright and modesty, and with their too mature breasts against all tradition tucked into conspicuous white bras; yet despite this performative artificiality their sublime bodily movements, which in this case are far from censored, approach the village-based original sufficiently close to bring the spectators, men as well as women, to ecstatic expressions of a recognized and shared identity. Obviously commoditification and transformative selection, however important, do not tell the whole story, and even after the recreation of Nkoya culture in the form Kazanga format enough reason for enthusiasm and identification is left for us not to be too cynical about the globalizing erosion of the symbolic and ethnic domain.

the role of the state

With all the attention for performative control, matched with a strong suggestion of authentic­ity, it is clear that the Kazanga leadership does not for one moment lose sight of the fact that the festival is primarily an attempt to exchange the one scarce good which one locally has in abundance, competence in symbolic produc­tion, for political and economic power. The national dignitaries, and not the royal chiefs, let alone the audience, constitute the spatial focus of the event, and a large part of the programme is devoted to the dignitaries?welcome speeches and other formal addresses. Since the political arena is indeed the right place (and not only in Zambia) to exchange symbolic production for development projects, political allocation and patronage, the harvest of the series of Kazanga festivals since 1988 is by now eminently manifest in a marked increase of Nkoya participation at the national level, in representative bodies and in the media, and in a marked decrease of the stigmatization to which they used to be subjected under Lozi domination until well after independence. Kazanga is an example of how an ethnic group can not only articulate itself through symbolic production, but may actually lift itself by its own hairs out of the bog.


Above I have already emphasized how the categorical (i.e. logical, conceptual) equality (‘identity? hardly means anything else) of all Nkoya nationals ?in the light of the shared, recently constructed Nkoya identity as nmanifeted at Kazanga ?is, by contrast, constantly accompanied by the manifestation of all sorts of inequalities: those between peasants and urbanites, between peasants and salaried workers; elite leaders, performers and spectators. I regret that in the present scope I cannot deal with other, equally interesting inequalities (like those between men and women, and between Christians and tradition­alists). Undoubtedly the Kazanga leaders perceive themselves as being altruistically subservient to an abstract ethnic collectivity, but in fact their ethnic mediation primarily serves their own position, especially when and if their mediation is successful and begins to be reciprocated by the national centre.

8. Conclusion

This concrete application of the general themes of my argument onto the analysis of a specific ethnic festival in a backwater of Southern Africa, may give an impression of the possibil­ities of the approach to cultural dynamics which is now beginning to take shape. Regrettably the present scope does not allow us to explore contrasting patterns of culturally localizing globalization, such as for instance manifest themselves when we compare the ethnic processes in Kazanga with the develop­ments in Southern African Independent churches. Whereas the ethnic association transforms a selection of local culture so as to bring about mediation between the local and the outside world (notably the political centre), the process is the churches often amounts to the opposite: within the church organization a selection of more or less commoditified elements from the global culture (money, Christianity, uniform clothing which has been manufactured according to special colour schemes and designs, and other paraphernalia) is transformed so as to bring about the construction of protective conceptual boundaries within which to retreat from that outside world.[39]

          ?          ? Without a detailed analysis of this material it is difficult to decide whether, in the case of these churches, it is the cultural contents which largely determines the organizational process­es, or whether the cultural contents are rather the somewhat indifferent stuffing of a process whose primary aim is the social construction of subjectively bounded little islands of security within the maelstrom of globalization and commoditification.

          ?          ? But even without such additional cases I hope to have demonstrated that the perspective which now unfolds in the context of the globalization approach offers interesting possibilities for an analysis of the dynamics of cultural and ethnic identity in Africa today, which seeks to do justice both to the locally specific and to the global, and which foreshadows a certain balance, in our analyses, between cultural empathy (as carried by intensive local research as fed by cultural and linguistic competence) and political economy, and between identity as recently constructed yet not to be de-constructed into impotence and annihilation, but to be see to function as a major dynamic force shaping the present and the future of the modern world, inside and outside Africa.[40]

More than 25 years ago, when I tried to do my own first field-work, the assumption within the anthropological profession was still that one could expect to do research among people who were actively, competently and as a matter of course producing their own expressive culture, in the form of song, music, dance, tattooing, embellishments on the utensils and dwellings they would construct, etc etc. I certainly had a knack for ending up at the right place: while my classmates were suffering in barren communities which according to their accounts were even devoid of humour, I found myself invariably surrounded by dancers and musicians. The latter were eager to share their rich ceremonial and religious culture with me, and both in North-western Tunisia (1968, 1970) and in urban and rural Zambia (1972-74) I intensively participated in whatever forms of expressive culture the had to offer. For me they constituted a self-evident form of doing field-work; more than anything else, these frequent occasions of cultural production allowed me to survive as a whole (but often tired, and sometimes intoxicated) human being in the field, and they helped to remind my hosts that I was just that.

