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. 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.

This is a transformation that thrives on the psychic dislocations wrought as capitalism engenders both the apparent loss of and simultaneous longing for ‘authentic experiences’. In these conditions, consumer desire mediates the recognition of ethnic identities, as moderns find themselves through consumption of authentic otherness or self-fashioning via the consumption of ethnic goods. The result is an Identity Industry comparable to the Culture Industry, but one that ‘replays critical theory as caricature, Adorno as farce’. For unlike other commodity forms, whose aura becomes etiolated in the cycles of reproduction, distribution and consumption, ethno-commodities see their mystical complexion revivified through these processes: their raw material—ethnic identity—not depleted but restored through replication and mass circulation. Turning back on itself, commodification enlivens the ethnic basis that lends the commodity its auratic qualities in the first place, producing not estrangement, but new forms of value, new ethnic identities. On the one hand, recognition of an ethnic group’s value comes through the eyes of the other, the digital cameras of ethnotourists generating legitimacy and cultural memory. But this recognition increasingly demands the market’s stamp of approval. As one Tswana elder cited by the Comaroffs put it, ‘if we have nothing of ourselves to sell, does it mean that we have no culture?’

On the other hand, the distant closeness of Benjamin’s aura is maintained as the line between producers and consumers blurs, and locals now seeing, hearing or tasting their hypostatized roots come to act on their own ethnic self-fashioning, as ‘ethnopreneurs’ marketing what is most their own. Take, for example, the koma initiation rituals of southern Africa in which youths pass into adulthood through rites transmitting the knowledge expected of adults, culminating in circumcision. One group, the Pedi, have been able to transform the koma into a profitable business, with members of neighbouring tribes willing to pay a premium for their ‘more authentic’ Pedi-brand koma. Monkey dances in Bali and Cajun festivals in Louisiana have gone much the same way, with tourist-oriented performances replacing disparate local practices as the bona fide versions. The Comaroffs reject any moralizing judgement: ‘vendors of ethnic authenticity are not alienated proletarians’ but, as often as not, poor or disenfranchised minorities desperately seeking ‘dignity and capital’.