In the tropical lowlands of Yunnan, home to two dozen of China’s ethnic minorities, the Dai welcome the New Year with hoses and water pistols in a raucous deluge of wet fun. footnote1 Once a festival enjoyed only by those living within dousing range, revellers from Beijing are now arriving in busloads to take part in the annual celebration. After drying off in the comforts of Xishuangbanna’s Dai Park, they wander past women weaving at looms, watch locals in colourful garb harvesting rubber, and enjoy an indigenous barbecue while staying in homes on stilts. A few weeks after the New York Times ran a story on this fetching sample of heritage tourism, a full-page advertisement in the Financial Times blared, ‘The British Bottom Line: 8 Million Ethnic Consumers—a Figure You Simply Can’t Ignore’. The ad plugged a diversity media company’s ‘bespoke ethnic marketing solutions’ for those hoping to capitalize on economic opportunities ‘just too significant to overlook’, represented by a slant-eyed mask casting a shadow in the shape of a pound sign.
Either of these items could have come straight from the pages of Ethnicity, Inc. by the Comaroffs, a husband-and-wife team of South African anthropologists now working at the University of Chicago. The couple are the authors of numerous works on colonialism in South Africa, as well as editors of volumes on broader theoretical issues in current ethnography. They have been leading figures in the transformation of their discipline in recent decades, as its centre of gravity has moved away from studies of kinship or ritual in tribal societies towards a wider concern with patterns of relations, identities and meanings in the contemporary world, in which the boundaries between the pre-modern and the modern have been eroded.
The concept that gives title to their book is itself a marker of the shift. It first shows up in the 1961 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, but had to wait until 1972 to make it into the oed. From a handful in the sixties, books with ‘ethnicity’ in the title jumped to over one hundred in the seventies, up to three hundred in the eighties, and since the nineties have been running at seven hundred a decade, or one every other month. It is not hard to see why. Talk of the ‘tribal’ sounds old-fashioned nowadays, while straightforward reference to the ‘national’ has been rendered obsolete by mass immigration from the Third World into the First, the rise of indigenous movements, not to speak of the spread of multiculturalism. Without actually displacing them, the ‘ethnic’ avoids either of these shoals. It also, obviously, allows for just that fluidity of movement across post-modern, modern and pre-modern lines at which anthropology has become adept. With an adjective as indispensable as this, the noun had to follow.
For most of its short history, the analysis of ethnicity has typically been political in focus. Since the word one usually hears after ‘ethnic’—to the point where, at any rate in the media, they virtually go together—is ‘conflict’, that seems understandable. The originality of the Comaroffs is to argue that this way of looking at the ongoing role of ethnicity is too narrow, and misses what is actually its most significant configuration today. It is not the politics of ethnicity, they insist, but its political economy that is tending to restructure communities and identities across the world in the new century. Anthropology, as anyone who has struggled through the works of Alfred Kroeber or Meyer Fortes would know, has not always been the most readable of disciplines. No such problem with the Comaroffs: without a ponderous line, their argument is spun from a taut skein of piquant illustrations, punctuated by sly inversions and aphorisms. Some might complain that all this is even too stylish. But it is for a serious purpose.
The basic argument of Ethnicity, Inc. runs as follows. The vision of ethnic identity originally set forth by Herder saw it as the unmediated expression of the spirit and culture of a people. Today, however, ethnicity is being gradually transmogrified by two complementary processes: the commodification of culture at large, commercializing what is supposed to be most distinctively authentic in any Volksgeist, and the reconfiguration of ethnic groups themselves as fledgling business corporations. The first, it might be said, is nothing new to cultural anthropologists, who have studied it from Fijian festivals to Québecois heritage industries. In such cases, it has long been recognized that consumerist re-packaging of local objects and traditions can serve to conjure up and concretize ethnic identities, along lines famously laid out by Trevor-Roper’s essay on the modern origins of the Scottish kilt. The Comaroffs argue, however, that the scattered emergence of ethnic products, heritage industries and national marketing are part of a world-historical transformation that is radicalizing and consolidating earlier kinds of ethnic commodification into something else: the emergent forms of Ethnicity, Inc.