          ?          ? As anthropologists, we did not, by that time, label these expressive manifestations ‘popular culture? but ‘culture?tout court. If today many of us are clearly inclined to do otherwise, this must be indicative of the long way we (the world, and the social scientific study of other societies than our own) have moved since then.

          ?          ? Why were we simply speaking of ‘culture? then? A fundamental idea in this connection was that of localised sets of people producing symbolic manifestations which, although not totally invariable, tend to converge, within that localised set, toward a certain degree of collectively, repetitive standardisation and uniqueness, in such a way that these manifestations can be seen as one of the carriers (of even the main carrier) of their identity. Basically this culture was considered to be autonomous and self-reproducing. Moreover, cultures although historically and typologically connected, were considered to be somehow demarcated and bounded ?in other words, a culure would in the first instance be peculiar to the localised set of people carrying it and lending its ethnic name to it. And lastly, the people studied by anthropology were likely to be considered, up to the 1960s, as competent producers of expressive culture (and not, as in subsequent decades, as the incapacitated producers ? as peasants, proletarians or otherwise underprivileged and underlying ?of merely a secondary part culture), because of the background idea that all cultures were equal. Like in the colonial times which then had scarcely passed, anthropology tended to assume the responsibility of vindicating the (peripheral, humiliated and exploited) people who formed its main subjects, by showing how even those were capable of producing coherent, meaningful and beautiful symbolic edifices at a par with the North Atlantic culture ?to which almost all anthropologists happened to belong too, of course.

          ?          ? By contrast, why would we be so keen to speak of ‘popular culture?when referring to the expressive manifestations of the same people’s children and grandchildren, today? Here again, only a few points must do. We perceive the world today as in a state of globalisation, and that means, among other things, that local cultural products are inevitably be set off against the products of a growing ‘world culture? which however shallow and ugly in its worst manifestations, is yet backed up by world-wide networks of commercial and industrial entrepreneurship and the electronic media. We have learned to look at the subjects or our research from a perspective of class formation, highlighting the contradictions between peasants and urban elites. We realise how local Third World urban elites have been drawn into international global consumption patterns, to which they have access through increased travel opportunities, electronic media, dress styles, capitalist patterns of mass production and distribution. We now look at our research subjects with an increased awareness of power differences and of contexts of incorporation and hegemony: in the context of ideological systems (political, world religions), of consumer styles, of levels of educational and technical skills, of access to globally standardised (once again through media) means of cultural production and reproduction. And so we see that the locally competent Third World dweller of only a generation ago, has been turned into a state of cultural dependence, incompetence, and relative cultural deprivation when viewed from a world-wide, globalising perspective. The neutral villager, nomad, hunter of the middle third of the twentieth century, has now become very clearly an encapsulated subject in regional, national and global contexts which, even if encompassing and generally tolerating his or her expressive production, condescendingly relegates the latter to the secondary status of ‘folk? ‘non-elite? ‘non-global? and indeed, ‘popular?

          ?          ? Such a use of the concept of ‘popular?even lacks the redemptive (and of course highly illusory) dreams of creativity and historic self-realisation that attended 18th and 19th century Romantic studies of ‘folk? ‘folklore?and ‘popular culture? The ‘popular culture?of African?peasants and urban poor today is hardly considered, by its academic analysts, to be the mould out of which a national culture will spring, its increasingly articulate genius expressed in literary and musical products worthy to be enshrined among the universal heritage of mankind. Popular culture as a term has come to reflect a reality of subordination, incorporation, hegemony and globalisation which has affected the cultural producers in Africa just as it has affected anthropology itself.

          ?          ? For anthropology has by now incorporated the reality attending the transition from culture to popular culture in at least two ways. First, we have learned that the ‘primitive isolate? the bounded culture largely reproduced on endogenous forces, does not exist, that it did not exist thirty years ago, either ?nor at any time of human history, for that matter; and we have created an entire sub-discipline around the concept of ethnicity, which does nothing but problematising the kind of classification phenomena ?and their social, political and economic repercussions ?which in the 1960s were still unashamedly subsumed under the concept of ‘tribe? Secondly, deprived of its erstwhile monopoly on knowledge production concerning exotic societies, anthropology has become somewhat eager to please the other ?often institutionally more powerful ?sciences (development economics, political science, religious studies etc.) working on the Third World. It has in many respects even been made subservient to yet another idiom of cultural and economic hegemony, that of development intervention or aid.

          ?          ? It is largely in this framework that I can understand anthropology’s recent adoption of a term like ‘popular culture? which has no systematic status in the discipline and would turn out to be rather dubious if subjected to theoretical anthropological analysis.

          ?          ? Does that mean that it is meaningless, or even wrong, to speak of ‘popular culture?in an anthropological context? I would no go as far as that, and can see a specific context in which the term is useful and even illuminating. Although globalisation does produce, as a counter-effect, very specific and idiosyncratic local repercussions in the domain of symbolic production, yet it primarily constitutes a trend towards convergence and standardisation, among people who share neither the same language, nor historical symbols and experiences, nor a named ethnic or religious identity. Alongside the world-wide media culture we do witness the gradual growth of a world-wide popular culture, punctuated and publicly presented by festivals, independence celebrations, often in contexts that bring together elite and peasants, pagans as well as believers in a world religion, politicians as well as ordinary citizens etc., and which aspire to bridge the widening political and economic gaps e.g. in Africa. Here a concept of popular culture does apply, as a symbolic celebration of globalisation as it were ?complete with the trappings of electronic media, state mediation of global cultural forms etc. Here local cultural production of an earlier vintage is radically trnsformed so as to fit in a series: a series of named similar, ethnicaly, regionally or institutionally marked and named items of expressive culture, different merely on specific points which are then cultivated and canonized in writing and media comments. This form of popular culture is even extremely relevant for an understanding of the contemporary ethnic revival, which (if I may be forgiven for concentrating on its non-violent aspects) responds to the global incentives for the symbolic production of difference, in the form of an industry of ethnic specificity. Such ethnic specificity, with predictable political and economic effects, is now increasingly rendered tangible (and especially visible, via media recording and broadcasting) through specifically engineered popular culture, featuring forms of expressive culture which while often newly arranged yet pose as traditional, in a fascinating process of bricolage, of cultural ‘do-it-yourself?under the unbinding inspiration of a local symbolic memory.

          ?          ? Does popular culture in Africa nothing but reinforcing and expressing the state of encapsulation and reduced symbolic competence of the peasants and urban poor engaging in it, forcing them under the joke of a serialized and ritualized production of difference? Much to our surprise, then (and in a way that leaves hope both for anthropology and for its habitual research subjects), the answer must yet be ‘no? For in popular culture if nowhere else, the underdog strikes back: culture is not totally dependent and borrowed ?on the contrary, it can be seen by the actors, even if bricolaged, as very much one’s own (just like language), and therefore creates an issue for mediating with the outside world. It may build new expressive boundaries around the local community, but not to seal this off from the outside world, but to negotiate with it. While selectively appropriating the means of modern cultural production and reproduction, with video, loudspeakers, T-shirts with messages, predictable choreographies and musical styles etc. ? the whole disgusting modern global culture some of us tried to escape from by reading anthropology and going to distant places, even such cultural production turns out to be capable ? occasionally, e.g. in the ethnographic case of the Nkoya’s Kazanga festival as argued in the paper ?of becoming the vehicle of a critical and militant identity, transcending rather than reinforcing the peripheral subordination to which its producers have been reduced in the modern world.


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[1]            ?Earlier versions of part of this argument were presented at the post-doc course ‘globalization, cultural commoditification and ethnicity? Leiden University/ African Studies Centre/Municipal University of Amsterdam/Institute for Social Studies, Leiden/The Hague, 8 June 1993; and at the workshop ‘Dynamics of culture? organized by the Netherlands Sociological and Anthropological Association, Amsterdam, 12 March 1993; and at the Second Inter-University Colloquium: African research futures: Post­colonialism and identity, Manchester, 13-16 May 1994. I am indebted to the referents on these occasions, Achile Mbembe, Pius Ngandu and Hans Vermeulen, for stimulating reactions; and to my friend and colleague Peter Geschiere, with whom I explored the present problematic in fascinating conversations and joint drafts, also in preparation for the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO) research programme on Globalization and the construction of communal identities, administered by the two of us together with Bonno Thoden van Velzen en Peter van der Veer (Geschiere et al 1993). An earlier Dutch version of sections of the present paper was published as van Binsbergen 1994b. Other sections derive from van Binsbergen 1992b, of which an English version is now in press with African Studies.

[2]            ?E.g. Verhelst 1990; cf. Geschiere’s critique 1989.

[3]             Cf. Simons & Simons 1969; Mafeje 1971; Phimister & van Onselen 1979.

[4]            ?Van Binsbergen 1985; also cf. Edelstein 1974; Saul 1979; Kahn 1981.

[5]               Including Pietermaritzburg 1992, Grahamstown 1993; also the annual meetings of the Association for Anthropology in Southern Africa have been dominated by the study of ethnicity since 1991.

[6]            ?As in the work of Mitchell (1956, 1974), Epstein (1958, 1978), Gluckman (1960, 1971) and Cohen (1969, 1974).

[7]            ?Cf. Amselle 1990; Amselle & M’bokolo 1985; Vail 1989.

[8]            ?E.g. Chretien & Prunier 1989; van Binsbergen 1992a.

[9]            ?Rath 1991; Vermeulen 1984, 1992.

[10]           For examples from Dutch and Belgian African studies, cf. van Binsbergen 1992b; Schilder & van Binsbergen 1993.

[11]           The following two sections derive from van Binsbergen 1992b.

[12]           Cf. Genesis 2:19.

[13]           Fardon 1987 however denies the existence of universals in the study of ethnicity.

[14]           Cf. Levi-Strauss 1962a, 1962b.

[15]           Cf. Salamone 1975; Schultz 1984. The few migrants from Kaoma district who are successful in town sometimes seek to pose as members of a more prestigious ethnic group: Bemba or Lozi. Such posing (‘passing? is a much studied aspect of ethnic and race relations in North America; e.g. Drake & Cayton 1962: 159f.

[16]           As stressed by, e.g., Horowitz 1975; Fardon 1987; Prunier 1989.

[17]           Cf. Chretien & Prunier 1989; Tonkin e.a. 1989; Vail 1989a, 1989b.

[18]           A famous example of such ambiguity is Leach 1953. Further cf. Barth 1970; Doornbos 1978; Mitchell 1956, 1974; Lemarchand 1983.

[19]           Gutkind 1970; Helm 1968; Godelier 1973, especially pp. 93-131: ?i>Le concept de tribu: Crise d’un concept ou crise des fondements empiriques de l’anthropologie??

[20]           E.g. Ranger 1982; Vail 1989a, 1989b.

[21]           Among many studies I only cite the classic Mitchell 1956.

[22]           For an excellent analysis, see Bayart 1989, especially pp. 65-86: ?i>Le theatre d’ombres de l’ethnicite?

[23]           Cf. Buijtenhuijs 1991; Buijtenhuijs & Rijnierse 1993.

[24]           A trend in recent Dutch and Belgian research of ethnicity seeks to address this onesidedness by stressing cultural aspects; cf. Schilder & van Binsbergen 1993.

[25]           In the limited scope of this argument I cannot do justice to the very extensive, multi-disciplinary literature on identity. One of the most influential authors on identity has been the psychiatrist Erikson (e.g. 1968). Valuable anthropological studies on ethnic identity include de Vos & Romanucci-Ross 1975; Horowitz 1975; Jacobson-Widding 1983. For Zambia specifically, cf. Ethos and identity (Epstein 1978), which dissociates itself from the earlier emphasis on more classification in the ethnicity research of his close colleague Mitchell (1956, 1974). A masterly approach, with emphasis on expressive culture, is Blacking 1983. For an inspiring French contribution, see Amselle 1990.

[26]           Such continuity was especially stressed by Vansina in his pioneering work on the history of the southern savanna in Africa (1966); van Binsbergen 1981 is an attempt to explore the religious dimension of this continuity.

[27]           For a similar insight, cf. Uchendu 1975: 265.

[28]           Early researchers of ethnic phenomena in Africa have been persuaded, precisely by this aspect, to analyze ethnicity in terms of primordial identity ?a view exploded by Doornbos 1972.

[29]           Marxist anthropology analyzes the mediation between such fundamentally structured social sectors in terms of the articulation, or linking, of modes of production; cf. Geschiere 1982; van Binsbergen & Geschiere 1985; and references cited there. Although the study of ethnicity demonstrates that the symbolic domain cannot be regarded as clearly subordinate to production and reproduction, the articulation of modes of production perspective remains inspiring in this field ?cf. van Binsbergen 1985.

[30]           The central role of this type of brokers is discussed in an extensive anthropological literature, in which Barth 1966 features as a classic.

[31]           In ethnic mediation, the outside world does not merely consist of the state and nothing more. Peel 1989 describes Yoruba ethnicity as a nineteenth-century project in which an early church leader played a leading part ?just as was the case among the Nkoya. Vail 1989b mentions, besides local politicians and church leaders, also academic researchers as mediators in many ethnicisation processes in Southern Africa; cf. Papstein 1989; van Binsbergen 1985. The mediation process is also a theme in Ranger 1982. Recent studies of Afrikaners or Boers in South Africa have also elucidated the role of creative writers, and in this respect there are numerous parallels with other parts of Africa, e.g. Okot p’Bitek as a champion of Acholi ethnicity in Uganda (van de Werk 1980).

[32]           This avoids the question of whether globalization is only of our age, or of all ages of man. In the last analysis globalization is only a word for the social, cultural and political consequences of the mathematical properties of the earth’s surface; and the earth’s quasi-globular shape did not alter conspicuously over the past few billion years. The spread ?in pre-historical times ?of the human species to all corners of the earth; or the wide distribution of the remarkable and unmistakable (for it defies all factual observation) artistic representation of the ‘flying gallop? between North-Africa and China, and across several millennia (first studied by Reinach at the turn of the last century; Reinach 1925); or divination systems based on four different configurations, which have an even broader distribution in space and time (van Binsbergen, in press (b) and in preparation); or state formation in the times of Sargon, Alexander or Caesar ?are these not all examples of globalization? They need not be, if we make this term dependent, as above, upon ‘contemporary technological conditions? when the good old geoid appears under a different light (no doubt produced by Lasers or LED) by the impact of electronic carriers and transmission velocities close to or equalling the velocity of light.

[33]           Cf. Clifford (1988); Hannerz (1987, 1990, 1992); Appadurai 1990.

[34]           Vgl. Taussig (1987); Appadurai (1986).

[35]               Comaroff (1993); Tranberg Hansen (1993); Faurschou (1987); Heath (1992).

[36]           Erlmann (1991); Waterman (1990).

[37]               Anthropological and oral-historical fieldwork was undertaken in Western Zambia and under migrants from this area in Lusaka, in 1972-1974, and during shorter periods in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1992 (twice) and 1994 (twice). I am indebted to the Zambian research participants, to the members of my family who shared in the fieldwork, to the Board of the African Studies Centre for adequate research funds, and to the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO) for a writing-up year in 1974-75.

[38]           Very recently a third theme is emerging: the blurring of ethnic boundaries in Western Zambia, the attenuation even of Nkoya/Lozi antagonism, in favour of a pan-Westerners regionalism opposing the Northern block which is President Chiluba’s ethnic base. This at least is the situation around the National Party, which in bye-elections in Mongu (the capital of Western Province) in early 1994 defeated both MMD and UNIP. At Kazanga 1994, the society’s office of national chairman went to the leading NP official in Kaoma district.

[39]           Cf. Comaroff (1985); Werbner (1986); Schoffeleers (1991); van Binsbergen (1993a, 1993b and in press). These authors differ especially with regard to the role they attribute to the state: whereas Schoffeleers and to a certain degree also Werbner, notably with reference to the South African situation under apartheid, stress the factor ‘acquiescence?(people resignedly accepting the political structure of their society, also in the awareness of an introspective alternative ideal of individual salvation or healing), Comaroff and van Binsbergen see reason for a more antagonistic interpretation of the church leaders?attitudes vis-a-vis the state.

[40]          ?The remainder of the conclusion reflects my oral presentation at the conference, which was not yet included in my paper as then circulated.



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